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May Mary carry us into the New Year with hearts open to all that awaits

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS reflects this holy season on the challenges ahead in 2018 — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

The oddity of this year’s liturgical calendar means that the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve are jockeying for position on the same day. Although both fall on December 24, there are no ‘double dividends’ when it comes to fulfilling the Sunday and Christmas obligation and folk will just have to step up to the plate.

Speaking of ‘the plate,’ those two collections are also very important for paying the Yuletide gas bill, so there should be no half measures there either!

Having said that, I imagine that most people will be splendidly unfussed about what seems very important to us clergy but not quite so pressing for a young family who have to make sure the kids are in bed in plenty of time for Santa.

It so happens that I am in bed just now: not in super anticipation of a visit from Mr Claus, but due to another annual visitor who always seems to call at this time of year—my Christmas cold. In truth, it’s come a little early this year and driven a coach and horses, or sleigh and reindeer, through my Advent programme.

Although I’ve dragged myself up for Mass, I’ve had to miss my star turn at the hospice carol service, confessions in the high school, and their Christmas show as well.

As if I didn’t feel miserable enough already, my senses were further assailed by the sight of Fr Gerry McNellis, parish priest of Gourock, usurping my position at the podium. That gave me a setback, let m tell you.

If I’m being honest, though, it’s great that there is someone else to step in and do your bit when you’re under the weather. The fact is, however, that the diminishing ranks of clergy make it harder to get cover in unforeseen eventualities such as sickness, and not all that much easier for planned absences such as holidays or retreats.

This is a cause of additional stress for most priests and makes it more likely that they will play down ailments or get someone to prop them up at the altar rather than cause disruption to the provision of Mass and the Sacraments.

So, while for lots of those coming through the Church doors for their yearly visit a parish priest might just be for Christmas, he needs to be there for everyone else for the rest of the year and you’d miss him if he weren’t. Or at least I hope you would!

Another aspect of the crammed last week of Advent has been the earlier than usual appearance of the crib, assembled by our team of stalwarts after the evening Mass last Sunday. This was to accommodate the primary school’s traditional preparation of the crib on the last day of school, as they brought forward the figures to the accompaniment of carols and brief meditations.

It never ceases to amaze me, in this high-tech age, how something so simple as the crib excites such wonder in our youngest parishioners. Having said that, I remember one Christmas morning overhearing one wee boy in Clarkston who had asked his parents for a pound to put in the box in front of the crib.

While this was actually for donations to the St Margaret’s Adoption Society, he thought it was some sort of coin-operated ‘animatronic’ display.

He dropped in his coin and waited. And waited. After a while he turned to his dad and said: “There’s nothing happening.” To be fair, the sky rotated, though the figures remained unmoved.

Although he was clearly disappointed, it is one of the strengths of the crib that it doesn’t move—even if the original nativity scene arranged by St Francis had living and breathing actors and animals.

Our lowly stables become something of a three-dimensional tableau before which we come, not as ­spectators, but as witnesses to a great truth: “That God was man in Palestine, And lives today in bread and wine” (Christmas, by John Betjeman).

Betjeman’s alludes to the link between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Indeed, Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew: the manger is, in a sense, the first tabernacle.

Christmas draws our gaze to the crib, but then, of necessity, directs outwards to the world around us. This Christmas I am ever more aware of those who find themselves without the means not just to celebrate Christmas but to make ends meet on a regular basis.

Over the past year in particular, I am struck by the extent to which the presbytery has become a ‘house of bread’ for those who come looking for food, or money or some other practical assistance from the Church. If I cannot give it directly, then the Society of St Vincent de Paul can usually help and, as I have mentioned in recent columns, the parishioners themselves have been so generous with food bank donations and gifts for the Giving Tree.

This column is a ‘politics free zone,’ so I will not comment or speculate on the underlying causes of this rise in the numbers of those needing assistance. Suffice to say that, while there have been people who seem to fall between the gaps in our society, those gaps seem to have become a little bigger of late. It’s good to remember that the Christ child is born among those people of the gaps; of those uncertain of shelter; of those of slender means.

In truth, there is very little sentimentality in the scene we encounter in the crib: each of us stands before it, a little parcel of hopes and fears. I have frustrated my family in the run up to Christmas when they have asked ‘what do you want?’ I’ve ‘hummed and hawed’ over an answer because I really don’t need anything.

Of course, it might be a little glib of me to say I’d like a happier New Year for everyone: in many respects it’s not been the easiest of years for my family, and many good people in the parish have been put through the mill this year. I myself have not been immune to the odd knock or two in 2017 and, as a result, I think many of us find ourselves a little tired, a little anxious or uncertain about what the future holds.

The Church, in her considerable wisdom, arranges the transition from the Old Year to the New under the protecting mantle of the Mother of God.

She shows us that a pondering heart need not be a ponderous or heavy one. Mary gives us an example of obedience to that command to be unafraid in the face of all that is asked of us. May she carry us into 2018 with hearts open and ready for the graces and the challenges that await us.

I will sign off for this year, wishing you and your loved ones a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year. Jasmine and I will be having some ‘down time’ with the family, since this bumper double issue of the Observer gives us a week off! So, it’ll soon be time for us both to don our festive jumpers and tuck in to the tasty treats which Santa and the good folk of the Bow have brought to us in ­celebration of the Lord’s birth: Gloria in excelsis Deo!


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