It’s That Time of Year Again

This article was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on 20th Dec 2019.

I suppose you have noticed that Christmas is coming. You can hardly miss it; the shops are full of clues like Christmas lights, decorations, images of Santa and reindeer. I was looking at a range of charity Christmas cards in a popular store the other day and even found one card that had the word, ‘Christmas’. The shelves are stuffed with toys for all the girls and boys and I suppose that’s what we think about at this time. Christmas is an exciting time for children.

Children are preparing for Christmas, playing parts in the Nativity Play; could be Joseph or Mary or probably one of the angel chorus. Children are encouraged to work on their behaviour. Santa’s helpers will be keeping an eye on everyone and Santa is making up his list. Everyone is being good so they get moved up Santa’s list. Parents are getting the Christmas menu sorted out for the big Christmas Day dinner. Writing the Christmas cards and wrapping the gifts takes hours. Christmas Day sees us at mass and gathering round the crib to see the baby Jesus.

The children gaze at the holy child, the picture of innocence we are all encouraged to emulate. Even the animals push in close to be near Jesus. This is the Holy Family that all our families should be like. Christmas is a great time for families.

Of course it’s not like that for everyone. Occasionally we get one or maybe two people at Midnight Mass who have had a wee bit too much to drink. Sometimes they just sit there but some can be a bit noisy. Often you find that they haven’t been to Mass for a long time. They fell away years ago because they couldn’t deal with it. They were put off by the guilt that many feel and then they feel they don’t belong. For some reason they feel called back and the alcohol dims the guilt feeling.

Christmas is seen as a happy time for the good, the innocent and the holy but not for the sinners and the excluded. It’s about the good people welcoming the Baby Jesus and singing Christmas Carols, isn’t it? Well, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s wrong. Christmas is the birthday of Jesus but that’s not the beginning. Jesus is the Son of God and He was around for a long time before the first Christmas. He was around before there was time actually. Christmas was the coming of the Son on a mission.

It’s the mission the Holy Child was sent on that gives Christmas its significance. This child was sent to change the world. Jesus was to grow into a man who broke the rules. The Son of God did not associate with princes and kings. He lived among the ordinary people and the poor. There were people in that society that decent people did not associate with. Jesus kept company with tax collectors and fallen women. He wasn’t very nice to some of the important people.

Jesus had come to save the sinners, the excluded and the lost. When challenged about his choice of associates he replied that it is the sick who need the doctor, not the healthy. In a sense Christmas is really all about sinners. If there were no sinners there would be no need for Jesus to come to save them. However there never seems to be a shortage of sinners. We were all innocent children once but living in the world, we find it difficult to avoid sin.

It is useful to remember that we are all sinners but we must not let feelings of guilt cause us to despair. Jesus brought the message that we are all saved and He saved us by His death and resurrection. Of course Jesus didn’t leave it at that. He formed his Church with Peter as its rock. It is our mission to continue His work of saving sinners.

How do we go about that? Well, I suppose we should take our lead from Jesus. He did not point the finger of accusation at the sinner. He, who was sinless, beckoned to the sinner to come to Him. Do we do the same? Are we ready to welcome the sinner, the outcast or the inebriated man at the back of the church?

I think we are very good at recognising and helping the poor and the sick. We contribute to charities like SCIAF and MISSIO to bring aid to the poor all over the world. We contribute to the Saint Vincent DePaul collections to help those who have fallen on hard times nearer home. Schools put together Christmas parcels and distribute them to old folk living on limited means. How good are we at reaching out to the others?

Our prisons are overflowing with convicted prisoners. Some of them get visitors while others may be far from home and have nobody to reach out to them. How good are we at accepting those prisoners when they are released from prison? Do we welcome them warmly or do we view them with suspicion, seeing them as guilty men? (I know they are not all men.)

How would Christ see them? Would He reject them and turn away? I don’t think so. I think Jesus would not condemn them but offer them forgiveness and salvation. Remember, Jesus came to change the world. As a Christian I’m compelled to continue that task of changing the world. That sounds impossible but I’m not on my own. There are millions of us all over the world with that same task.

How do I start this change? Well I first of all need to bring about change in myself. I need to start by changing how I see other people. Do I look down on the inebriated man at the back of the church or do I recognise someone who has been moved to come to Christ even if he doesn’t realise it? Do I condemn or do I welcome?

This Christmas I’ll try to see the crib a bit differently; not just the Baby Jesus for children to wonder at but the Son of God calling out to all the sinners (me included) to come back to Him. I need to remember that no matter what we have done, what sins we have committed, what hurts we may have caused, the Baby Jesus doesn’t see our guilt but our need of forgiveness.

