Last February, I had the privilege of visiting Bethlehem with a group of pilgrims. It was my first time to visit the Holy Land. Those seven days helped to put some new shape on the Bible for me, and I have found that very helpful during what has turned out to be a very difficult year. Sheep still graze on the hillsides around Bethlehem. The Shepherds are still poor and still living on the margins as they were at the time of Jesus.
I never realised how far it is from Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem in Judea. One hundred and fifty kilometres! It was a long way to go, in those days, to have a baby. Allowing for the time they spent as refugees in Egypt, after the birth of Jesus, the child was probably walking and talking long before his grandparents ever set eyes on him. Many of you listening to me will understand how that feels, from your own experience during this past year.
Each Christmas our hope is renewed as we celebrate the birth of Jesus who is “God-with-Us”. This year, as we look at all the statistics, and think about vaccines and Brexit, we need, more than ever, that sense that God has created us for a purpose, that he loves us and that he is still with us. Christmas is often thought of as a time for giving and receiving gifts. This year, perhaps, there is less emphasis on material gifts than on the gift of serving and caring for one another. I thank God for the gifts he has given to scientists and technicians, for the service provided by truck drivers and paramedics and for all who even now, are using their gifts in the service of humanity. When we use our gifts in the service of others, we do the work of God, whether we know it or not.
It is good that we do at least have the opportunity to gather in our Churches for Christmas, even if the numbers have to be smaller than usual. I am very grateful to our priests and deacons and to the many volunteers in all our parishes, who have been working so hard to make that possible. If it turns out that you were unable to get a place at Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or if you simply feel safer at home, please don’t think of yourself as having been excluded. Like the grandparents of Jesus, your place in the Christmas story is just as important as anyone else’s. I encourage you to make use of the opportunities made possible by radio link and on the internet to join in prayer with your parish community.
Even as I have been preparing this message, things have been changing rapidly. That is the nature of pandemic. Unfortunately, we are facing into another period of lockdown. I understand how difficult this is for so many people. Like the Holy Family, we will be refugees, even if it is in the comfort of our own homes. While we are required to suspend public Mass once again, our Churches will remain open for personal prayer. I encourage you, throughout the Christmas Season to visit the crib and to pray there for a moment, following all the usual health guidelines to keep everyone safe.
I am conscious that this has been a stressful and challenging year for all of you. We have lost family members and friends, cancelled plans, and made many sacrifices. There may still be challenging times ahead. I will be remembering your intentions as I celebrate Mass at Christmas. I take this opportunity to wish all of you and your extended families, whether at home or abroad, every blessing and peace for Christmas and for the year ahead. May God, who loves you, keep you in his care during these coming months.