A huge wave of optimism was brought about by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century: freedom, reason and scientific technology would signal the end of God and religion. Such optimism was dashed with the advent of two World Wars.
Religion and the search for spiritual enlightenment in myriad forms are not only alive and well but growing. This over-confidence in reason and scientific technology reflect the optimism and power of a man, Caesar Augustus, who, two thousand years earlier, dared decree that “a census of the whole world be taken”.
Challenging this world view, St Luke presents in his infancy narrative a reflection on a philosophy of power, two different types of power – worldly power versus divine power, the power of unrelenting independence versus the power of total vulnerability, the power of a throne versus the power of a manger’s crib, the power of public recognition of authority versus the power of a mundane birth.
Today we see a new type of power emerging with the rise of information technology and bioengineering, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data algorithms. Again we think that God and the Christ-Child will be eclipsed, maybe even rendered irrelevant.
The Christmas story reminds us this will not happen, cannot happen. Why? Because of the human propensity for something deeper – a sense of family, human bondedness, a simpler way of living and communion with nature.
Mary and Joseph were poor but they had each other in the unfamiliar town of Bethlehem; the inn was full but the compassion felt by the innkeeper ironically granted them the best place to have a baby – the manger; in their poverty the couple made do with the animals’ feeding trough thereby revealing that the mystery of the Incarnation went beyond human concerns to the world of nature.
We in no way doubt the advantages modern technologies bring and their capacity to enhance global well-being on many levels. Yet the modern era is characterised by increasing isolation and loneliness; heightened levels of depression and suicide.
Scholars in this field have noted that while the virtual community brings people together, it cannot replace the warmth generated by flesh and blood encounters that exists in a parish.
Yet here is where we are weak, and much work needs to be done. At parish discussions of the Draft Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan parishioners repeatedly said that parishes lack warmth and hospitality. Many who have left the Church say they found it in the evangelical churches.
As parishioners we need to be more connected with our people or we will continue to lose them. We need to visit our sick, engage our youth, comfort those who are grieving, offer concrete assistance to those who have lost jobs, and go looking for the lost sheep.
In today’s gospel the shepherds are told: “Today a saviour has been born to you.” We celebrate Christmas not simply by going to Mass but making people feel they have “saviours”, first Jesus and then us. This is both a power and empowerment.
Let us use that power. Spend less on material gifts this Christmas and more time improving the quality of family bonds and neighbourliness.