This Christmas is a time for rejoicing. It’s a time for sinners to rejoice because Jesus does not condemn us but wants to welcome us. Nobody is excluded, no matter what their story is. If Jesus can reach out to everyone who am I to look down on anyone?

I’m looking forward to Christmas and I will get caught up in all the usual preparations but this year I’ll try to get busy changing myself into the kind of person Jesus calls us all to be. I hope your preparations don’t get too hectic. Have a joyful Christmas this year. If you are a sinner like me just remember Christmas is all about us sinners.

Christmas is Revolting

merry christmas

Well, that was Christmas. I was really looking forward to the Christmas holiday. As someone who has retired I suppose it’s odd to think of this as a holiday since I’m not off to work on other days. What’s so special about Christmas for me to think of it as a holiday? It’s a time to step out of the normal routine, a time for eating and drinking, a time for Santa Clause and children. It’s about giving presents, peace on earth and goodwill to all men.

Christmas is, for many, a time to travel. Some are heading off to the sun for a winter break while many are heading back to family celebrations. How often have we seen Christmas travel disrupted by problems on the railways or by traffic jams. This Christmas we had Gatwick airport closed by a drone scare and tens of thousands of people had their journeys disrupted. I suppose that could be seen as very similar to that first Christmas when Joseph and Mary had to go on a journey with a baby on the way. They had no accommodation and the baby was born in a stable.

Did Christmas work for you? Me neither. I suspect many people feel a bit like I do, glad when it’s over and back to the routine. So how did I get it wrong? For some people Christmas is a time of crisis. There are homeless people and families struggling to stretch their meagre resources to make a Christmas experience for their children. Most of these parents manage to provide for their children, usually by self-sacrifice. Expectations of Christmas have grown, fuelled by the advertising industry. We are persuaded to buy the latest toy for our children, the expensive jewellery or technology for our loved ones and to provide a Christmas banquet for all the family.

The result can be families at breaking point. Marriage guidance services can tell us of the increase in requests for help in the post-Christmas months. The strain on families often proves just too much. So much for peace and good will.

Businesses were sounding the alarm when sales did not soar as they had hoped before Christmas. They relied on a surge in buying to keep their business alive. Christmas is a big commercial festival. Perhaps that is a clue to what’s going wrong with Christmas. I’m now having to rethink my ideas of Christmas.

I’ve been thinking of Christmas as the birthday of Jesus and we are having a birthday celebration. That’s the story for the children. As an adult, should I be looking for a deeper meaning? The birth of Jesus was God coming to join us, but it was not His decision alone. Mary was asked for her consent for Jesus to be born for us. She gave her consent and the world was changed for ever. Now there is a clue there. God is all powerful and could just decide to put his plan into action but He didn’t. Christmas is not something God imposed on us. Mankind had to agree and cooperate in the plan.

That first Christmas was God making good on his promise to send someone who would change the world. He didn’t intend to set up an international public holiday, he was starting a revolution. Most revolutions are marked by a single event that captures the imagination and triggers the revolt. In France the storming of the Bastille marked the start of the French Revolution. In Russia the storming of the Winter Palace was seen as the start of theirs. These were violent events that were more symbolic than effective. The first Christmas was not violent and was probably the most significant in human history.

Like all revolutions ours never really ends. There are always counter revolutions and attempts to reject the new order. Christ’s revolution is still being opposed by the world. Jesus brought a new way of thinking into the world. He rejected hate and replaced it with love. His command is to love your neighbour and see each other as brothers and sisters rather than enemies. You only have to look at a newspaper to see how that is being rejected all over the world. Perhaps then we can understand why Christianity is under attack all over the world. The Christian revolution is attacked with violence in many parts of the world and is attacked by more subtle means here.

Now I’m seeing Christmas Day as the focal point of our revolution. It’s Christian equivalent of “Remember the Alamo” or a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille. The reason we don’t recognise this is that it’s peaceful revolution. This is a revolution that rejects hate and violence and uses the power of love instead. Christmas is our reminder that the revolution goes on.

Now, if I’m a revolutionary how do I carry on my revolt? I can’t go about attacking those who oppose me because that would be against the revolutionary principles I’m promoting. No, I need to go about my revolution by changing myself. I can’t counteract hate and violence by violent means. I’ll have to rid myself of aggressive attitudes and replace them with love. I need to see others as my brothers and sisters, not enemies. If Christmas is about giving then I need to look at what I give.

The Christmas gifts that count are not scented candles and shiny baubles. The gifts that count are gifts of myself. How ready am I to share what I have and, more importantly, what I am. We’re not good at giving away things we no longer need. (My wife is very good at giving away things she thinks I no longer need.) We are even worse at giving away what we do need. We can easily become a captive of our possessions. So powerful is the advertising industry that we are reluctant to give up things we may never have made use of. Hoarding has become a massive problem for some.

