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Full Text: Fr. Ebenezer Akesseh’s address at “Conversations in the Cathedral”

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, the Christmas message and its relevance for motherhood and the Ghanaian Child.”

Thank you, Most Rev. John Bonaventure Kwofie, Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra, and the planners of this important event, for inviting me to give the keynote address for this 4th edition of a series that has been curiously couched: “Conversations in the Cathedral.” On face value, the title seems and sounds counterintuitive.

Cathedrals have tended to be (or at least to evoke the imagery of being) the site or setting for dogmatic pontifications; not the marketplace of ideas and discursive conversations. As a theological construct, however, the perceptiveness of the title begins to make hermeneutic sense when we remind ourselves of the overarching purpose of this platform, and when we draw into the scene, the topic of my intervention this evening.

Per its overarching goal, this annual conversation is both local and ecumenical. Local in the sense that the audience, mostly Catholics, gather to listen and participate in the conversations. Ecumenical because catholicism (with the small c/ universalism/Christian unity) has been the intention of Archbishop John Bonaventure Kwofie.

Hence the speakers/ panelists have always included archbishops and bishops, Rev. ministers, and academics of sister Churches. Guided by these two publics, I reflect with you on the theme for this year’s conversations: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, the Christmas message and its relevance for motherhood and the Ghanaian Child.” Before I proceed, let me issue this caveat, that the comments I share are not intended to be the yea and amen.

In the spirit of ecumenism, they are intended more to offer some context and content that should provoke what I predict to be a very enriching conversation among a very competent panel of thought leaders within our Christian fold.

Not long after receiving the invitation, I received a Tittok video from a friend in which a lady said, “This Christmas yi paa di33 Mary must have a miscarriage. She should not give birth to Jesus because there is no dime in my pocket.” Though in itself, this message is meant to be for comedy, tangentially, it throws light on the relationship between Christmas and the hope for living well on the one hand and Christmas and motherhood on the other.

Christmas has always been special time for various reasons. From a time of getting a new dress and pair of sandals, a paper hat, plastic spectacles and a watch to match, to a time for exchanging gifts and messages and making merry (in the name of Mother Mary and the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes – and lying in the crib varnished with blinking Christmas lights).

Principally, at the heart of Christmas is the birth of the Saviour. Addressing the faithful from the Vatican on December 23, 2020 via livestream (due to Covid restrictions), Pope Francis described Christmas as “the feast of love incarnate and born for us in Jesus Christ. He is the light of mankind shining in the darkness, giving meaning to human existence and to the whole of history.”[1]

The first part of the theme, “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes,” is taken from Luke 2:7. Permit me to situate it in the pericope where the text occurs, namely Luke Chapter 2, verses 1-7.

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

The description, And she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger which is the theme’s focus, captures issues related to motherhood, the protection of a child’s dignity, and the provision of safety and shelter. 



Giving birth to her first born son made Mary a mother. Motherhood for the Jews was a treasured expectation. It was and is still a central analytical category for understanding Jewish culture. The story of Sarah, and especially Hannah, whom Penin′nah taunted in 1 Samuel chapter 1, clearly reveals how being a mother would be a woman’s dream.

In that 2020 Christmas eve homily, Pope Francis noted, “We often hear it said that the greatest joy in life is the birth of a child. It is something extraordinary, and it changes everything. It brings an excitement that makes us think nothing of weariness, discomfort, and sleepless nights, for it fills us with great, incomparable happiness.”[2]

The words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, particularly his emphasis on child-bearing and joy, set the stage for thinking through motherhood within our context. Like in the Jewish world, the African worldview is saturated with an understanding of motherhood as the ultimate goal of womanhood. Failure to give birth is interpreted variously.

Sometimes women who are unable to give birth (the reasons for which may lie with the other party; but which our patriarchal subculture prefers to overlook) become candidates for derision. In some instances, they are stigmatized.

The stigma associated with the inability to give birth and the desire to have children of their own drive people to seek interventions of many kinds so that they, like Mary, can give birth to their firstborn child. What supportive systems can Christian communities give such people for whom celebrating the Saviour’s birth reminds them of what they lack? How does the Christmas message offer us a way to let society understand the struggles of yet-to-be mothers?

Identity and Protection

  1. Luke the Physician, after detailing Mary’s motherhood, then describes the baby Jesus. He was wrapped in swaddling cloths. This detail will be used as a sign for the shepherds in verses 11 and 12: The angel told the shepherds: Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Therefore, the description of the child Jesus was for identification purposes.

However, that is not all. Wrapping children in swaddling clothes was very necessary. When children are born, they need to be kept warm. Their fragile bodies need to be protected. Therefore, bands of clothes were used to protect the children from the vagaries of the weather.

