Christmas has always been a time of joyous celebration in most parts of the world. It can be said to be the most universally celebrated religious and cultural event in the world. Because it has the mark of a festive celebration, the emphasis has been one of merry-making, lavish dinners, giving and receiving of gifts, dancing and music. To a great extent, Christmas has been commercialised by a consumeristic society, so much so it has been emptied of the religious element of this celebration. It is a birthday celebration without the presence of the birthday boy.
Ironically, Covid-19 will strip much of the external superficial celebration of this feast this Christmas. With physical distancing, the economic slowdown, people out of work and in financial difficulties, millions infected with the virus and thousands of loved ones dead in the pandemic, this Christmas will be very different. In the midst of all this bleakness, many of us will be forced to wonder where God is. For Christians, many of us will also be deprived of a joyous liturgical celebration where we can gather as the family of God to celebrate the birth of our Lord.
But all is not lost because Covid-19 will force us to go back to the first Christmas that was celebrated. Over the centuries, we have lost the true spirit of Christmas, which is about God who made Himself small so that we could approach Him in contemplation and in wonder. It is in our poverty, in our loneliness, in our suffering and in quiet contemplation that we will come to encounter the joy of God in our hearts when we hear anew the message the angel brought to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10f) If we believe this message, then our lives will be very different. God is with us in our suffering, pain, bereavement and in our loneliness. We will face this world with hope because the Lord is with us in our journey. He knows what we are going through.
Beyond encountering God in our loneliness, suffering and bereavement, this Christmas will put us in touch with the true spirit of Christmas, which is that of giving of oneself, especially to those who are suffering and deprived. We are called to reach out to those who are suffering, particularly those who are in financial difficulties, without jobs and without their loved ones, separated either by death or by physical distancing. We are called to be like God who came to be with us by giving His Son to us. We want to offer the world the possibility of seeing God incarnated in our lives. This is why the giving at Christmas is more than just humanitarian aid to those who are suffering but the ultimate gift of Jesus, the Gift of God, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Christian charity that falls short of showing them the face of Jesus and renewing their hope in God is deficient. It is our hope that through our practical love for them, they too will come to recognise that our gifts and capacity to give comes from our faith in Christ so that they will want to come to Him.
Finally, as we have just launched our Catholic Bicentennial celebration in our Archdiocese (Catholic200SG), we are called to go back to our roots when we celebrated the first Christmas in Singapore two hundred years ago. Then, the Church was an infant like the Baby Jesus. We were poor without proper medical facilities and education. But through the sacrifices of the foreign missionaries and in particular their social and humanitarian activities, they revealed the face of Christ to the poor, the suffering, the sick. As a result, so many were touched and were converted to the Lord because they heard the Gospel preached to them and lived out in their lives, like those of the MEP Fathers and religious congregations such as the Infant Jesus Sisters, the Canossians, the De La Salle Brothers and the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood. They never failed to proclaim Christ even as they carried out their social and charitable works, for they knew that salvation was not just saving our bodies but our souls as well. We too must recover the zeal of our first foreign missionaries who sacrificed their lives to come to Singapore to labour for us by being missionaries of love both in word and in deed.
It is with the Covid-19 pandemic and Catholic200SG in mind that we will recapture the true meaning of Christmas, which is encountering God’s love in Christ Jesus through silent contemplation and adoration of our Lord like the Magi and through our outreach to our brothers and sisters, especially those who are facing the difficulties of life alone. We must be cognizant of what matters. Not the tinkles, the jingles nor the bells. Christmas is present in our quiet contemplation, in our gratitude for the small things and kindnesses in life. Love, joy and peace are what the world needs more than the glitz and glamour of the false Christmas that does not last.
May God inspire you to recapture the true spirit of Christmas so that Christ can be born anew in your hearts, so that we can reveal the face of Jesus in us to those who have yet to encounter His love and mercy. Have a holy and blessed Christmas.
Yours devotedly in Christ,
Most Rev. William Goh
Archbishop of Singapore