‘A child can be where God is most present’

Bishop McKeown.
Bishop McKeown.

Bishop Of Derry Dr Donal McKeown has said that a child can be the place where God is most present, as he delivered his Christmas message.

Bishop McKeown said that while Christmas events were “etched in most people’s minds – even if they aren’t regular church-goers”, it was not a “series of cute vignettes” but “part of a larger story about who we are”.

He said: “Over Christmas, we will watch many films – real, animated and increasingly with computer generated images. We can end up crying or getting angry at the box in the corner, because of what we call the willing suspension of disbelief. We pretend that what we see on the screen is real and are drawn into it.

“Christmas Mass and the crib can be in that category. It is cute and the adults can pretend we do it only for the children. The whole experience can portray the narrative as a sort of holy Mary Poppins film. Lovely but just a distraction from reality. Good for a sing-along but quickly forgotten.

“The Christmas liturgy is not asking for a willing suspension of disbelief but asking whether we actually believe in something. What does this story tell us, and what do we tell the children? Will this Christmas just be relegated to the junk room of your personal history, just a memory like a good night out, pleasant but ultimately meaningless?

“When you go to the crib, let Mary tell you ‘This is real’. Christmas is a story written by adults for adults. There is a good story to be told about the world.”

He added that Christmas is not just a “statement that God exists, somewhere, out there, making a list of our misdemeanours”, but is “with you in the messiness of your life, in the smelly stables of this country”.

“Despite the nice story and the clean bright angels, this is an uncomfortable picture of God, not floating around in heaven, but in the midst of poverty, failure, neglect, abuse, in a stable, while the hotels were full of those who could not recognise him.”

Bishop McKeown also spoke out about the “modern demotion of God to the margins”, in which he said the wishes of the adult “have become quasi-divine and assumed to be infallible”.

“A want has become a need; I want to, therefore I have the right to have; I am the author of good and evil, it is right for me; Don’t criticise my choices.

“Little Jesus tells us that the baby is precious beyond measure, that the comfort and wishes of the adult are not everything, that the awkward little inconvenient child can be the place where God is most present. King Herod will try to kill the child and sacrifice others to suit himself. Too many children and adults are sacrificed to suit the powerful.

“When you go to the crib, let Mary tell you, ‘love life, protect family – even when it is imperfect, God is often especially present in the awkward little ones. Love the child and let the child of Bethlehem love the hurting child in you.’

“I hope you can savour Christmas with all its joys and pains. Give thanks for the good things. Where there are problems, remember, Jesus faced them too from the first moments of his life. God is in the midst of the embarrassing pregnancy, the rejection by the crowd and the persecution by a powerful tyrant.”