19 Dec 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

There’s an old Peanuts comic in which Snoopy is doing his happy dance at the turn of the year. : The ever-bleak Lucy shouts out, “How can you be happy when you don’t know what this year has in store for you? Don’t you worry about all the things that can go wrong?”

Her words have the desired effect. : Snoopy pauses and looks downcast. Lucy continues: “That’s better… Live in dread and fear… Be sensible.” At which point Snoopy can take Lucy’s dourness no longer: he bursts out laughing and dances happily away.

Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, once insisted that ‘humour is a proof of faith’[i] and this short comic captures something fundamental about the Christmas story we will celebrate in the week ahead (Lk 1:39-45). For the fact is that the world into which the Christ-child was born was a bleak one. What do I mean?

Well, the story begins with Elizabeth who, after decades of being disgraced by childlessness, has conceived a child and hides the fact for as long as possible (Lk 1:7,24). Overwhelmed by fear and doubt, her husband Zechariah is struck dumb (Lk 1:12,28,20). Then it’s their niece Mary’s turn to be frightened and ashamed, for she is pregnant outside wedlock (Lk 1:26-38). Joseph decides to separate from her quietly (Mt 1:18-19) and Mary goes into hiding at her aunt’s place (Lk 1:39). Tension in Zechariah’s family comes to a head over the kid’s name (Lk 1:60-63). In any case the boy turns out to be a strange one, living in the wilds, dressed as a hippy and on a paleo diet (Lk 1:80; Mt 3:4).

Meanwhile an unsympathetic government requires Mary, though fully nine months pregnant, to make the journey to Bethlehem to be registered with Joseph (Lk 2:1-5). She gives birth in a shed for farm animals (Lk 2:7), wraps her Babe in paupers’ rags and lays Him in a feeding trough (Lk 2:7,12,16). The only attendants were farmhands and some oriental wise guys talking dangerously about a rival king of the Jews. The local kingpin, Herod the Great, responds with suspicion, deception and violence (Mt 2:1-18). In the Temple the new parents are told ominously that the Kid will cause a great deal of upset and break His mother’s heart (Lk 2:24,34-35). Next they flee as refugees into Egypt, while Herod slaughters all the infants (Mt 2:13-21). They stay away till the coast is clear but on returning find the new king Archelaus is as awful as his father (Mt 2:22), having murdered 3,000 people in a single day. So they go into hiding again, this time in Mary’s hometown of Nazareth (Mt 2:22-23; Jn 1:46).

All this is familiar but when we put all the threads together we realise that the first Christmas was haunted by anxiety and death (cf. Mt 1:20; 2:3,14,16,18; 4:16; Lk 1:12,29,65,79; 2:9,18,26,48; Jn 1:5; 3:19), or in Lucy’s terms dread and fear! Commemorating Christmas for a second time under the cloud of COVID—after 5.4 million deaths and as uncertain about where it’s all going as we were a year ago—we can grasp what it means to celebrate Christmas in darkness.

: Thus the great 19th century Danish philosopher-poet, Søren Kierkegaard, declared that “to be full of cheer at Christmas time and not to think of Good Friday” is proof one hasn’t really internalised the Christian religion.[ii] How, he wondered, could we be unambiguously cheery when we know the terrible fate to which this Child is doomed? Christ may have come as a light but the darkness would do all it could to snuff that candle out (e.g. Jn 1:4-5,9). He might have made the world but the world would know Him not (Jn 1:10-11).

Which can make the Christmas story seem confused or deranged as it swings manically from one emotional pole to the other. Alongside the darkness we witness scenes like today’s one of two pregnant women performing a duet of unadulterated joy (Lk 1:39-45). Elizabeth sings Mary’s praises and Mary magnifies God for all He has done and yet will do (Lk 1:46-55). At Christmas the carolling will be between a choir of angels and a chorus of shepherds, together giving glory to the God on high who comes low as a newborn Child (Lk 2:1-20).  Nothing, we learn, can snuff out the Light that is Jesus (Jn 1:1-18), light for all those “who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79; 2:32).

So what’s it to be then: Anna’s Gospel singing or Simeon’s heart-piercing premonition? Kierkegaard about the cross or Luke about the crib? Women’s song and dance or men’s slaughter of innocents? The dread of COVID deaths and lockdowns or the hope of life after COVID? Snoopy’s happy dance or Lucy’s cynicism?

Well, we might say, the art of the Gospel is chiaroscuro, light and shade. It’s wonder alongside tragedy. It’s jumping for joy while acknowledging that the future is uncertain, indeed challenging. But how is it we can maintain such joy amidst anxiety? Because the joy of carrying humanity’s Saviour is so immense it outshines everything else. Mary knows that the child she bears will fulfil the yearning of our first reading and every human heart for peace and security (Mic 5:1-4); Elizabeth knows that the child she carries will be the last prophet to point Him out. So their question becomes: how could we not sing with joy, knowing what has come to pass?

