In 1965 I journeyed to Sydney to see the Beatles. Arguably the best pop group ever, the Beatles had a genius for composing songs that fitted the mood of the moment. One such song was “Eleanor Rigby” that drew attention to the lonely people of the world. The characters in the song, both Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, stand as symbols for all those lonely people in our midst rarely noticed by others. Although the message of the song is now forty years old the loneliness to which it refers has not decreased, if anything the busyness of life today has only made it worse. Despite unthought of opportunities for entertainment and travel, despite remarkable advances in communication technology, despite a proliferation of support groups, there are probably more lonely people today than there have ever been. Loneliness is one of the great scourges of modern society leading to intense psychological suffering, to the breakdown of health, and all too frequently to tragedies, particularly among young people, when the ultimate gift of God, life itself, is brought to a premature and tragic end.
No one could possibly calculate how many lonely people live in our midst, nor as in the past can their numbers be restricted to the more obvious categories such as older people living by themselves, or people in institutional care. Today sadly even younger people living in the midst of their own families, may be lonely, and for them not even the usual distractions music, fashion, entertainment, sadly even alcohol, or drugs can take away the chronic pain that lies at the heart of their lives.
Nevertheless into the midst of this sea of loneliness each year the Feast of Christmas comes to remind us that we are not alone, that God who came to us at the first Christmas, remains with us always – that God can be encountered in the Church, the community of believers, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments of the Church, particularly the Eucharist that we celebrate tonight, indeed because of its redemption even the world itself can become a meeting place with God, present in the one family of nations, present in the beauty, magnificence, and sometimes awe-inspiring power of nature. Because of Christ the world is God’s home as well as ours.
Moreover Christ showed us how to increase our sense of belonging, as well as that of other people, by reaching out to those people who are sometimes on the fringe of society, the very young, the aged, the sick, those who because they are different are judged as less socially acceptable, those in institutional care. Loneliness only becomes a problem when people feel there is not enough love to go around, and yet Christ has provided an overwhelming supply of love if only we will open our eyes to its presence, and then try to share it with others.
As St. Paul advised Titus in tonight’s Scripture: “Have no ambition except to do good.” The reading from Isaiah tonight likens God’s presence in our midst to a light: “On those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.” But it is a gentle light as the Gospel says, shining from a Manger: “Do not be afraid. Here is a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
God’s presence among us is not a fear inspiring presence but a comforting presence, not God above us, but God beside us, born in a stable, riding a donkey into Jerusalem, dying on a Cross with criminals. God could not be a more integrated or gentler presence in our world than we see Him to be in the person of Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that Jesus could say “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.”
Because we so often think of God as over and above us we rarely think of God with us in the midst of our sufferings, our joys, our hopes and our fears, and yet in Jesus Christ that is what God has become for us.
So tonight my dear people as we are filled with God’s gentle presence in this celebration, let us allow any pain or loneliness that we experience to drift away, to be replaced by the certainty that God cares for us individually and eternally. Christ has shown us a better way. Let us embrace it with all our heart, mind, and soul. Tonight may the Child in the Manger bring us individually, as a nation, and as a world, to that peace we so desperately need at this time. Let that be our special prayer tonight, and later in the Mass as we reach out to each other with a sign of that peace, may it be both a symbol of our determination to continue such action in the year ahead, as well as the spiritual power that drives us towards the transformation of the world, that Christ began when He came among us not as an all conquering ruler but as a helpless Child in a Manger.