At Christmas five years ago, people entering St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Adelaide were shocked to discover that the nativity crib had been vandalised. Someone had urinated over the statues of Mary and Joseph, and the statue of the baby Jesus in the crib had been smashed into pieces, writes Greg O'Kelly, the Bishop of Port Pirie.
Rather than have the statue of Jesus replaced, the Archbishop instructed that the broken pieces of baby Jesus should be gathered together in a basket, and placed in the middle of the sanctuary, in front of the altar.
It had a very powerful impact on people, and many knelt on the step of the sanctuary in prayer. One man, well known in the Cathedral, who has a very positive personality but is not quite in possession of all his faculties, spent the whole time of one Mass lying prostrate in front of the broken pieces. In all, there was a whirl of emotions, from shock and disbelief, to incomprehension, even dread.
Who would know the motives why someone would carry out such acts? Putting it starkly, why would anyone want to break Christ? Perhaps it was somebody hurt by a person of the Church, or who has experienced the Church as a hostile institution.
Perhaps it was someone antagonised by the high ideals preached and practised by Jesus. It could have been someone infuriated at Christianity, possessed of a hatred for those who call themselves Christian. Indeed, it might have also been by someone moved by Satan, or the demonic within, to destroy and degrade as best they might the image of Christ.
There are different levels of reflection we can have concerning the image of a crib desecrated and vandalised. The broken bits produce for us the powerful image of Jesus smashed. There is the rejection by the world, as St John’s Gospel would have it.
There is much that goes on in our world and in the opinion makers of our society which do not actually advocate the smashing of the message of Jesus, but wish to side-step it, or reduce it to a series of innocuous noble sentiments.
Christ never accepted this; He said He come to spread fire on the earth. He said that the first would be last, and the last would be first. He said that following Him demands real sacrifice.
He told us that anyone who loses his life might save it. He told us that the poor are blessed, and that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one could come to the Father except through Him.
He taught us that greater love no one can have than to lay down their life for their friend, and He stared down death Himself, revealing to us that there is life beyond our years on this earth, and that He is the resurrection. We must not allow the world to sanitise Christ, to reduce His message to simple exhortations to be good.
Another meaning for us is that part of our vocation is to refashion Christ, to build again His Body in the world, just as one might take the broken pieces of a statue and reform it. So there are the themes of those who would want to break Christ in the world, and there is the image of the broken Christ Himself.
His life for us was broken from the beginning, being born in a stable because there was no room, being born in poverty, and having nowhere to lay His head. The whole message was that His life would be poured out for us, that the Father so loved us that He sent us Christ, that all might believe in Him.
He came to us at Bethlehem, a name that means the House of Bread. Born in poverty, He left ways to feed His disciples with the Bread of Life. We know that wine is useless if it remains in a bottle, and it must be poured out. So also with the life of Christ. We know that bread if it stays as a loaf does no good, but it must be broken and shared if it is bring any benefit. So it was with the life of Christ.
Hence at this Christmas, looking beyond the present imagery of the nativity scene in the crib, we should look at how we might live the truth Jesus taught by His coming amongst us, that we are so loved by the Father that He sent His only Son. Nothing can ever take that away from us.
Parts of our lives might be broken or destroyed, but the presence of Christ will make all things whole and new again, a joy and truth we celebrate each Christmas.
This article was first published in “The Witness” of Port Pirie and is used with permission