Given at Westminster Cathedral at Midnight Mass on Christmas 2014.
‘This is the night which changes everything’. I heard these words sung by children with great enthusiasm a few days ago. The children were right. The birth of Jesus Christ is the hinge of human history. On this night a new vision is born, new horizons open before us, a new way of living bursts onto the scene.
You might think I exaggerate. I do not. This night sees the birth of the rule of love. Before the coming of Jesus and his living Gospel, the only rule of public living was that of power sometimes tempered with justice. But tonight Jesus reminds us of another possibility: the rule of love. And it speaks to our hearts!
We learn the first, radical lesson of this rule when we glance into the stable of Bethlehem. Is this really a king? Do kings lie in mangers? Surely they come in the trappings of privilege and power, not like this! Slowly the lesson dawns on us. The rule of love is promulgated through vulnerability!
Here before our eyes, the king of kings, the lord of lords, makes himself vulnerable, leaves power aside and depends on the animals for warmth and those around him for kindness.
There is no other way in which to promulgate the law of love. It cannot be commanded. It cannot be imposed. It can only be shown, in word but even more in action. It can only be promoted from heart to heart.
Is there in the world a kingdom which lives by the law of love? Only the kingdom of God, the kingdom of our Blessed Lord, which has to reign in our hearts and from there shape our actions. It is an alternative kingdom, so much in contrast to the earthly kingdoms of power and domination, and so provocative to them, too.
This kingdom, with its supreme law of love, is an affront to the power-seeking regimes of our world. It was so to the Roman authorities of the first century who recognised the subversive potential of this new movement. Totalitarian regimes of the last century recognised this too. Hence the 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than any before it. And this century, with its power-crazed extremists witnesses the widespread persecution of the followers of Christ. We pray for them, and for all victims of such violence, as we kneel before the Christ-child tonight.
Seeing this vulnerable child, who is Emanuel, God-with-us, tutors us in one great lesson of love: that we are to open our eyes and our hearts to the vulnerable around us. Then, gradually, our eyes no longer focus on the great and powerful, but on the poor and the lowly. Guided by Him we lose our blindness to the poor in our midst; we lose the hardness of heart that lets us look the other way. The outstretched arms of Jesus teach us to open our hearts to those most in need. He teaches us compassion; compassion for those caught in the living death of human slavery; compassion for the hungry, depending on hand-outs, both here and abroad; compassion for those forced out of their homes, whether in Iraq, Syria, the Sudan or the countless other places from which come the millions of displaced persons and refugees in the world today. Well-known facts cease to be abstract, distant problems and become the story of our brothers and sisters, our own flesh and blood. They call out to us for recognition and assistance.
The open arms of the child Jesus exclude no-one. This is the powerful witness of so many Christians today. The tiny Catholic community in Gaza, whom I met recently, just 140 people amidst a population of 1.5 million, offer their services, in schools, in orphanages, in shelter, to everyone who can be fitted in. Many Christian martyrs, including priests and religious women, served all their fellow citizens, Christian and Muslim alike. The compassion of Christ is for everyone. His law of love is universal. His disciples, in the Middle East, Algeria or Northern Nigeria are often a powerful leaven in society, searching for peace, sowing peace, praying for peace in churches, monasteries and homes. This is the path that we too must follow.
Jesus comes in vulnerability to teach us love. He comes in the vulnerability of a child because the family is the first place in which we learn the law of love. In our world, power courts power and the poor are forgotten. But at home we often learn a different lesson. There, love holds us together, love opens our eyes, love summons us to sacrifice. And the family before us this night, Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus is the finest teacher of that love.
Come to the crib. Come, whoever can, as a family. Come to find a family – the family of the Lord, summoned afresh this night, always to be a family of love, in the power of the Holy Spirit.