It is always said that when one prays one should do so with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. As we approach the worship of Christmas 2012 and prepare to hear again the Gospel of peace and goodwill, we do so deeply conscious of recent events in our Irish society.
Two things seem to dominate the news these days. First, there is our continuing economic plight with its austerity budget and the overwhelming feeling that both our nation and many of its individual citizens are plagued by debt. Then there has also been the tragic episode of the death of a young woman in a hospital in Galway following miscarriage and the consequent and passionate debate surrounding the need for legislation to guide doctors in such harrowing situations.
Both the Galway tragedy and the economic crisis in their different ways raise the same question. How do we as a nation face the truth about ourselves? In the economic area we have in a realistic manner to face the consequences of our years of national greed, boom and recklessness. In the moral area we have to face (yet again) the reality that certain of our claims to a kind of national ethical purity are in many ways more illusory than real.
A Christmas message is not the place for detailed economic analysis or for thorough ethical reflection. However, I am sure I am not the only citizen who aspires to live in a state which honestly addresses the truth about itself, and which has the wisdom and the capacity not to hand over either its moral or economic sovereignty to others. For what should be a proud and independent nation, we almost take strange relief in the reality that our biggest problems can be sorted out for us by the troika, or by European courts, or by the laws of other jurisdictions. This suggests a head-in-the-sand attitude, a curious lack of confidence and courage when it comes to dealing with the truth.
The Christmas story is in fact very much a narrative concerning people who faced the truth about themselves. And not one of them found it an easy or an uncomplicated road.
Shepherds in the fields, often the stragglers and forgotten of society, learned anew how to look at their own work not as something to despise but as something which could provide a window on the deepest truths of life as they abandoned their sheep to view the Lamb of God. Wise men from afar had to take apart their assumption that wisdom and power were necessarily connected, and thus ask hard questions about where wisdom was to be found. Even Herod, the villain of the story, faced unpalatable truths about the nature of kingship that threw him into a frenzy.
All who view the crib at Christmas are similarly challenged to face the truth about themselves, to encounter the child who would grow up to be asked by Pontius Pilate only hours before he died – ‘What is truth?’ And when as a nation we corporately gaze at the manger, a similar encounter with truth disarmingly beckons. This is the child who would grow up to abominate humbug, to condemn hypocrisy more than any other vice, to epitomise the integrity of one always able to handle the truth about himself.
If this nation is to live in the mood set by Christmas, it must both economically and morally find responsible ways of dealing with the truth about itself. This may well be a painful and demanding journey, and it would be far easier to bury the challenge under the morning-after-Christmas pile of turkey bones, less than wanted gifts and tired tinsel. But let us face the supreme fact of the matter – we are dealing here with a Christ who shines a light into dark and difficult places and who, as the section of John’s Gospel always read at Christmas concludes, came among us ‘full of grace and truth.’
Does Jesus come full of truth to an Ireland willing to be equally full of truth about itself, resolved to have done with hypocrisy and illusion? Does the celebration of his coming increase our conviction that it is the truth that sets us free? One can but hope that as we approach the centenaries of the great formative events in the life of our State, we will yet emerge from our economic doldrums into a society renewed by its capacity to face and indeed to woo the Truth.