Tena koutou katoa. Greetings to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
This time last year, I was preparing to celebrate Christmas Masses in Auckland with restricted numbers. Little did I know that a year later, I would be celebrating my first Christmas in the South, with long summer evenings and no Covid restrictions. This is the story of faith. Just when we think we can see the road clearly ahead, God bursts into our lives in the most unexpected ways, showing us His way, shining His love and grace upon us in ways we could never have imagined. This is also the story of Christmas.
A few years ago I had the joy of going to Bethlehem. One of the highlights was visiting Shepherd’s Field. It is incredible to think these humble sheep herders became a part of the greatest story ever told. They were going about their normal business, tending their sheep, when God broke into their lives. Angels appear from heaven announcing news of great joy. God had come to the people of their time. He is lying in a manger nearby. They were among the first to know.
When God enters our lives in unexpected ways, we are called to let go and trust in his guidance. The shepherd’s lives too were changed. They went from fear and uncertainty to great courage and joy. As the Shepherds remind us, God’s good news excludes no one, even those whom the world might consider insignificant or not worthy of good news.
Pope Francis recently reflected on the shepherds in the Christmas scene, specifically asking why the angels visited them first? They were unlikely candidates; uneducated, simple-hearted people of the town. However, it is for this very reason that they were chosen. They were the “closest to the Lord.” The shepherds’ “simple faith” allowed the good news of Jesus to break through their hearts.
Nothing has changed. To believe in the story of Christmas requires childlike openness and faith. Like the shepherds, we too are called to “believe” what the angels, scripture, the Church, and our loved ones have passed on to us. It is true, this really is God!
However, the real miracle today is that, not only did God come to the Shepherds that day, over 2000 years ago. He comes again to you and me today – to people who have hearts like the shepherds, open to meeting God. Celebrating his 86th Christmas, Pope Francis reflects:
“This is the reason for our joy: we are loved, we are sought for, the Lord seeks us to find us, to love us more….We are always loved first by God, with a love so concrete that He took on flesh and came to live in our midst, in that Baby that we see in the crib. This love has a name and a face: Jesus is the name and the face of love – this is the foundation of our joy.”
Whatever life brings for you at this time, predictable or challenging, tidy or messy, however impossible it might be to believe, this Christmas, Jesus arrives at your door asking to enter into the manger of “your heart.” All he needs is your faith, to believe what you see, to answer His call. When we agree, as the shepherds did, God is able to bless us in ways beyond our imagining. You may even find yourself celebrating Christmas next year with a new family, in a new home.
Ablaze Parish Renewal Conference
In early November, the diocese held the Ablaze Parish Renewal conference. Nearly 300 people gathered together from throughout the diocese and further afield, to pray for and seek to understand parish renewal. The theme of the conference was taken from my installation Mass as Bishop; ‘Cast out into the deep and pay your nets out for a catch’ (Luke: 5). We reflected on what it meant for us to follow Jesus’ call in complete trust.
As I was praying before the final session of Ablaze, I reflected for a long time on Jesus’ call of the early disciples. We know that he walked along the shore of Galilee, looking for people who would join in his mission. These people were not necessarily the most qualified or ready to accept him. Rather, he looked for people who would permit him to enter their lives.
He continues to walk the shore of our world, continuing to see who is willing to have him close. This is a risky business. It means we trust him to guide and direct us. This is the story of faith. God wants to meet our deepest longings for love, peace, fulfillment, joy, and forgiveness, but he first needs permission to enter our boats
Jesus is offering this invitation to everyone in our diocese. He is asking each of us, “Do you have room in your boat for me?” A renewed Church only happens when each of us allows Jesus in, when we surrender to Him. This is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. At Ablaze, I asked everyone present to surrender to Jesus. At the conference, I shared one of my favourite quotes from St John Paul II on taking steps in faith:
Let us be generous this Christmas, giving Jesus the very best of ourselves – our permission for Him to enter our boat, our lives. To do so, we need to first surrender to him. As a concrete way of doing this, all those at Ablaze were given a Surrender Prayer Novena which we prayed for nine days.
The following article explains the novena.
www.catholicexchange.com/the-surrender-novena-letjesus-take-care-of-everything. I invite you to offer this Novena as a precious gift to Jesus this year.
Priests Gathering at Hanmer
In early October, all priests in active ministry in the Christchurch Diocese gathered for three days in Hanmer Springs. These twice-yearly gatherings, initiated by Archbishop Paul Martin, are a time for the priests to be together, to share with each other and to receive specific input from others. It was a blessed time, where we considered the opportunities and challenges facing the Church today.
I shared with them how, in these first months as your Bishop, I have been listening and learning, seeking to understand people’s experiences of the Church, in order to better understand where God is leading us in these times. As part of this gathering, we discussed the proposed Cathedral precinct and the wider capital projects. I assured the priests, as I assure you now, that no decision has yet been made. I am actively considering all the options, continuing to consult, trying to gather more information in order to make a sound decision. Please keep these matters in your prayers as we seek to understand how best to live out our faith and mission in this age.
My prayer for each of you this Christmas is that you, like the shepherds, personally encounter Jesus this year. Remember, no one is excluded, as each of us is precious to him. God proves this to us in the most powerful way, as a vulnerable baby in a borrowed manger. He only asks one question: will you “believe” as the shepherds did all those years ago?
May God bless you all.
+ Michael Gielen
Bishop of Christchurch