Christmas Hope and Hospitality


Next weekend will be an especially busy time in our churches. With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, there are two holy days of obligation in a row. This arrangement also causes some confusion in parishes that regularly have a Saturday evening Vigil Mass. According to the Ordo, if there is an evening Mass on December 25th, it should be the Mass of Christmas Day, not of the Holy Family. And not even Good King Wenceslas can save the feast of St Stephen this year!
As we are well aware, many people who are not part of the regular Sunday worshipping community attend Mass at Christmas. We can view this phenomenon in one of two ways: as an annoyance because these ‘hardy annuals’ fill up the parking area and sit in ‘our’ pew, or as an opportunity to reach out to those outside our normal parish circle.
A parish can help make Christmas visitors feel welcome and included by having hospitality ministers at the church doors to greet people as they arrive, providing service sheets for those who are unfamiliar with the Mass, rehearsing the sung responses before Mass begins, and handing out leaflets to visitors with information about regular parish activities, services and contact people.
Every one of us can practise hospitality at Christmas, and all during the year, by introducing ourselves to strangers, offering a visitor a newsletter or hymnbook, helping with a restless toddler (instead of frowning!), offering someone a lift home, and participating enthusiastically in the Mass as a way of encouraging others to do so.
At the first Christmas, God came among us as a baby born in poor circumstances to people of no importance. Maybe God is still to be found in such a situation. We’ll never know if we never go there!
Apart from a warm welcome, what else will our Christmas liturgies offer visitors that might bring them back for more before next Christmas? If it is only nativity plays and lovely carols, nostalgia and pretend, that we provide, then others can do that as well as, if not better than, the average parish church.
How appropriate and relevant, for example, are the words some of our popular Christmas hymns to the situation of people living in Australia in the twenty-first century? Why do we keep singing carols with phrases like ‘where the snow lay round about’ and ‘on a cold winter’s night’ in preference to Australian carols like this one by John Wheeler and William Garnet James?
The north wind is tossing the leaves,
the red dust is over the town,
the sparrows are under the eaves
and the grass in the paddock is brown,
as we lift up our voices and sing
to the Christ-child, the heavenly King.

As Christians, we have a real word of hope that so many in this world are longing to hear: that God became one of us and remains with us. Jesus did not remain a helpless infant, but grew up, lived and died and rose again, and, most importantly, is still Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, here and now, in the reality of our everyday lives.

Elizabeth Harrington