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The Nativity, Carmelite Church, Boppard-am-Rhein, Germany, 1444, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Several weeks ago a news story carried a medical warning that people, young and old, are beginning to experience chronic back and neck pain earlier and earlier in life, due to the amount of time spent on their phone. Another article described increased reports of carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects the hands, wrists, and arms, due to the repetitive nature of phone use, like texting. When I was having trouble sleeping earlier this year, someone suggested to me using a special app which plays natural sounds to produce a calming effect and help send you off to sleep. Many of us, I am sure, wake up to a radio alarm clock, or sit in the car on the way to work with music playing, or even have the television or radio on in the background at home, even when we are nowhere near it. If you go on the train or the bus, almost everyone will have headphones on, listening away in their own little world whilst the scenery passes them.

My friends, I am as guilty of this as much as the next man, but something is terribly wrong with a society in which so much distraction is desired, and in some cases has become necessary. That we should require a distraction in order to sleep; that we should be harming our bodies in order to escape the reality before us, even for innocent reason—all of this points to a certain sickness in the soul of our culture. We have become hypnotised by materialism, taken away from the beauty and immediacy of the truth of our life: of what is before us, of who is before us, and of the goodness of both. 

In a certain sense this retreat into the fantasy lands offered by technology and modernity is understandable. Our society has become so infected with aggravation and anger. We need only look back on the past year: the demise of political discourse, the increase of the so-called “woke” culture that looks everywhere for the chance to be offended, and the secularisation of all that is around us—not just in terms of becoming less religious, but also a kind-of extreme, intolerant rationalism. To live engaged in such a society is increasingly uncomfortable, if not yet dangerous. And it is perhaps part of human nature—fight or flight—to either stand and confront these tendencies, or run from them. 

Yet whilst both of these reactions have their merits, neither ultimately seeks to reverse the steady disintegration of the conversation, or to undo what is wrong. The “noise” toward which we run—be it the glare of our phone screen, or the sounds it or other technology puts out—does not act as an antidote or medicine to this sickness, but instead simply numbs the pain, the unfulfilled longing in our hearts for happiness, and provides a temporary form of escape from the reality around us. Just as morphine dulls and masks the pain of a physical injury, so this “drug”—the drug of noise—dulls and masks the pain of the reality of our discontent. 

But we should remember that any drug, when improperly or inexpertly administered,, itself becomes a poison that harms the body. The same is true for these means of escape. The danger of seeking respite from the world in a false reality is that we begin to believe that false reality is real, or become so influenced and intoxicated by it that we cease to be able to live—truly live—in the real world. We become unknowing and unwitting addicts who thrive and live for the alternative universe of our choice. You may well be sitting there thinking, “Yes, but that’s not the case for me because…” But remember, the greatest obstacle for an addict to overcome his or her sickness is first to admit to the addiction. The new drugs of noise and distraction blind us to this awareness just as much as the old, convincing us that we are not as sick as we are; that we can carry on and all will be well, that we can find happiness in these things, if only we keep on trying.

Into this world, into this spiral of emptiness, this darkness, comes the light we are here to honour in this great and awesome feast. Into the abyss of our despair, of anti-hope, of inadequate self-care of our sickness, of our vain search for happiness in the things of this world, comes the true medicine and the true physician. The darkness may seem all-encompassing, the infection too far gone, but the light which comes to us in this glorious feast always overcomes the darkness, and the power of the One Who comes always heals and restores to perfection the wounds we have endured.

We look for this healing, this salvation, from the sickness of this world in the things of this world, and we fall short, and find nothing that brings lasting comfort or joy. But the One Who comes to us, comes as one of us, comes to be like us in all things but sin; He is “not of this world” but rather comes into this world to change it for ever and beyond all recognition (Jn 18:36). He Who is divine, joins Himself to what is human, and so begins an irreversible chain reaction. He inserts Himself into our nature, infusing it with His sanctifying and healing grace.

It is perhaps in how this new order of light is begun that we are given our greatest lesson. It is neither in the things of this world, nor according to ways of this world. For the people of the Old Testament, the ancient people of Israel, who longed-for the coming Messiah as a great man of military might, it was a surprise so far-fetched that for many it lacked credibility. Yet its signs were there in the prophets: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). It was not with the clash of swords or the clang of armour; it was not with shouts or with the trumpets blasts of an army preparing for war; it was not even with the proclamation it perhaps deserved, from kings and queens and leaders of men. Instead this great and perfect gift, this gift of God to Man, of the Creator to the created—this gift of perfect happiness and healing—came in the silence of the Annunciation, and in the stillness of the first Christmas night. It came as a light in the darkness, as a new dawn brings a new day, as dew appears on the grass; in a solemn but certain silence, and with the effect of changing the whole world and its course in every conceivable way and for every moment thereafter. 

The silence of this action, of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, forces us to reassess our own attempts to overcome this world by senselessly claiming more and more of what this world has to offer, and if our unhappiness, our discontent, will somehow be undone by more of it. It is said that “a fool persists in his folly,” that there is nothing to be gained from repeating the same mistake over and over again. And yet that is precisely what we do when we turn to the source of our pain in the vain hope it can offer us a remedy. 

Instead, the noise of this world, which ultimately drowns out our thoughts and seeks to surreptitiously eliminate who we really are, is overcome not by more noise, but by the silence of the mystery of a God Who invites us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next. This is the truth of God’s absolute love for us—for you and for me—the truth that is seen in the wood of both the manger and the Cross; it is a truth which comes to us today in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Who offers us the fullness of life, life in abundance, not just in the passing things of this world but in the eternity of heaven.

In the often cruel and unforgiving darkness of our world, one so deeply scarred by the consequences of sin and often cloaked in the shadow of death, it is the Holy Child we today glimpse in the manger Who brings us hope. My friends: it is in Jesus Christ, and Him alone that we find true happiness and contentment. In Him alone that our lives are given direction and purpose. In Him alone that we receive the consolations and reassurance for which every human heart longs. God made Man for us in the babe of Bethlehem is the answer to our cry, By giving Himself to us in the flesh, the One Who has created all things has blessed, consecrated, and sanctified our humanity, offering us a way back from the exile we imposed on ourselves by the first, original sin, and pointing the way to the eternal life and happiness of the glorious kingdom of Heaven. Today our salvation, our healing, has come to us in Jesus Christ. A star points the way to Him. Let us turn from the false signs and distractions—the “noises” of this world—and follow Him, that He may give us life—His divine life—in abundance.