My dear brothers and sisters,
We have just inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Divine Mercy. Celebrating Christmas is truly a celebration of God’s mercy for humanity. We were once living like orphans in exile, without knowing our true identity and our destiny.
As St Paul wrote in his letter to Titus, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)
Indeed, the great joy of Christmas is that God who has always been invoked as a God of mercy, even among other monotheistic religions, has now come to us in person to show us His divine mercy, not because we deserve His grace but purely out of His mercy and compassion.
This is what the author of the letter of Hebrews wrote, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom He also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and He sustains all things by His powerful word.” (Heb 1:1-3)
Indeed, through Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection, God in His divine mercy has shown us how much He loves us even to the extent of emptying Himself in assuming our humanity.
Jesus’ birth is just the beginning of the manifestation of God’s mercy. The cause of our celebration is in view of His death and resurrection, for it is His paschal mystery that we come to discover His true identity as true God and true man.
The second person of the Trinity became man by emptying Himself of His divinity at the Incarnation so that He could once again empty Himself of His humanity at the passion. The divine mercy of God is therefore one of self-emptying. He is identified with us in all things except sin.
Hence, the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:15f)
Truly, Jesus shares with us all our pain, suffering, and even the consequences of sins. “For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
St Peter wrote in a similar vein, “When He was abused, He did not return abuse; when He suffered, He did not threaten; but He entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pt 2:23f)
And St Matthew wrote, “That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Mt 8:16f). No one can accuse God and say that He does not understand what we are going through and how much we are suffering or hurting when we are sick or misunderstood or even unjustly treated.
Consequently, in the light of God’s mercy revealed in Christ as His incarnation, birth, life, passion, death and resurrection, we too are called to be channels of God’s mercy to others. Just as we have received mercy, we must now give mercy to our brothers and sisters.
The giving of gifts at Christmas is rooted in the giving of God Himself. With Christ, we want to empty ourselves for the service of others, by being identified with the poor, the suffering, those who are spiritually thirsty and or materially hungry. Most of all, we want to show our forgiveness to those who have hurt us and cheated us or even destroyed our family and reputation.
Today, sinners are waiting to be forgiven and reconciled, your ex-spouse, your children, your friends. We must go beyond the giving of material gifts at Christmas to the giving of ourselves, our resources, our time, our love and our forgiveness. Let us take the first step to reach out and be reconciled with our enemies and those who have hurt us. Let us move out of our comfort zones and attend to the wounded and bruised body of our Lord in the suffering of others.
Let us never forget that Christmas is always celebrated in view of His paschal mystery and ultimately His Second Coming. This explains why the gospel never gave us the exact date of His birth or even the exact year of His birth. In fact, Christmas was only celebrated in the 4th century. The older and more ancient feast celebrated prior to Christmas was the feast of Epiphany.
What matters for the Church is not the chronological event but the theological meaning of this Christ-event, which is the manifestation of God’s love and divine mercy. What is underscored is that Christ is the Light of the world. His first coming is celebrated only because we are awaiting His Second Coming at the end of time.
If we celebrate His first coming, it is in order that whilst waiting for His Second coming, our enthusiasm can be sustained by contemplating on the mercy of God in the birth of Christ. Christmas must not be misunderstood or celebrated as a sentimental, nostalgic celebration of the past, of the birth of the cute little baby Jesus. Rather, the liturgy of Christmas focuses on the Second Coming of Christ when He will be the King of the Universe and God will be all in all.
So to celebrate Christmas is to let His divine mercy be born in our hearts through the Spirit as we become the adopted sons and daughters in Christ. Then sharing in His paschal mystery as we give ourselves in complete selflessness and humility in the service of our fellowmen, we share in His resurrection.
Consequently, notwithstanding all the joys and rejoicing, let us not forget to let Christ be born again in our hearts in contemplative prayer and worship, just as Mary and the shepherds did. In our merry-making, we must not be so distracted and become so worldly that we do not have time to ponder over this event quietly and meaningfully.
We must not fall into the temptation of allowing the external celebrations and rejoicing to crowd out the objective of our celebration – the mercy and grace of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus. May you all have a holy and blessed Christmas!
Archbishop William Goh