As we move towards Christmas, many people will make their travelling arrangements in anticipation of being reunited with friends and family. For many this will not be possible for a variety of reasons, on-going conflict and war, financial constraints and homelessness.
When we read Luke’s Gospel, we learn of perhaps the most important journey made in human history as Mary and Joseph made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem responding to a decree from Caesar Augustus for a census to be taken. Mary with child and Joseph by her side must have found the journey challenging and even treacherous. We know today that the journey and the event which took place in Bethlehem were to change the world forever. The reaction from the shepherds as presented in the gospel account brings all of us into that powerful moment.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified but the angel said ‘Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.’”
I recall a significant personal journey on a bitterly cold winter’s evening, the 9th December 1979. As a family, mother, father with two children (a three year old, a two year old and another baby on the way), left the old farmhouse we had rented for three and a half years. We were moving to our new home. The project which took several years to reach completion could well have been described as self-build! We had harnessed the skills of friends and family particularly my father-in-law, Granda Barney, to undertake the work. Not only did he transport us that evening in his van with our few belongings but his craft and skills had helped provide us with a permanent home. A carpenter by trade, he attended to all the joinery work and provided it with such goodness and grace which we still appreciate to this day. In many ways Granda Barney was the St. Joseph in our lives, patient, dedicated, steadfast and kind.
It would be some time before furnishings, curtains and carpet would add necessary warmth to our new home as we came to terms with the cold and the cement floors. On the Sunday before Christmas my mother arrived with some welcome gifts. One in particular still takes pride of place in our home every Christmas – the Crib! She presented us with a set of figures made of a plastic type material which were to make up our crib. Small as the figures were, they conveyed with moving simplicity the events of that first Christmas when Christ was born in Bethlehem. Initially the figures were placed in a shoe box. In later years thanks to another Barney – a highly regarded technician in my school, we had a structure (a proper crib) with a small interior light. The light brought a special radiance to all the figures; the Christ Child asleep in the manger with arms outstretched; the serenity and love on the Virgin Mary’s face as she looked down at her son; Joseph, staff in hand by her side and the shepherds gazing in wonder at the sight before their eyes.
Over the years as our children grew up- all five of them, placing and arranging the figures in the crib became part of the ritual in preparing for Christmas. Occasionally it also caused disputes and disagreements as to how the figures should be arranged. It was always the job of the youngest to have the privilege of placing the Baby Jesus. As I reflect on the forty three years since we first created our family crib and the blessings which have been bestowed on us as a family, I thank God for the gifts we have received.
We are so often told that families are at the heart of Christmas. Many will make the journey to be together this year. However for others Christmas will bring memories of different times as they ponder the loss of loved ones. We reflect on the grace and goodness of the many who made Christmas special in the past. May the grace and goodness of that first Christmas reign in our hearts and homes this year.
Celine McKenna is the Chairperson of the Derry Diocesan Education Committee and retired principal of Saint Mary’s School, Limavady.