Given at Westminster Cathedral at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 2015.
This night, in the words of the Gospel of St Luke, we are summoned by the angel to the crib, in the town of David, in Bethlehem. We are told that there we will find ‘news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people’. To emphasise the point we read that ‘suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host praising God and singing: Glory to God on high!’ We too sing our ‘Glorias’, and we thank the choir for their wonderful music.
As we gather at the crib what do we find?
The whole story of humanity is here, in the figures of the crib.
In the shepherds is seen every struggle to survive and make good in a harsh and demanding world. The shepherds’ work is dangerous and unrelenting. They know well that our world is not a soft place. Yet they come in kindness and wonder.
The wise men that arrive represented a more gentile world of affluence and learning, all the achievements of science and research. Yet these men arrive without arrogance or superiority, ready to receive rather than simply impart their knowledge. Their common designation as kings also permits us to see earthly power present in the crib, the rulers and leaders, those who try to chart a pathway for others to follow yet who only here find a true light that stands the test of all time.
Then we see Joseph, the guardian of Jesus and Mary, representing all who act as our guardians, those who maintain order and administer justice. His eyes are on those in his care and he watches carefully, as does every parent, all these comings and goings.
Then we have Mary, the mother, who holds and nurtures the child entrusted to her, instinctively conscious of his every need, and remaining so until she stands at the foot of the cross on which he hangs unto death.
And the angels, we must not forget the angels! But nor must we misunderstand them. They speak and act on behalf of God himself, but not as performers seeking celebrity status, trying to catch the eye and get four straight 10’s, as if that is the nature of God. Rather, they are heralds pointing away from themselves to a far greater truth, a far more remarkable event.
It was, as you may know, St Francis of Assisi who is attributed with creating the first crib. He was determined to overcome a common fear of his day, one that still lurks in our hearts even now: the fear that God could never deign to dirty himself with our messed-up world but remains aloof from it all, remote in celestial splendour. It is the fear that we are radically on our own in this world and have no escape other than to reap the whirlwind of our own mistakes, colossal pride and folly.
St Francis wanted us all to see that this is not so, that the ‘news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people’ is precisely that God is with us, always, everywhere. His name is Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’, and his birth in these most lowly of circumstances means that he is within the reach of every person. We only have to overcome our pride and sense of self-sufficiency whether we see ourselves in figures of the shepherds, the wise men, the rulers or the attention-seeking angels! We have to come down to him so that he may lift us up!
At the heart of this great news of God’s abiding presence in our world and in our lives there are two vitally important lessons. The first is this: in Jesus, born in the stable, we see the face of God’s mercy. His coming to us and his longing for us is driven by the passion of God that each and every one of us comes to our happiness and fulfilment and that we understand God’s willingness to do anything to set us back on our feet after every fall we take and every mess we make. This is the mercy of God and it knows no bounds. We can come to him, figured and present in this unthreatening baby whose eyes, full of innocence and acceptance, are the loving eyes of God himself. Learning this we face a daily test: will we extend to others the mercy that we ourselves first receive?
Then there is a second lesson: in the crib there is absolutely no place for gratuitous violence. In the presence of a child we should always watch our tongues and our behaviour, for childhood lessons of anger and violence are never forgotten. And as this child is God in our flesh, then violence has no place at all in his presence. Even more emphatically, it means that any claim to justify such violence in the name of God is abhorrent. It is always a corruption of true faith.
This Christmas, then, let us be resolved to lay aside our own tendencies to angry violence so that we may condemn, with integrity, those who perpetrate such violence and claim for it the name of God.
In this moment, then, we pray for the victims of such violence, in many parts of the world. We pray especially for our Christian brothers and sisters who suffer grievously for their faith in Jesus as their Lord, losing life and belongings, suffering torture and unspeakable cruelty for his sake. As we pray for their courage, we remember that Boxing Day is the Feast of St Stephen, the first Martyr and that on 28th December we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered out of hatred and fear of Jesus. Discipleship of our Blessed Lord brings with it rejection and hostility. Pure love and goodness often do!
At the crib, then, we learn these lessons: No to all violence against the innocent! Yes to mercy, received and given! Then, indeed, our world, our families, will be more graceful places. Then we will be protagonists of ‘unarmed goodness’. Then indeed there is news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.
I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas indeed!