More importantly, we are not so good at sharing ourselves. Every one of us has gifts and talents that we can put to good use in helping others. We might be the person who can always get a car started on a frosty morning or can mind a child while the parent is busy. We must put these talents to good use in our revolution. Just as revolutionaries would attack and dominate their opponents we must love and serve our brothers and sisters.

Perhaps you remember the slogan, “A puppy is not just for Christmas.” That was intended to make people realise that dog ownership was a year round thing. Well perhaps we should adopt the slogan “Christmas is not just for Christmas.” Every day should be my day of peace and goodwill to all mankind. Every day is my opportunity to bring love into other people’s lives. Just like a good revolutionary, I can’t sit about waiting for something to happen. I need to make things happen. I need to make Christ’s revolution real and part of everyone’s life.

If I manage this then I won’t need any New Year’s resolutions this year, I’ll have an all year revolution instead.

Happy Christmas? – Full Text

I’ve been in the loft today to bring down the Christmas decorations and the Crib. The crib was always an important part of our Christmas, an important thing for our children. It tells a story of a joyful occasion when God sent his Son to be one of us. Now we have grandchildren the story is still important in our house.

I think it was a smart move on God’s part to send us Jesus as a baby rather than an adult. Who could fail to welcome a new baby? The arrival of an adult would not produce the same feelings of joy as a new baby. Of course this was no ordinary baby. This was the Christ child, come as the saviour of mankind. This was the child come to give us a future, an eternity with God.

The Crib is full of symbolism. Jesus is born in a stable with an animal feeding trough for a bed. God sends His Son to us in poverty. His first visitors are the poor shepherds, alerted by an angelic choir. This birth has been foretold by prophets. A sign in the sky, a star, guides three kings on their search for the holy child. These kings or wise men pay homage to the child; thus the child is king of kings.

The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are potent symbols of the kingly and divine nature of the child and the medical properties of myrrh attest to a violent end. The symbolism of the Crib prepares us for the role Jesus is to play in our salvation.

There is a dark side to the story. King Herod decides to kill the child out of jealousy. He doesn’t want another king to usurp his place. This is the first rejection of God’s salvation and it is played out in the violence of the massacre of the innocents. Loving parents, Mary and Joseph abandon everything and take the child into exile in Egypt. Jesus starts life as a refugee.

For children this is a lovely story. They sing “Little donkey” and imagine Joseph leading the donkey with Mary and the holy child on its back. They think of Mary cuddling the child close as the donkey takes the strain. The reality must have been a bit more stressful than that. I’s a nice image for a child but I’m not a child anymore; though my wife might suggest that my behaviour sometimes belies that fact. While I might enjoy playing hide and seek with my grandchildren I must force myself to take an adult view of the journey into Egypt.

The holy refugee family must have experienced the fear of being caught and must have worried about their uncertain future. This Christmas there are many families in that same part of the world experiencing the same worries and fears. The flight of refugees from danger in Syria and African countries is now a crisis that even threatens Europe. Thousands have dies in the Mediterranean, drowned in a vain attempt to reach a new, safe life.

I find it hard to understand why people would put their children’s lives at such risk. That’s because my grandchildren are living in a safe, loving environment. King Herod’s role has been taken over by others who are jealous of their role and status in the world. People with real power; people who should know better are bombing and shelling more children that Herod ever killed. How can I hope to understand the fear that drives refugees to journey to a Europe where nobody is trying to kill you?

Sadly, those who are successful find themselves in a continent where children are not as safe as they assumed. It seems like every day that we hear stories of children being abused in the Church, in schools, in sports activities and even in the BBC. We hear that abuse has been going on for decades and we wonder what kind of place this is. It seems like those in authority have shamefully neglected their responsibilities to children.

I’m part of the Safeguarding team in our parish. The Church is now facing up to reality and putting in place a structure to defend the vulnerable. It’s high time the rest of society was doing the same. But surely we must do more than that. Surely we must change the culture of abuse in our society. If abuse of children and the vulnerable was tolerated by those in authority it can only reflect the attitude to people in general. If we refuse to value the lives of people, be they children, the poor, the old or those with special needs then abuse of these can be seen to be acceptable. It is only when we value all human life, even the unborn, that we will begin to stamp out abuse.

When a political opponent makes a good argument we can rubbish it by pointing out they have a physical deformity or they breed salamanders or some other thing that makes them less than us. If they are less than us we can abuse them and that’s ok. But that’s a dishonest argument and distorts our political life. If we want truthful debate and live in a society where truth is a guiding principle (this seems to be an old fashioned idea today) then we must accept and promote the truth that all people are of equal value.

