Given at Christmas Eve 2021 at St Paul’s Wood Green
It is wonderful this evening to celebrate 50 years in this church building. One year ago, due to the pandemic, you were unable to mark the 50 years since the first Mass in the present church was celebrated on 24th December 1970 and later the official opening of the church on the Feast of St Paul, 25th January 1971. This evening we are a people who celebrate the birth of the Son of God, named Jesus, the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, and so appropriately this church was opened on 24th December 1970 at a time of great social and ecclesial transformation of the ’60s and the Second Vatican Council. This evening we thank God not only for the gift of this present church but especially for the gift of God’s holy people who are the community and the parish of Saint Paul’s here in Wood Green. The parish is now 140 years old and has served countless generations often finding their way in London and wishing to give the best they could to children and families in love, in church and in schools.
Thinking back to 1971, the completion of the new church in its modern style must have been a huge shock not only for the parishioners but also the people of the neighbourhood. Finally, to see the architectural creation of John Rochford and partners from Sheffield, there must have been so many different reactions! The new church was so completely different from the old one, though included are the old stained glass windows at the entrance and some statues. In 1981 another dramatic artistic development saw the addition of the stained-glass windows entitled the ‘Pilgrim church’ designed by Carmel Cauchi. I am sure they too have taken time to love.
The building only really becomes a ‘church’ when God’s holy people, the anointed, the beloved of the Lord, the baptised, gather together with others to celebrate the Mass, to pray and to offer their petitions, in joy and in hope, in suffering and in pain, to the Father who hears our prayers. The stones or the pillars or the windows know the secrets of many hearts, as does God, as well as all the offerings of prayers and candles whose lights burn brightly, particularly in times of darkness, as people have trodden their path towards God who loves them. The pandemic has highlighted our frailty and vulnerability, like Jesus the Christ Child, on that first night of birth in the stable at Bethlehem.
The mystery of this Feast of Christmas is celebrated by Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians: ‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. The proof that you are children is that God has sent into your hearts his Son’s spirit which cries out: “ABBA! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a child; and if a child then also an heir, by God’s grace.’
On this night we celebrate the fullness of time when God’s plan comes to fruition, Our Blessed Lady and St Joseph have travelled to Bethlehem for the census and Mary waits to give birth to the son promised her by the Angel Gabriel, the Messiah, the one who brings light into the darkness of life. This child is not born into riches, is not born in a palace, but rather born into the poverty of a stable with the presence of the animals, and laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We draw to the crib to kneel humbly before this Holy Child, the Son of God and the Son of Man. We worship him who has come to redeem us and to make us his own children, that we might receive adoption as God's children, not simply like a legal arrangement but much more deeply as we share in relationship with God the Father who loves each one of us as a tender and loving father whom we call ABBA, Papa, my dad in a term of endearment and love. He is like a parent who bends down to us, who is tender, who plays with us but at the same time is strong and can be relied on for protection so that we grow in courage and freedom. We become children of God and so brothers and sisters of one another called to be born in the Holy Spirit and live out our faith in the service of others. With amazement we celebrate this evening. (Based on Cardinal Cantalamessa, First Advent Talk, 2021)
We can only receive this gift; we cannot earn it. We can only thank God for it and unwrap it so that it becomes our life. We come in amazement. We come in amazement at the gift of being God’s children, amazement at the gift of Christ coming to us in the Eucharist, amazement of his love for each one of us warts and all, fragile and weak. We come to hear God speaking into our hearts, ‘My son, my daughter, my beloved.’ He invites us to grow in that love and become brothers and sisters as well as recognising that we are heirs to his kingdom.
I wish you all a very happy Christmas as you begin to celebrate not only this day but also later in the new year the 140th anniversary of the parish and the important anniversaries of your schools.
May God bless you all!
Bishop John Sherrington