Most bishops remain quiet most of the year, but come Christmas time seem suddenly filled with the urge to issue a Christmas ‘message,’ a message that might be posted on their diocesan website and sent to RTE and even, if they are lucky, provide a quote that will appear in the Irish times. The content is generally anodyne, something that will please everyone in the audience, but occasionally there are words that provoke questions. In today’s ‘Irish Times’, Patsy McGarry writes:
Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson recalled that “the first Christmas began in hastily improvised circumstances on the edge of a little town. Those who met God and greeted God were in so many ways outsiders to the social hierarchies and privileges of their day”.
“It is always the challenge of the Gospel to the disciples of this same God incarnate to embrace those who are today’s outsiders, whatever their circumstances.”
Is that really the challenge, to embrace outsiders? Is that what the Gospel is about? Isn’t it something infinitely more radical than being kind to those who are not like us? Isn’t it about becoming outsiders ourselves in order to stand with people? Isn’t that what the incarnation is about?
The Gospel is about God standing in solidarity with his people, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Jesus doesn’t stand to the side to open his arms to whoever might come along, he stands in the middle of humanity so that no-one would feel an outsider in his presence.
Even to speak of ‘outsiders’ is to confess that the church has failed to be the Body of Christ, that it has failed to stand in solidarity, that it has preferred to exist at a remove from those whom Jesus came to save. To suggest that we may need to embrace those whom we may regard as ‘outsiders’, suggests that we regard ourselves as ‘insiders’, that there are people in need of our generosity, instead of that there are people to whom we, in humility, belong.
The strongest churches are those who live in such a way that there are no ‘outsiders’, church and community are one; to be in the community is to find the solidarity of the church in one’s daily life, even if one never goes near it, and to be in the church assumes that one accepts the obligations of being a community member.