Given at the Mass in the Night on Christmas Eve 2020 in Westminster Cathedral
At this time, every year, we hear these words: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’. Familiar words indeed, and easily left unheeded. But this year the darkness is more immediate, more encircling. Knowing the darkness helps us to appreciate the light.
In the darkness of this pandemic so many of our comfortable assumptions are being shaken. Here we are, celebrating Christmas, yet deprived of the greetings, hugs, kisses and handshakes that normally fill this day. We are living in a time in which the loneliness that some always feel at Christmas is painfully touching so many. Family bonds are being tested by these restrictions; those in hospital and care homes long to see their loved ones, with a pain that cannot be eased. Some, I believe, fade away from sheer loneliness. The darkness is deep.
Yet light penetrates this present darkness. Have we not seen these months of difficulty marked by countless acts of random kindness, quiet heroism, selfless service, remarkable community efforts, all directed towards those most in need? In our nature, in our make-up, there is an indomitable spirit of goodness that responds with sacrifice and love. It is the spark of the divine within us, the sense of a life in essence never private but shared with others, with the whole of creation.
This spark is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, God of God, Light of Light, born in poverty so that all may approach him.
In him, the fullness of light and love comes into the darkness of our world, at present confused, disoriented, trying to feel the right way forward. In his life, he brings this light and love to the darkness of lonely suffering, to the darkness of the torture and cruelty of his death. He brings a light and a love which overcomes all darkness and death, setting us free, as St Paul says, to be a people ‘of his very own’, having ‘no ambition except to do good’.
For people throughout the world this is a time of crisis. And a crisis is a crossroads in which we face choices about which way to go, about what to do next. At a crossroad we look for the signposts, the indications about the road to take.
At this time of crisis we must set up those signposts, clearly and unambiguously, signposts which signal the kind of society we want to emerge from this period of darkness. Of course there are the great challenges of economic recovery, of building a deeper sense of mutual responsibility between nations and states, not least in the distribution of vaccines to the poorest. But tonight I think more of the domestic and local signposts we want to erect. Can we not build back better? Surely we can create a more kind culture, a daily discourse of respect towards those with whom we disagree, a practice of compassionate standing together in times of stress and hardship, a deeper empathy for the suffering of others. These we have seen bud in the months of hardship. These are the roads we want to take, roads on which we overcome divisions of colour and class, taking us beyond the division of wealth and well-being. Let us set up those signposts at this crossroads of our history, knowing that the light come into the world this night is given so that we can know the truth, the goodness and the beauty by which to shape our future. It is in the person of the Christ-child, God in our flesh, that we find our road of life, the ending of our fears and the fulfilment of our hopes.
The words of my favourite carol, O Holy Night – incidentally the carol declared by Songs of Praise to be the most popular of all – remind us of the Gospel we have just heard. The carol invites us, in a soaring melody, to harken to the angel voices announcing this birth. ‘Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices! O night divine when Christ was born!’ The angel voices, in our day, may only be a whisper, easily lost amidst clamour and noise. But listen! Listen to that quiet whisper in the depth of your heart.
Later verses of the carol, in its original text, explain the message they bring: he who has come is our Saviour, our Redeemer.
‘The Redeemer has broken every bond. The Earth is free and Heaven is open. He sees a brother where there was only a slave. Love unites those whom iron had chained. Who will tell him of our gratitude? For us all he is born, he suffers and dies. People stand up! Sing of your deliverance!’
This we shall do! This ‘night divine’ is our time of joy and thanksgiving and our hope for the future we must fashion together.
A happy Christmas to you all!
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster