Given at the Christmas Celebration in Westminster Cathedral on 19th and 20th December 2017.
When my parents were elderly, I used to join them every Christmas Eve. We’d listen to Carols from King’s. They’d be sitting next to each other. I noticed that at one point in the service they would always join hands. It was at the point, during ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, when the choir sings the verse, ‘And our eyes at last shall see him.’ Every year, without fail. As the choir sings, ‘And our eyes at last shall see him’, the one would grasp the other’s hand. Without knowing that I could even see it, they were revealing to me something very beautiful: their faith that they would see God together.
At this time of year, we find ourselves thinking quite naturally about those who’ve gone before us, especially those who’ve left us since we last celebrated the great Feast with them. Wasn’t it lovely to hear the voice of Cardinal Cormac again in our fifth reading? He certainly believed he would see God. I was with him the day before he died; and celebrated his last Eucharist with him. I shall never forget the intensity with which he contemplated the Body of Christ at the moment of consecration. As we gazed, either side, at the elevated host, I thought to myself, ‘Very soon he will be seeing Jesus face to face.’ Before receiving Holy Communion, he prayed with such fervour the words, ‘Lord, never let me be parted from you.’
‘I know that my Redeemer lives; and in my flesh I shall see God,’ says the psalmist. ‘Now we see as in a glass darkly,’ says St Paul, ‘but then we shall see face to face.’ And St Augustine tells us God has promised us ‘the joy of seeing his face’. So St John of the Cross can cry out in prayer, ‘What gladness for him who is able to see God with his own eyes.’
Because this is our faith: that we shall see him face to face. But our faith also tells tell us we must seek his face not only in the future but also in the here and now, especially in those who are most in need. As we deck the halls and fill the tables, we do well to recall St John Chrysostom who spoke words which surely challenge each one of us:
'Do you wish to honour the Body of Christ? Then do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honour him here in the church building with silks, only to neglect him outside, when he is suffering from cold and from nakedness. For he who said, "This is my body’ is the same who said, ‘You saw me, a hungry man, and you did not give me to eat." Of what use is it to load the table of Christ? Feed the hungry and then come and decorate the table. You are giving a golden chalice and you do not give a cup of cold water?'
For me, these words find a deep echo in the extraordinary preaching of another saintly man: Blessed Oscar Romero. I’ve found it a particular grace to celebrate this year the centenary of Blessed Oscar’s birth; and to discover the homilies he wrote as Archbishop of San Salvador. Particularly poignant are the words he preached at Midnight Mass the Christmas before he died: 'If we wish to find the child Jesus today,’ he said, ‘we shouldn’t expect to find him in beautiful crib figures: we should look for him rather among the malnourished children who went to bed tonight with nothing to eat. We should look for him among the poor newspaper boys who will sleep tonight on doorsteps, wrapped in their papers.’
Moments before he was martyred, he too was contemplating, in his homily, the Sacred Host on which we’re fed. His last words before he was shot were a prayer that the Body and Blood of Christ might be true nourishment for us: 'May this body that was immolated and this flesh that was sacrificed for humankind,’ he said, ‘also nourish us so that we can give our bodies and our blood to suffering and pain, as Christ did, not for our own sake but to bring justice and peace to our people.’ For those who do this, he added, it shall ‘lead to the splendid crown that is the sure reward for the work of sowing truth, justice, love, and goodness on earth.’ Yes, their eyes at last shall see him and, as the carol promises, they ‘like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around’.
To help us imagine what it must feel like to anticipate this, to be just days away from seeing this, we may turn for help to another Cardinal, Cardinal Cormac’s predecessor, Cardinal Hume. When Cardinal Hume was in just the last fortnight of his life, he received a summons to the Palace. The Queen asked him what it was like to be so close to death. To which he gave the most wonderful reply. ‘Well, Ma’am,’ he said with a beatific smile, ‘it feels like one is sitting in the front row of a theatre, waiting for the curtain to go up on what one knows is going to be the most extraordinary spectacle one has ever witnessed!’
Photo of the Christmas Celebration from 2015 by Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk