“His birth was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow across the sky over the mountain and a new star in the heavens”. Seventy years later his dead body was put into a glass coffin, like Snow White, to complement the grotesque life of a terrifying political leader of North Korea. On the other side of the world, in a small central-European country, another political leader died. Vaclav Havel had made his name internationally recognizable as a man who peacefully overpowered communism in his homeland, and greatly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The funerals of each of them gathered huge crowds. Yet in North Korea, enslaved people gathered because of fear, while in Prague free people assembled to pay well-deserved respect to their hero.
I know it sounds odd that tonight at the Christmas Mass I’m telling you stories about a) dead men, and b) politicians. But I think I’ll be justified in a while. I want you to think for a moment about your very own day of birth. How much do you remember of it? The answer is obvious: nothing. You know only as much about your birthday as you were told by your mum. Now glance to your right or your left, looking for the first person you don’t know. How much do you know about his or her birthday? I guess that’s even less than about your own. With sixty thousand children born every year in Scotland, their birthday celebrations naturally have to be limited to their closest family and friends.
Nothing different happened with the birth of Jesus. We all know these worn out and overused stories of the holy family’s poverty, adversities and problems. There is nothing to be admired here, as none of us wants to live in poverty, none of us wants to struggle against adversities, and none of us wants to face endless problems. We are constantly looking for financial safety and independence, we are seeking for comfort and convenience, we are longing for an easy and problem-free life. If this is the description of your life, let me tell you something: there’s nothing wrong with you.
Jesus, the only Son of God and God himself, became a human being deeply immersed in ordinary life with all its problems and adversities. Jesus’ family had to take part in the Roman census which was a humiliating experience for the Jewish people; they had to suffer another humiliation of staying overnight in a stable and giving birth to the child among animals. It could hardly be called a glorious event. Oddly enough, on that very same night, God announces that this birth is a glorious event: ‘I bring you news of great joy’ as the angel said to the shepherds. ‘Here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’. Again it was a view hardly unusual for them.
I think there is something we can take from Christmas along with presents and food: God enters into our ordinary, problematic and anxious lives in an ordinary way. His plan for each one of us is spectacular, but he executes his plan in an unspectacular way. He doesn’t remove all the problems, but he carries the burden of them with us and makes sense of them for us. It doesn’t matter how you were born. The only thing that matters is how you live your life. At the end of your days people will gather around your coffin: to look at a weirdo in a glass case or to pay respect to a great person. Personally I hope for the latter.