Sometimes, when you’re all alone – as we have often been throughout these many months of pandemic – you hear things differently, more clearly than when you’re surrounded by others in a crowded room, in a class, in an office where the phone keeps ringing and people file in and out. Or on a busy street, a crowded train or bus, sitting in traffic that doesn’t seem to move.

Sometimes, an empty church may be the place where things sound different than they do when preachers preach and choirs sing. Things you may have heard a thousand times before: a Bible text, a poem, an article you’ve read and talked about; a phrase or saying, song or conversation that you’ve had with others. Or, perhaps, in these December days, a Christmas carol. Familiar, yes, but strange in a sudden newness.

When you’re alone, the words sound different because you have the time to think, to hear them and the sound they make as they touch your mind and heart with no one else around.

Perhaps it is in a candle’s glow or the golden flame of a fireplace, before the Christmas tree, with tiny lights that flash their holiday reminders. And in these kinds of Christmas lights, you can hear what you have heard a thousand times before – differently, more clearly.

The manger scene, the crèche. I know the words that tell its story; I’ve read and heard them many times before and even struggled to put them into other words, homilies written to say just what the story means. 

But silence is the sound that makes me hear their lesson differently. 

The child and his mother; St. Joseph and the shepherds; the kings along their way. The stable. The crib of straw. The animals all around. The star and the angel. “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” 

Joy is often easier to hear about in “glad tidings” that are shared with others. It sounds different, however, when you are alone.  And sometimes it is good just to be alone, to push aside the rest of the world for a moment or two and listen to the reasons for Christmas joy: the One who was delivered that Christmas night has brought deliverance. The One who was innocent has saved the guilty. The One whose birth was so humble has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly. The One who was born has given new birth to us all. What was once beyond our grasp has become, is now and ever shall be among us. 

We’ve heard it before, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But there is new joy in hearing it again, differently and more clearly. And when we hear it and the joy becomes our own, then is the best time to return to others and bring them “glad tidings of great joy.”

Despite our experience of social distancing for most of the past year, humans were never meant to be alone for long.  And the joyful feast of Christmas makes that so very clear: God is with us, Emmanuel, whether we are with others or by ourselves, when our faith brings us together – either in person or only in our hearts. This Christmas, different from Christmases past, make time to know the joy that Jesus brings!

Merry Christmas, and may God protect and keep us safe in the New Year!

Click the player below to listen to Bishop O’Connell’s message.