Bethlehem: The reckless generosity of God

Fr Kevin O’Gorman SMA preached the following homily at the Christmas Day Mass in the SMA House, Wilton, Cork. Though the Christmas celebrations are now behind us, his words are relevant for every day of the year.

Asked about the best theologian I have heard I surprised the questioner by answering, ‘An anonymous child’. This was not a politically correct appeal to the Gospel passage about Jesus’ assertion of the primacy of a child’s place in the Kingdom of God. About twenty years ago as it was getting dark on Christmas day I went to the local church. A couple entered with their little boy who wandered around for a while and after his mother’s cajoling eventually came to stand at the crib. He climbed onto the pew that was placed at the front of the crib. The scene before him was familiar, animals in the surrounding countryside, a couple like his parents, a child in a makeshift cot perhaps reminding him of a photo of himself as a baby. The star and angels would have been seasonal to his sight as the carols being piped were to his hearing. Silent for a few moments he suddenly asked for all to hear ‘But where is holy God?’ Inspecting a scene so seemingly human and natural he was in fact viewing what Gerald Manley Hopkins called ‘God’s infinity dwindled to infancy’. The child’s inquiry goes to the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation, pronounced today in the Gospel – ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’.    

This incident calls to mind a passage from Frank O’Connor’s autobiography: ‘One Christmas Santa Claus brought me a toy engine. As it was the only present I had received, I took it with me to the convent, and played with it on the floor while Mother and “the old nuns” discussed old times. But it was a young nun who brought us in to see the crib. When I saw the Holy Child in the manger I was very distressed, because little as I had, he had nothing at all. For me it was fresh proof of the incompetence of Santa Claus – an elderly man who hadn’t even remembered to give the Infant Jesus a toy and who should have been retired long ago. I asked the young nun politely if the Holy Child didn’t like toys, and she replied composedly enough: “Oh, he does, but his mother is too poor to afford them”. That settled it. My mother was poor too, but at Christmas she at least managed to buy me something, even if it was only a box of crayons. I distinctly remember getting into the crib and putting the engine between his outstretched arms. I probably showed him how to wind it as well, because a small baby like that would not be clever enough to know. I remember too the tearful feeling of reckless generosity with which I left him there in the nightly darkness of the chapel, clutching my toy engine to his chest’.[1]

Entering into the lighted chapel, the child is immediately struck by the sight of the baby in the crib bereft of a Christmas present. There is no mention of the Magi and their munificent gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which anyway, in the child’s assessment, would not have amounted to anything useful or enjoyable. The vision of the baby in the darkness equipped not only with the toy engine but also the expertise to empower it, fires the child’s imagination for he is not giving from his surplus, as if he has had a surfeit of toys to play with or possessions to part with. Like the poverty-stricken widow, whom Jesus ‘happened to notice putting two small coins into the treasury’ (Luke 21:1-2), the child parts with all he had to play with, a cost considerably higher for an only child. Applauding the innocence of his intervention to redeem the ineptitude, indeed inequality of Santa Claus, the child’s sacrifice of his toy engine is more than an example of and exhortation to Christmas charity. Through the child’s effort and example we enter into the mystery of the God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3:16).

God’s revelation is received through relatedness as today’s readings record. For the anonymous author of Hebrews, God has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is’. These are indeed ‘the last days’ for the Father’s Word is spoken and it is final. For the beloved disciple behind the fourth Gospel this Word is ‘the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. It is he ‘the only Son who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

In his Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World), Pope Paul VI proclaimed that ‘during the Synod [1974] the Bishops very frequently referred to this truth: Jesus himself, the Good News of God, was the very first and the greatest evangelizer; he was so through and through: to perfection and to the point of the sacrifice of his earthly life’.

The fact of the Incarnation is the foundation for evangelisation; there would be no evangelisation without the entry of the Word of God into the world. Jesus reveals and represents the ‘reckless generosity’ of God, not without shedding tears over Jerusalem and his blood on the cross there. Situated somewhere between the child who asks ‘where is holy God’ and the child who sacrifices his treasured toy to the Holy Infant we sense, in this season of memories times of tenderness and togetherness, above all the gratitude of being evangelisers in the church on earth and the hope – as the concluding blessing states – of being ‘sharers with the church in heaven’.

Fr Kevin O’Gorman SMA, December 2021




[1] Frank O’Connor, An Only Child (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1965), 136-137.

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