Christmas came early for me this year. On November 23rd, just over a month ago, the real meaning of Christmas hit me. Flashed across our TV screens and printed in our newspapers on that day was the fact that a newborn baby had been found abandoned in the manger of a newly built Christmas crib in a New York church. The priest who was working on the crib said that all was quiet when he went to lunch and on his return he heard the cries of a baby coming from the manger. On the following day, the mother of the child was found. She was eighteen years old. She had just come from Mexico and she had no one to turn to when her labour began. Once the baby boy was born she noticed his lips turning purple. She rushed to a store where she bought a towel in which she wrapped him and then went to the nearest open church, where she laid him in the manger. She told reporters;” I knew if I left him in God’s hands, he would be ok”.
All the elements of the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus were present in this birth a month ago; his mother on a journey, lacking the comfort of a home or a hospital; no place to lay him except in the manger of a crib which had just been built for the celebration of this Christmas; no clothes in which to wrap him but a towel which she bought in haste. And most importantly, the open door of a Catholic church in which she was able to lay him in safety, knowing that he would be found.
When the priest was commenting on what happened he made the point that he always tries to keep the door of the church open. And it was that open door policy of his that allowed that mother to place her child in safety and warmth in the manger of that church. On this Christmas night, in the Year of Mercy which has just begun in the Catholic Church let me share with you some thoughts on what might be called ‘an open door policy’ in the Church, inspired as it is by Pope Francis.
An open door is a sign that everyone who comes to the door is welcome to enter. It says much the same as the light in the window which Mary Robinson made famous while she was President of Ireland. The Door of Mercy in this Cathedral, which was opened twelve days ago and which will remain open until next November, says to us, in particular, that everyone is welcome in the Church and should feel at home here. You will remember the scene in the Gospel where one day, when Jesus was asked where he lived by someone he casually met on a road in Judea; “Come and see, he replied; so they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him the rest of the day.” (Jn 1. 38-39). The open Door of Mercy makes this invitation of Jesus real for us today. It is as if he is saying to us; ‘why don’t you come in, see where I live and stay for a while. No pressure. You are most welcome.’
By making this year a Year of Mercy Pope Francis is also saying to each one of us; no matter how long it is since you were inside a church; no matter how far removed from the Church you feel yourself to be; no matter how unworthy you think you are, you are most welcome. Furthermore, he is saying to us that, no matter how far removed from the experience of everyday life it seems to be, it is in a church, in this cathedral, we will find the mercy of God. He said; “It is indeed my wish that the Jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened” (Letter to Archbishop Fisichella)
The phrase which speaks volumes to me is that last one, where the Pope talks of ‘of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible’. A month ago, when the baby was found in the manger of a New York church, there was no sign of the father. I think a lot of people feel that same absence nowadays with regard to God, the Father. The image we have of him is that of the old man with the great grey beard; distant and staring down at us. When I watch Gay Byrne’s program, The Meaning of Life, I notice that very often people of faith will say that they are spiritual, that they have a sense of God but no deep relationship with him. The notion that the tenderness of God the Father is almost tangible, that you can almost touch it, seems distant from their faith experience. But for the Pope, it is as if God the Father is a young father holding his small baby close to chest; filled with the joy of having become a father.
And this is what happened on that first Christmas. Mary became a mother. Joseph became a father and God became one of us in the form of a baby; a baby you could touch, hold, talk to and admire. In that sense, what the Pope says is true; Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and eventually the three Wise Men were all able to feel ‘the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible’. My prayer for each of us is that during this Year of Mercy and especially during these days of Christmas, each of us, in our own tin pot ways, may experience the closeness of God to us; a God whose tenderness is almost tangible.