Christmas Reflection given by Bishop John Sherrington at the Christmas Celebration at Westminster Cathedral on 20 and 21 December 2016.
Christmas is a time of miracles. As a parish priest, I often found that the few hours between the incredibly busy and somewhat frenetic Vigil Mass and the Midnight Mass were fairly quiet. It was a time of waiting.
One bitterly cold year, I remember a man running breathlessly into the church and asking whether the church was still open to visit. ‘Of course,’ I said. He rushed out and then returned a few minutes later with his wife carrying a small baby shrouded and bundled up in blankets. They went into the Lady Chapel, lit a candle or two and then placed the baby on the altar. After a few minutes of prayer they came to leave. I mentioned that the baby looked very small. ‘Yes,’ was his reply, ‘we are on our way home from the hospital after the birth and wanted to thank God for the gift we have been given.’ I was moved to tears by the depth of their faith. They explained that within their tradition in Kerala the first thing to do after the birth of a child is to visit the Church, thank God, light a candle and ask for the prayers of Our Lady. As they left the Church, I reflected that they, perhaps better than I, understood the meaning of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem and the profundity of the gift of the Incarnation.
The sixteenth century Jesuit martyr, St Robert Southwell, invites our meditation on the meaning of the gift of the Christ Child in his poem, ‘The Nativity of Christ’. Probably written from his prison cell in the 1590s, he reflects on the mystery of the Father’s gift of his Son to the world:
‘Gift better than himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.’
God saves us in his mercy and we are restored to a new dignity as adopted children. St Leo the Great writes, ‘O Christian, be aware of your nobility - it is God's own nature that you share… Recall that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, and have been transferred to the light of God, the kingdom of God’ (Sermon XXI).
Whilst we are a new creation, the effects of sin remain. St Robert continues, ‘Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast…’ These words describing the Fall resonate deeply as we see the tragic effects of selfishness, violence, war and conflict and hear the heart-rending stories of those trapped in Aleppo or the Yemen. They echo as we hear of the recent horrendous murder of Christians in the Coptic Church of Egypt and recall the brutal assassination of Fr Jacques Hamel during the summer.
Rand Mittri spoke powerfully of her experience of living in Aleppo at the Vigil Service of World Youth Day this year, ‘My name is Rand Mittri. I am 26 years old, and I am from Aleppo, from Syria. As you may know, our city has been destroyed, ruined, and broken. The meaning in our lives has been cancelled. We are the forgotten city.’ A young woman of great courage spoke of the fear of not knowing whether she or a member of her family would be alive when she returned home. In a miraculous way, in the midst of this turmoil and devastation, Rand serves others at the Don Bosco Centre which receives each day over 700 young men and women who come to see a smile or hear a word of encouragement. With profound faith she says, ‘More and more, I believe that God exists despite all of our pain. I believe that sometimes through our pain, he teaches us the true meaning of love. My faith in Christ is the reason for my joy and hope.’
Rand’s own words help us understand that it is only in giving ourselves away in service to others that we discover the true meaning of Christmas. The Christ Child, laid in the manger of hay, becomes through the Eucharist the food for our renewal and growth.
St Robert Southwell continues,
‘Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!’
This renewal looks towards a vision of endless peace built on righteousness when ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (Isaiah 2.4ff).
May this hope inspire our prayers this Christmas and bring peace to many people who wait in darkness and the shadow of death.