Indeed arguably this kind of joy is not just parallel to sorrow but designed for it and only experienced amidst it. We only see the glory of the stars against a black background. The Good Shepherd is for the lost sheep, the divine Physician for the hurting soul, the Light not just in darkness but for it. The lustre of stars is only seen when there’s a dark background. As the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a hurting friend: “Celebrate Christmas in the devout feeling that perhaps God needs this very anguish of yours as his starting point.”

: What’s more, as both Mary and Elizabeth are filled with the Holy Spirit, it is clear they are not just “grinning and bearing” it or generating joy by some act of the will. No, their joy does not originate within them: it is a spiritual gift, God’s Christmas present as it were.

So Christians are realists not rosy-eyed optimists or bleak-minded pessimists: we are not into romanticisation or pretence, denial or exaggeration. If things are ugly we acknowledge it, name it, do something about it. Like Snoopy in the comic strip looking downcast after Lucy’s admonition, we also experience the joy of Christmas washing over our troubles. No ordinary natural pleasure this, but spiritual joy, most needed, most appreciated, when we are most troubled—the experience of God pointing our hearts and minds onwards and upwards, that ability to go beyond we call “transcendence”.

After nearly two years of disruption we need such go-beyonding.  Study after study have concluded that Australians are less concerned about the physical effects than they are about the emotional and spiritual effects of the pandemic and lockdowns,[iii] that they’ve been thinking much more about the meaning of life and their own mortality,[iv] having more spiritual conversations,[v] and praying more to help them get through.[vi] They even say they’re now more likely regularly to attend worship than they were prior to COVID: let’s hope![vii]

Which proves that after all we’ve been through what we most need is spiritual joy: we need Christmas. Today we join Elizabeth and Mary in singing songs of joy, not because there’s nothing to dread and fear but because we appreciate the even greater reality that “the Almighty has done great things” for us and “His mercy is for every age for those who revere Him!”


St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the 4th Sunday of Advent—that time when we look back to Christ’s first appearing in Bethlehem two millennia ago, look forward to His return at the end of time, and look now to His coming to us in the little Advents of our own lives and deaths.

I am pleased to say that previous requirements around density, masks and singing have been lifted, just in time for Christmas. We must hope and pray that things stay like that and that there is no further cause for alarm or restrictions. To be able to receive all comers at Christmas is very consoling, as are the returns of our excellent choir and of the Lights of Christmas display on the façade of the cathedral each night from 8:30pm.

In our Gospel the newly-pregnant Mary makes her way to her aunt Elizabeth’s house to celebrate with her the incarnation of Jesus and the conception of John the Baptist. Like St Elizabeth we might wonder who are we to be visited by Our Lord in every Mass and in a special way at Christmas. When John is full-grown he will call all Israel to repentance, so before our altar and our Advent wreath we repent of our sins…

[i]      Charles Schulz, “A Visit with Charles Schulz, ”Christian Herald Vol. 90, no. 9 (September 1967), p. 62

[ii]     The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, ed. And trans. Alexander Dru (London: OUP, 1938), p. 363

[iii]     Natasha Bita, “New poll reveals what’s scaring Australians more than the Covid-19 pandemic,” Daily Telegraph 31 August 2021.

[iv]     McCrindle Research, Australia’s Changing Spiritual Climate (McCrindle/City Infield, October 2021); McCrindle Research, The Future of the Church in Australia (McCrindle, 2020), pp. 15f; John Sandeman, “One in three Australians are thinking more about God as a result of the pandemic,” Eternity 22 October 2021; Anna Patty, “The meaning of life: Australians praying more during COVID-19,” Sydney Morning Herald 23 August 2020; Kim Wilkinson, “Pandemic Causing an increase in spiritual openness amongst Australians,” Rhema 99.7 https://rhemafm.com.au/pandemic-causing-an-increase-in-spiritual-openness-amongst-australians/.

[v]     Rebecca Abbott, “Aussies more open to spiritual conversations through COVID,” Eternity 1 April 2021 https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/aussies-more-open-to-spiritual-conversations-through-covid/amp/

[vi]    Dr Ruth Powell reported in Jewel Topsfield, “The search for belonging: Is COVID making us turn to religion?” The Age 16 July 2021; McCrindle Research, Australia’s Changing Spiritual Climate.

[vii]   Roy Morgan Polls, “COVID-19 pandemic leads to more Australians regularly attending their place of worship: Research finding No. 8824,” Roy Morgan 18 October 2021.