Also, parents and midwives wrapped an infant’s limbs in long strips of cloth for them to grow straight. They could be used until the child’s limbs became firm or for as long as two months. The identity and protection offered to infants and children are of inestimable value. Every society needs to make maternal and child care essential in national policy.

  1. While discussing the usefulness of swaddling clothes, it is equally important to pay attention to issues related to infant mortality. Infant mortality deprives mothers of wrapping their children with swaddling clothes. In the past five years, we seem to have made progress in reducing infant mortality in Ghana. In 2018, we had 35.6 deaths per 1000 live births. This year, we have 31.7 deaths per 1000 live births. When compared to the figures in other parts of Africa, we are not doing badly. The average on the continent in 2018 was 47.4 deaths per 1000 live births. This year we have 42.7 deaths per 1000 live births.                                                                                                                                                                 However, once we compare it to the global average, we begin to see that we are not doing well. In 2018 the global average was 2 deaths per 1000 live births, and 26.6 deaths per 1000 live births this year. Our position looks gloomy when we compare our figures to North America and Europe: 5.7 deaths per 1000 live births in 2018 and 5.7 deaths per 1000 live births this year for North America and Europe, 3.4 deaths per 1000 live births in 2018, and – significantly – 0.000 deaths per 1000 live births this year. Such figures place responsibility on Government, Churches, and civil societies to work towards reducing infant mortality rates. One death is too much! And the example of Europe for this year tells us that zero deaths is possible. The Church’s role is vital not only because women are the most active segment of our population but also because of the sorrow and trauma that parents who lose their children go through.


  1. The bands of clothes also cover the nakedness of the children. In effect, the dignity of the child is safeguarded. The Church has always upheld the dignity of every Child from the moment of conception. The Compendium of the Church’s Social Teaching gives us the theological basis for understanding human dignity:
  2. The fundamental message of Sacred Scripture proclaims that the human person is a creature of God (cf. Ps 139:14-18) and sees in his being in the image of God, the element that characterizes and distinguishes him…“being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.[3]


After wrapping him in swaddling clothes, we are told Mary placed the child in the manger because there was no room in the inn. The right to shelter is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights as a universal right. Such a right is most critical for newly born children. In his address to the participants in the world meeting of Popular Movements, Pope Francis, in talking about the necessity of shelter, said,

We must never forget that because there was no room in the inn, Jesus was born in a stable; and that his family, persecuted by Herod, had to leave their home and flee into Egypt. Today there are so many homeless families, either because they have never had one or because, for different reasons, they have lost it. Family and housing go hand in hand. Furthermore, for a house to be a home, it requires a community dimension, and this is the neighbourhood.[4]

These conversations have implications for the ministry for Gender and Social Welfare and many NGOs that deal with child’s rights. While not discounting the implications of this task for the state and the NGOs, I intend to examine the implications of my analysis for the Church and ecumenism based on the two publics I identified in my introduction. Such an approach allows us to transcend the limits of moral suasion and focus on concrete and tangible actions that bring out how Christian communities can let the implications of the Christmas message shape their social actions within their communities as demanded by the principle of subsidiarity.


The Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity requires that nothing should be done by a higher or larger entity that can be done as well by a lower or smaller one.  In “Quadregesimo Anno” Pope Piux XI notes:

  1. Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and, at the same time, a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.


Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (On Integral Human Development In Charity And Truth), discusses subsidiarity further:

  1. Subsidiarity is, first and foremost, a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation because it fosters freedom and participation through the assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.[5]


The principle of subsidiarity, therefore, is the framework through which I explore how the Church’s societies can use the discussion here to formulate part of how they want to position themselves after our conversation this evening.

A cursory glance at the aims and objectives of the following women groups:  Christian Mothers, Ladies of Marshall, Ladies Auxiliary, Knight of St. John International and St. Terresa of the Child Jesus, indicates that they are fertile grounds for thinking through the relevance of the Christmas message for motherhood and the Ghanaian Child.

This is not to suggest that the men groups are out of the orbit of my consideration. It is only to place the woman at the front and center of the issues related to motherhood. Their objectives clearly center on their members’ integral development and faith formation. Though these groups are Catholic, there are other women groups in sister Churches with similar objectives. Hence, the broad outlines of what I discuss here apply to those societies.

The guiding question is: how can these societies in the Church think through ways in which the Christmas message empowers yet demands of them to be intentional about how they can help mothers and children in their Churches? Let us look a little more closely at the three broad areas I highlighted earlier: motherhood, protection, and shelter.


