Reflection given at the Metropolitan Police Carol Service in Westminster Abbey on 16th December 2021
The imagery and symbolism of light surrounds us at Christmas time: Christmas trees, home decorations, street lighting, and plenty of candles!
One of my most powerful experiences of the coming of light is that of watching the dawn, the slow emerging of the sun across a wide sky. First, if I am awake early enough, there is that wonderful and strange light of the predawn; then slowly the first tip of the sun peeks above the horizon and the miraculous spread of light begins.
Features of the landscape, or the sea, come to life, revealing shape, colour, deepening shadows and emboldening highlights and beauty. Finally all is revealed!
As we glance across the landscape of our lives, as you do so professionally, what do we see? Without doubt we see the brute realities of exploitation, violence, betrayal, all those realities that some would prefer to remain hidden. We also see the gentle, soft-coloured goodness that is the patchwork of countless acts of kindness, of comradeship. We see the straight lines of determined service, a resolute desire to see things through. And we see the striking features of heroic qualities of bravery, courage, selflessness in the face of danger, given in the name of true service.
This evening we reflect in the context of the Christian faith on the deeper echoes of this theme of light.
We remember that the very first action and word of God, the giver of life, is this: ‘Let there be light!’ Indeed, in the eyes of faith, God is the source of that light within every person, that shines through in so many unexpected ways, and which has such a resilience that it cannot be totally extinguished. The account of our history, as portrayed in the Scriptures in so many styles and formats, is a story of the battle between darkness and light.
This account of our history comes to its climax in the events we recall in this Carol Service. In the words of St John’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus Christ is the coming of a life ‘that is the light of all people, a light that shines in the darkness, and darkness can never overpower it’ (Jn 1:4-5).
This light is refracted in a thousand different ways. Serving the upholding of the law is certainly one of those bright rays. To work for justice, to oppose the evils of crime, exploitation, violence, can be a service of the brightest light, enabling the weakest and oppressed to find a way to the comfort of knowing that justice has been served. To do so with integrity and honour is not easy, yet it is the hallmark that divides the exploiters from the exploited. There are also so many other ways in which this light is reflected in how we live, in what we do, in generosity, in faithfulness, in companionship, in humour and good spirit. The world is full of such goodness and light!
Sometimes, as when looking at a beautiful chandelier, we do not think of the source of the light, admiring more its diffusion. But this moment is, I suggest, one in which to ponder again the source of this light. It lies in great mystery that is deeply embedded in each one of us: how within our human spirit is what can only be described as a spark of the divine, an urging that takes us out of our individual selves, beyond our normal horizons into a wider realm that is truly greater than we are.
How interesting it is that the source of this all-pervading light chooses to enter fully into our reality not as a great impressive parade of power and judgement, but in the circumstances of a lowly, impoverished, makeshift cowshed. How interesting that the ‘light of the world’ thus ensures that no one is overpowered and distanced from this coming. Everyone can come, just as they are, to recognise the greatness of this gift.
I say ‘everyone’, but maybe that is not true. In the Church which marks the spot of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, the only available doorway into the Church is no more than 5 foot 6 inches high. Most people have to bend a little to enter. Certainly, and symbolically, no-one can ever have entered on horseback. We all have to get down off our high horse to appreciate the gift of this light coming into the world for us! That is the one condition of coming truly into the light.
As a follower, a disciple, of Jesus Christ for me and for billions of people around the world, this Feast of Christmas is truly a moment of supreme joy. We rejoice in this annual remembrance of his birth, in which we see the culmination of the love in which God holds this world, sustaining within us his gift of life. In this person of Jesus the Christ, God places within our embrace the full expression of what it is to be fully human, what the profile and cost of love truly is. God also gives us his companionship which enables us to walk in that path of wholeness. Of course, we, his disciples, often make a mess of things. But in the person of Jesus we know we are never abandoned, never left to be lost in the mess we make, but always offered the chance to stand and start again. Now this is a gift much needed today in so many different spheres of life.
I am very grateful to your Commissioner for her kind invitation to me to speak with you today. I am grateful for the opportunity to wish you, your families, your loved ones, all you colleagues, a happy Christmas, a moment of deepened appreciation of the goodness of life and a refreshing glimpse of the Light that has come into the world, and whose coming we celebrate with such joy.
A happy Christmas to you all.
✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster
Photo of Westminster Abbey Quire: Mazur/CBCEW.org.uk