Nollaig na mBan Reflection
Below is the text of Terry Kellaher’s reflection for the feast of Epiphany
Epiphany and Nollaig na mBan 2020
It is the eve of the Epiphany; here we are celebrating the office for the vigil of this feast. Tomorrow, in the Irish tradition, is Nollaig na mBan directly translated as “Women’s Christmas” and in some places known as “little Christmas”
The Epiphany, the feast of the Gentiles, the feast of those who were not among God’s chosen people till that baby was born in Bethlehem, born so that all of us regardless of our colour, our gender, our nationality or our ethnicity could be included. The three wise men in the story were gentiles, rich but excluded in the one thing that mattered most to them. Troubled perhaps by this sense of exclusion they looked up to stars hoping for something that would lead them to what? Maybe to where they would find the source and culmination of all their hopes and dreams? Off they went pursuing this mad dream of theirs following a star: To where, no doubt their relatives asked before they left home? Wasn’t it a long way to go on the half chance that they’d find something? Did they get tired, fed up and disconsolate along the way: Did they think about turning around and going back home to the comfort of their palaces?
Could anything have prepared them for what they found when that star stopped moving? A cowshed with a family taking shelter inside: A family of three, a man a woman and a new born baby: No luxury or majesty in evidence anywhere: A cowshed after all the travelling: What you might ask did they make of that? Did they look through the holes in the straw roof to be sure that it was here the star had stopped? I often wonder what made them stay: Was there something about the face of that infant child something about his vulnerability, his needs and the needs of his parents that made them open the treasures they had bought all that way and give them away to this little stranger and his socially ill at ease parents?
We are told that they were the first gentiles to see the face of this child and to recognise who it was they were looking at; the vulnerable face of God incarnate in this helpless, homeless, stateless, poverty-stricken little baby. A little baby whose vulnerability commanded their respect, their service, one might even say, their love. These gentiles, these strangers could look into the face of that child and see the truth of who he is but something tells me that they were not drawn by the theological significance of that baby but rather by the vulnerability of the love of God incarnate: Perhaps they knew and maybe we can learn from them that truth without love can be a terrible thing to behold.
The scene they witnessed was ordinary by any standard of their day but what they perceived in that cowshed, coloured by the light of faith and hope that carried them on their journey, was a mighty little Christmas indeed. The face of that baby spoke to them and perhaps it can to us too of the power of a love that is vulnerable.
The Epiphany, the manifestation to the gentiles, looked at through the eyes of the three wise men, was of a domestic scene: How right it is that tonight and tomorrow we should celebrate Nollaig na mBan, celebrate the domestic work done mainly by women to ensure that we all had a good Christmas, celebrate this womenly work that ensures that the bonds of love that hold us together as families were particularly evident over this season of twelve days and nights, in the food we shared together, the gifts we exchanged, the return of family even if only for a few days. This kind of love, domestic love, ordinary love, is a vulnerable love too, vulnerable to violence, misunderstandings and all the things that estranges us from each other.
We look into the face of that baby tonight, we celebrate the manifestation of God’s love, so that we who once were excluded, now find ourselves among the chosen of God but chosen for what I wonder? Is it to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the touch of that incarnate love of God? This touch might make us vulnerable enough to be able to be with those who are excluded among us: The strange ones within our families, the strange ones who don’t quiet fit into the conventions of our domestic scenes, who sleep on our streets, whose behaviours discomfort us, whose skin colour or spoken language marks them out as “not one of us”?
At the beginning of this new year could we pray for the gift of gentleness so that we can see the epiphany and hear its challenges in the faces of those around us: Perhaps we could we pray for the wisdom and the humility to witness to that vulnerable incarnate love and to respond to its invitation to perceive and care for those who are manifestly vulnerable.
We are celebrating tonight and all day tomorrow because no one is excluded from the love and mercy of God, but God’s love made manifest in the infant king is a vulnerable love. It depends on you and me to make it manifest in our time, the here and the now, by finding that face most in those who are excluded in the ordinary domestic scenes of our every day.