So what to give the children for Christmas? It could be the latest big thing. It could be Star Wars, that’s big again. It could be Batman, Iron Man and the rest of the gang; my three year old grandsons are avid followers of them. These will fade away in their turn to be replaced with a new big thing for next Christmas. The compelling thing about these superheroes is that they fight for justice. They step in to defend the people where governments fail. I wonder if that’s what attracts children to them. They appeal to a child’s natural sense of justice.

Perhaps that’s what we should be hoping to give our children for Christmas. Do we need to become the superheroes of our age? Can we defend those people society abuses? Perhaps we should be more vocal about the injustice of attacking the unemployed, describing them as scroungers and cutting the benefits paid to the poor. Should we be asking questions of our parliamentary representatives about how we deal with those refugees who are seeking a safer existence for their children?

Now you might ask if that’s not asking the Church to become political. That’s a good point and some politicians have suggested we should keep our noses out of politics and stick to Sundays in church. But we are part of the Universal Church. The Church is for everyone in the world. We are all part of Christ’s family and have responsibilities for each other.

Imagine a world where every person is valued. Dare to hope for a world where everyone has the right be live in safety. I think that would be a wonderful Christmas present for my grandsons. I can’t go out to a shop and buy it. There is no online store that can deliver it. I could start slowly. I could begin with me and see if I can change my ways to make me more open to the people who are not like me and begin to see them as just as valuable as me.

That’s my road to superherodom (I just invented that word) this Christmas, what about you?

Happy Christmas

Nativity Scene

Come O Devine Messia

Christmas is almost upon us. This has been a year of wars and violence. Let’s take the opportunity we have in this season of peace and love to reconsider how we behave to one another.

The Government might reconsider their bedroom tax, although they might point out that Jesus didn’t have one – He was born in a stable. Let’s hope they don’t take that as a model for the future.

I wish you all a happy and holy Christmas and may the Peace remain with you in the New Year.


Bumper Christmas Edition – my Column

Observer Logo

The bumper Christmas and New Year edition of The Scottish Catholic Observer is out today. It carries my final column of this series – looking back at the Year of Faith. But, this is a bumber edition and also has columns from Peter Kearney, Hugh McLoughlin, John Deighan, Fr. Eddie McGhee, Gerald Warner, Kevin McKenna, Richard Purden, Mary McGinty, Andreas Wolff, John Newton, Joe Bradley and SCIAF. There is a story from Cath Docherty and a pullout section – “2013 A Reflection”.

All that for £2 – who can afford to miss that? If you do then you will find the full text of my column here next week. But, don’t wait – get your copy this weekend.

Loyalty Melts Away – Both Ways?

English: Cadbury Wharf, Knighton, Staffordshir...

English: Cadbury Wharf, Knighton, Staffordshire This building and the wharf were operated by Cadbury’s between 1911 and 1961 to process locally collected milk and produce “chocolate crumb” which was transported to Cadbury’s in Bourneville (Birmingham) along the Shropshire Union Canal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is an interesting article on the Telegraph Website by Rosa Silverman about Cadbury cutting out a traditional Christmas gift to members of its Pension scheme. For years the pensioners have recieved a Christmas gift of a small parcel of chocolate. The company says it has to stop to plug a hole in the pension fund.

The cost of the gifts is about £210,000 and the gap is thought to be £320,000,000. By my calculation that will take 1524 years to plug. The UK President of the holding company Mondelez, Maurizio Brusadelli says they have to cut costs. Interestingly, Maurizio has had a pay increase from £14,400,000 to £18,900,000 a 31.5% rise.

When the company was simply Cadbury there was a sense of tradition and loyalty between company and workers. The company had built a model town for the workers, Bourneville, and was a fine example of Victorian philanthropy.

The loyalty extended to the customers who tended to stick with Cadbury despite the rising competition. I remember my uncle Matt who, late in life, emigrated to California. He had regular parcells sent out from Scotland containing unobtainables such as ‘Cherry Blossom’ shoe polish and Cadbury’s chocolate.

Loyalty seems to have hit the skids with the takeover by Mondelez. The chocolate bare are changing. As a long time consumer I noticed a change in the taste and constituency of the old brand. I contacted the company who assured me that nothing had changed.

Now I am not one to protest at change. Change can be a good thing. Companies can change their products to cope with changing markets. The danger coes when your customer base is tied to the traditions and history of the company. Customers may see change as a good thing. Ther are other brands of chocolate out there and once customers feel that something new is the order of the day they may just find that new taste somewhere else.

When the company makes it plain that they want shot of the oldies then the oldie customers mught just shuffle off to anothe brand. I’m sure Mondelez would agree that’s a good thing too.