Our God is a God of closeness, Archbishop tells Sydney Christmas worshippers

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Attendance at Midnight and Christmas morning masses at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney were surprisingly strong despite the state’s growing wave of Covid cases caused by the Omicron variant.

Cathedral staff estimated attendance at more than 1200 at Midnight Mass and close to 1100 the following morning under the current two-square-metre public health orders; the cathedral normally holds close to 2000.

Cathedral clergy and staff said the numbers were heartening.

Gallery – Midnight Mass

Strong attendance

As Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP noted in his opening remarks at Midnight Mass, this time 12 months ago, the Cathedral’s Mass capacity at Christmas had been capped at 300.

At midnight Mass about 60 remained standing outside the cathedral to listen to proceedings through its entrances.

Cathedral Dean Fr Don Richardson told The Catholic Weekly that while the Cathedral had seen reduced numbers at Christmas weekend masses the figures were – given the Covid situation – surprisingly strong.

“There were clearly not as many attending as in pre-Covid conditions but, that being said we had four masses on Saturday and they were all pretty well attended,” he said.

“I thought the numbers under the circumstances were really quite encouraging.

“People clearly very much really wanted to get to Mass for Christmas this year.”

Volunteers affected

He said that one of the challenges facing the Cathedral for the peak season in church attendance had been that some of its customary volunteers who assist with a whole raft of duties weren’t able to be present because they were isolating.

However he was philosophical about having less hands to assist than in other years.

“That’s been a particular challenge this year – but it’s all part of the experience,” he said.

In his Midnight Mass homily, Archbishop Fisher noted how the enforced separations of a time of pandemic offer a lesson that can be learned from the experience of God becoming a human person.

Gallery – Christmas morning

A God of closeness

Even though human beings living in a world of physical dimensions could not possibly see or experience the purely spiritual reality of God, the Creator so desired to draw all people back to communion with Himself that He became one of us, drawing as physically close to us as possible, he said.

“When the Christ-child was born in a lowly stable, God was saying to every pauper: I’m here for you,” he told worshippers.

“When He suckled at His mother’s breast, God said to every family: I’m there with you. When the family fled from Herod, God told every refugee and trafficked person: I’m here about you. When He healed the blind and lepers, God said to all the sick, confused and alienated: I’m there for you. When He died and rose, God informed every mortal being: I’m here with you—and more and better is coming!

“Though God is pure spirit, in Jesus He is also a physical, bodily being—with all the vulnerability that entails but also the possibilities of closeness. Though God is an intangible, other-worldly Being, intimated by thunder and visions, the Child is one of us. Though God inspires awe, the Infant inspires affection. And as God draws close to us in Jesus, we can now draw close to Him, like the shepherds hold the gurgling Babe in their arms and the magi crossing borders to be nigh,” he said.

as God draws close to us in Jesus, we can now draw close to Him, like the shepherds hold the gurgling Babe in their arms and the magi crossing borders to be nigh

“Christmas is the story of God-made-man holding out his hand in friendship. The offer is real, tangible, personal, even physical. After two years of isolation, we crave it more than ever. In such dark times, Christmas is a ray of light, a sliver of hope.”

God’s physical closeness to us as result was particularly clear in the experience of the Mass, he reminded worshippers.

The Eucharist is God’s closeness to us

Above all, in Holy Communion we meet a God who doesn’t only want to be known by faith, written about in books or professed in creeds, but to be our friend and give us His all: first, His son, at Christmas; then, His life, at Easter; and now His body and blood, at Mass. His real presence means our substance can receive His, that He might abide in us.”

After two years of Covid-induced separation, Christmas was a moment of hope and an opportunity to put God’s closeness in our lown lives into practice, he said.

“Christmas is our chance to renew our faith, recalling the great mystery that God so loved the world He gave His only Son (Jn 3:16). Christmas is our opportunity to renew our hope, looking forward to an end to COVID and a better 2022. Christmas is a time to renew our love, to gather, reacquaint, make amends, exchange hugs and gifts, to come close in ways that say: friendship.“

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