In this intense meditation, Card. George Pell speaks of his Christmas in prison, without Mass and without the Eucharist. Prayer for those in prison for a just punishment, or because they are persecuted from a religious or social point of view. Christmas is the exaltation of the monotheism of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, but only the latter celebrates Emmanuel, God with us. The wheel of eternal return is broken and Jesus indicates the end of time, "in heaven, where there are no prisons, no prisoners, no Covid".
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Covid19 has brought disease and death to the world during the last year (but not as many as we had feared), almost stopped international travel, damaged and diminished business activity. So we are celebrating Christmas this year at a bad time, although it is not the worst of times. We have no World War raging, no great famines, and we have these new vaccines which promise that the disease can be curbed and controlled.
This year things are better for me. In this isolation and confusion, I am going against the trend because I spent last Christmas in jail in Melbourne, Australia for sex-crimes I did not commit. I was unable to celebrate Mass during my 404 days in two prisons, receiving Holy Communion only once a week from a wonderful nun who co-ordinated the Catholic chaplaincy team. I was not able to receive on Christmas Day, which was marked by some good Christmas food in the English style of turkey and plum pudding, and I was able to wish the warders ‘Happy Christmas’.
Otherwise it was simply another day in jail, from which I could escape only through my imagination, or my reading, or the Christmas religious TV programmes and entertainment.
From an early age I have loved Christmas carols, not just listening but the community singing “O Come all ye faithful” and the German hymn “Silent Night” were my childhood favourites, although for me “O Holy Night” now tops the list. While I was able to watch the “Carols by Candlelight” on the television last Christmas, I was unable to hear or see the two choirs made up of supporters (one a Vietnamese group) which gathered outside the jail to sing our favourite Christmas hymns. I am not sure whether many, or any of the prisoners could hear them, which was doubly unfortunate.
So from the freedom of Rome, which is sadly empty of pilgrims, at this Christmas time I think especially of those who are in jail, separated from their loved ones; whether they are in jail for a just punishment or jailed because they are struggling for freedom, or from a persecuted religious or social group. Even in the best of systems, some innocent prisoners are imprisoned, and where systems are corrupt, or there is systematic oppression or persecution, many innocent prisoners suffer.
So we should think of them particularly at this time, when we pray first of all for “peace on earth to those of good will”.
St Paul explained Christmas in these words to the people of Galatia about sixty years after the first Christmas, “When the appointed time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons and daughters”. The birth was truly miraculous despite the stench of the stable and the poor surroundings, because the child’s Mother Mary was a virgin and her husband Joseph was not the biological father. The baby was true God as well as true man; Emmanuel, God with us, because God is His father.
Mary and Joseph were Jewish by race and religion. The Gospels tell us Joseph was a ῾δικαιος῾, Greek for a just and good man, and Mary is regarded by all Christians as the greatest of the saints, so that both of them were members of that race chosen by God to introduce monotheism into history. There is only one God, explained differently in the three great monotheist traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but only we Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of God’s only Son.
Christianity has been a strong presence everywhere in the Western world for at least a thousand years, since the Russians converted; and from much earlier in Italy, Greece, France and Spain since Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire, granted religious freedom to this persecuted minority in 313AD. But Christianity is not a Western religion, not simply because the Middle East and the whole of North Africa were once Christian, but because Christianity was born in the East, or at least the Middle-East, the home of the Jewish people. So we Christians revere the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob & Moses, who is also the father of the Christ Child, Our Lord.
In Jesus’ time Jerusalem was already a sacred city, dominated by its magnificent temple, but it was not a major capital in any sense, belonging to a rather poor and troublesome province of the Roman Empire (conquered by Pompey in 63BC) and ruled by the tyrant Kind Herod. It was basically and proudly Jewish, although influenced by Greek thought and practice, and hostile to Western Rome.
The Jewish religion also brought a major change into culture, the worlds of philosophy and religion, which is embodied in the feast of Christmas. For the ancient Greeks, like the Buddhists and Hindus, all life goes in an endless circle; day and night, the return of the seasons circle; are indicative of the wheel of everlasting return.
The Jews introduced time’s arrow into popular thinking, the idea of salvation history as they waited and wait for the Messiah. Out of this theory of forward motion, the Western notion of progress developed and of course the Christ Child, when He grew up to teach us and save us (by His death and resurrection) also pointed us onwards to the last days, His Second Coming at the end of time for the final judgement.
So all of us are nourished by the feast of Christmas, as we look back in hope to this marvellous development. Jesus was welcomed by the local shepherds as well as by the searchers for truth, astrologers and philosophers, wise men, perhaps from Iran; because He gave us a way of life and not just a theory, accessible only to the learned.
Christmas is a feast of hope for all of us, with God’s baby son pointing us to the last times when all will be well; to a heaven where there will be no prison, no prisoners and no COVID.
+George Cardinal Pell
16th December 2020