By Andrew Hamilton, SJ
Each Christmas morning I celebrate Mass at Melbourne's Ozanam House with homeless men, and later with people imprisoned at the Immigration Detention Centre. Each mass makes me ask why they would want to celebrate Christmas. And each highlights for me the difference between our cultural celebration of Christmas and its Christian roots.
In our Australian Christmas we celebrate family, buying, gift giving and receiving, food and drink, children and holidaying. This secular celebration is good. It reminds us that we do not live in order to work, that holidays and leisure are good, that family life is important, indeed central, that sharing food and drink is a precious thing to do, that giving is better than receiving, that children are our future and their dreams precious.
All these things are central in Christian living. Their weakness is that they cannot bear a heavy weight. They are good in fine weather but do not provide shelter in stormy times. People who have been shipwrecked get tangled and drown in their memories of earlier Christmases.
At Ozanam House and the Detention Centre I begin Mass by acknowledging that for most of those present Christmas is a lousy time. It reminds people who are homeless and have been separated from their families of the hopes they had for life and now have lost, of the children from whom they are alienated, of the gifts they no longer give or receive and of the feasting for which they lack money. People seeking protection in Australia know that Christmas is a feast from which they have been deliberately shut out.
Of course, many more people find Christmas a hard time. Those who have recently lost or are separated from family members contrast the joys of Christmases past with the emptiness they now feel. Others whose families hang together can also experience it as bitter-sweet. Between the high expectations and the messy reality of Christmas there is a large and painful gap.
The Gospel stories of Jesus' birth take us deeper. They lay a foundation that can bear great weight, including the kinds of disruption that might stop us from celebrating. In Luke's Gospel Mary and Joseph are temporarily homeless. Mary, who is expecting a child imminently, has to walk for many days to a taxation census. In Matthew's Gospel her pregnancy has tested her relationship with Joseph: before the angel ordered him otherwise he had decided to divorce her quietly. They can find no house for the birth and have to resort to a paddock, and are surrounded, not by family, but by a mob of disreputable shepherds. And immediately after the birth they have to flee in terror from Herod's soldiers who were sent to kill their child. The story of Jesus' birth put a heavy burden on all those involved in it.
It bore that weight because it promised companionship and hope. At its heart is the conviction that God has chosen to join us in all the discontents, disasters and disruptions of our life. No matter into what straits our lives take us we are never alone, nor is our journey ever meaningless or unaccompanied. God wants to be with shepherds, babies killed by Herod, the family of a hunted child. No matter how isolated and abandoned we may be, none of us is ever alone. That is the strong and consoling message of Christmas wherever our lives may have beached us.
Andrew Hamilton is a consulting editor at Jesuit Communications.