It has been suggested that the number of Christmas Cards in circulation this year is down on previous years. Apparently more people now send greetings electronically. The currency of the traditional Christmas greeting risks being obliterated or at best certainly devalued. Despite the advances in digital technology, even the sending of text messages, nothing beats the handwritten personal greeting. Now my experience here at Bishops House, Carlow in Christmas 2014 is that there is a very heavy volume of post arriving, and I want to thank all of you for your very kind greetings, blessings and good wishes. Historically, I’m told, the first Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London back in 1843.

In sending a Christmas Card I always have a preference for the religious themed card, particularly the ones that support the Divine Word Missionaries, the Kiltegan Fathers or the Mouth and Foot Painting artists. I’m noticing more and more home produced cards and greetings arriving and they are all so personal and so welcome. Amusing ones also come through the letterbox, such as the many that make playful fun around the theme of the three Wise Men … what if they were three Wise Women! Maybe the cleverest is around Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar gift laden, standing at a motorway sign and reading the directions: Galilee Town Centre A412; Bethlehem A34 and The Baby Jesus B376 and Balthasar pointing to the Motorway exclaims: “It’s a Sign”!

Since that first card back in 1843, many groups, charities and organisations have entered the Christmas Card market and benefitted no little amount over the years! It’s great to support a good cause when you buy or send a card, and there are so many causes that need our attention and support as Christmas approaches and a New Year dawns. I think today of Pope Francis’ visit to Bethlehem and the Holy Land in May earlier this year. It was a particularly moving moment when he stopped his motorcade between scheduled events in Bethlehem to pray before the massive concrete separation barrier that divides the Palestinian City from Israel. With Pope Francis it’s always the asides, the ‘off the cuff’ remarks, the sudden stop offs that make huge impact. I reflect on my own visit to the Holy Land last January as part of a delegation of Bishops and Church Aid workers, including our friends from Trócaire. The overnight visit to Gaza will remain with me for a long time to come. I took a picture of that horrendous concrete wall and allowed the picture to be my computer screensaver for a good period of the year. If only those living there could switch on and off the wall image as easily. 

It’s important in a year when the focus on the family became very central with the recent synod and next year’s follow up synod, that at this time of Christmas we are acutely aware of families who are victims of war and violence. We include a special prayer for recent victims of family violence in the Cairns, Australia and the young schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan. We remember the displaced Christian families in Iraq and Syria, all the ‘children of Abraham’ who do not have the familiar sounds, smells and traditions, not to mention Christmas Cards that we associate with Christmas. They left their homeland, often to be resettled amongst us with nothing but the clothes on their back; today their crib figures gather dust in their attics.

I’m aware that the focus for many of you in the coming days will be on your Parish Church, where those crib figures are much larger than those at home. I think of those who are a year older in the family and who will be bringing their younger siblings to look on Him born in the manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. I’m equally conscious that there are many who struggle for many reasons here in our country and in our diocese. I applaud those who volunteer to address those struggles. Christmas focuses on the gift of Christ’s presence amongst us. May we experience Christ’s presence in a deep and profound way in 2015. As we focused on the empty manger in recent days in our newly erected cribs in churches and homes, may we be equally challenged by the Christ born in that manger, but rooted in our hearts this Christmas morning. I’m delighted to wish each of you a happy and holy Christmas and every blessing for 2015.