Christmas Masses (2020)


It is not the first year that Christmas has been celebrated in a time of peril. Indeed, it has probably been a feast in time of pestilence, war, famine and fear more often than a feast kept in tranquillity evoking the peace of which the angels sing. The Spanish flu devastated the world recovering slowly from the carnage of the most brutal war ever fought. The Black Death killed a third of the population of the known world. In terms of pestilence we are disturbed not destroyed; and there is a vaccine being administered and more about to make their appearance. Our concerns are real, many families have faced horrible loss, but we can now see the prospect of an end.


There are greater worries than covid. Global warming could wipe out low lying communities and make living distinctly uncomfortable for the rest. Nature has become capricious, with extremes recurring regularly. Our sluggish response is doing serious, irreparable damage now. It will carry a high cost. The future, if there is one, will look back with horrified amazement at the denials, the inactivity, the selfish short-sightedness.


On this Feast of the Word Made Flesh, I want to highlight a further catastrophe-in-the-making. The power of the word is dramatically described in the first main verb of the Bible: ‘God said’ and what God said came to be. Words are powerful. They can build up. They can destroy. They can make you feel great. They can empty you of hope. Words are valuable. Without words there is no effective communication. Ideas develop through words spoken. Hearts and minds are energised and transformed through the give and take of conversation. Communities grow through dialogue. Words are precious. They are not to be abused. It is not by chance that the devil, the bringer of death, was named Beelzebub – the father of lies. Nor is it by accident that Jesus, the Word of the Father, is Truth and Life.


In our present world words are twisted and truth is sacrificed. The constant jarring refrain of ‘Fake News’, the absurd surmise of ‘alternative facts’, the persistent cry of ‘Hoax’, this is an abuse of words and an attack on society whose foundations are being undermined. Society can only function and thrive when there is trust. Trust depends on words being used in a coherent and comprehensible way.


We have been here before and the people of the United States should remember. One of the most corrosive episodes in their history was the vicious smear campaign orchestrated and led by Senator Joe McCarthy, denouncing all sorts of innocent people as communists and so enemies of the American people. His method was to lie big, and when challenged move his ground and lie some more, with even greater falsehoods. John F Kennedy despised the Senator’s tactics but McCarthy was a family friend, close to Jack’s father, and had considerable support from Irish Catholics, a group Kennedy needed to keep on side for his own political future. So while publishing a book that commended those who had followed conscience over their party, a book that won the Pulitzer Prize[1], Kennedy kept quiet about the damaging accusations of the Senator for Wisconsin . (My bed time reading has been Volume 1 of JFK, an outstanding biography of the US President, written by Frederik Logevall[2] -I recommend it highly.)


We have been here before with a leader claiming greatness in all things. Nero, Emperor of Rome [d. 68CE] was, he himself proclaimed, the greatest actor, gladiator, musician… and no one dare gainsay for fear of their life. In Washington, for fear of their political life, their job, patronage people have been abysmally silent. And all the while language is the victim.


We expect lies from corrupt, totalitarian regimes. Our society, for all its faults, is built on a Judeo-Christian basis, mediated through the philosopher of ancient Greece, treasured by the Muslim sages and so able to be rediscovered in the West. The careful and considered use of words is at the heart of our culture.


Jesus is the Word. ‘Logos’ (Greek) has many shades of meaning – word, discourse, study, communication. Fundamentally it is God revealing Godself to us. Nothing is more precious, nothing more fragile. Like a new born the Word must be protected, nurtured, treasured.


The abuse of words imperils all that we value. Cherish words as you cherish the Christ-child. They are the Way to the Father, the entrance to heaven.


[1] Profiles of Courage

[2] F Logevall, JFK, Vol 1, Viking (Penguin), New York, 2020.


Christmas Year B