  • How can they train their members and women, in general, to embrace motherhood in a way that amplifies and extols the beauty of motherhood and, at the same time, enables them to live the obligations of motherhood in ways that encourage many young people to aspire towards family life and motherhood?
  • Since motherhood is understood in the context of marriage and family life, how can societies prepare ladies as they wait to give birth to their firstborn sons and daughters? For instance, how can societies encourage young people to see counseling as an integral part of living happily ever after. Is there a way by which women’s groups and societies can incorporate pre- and post-marital counseling activities into their programmes for the coming year?
  • How can they create safe spaces for members or parishioners who are having challenges with child-bearing to have understanding support that helps them to deal with the anxiety that comes with the inability to give birth? Unfortunately, in some cases, societies foment and foster the trauma people who cannot give birth go through instead of encouraging and helping such people navigate the tensions associated with the lack of child-bearing.



  • In the coming year, can societies set up a target to address the challenges that would-be mothers face concerning their inability to provide “swaddling clothes” – the basic necessities for their babies? In our day, it means being interested in both pre-natal and post-natal activities. Studies show that the 1st 1,000 days, from conception to the child’s second birthday , is crucial. During this period, the brain, the body, and the immune system take shape and develop significantly. This period has a lasting impact on the health and well-being of every child.[6] This means that the decisions that mothers make when they give birth are always crucial. How can Church societies be of help?


  • I mentioned that some families do not have the opportunity to wrap infants in swaddling clothes due to infant mortality. What interventions can we make to address such unfortunate losses in the coming year? Some causes of infant mortality are preterm and low birth rates, which are highly dependent on maternal age, dietary deficits, inter-pregnancy intervals, infection and others. High teen pregnancies also beget low birth rates and preterm, increasing mortality and morbidity. Societies would have to embrace adolescent reproductive health issues and maternal health that impinge on reducing mortality rates.


  • Societies may not be able to provide shelter for people directly. However, could they increase the means to empower people to stand on their feet and provide for themselves so that would-be mothers can have decent housing?


Most of the issues I have raised are deliberately open-ended to enable broad and in-depth discussions that take into account the differences between and among societies and groups. The strategies emanating from these questions should be implemented through an understanding of solidarity. Pope Francis stresses that “solidarity is a word that means much more than an occasional gesture of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community. It means that the lives of all take priority over the appropriation of goods by a few. It also means fighting against the structural causes of poverty and inequality, of the lack of work, land, and housing.”[7]


The heartbeat of solidarity is an understanding of our interdependence. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, states

“When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue,’ is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”[8]

The understanding of subsidiarity (doing at the micro level what can be done to address challenges) and solidarity (we are responsible for all) allows us to examine our theme through an ecumenical lens. Inter-communion and intra-communion collaborations foster growth of Christendom and allow the Church to act out the magna carter of the ecumenical movement, namely “that all may be one” (John 17).

Since its inception, the ecumenical movement has achieved results on social issues than on doctrinal matters. In our country, we have seen Churches come together to fight common social issues. Prominent among them have been corruption, gay issues, and galamsey. Such concerted efforts have often pressured the relevant authorities to listen to the concerns even if they have not successfully provided solutions.

How can Churches come together to address issues related to motherhood, protection of children and infant mortality, and economic empowerment? This is part of the conversation we need to have this evening. If the witness to the Christian faith will project the beauty of Christianity, then we should be seen to be collaborating more on such issues since the people in our pews are looking to us for answers. We must demonstrate solidarity in concrete ecumenical terms. Pope John Paul II notes:

In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One’s neighbor becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit.

One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). …Beyond human and natural bonds, already so close and strong, there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. (SRS, 40)

Solidarity must therefore inspire us to transcend differences and have a common platform for action to address issues related to motherhood, namely, training women to embrace motherhood and its obligations; helping and preparing young ladies for marriage, and supporting them when they marry; helping spouses who are having child-bearing issues, showing interest in adolescent reproductive health issues; helping address teenage pregnancy; addressing infant mortalities; enabling the provision of swaddling clothes by being interested in pre-natal and post-natal issues and by empowering Christian families to have decent housing for family life.



Guided by the two publics for our conversations and the implications of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity for social action, I have examined the significance of the Christmas message for societies in our churches and our ecumenical walk with sister Churches. I have indicated to both publics that this year’s theme challenges us to reflect deeply on motherhood.

We should encourage motherhood by enhancing counseling and creating the mechanism that would enable the Church to walk with those still waiting for their “first-born child.” The theme highlights the need for provisions for newborn children to enable them to grow well while protecting their identity and dignity and empowering families to provide shelter and a safe environment for the Ghanaian child. May our conversions not remain at the level of sharing ideas for the sake of it.

May they instead make us leave here burning with the desire to undertake concrete actions during this Christmas season and in the coming year till we gather again in this Cathedral for another conversation.


Thank you for the honour of this opportunity. And thank you for your attention.


Fr. Ebenezer Akesseh

Holy Spirit Cathedral

13th December 2022

Memorial of St. Lucy










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