MAKING SENSE AT CHRISTMAS
A sermon preached by Bishop Richard Clarke, Bishop of Meath and Kildare, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Trim on Christmas Day 2011
Vaclav Havel, who died last week – dissident, playwright, poet and first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia - once said of hope that it was “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”. It is certainly a different and somewhat paradoxical understanding of hope, a thing we all assume is really about happy endings, and the sooner the better. But how then do you and I make sense, in today’s weird world, of Christmas and of a Christmas hope of which we can speak so glibly and carelessly?
I want to recount a story of Christmas that I heard recently, and in an unusual context. For me, this true story of a particular moment in modern history has certainly helped to give this Christmas a little more meaning (and perhaps a little more sense too), and for this reason I share it with you.
The setting in which I heard the story was a museum on the outskirts of Jerusalem early last month. Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Memorial museum of Israel, and this story was narrated by a remarkable man who was escorting an ecumenical group (of which I was part) around Yad Vashem. His name is Avinoam Sharon, whom I later discovered to be also a rabbi, an academic lawyer and a former senior military officer in the Israeli Army. As happens delightfully in some of these chance encounters, he and I found that our minds worked in the same kind of way, and we have actually remained in touch since my return home from the Holy Land.
During the Second World War, Avinoam Sharon’s grandparents had to leave their home in Belgium and flee with their young family on long dangerous journeys around tracts of occupied Europe, constantly on the run from the German occupiers, and with the spectre of the Nazi death camps always and ever before their eyes. Their journey of escape took them, late in the war, to a village in the Italian Alps, Andonno. The Germans had occupied the northern part of Italy by this stage in the war, and it was of course an immensely dangerous time to be Jewish, but fortunately the parish priest of Andonno, Fr Antonio Borsotto, had secretly given the Sharon family and another family shelter in a barn beside the church. Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, there was a gentle knock on the door. Fearful, but convinced that German soldiers would not knock gently on anything, the family opened the door. An old lady handed in a parcel of cheese and said quietly, “Buon Natale.. Happy Christmas”, and left quickly. Minutes later there was another knock on the door. Another villager handed in a basket of firewood and again wished them a happy Christmas before leaving quietly. Right through the night there was a procession of villagers, bringing food, clothing or wood from their own tiny resources. The next morning the Jewish families heard why this had happened.
At mass that previous night, Fr Borsotto had taken the huge risk of involving his parishioners in the story of the Jewish families for whom he was caring. He told the congregation the familiar story of Christmas, of how Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus were to be found in a barn, rejected by those around them, in a strange and frightening place, without a proper roof over their heads. They were outsiders to everyone and in desperate need. But people, not of their country or race, did bring them gifts - the Magi. Fr Borsotto then went on to tell his congregation that in their midst there were in fact two Jewish families, cold and hungry, forced out of their homes and being hunted down for no other reason than that they were Jews. He told his congregation that they could choose to do the right thing.. that they too could bring gifts, as the Magi had done, to the Jewish families that he was sheltering.
It was of course an immensely dangerous thing to have done. The entire population of the village would have been executed in cold blood if anyone had betrayed the priest or the congregation. Indeed, in a village nearby, this is precisely what had happened where a priest was suspected of sheltering partisans. The villagers were shot and the priest locked in the church which was then set alight. But no-one in Andonno betrayed the priest or the families. Instead they brought these Jewish families food, firewood and clothes (no doubt of rather more use to them then the gold, frankincense and myrrh might have been at that moment).
Avinoam Sharon did not tell that story simply so that those of us in the group might feel a small, selfish and self-serving relief that there were in fact some immensely courageous Christians who had behaved nobly and honourably on behalf of Jews in the course of the war. He was too subtle and too knowledgeable of Christian theology for that. Far deeper and more probing than any comforting aspect to that moving story is of course its intimate connection with Christmas. We were reminded in that story from Andonno that the Incarnation makes demands of us. The familiar tableau of Christmas, the story that we have so cosily domesticated and prettified, can have massive and terrifying implications if we truly place Christ at the centre of it.
The Incarnation is not about safety; it is not about things necessarily turning out well. It is however about making sense of the created order - a fragile, incomplete and damaged creation, but one within which God places himself, fully and totally. In the Christian understanding, it is the person of Jesus Christ, God made humankind, that so completely focuses for us that vision of God with us, Emmanuel.
God with us is of course a two-edged sword. Yes, it carries within itself the beauty and comfort that enables us to believe that we are never alone, the solace of trusting that nothing and no-one can ever be ultimately victorious over truth and goodness, the strength of knowing that you and I have, held out before us, “the means of grace and the hope of glory”.
But it carries also a divine, and hence costly responsibility that is imposed on us, a responsibility not simply for those whom we know, like or love, but also for those who could never return our generosity, those who are outsiders, those who are “other” and different, but who - in a total and absolute equivalence with us - are also made in the image and likeness of God. The celebration of Christmas may not always be of our own choosing. The parishioners of Andonno, even in their own misery and deprivation, could not have celebrated that Christmas - nearly seventy years ago in the snows of northern Italy - with any spiritual integrity, had they ignored the pleading of their priest or had taken the safest of all options by betraying the trust they had been given.
But I conclude with a postscript that breathes hope today, and perhaps will give some additional “sense” to that snowy night in Andonno, a sense that also reaches across two differing though related religious faiths. One of Avinoam Sharon’s missions in life is to have Fr Borsotto given official recognition as being one of the “Righteous among the Nations”. This is, as most of you probably know, a title of huge honour given by Israel to non-Jews who (whether now living or dead) risked their lives during the Second World War in order to rescue Jews from the Nazi genocide. These “Righteous among the Nations” include such household names as Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and Corrie Ten Boom, but many thousands of others also whose names are no longer remembered personally by very many people still here on earth with us. I think we might all rejoice if Fr Antonio Borsotto joined their number. He gives us the hope to understand a little more that Christmas does indeed make true sense, for those who are ready to make it so.
May Jesus Christ - God with us - guide us, strengthen us and challenge us, and so enable us to make an ever-growing sense of our own lives and of our faith in him, this Christmas season and through this coming year. Amen