Given at Midnight Mass of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas 2016, at Westminster Cathedral.
Midnight Mass is full of light and darkness. We gather in the dead of night. We are referred to as a people 'that walked in darkness'. Yet we rejoice for a great light has been given to us, the light spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah, the light seen by the shepherds which burst through the darkness of the Palestinian sky.
At this time, there is much anxiety about the state of our world. In the last few weeks the famous words of the Irish Poet W. B. Yeats have often been used. Writing in 1919, he spoke of a brutal and disintegrating world in which, and I quote:
'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...
And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.' (The Second Coming, 1919).
These words reflect the deep and widening sense of uncertainly many feel today. This is not the time or place to reflect on reasons or causes, but it is right to recognise these anxieties and fears.
Yeats was a professed atheist, yet he ended his poem in a most telling way. He wrote:
'What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'
Tonight we have come to Bethlehem, not to find the birthplace of the rough beast, but to come to a manger and a new-born babe. In him we see the king of kings, the one who, in his littleness, shows the true nature of power and dominion. In him we find light in the darkness, a light by which we can walk and shape our lives, both personally and together. In him we find no menacing roughness but a beauty that enthralls us and on which we gaze in joyful recognition. Here we find our true selves and the fulfilling of our deepest desires.
Many other claims entice us with promises of fulfilment, including selfishness and even anarchy. They want to take up their abode in the stable of our hearts. But only here, in the stable of Bethlehem, do we find the one on whom we can truly depend. We welcome him again into our heart so that others may not usurp his place. Only when we empty life of its deepest truths can the rough beast rush in. Yet that emptying takes place, in our lives, not so much by hostile rejection or opposition, but by indifference and neglect.
Deep in this night, we may recognise that neglect of God often shows itself first in neglect of our neighbour. When our neighbour becomes invisible or irrelevant then the light of the stable of Bethlehem is being slowly extinguished. When compassion and respect disappear, then we are heading towards the darkness of the rough beast.
In the crib of Bethlehem there was room for the shepherds, the lowest of the low in their society. In our thoughts, prayers and actions there is to be room for the poor of our time so that they too may know this respect and concern. The list of those who seek our welcome is long: the homeless, the refugee, the victim of violence and human trafficking. Their voices call out for our compassion.
Among them are the voices of those caring for their elderly parents and relatives, whether at home or in care. They are so frightened that resources to meet the basic needs of their loved ones are being withdrawn as care services are reviewed and reduced. For many elderly and needy people not only are these basic needs sometimes left unmet, but human contact disappears and the darkness of loneliness closes in. Meeting this challenge requires a recognition that good care for the elderly and vulnerable is not only important but nothing less than a defining characteristic of our society. If we fail, the rough beast is waiting.
In his poem Yeats predicted that 'the centre cannot hold', adding that 'the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.' Yes, we are anxious of the current instability in economic prospects and in the effectiveness of political structures. But here we come to a deeper centre, to Bethlehem, to him who shows us the foundations on which we must build, the priorities we must seek. He shows us the true centre of our being. This centre certainly can hold for he is the light that the darkness cannot overcome; he has already conquered the most radical threat of all: death itself.
As we rejoice in his wonderful birth, the coming of the light, let us be sure that we are not among those described as 'the best' who 'lack all conviction'. Rather, let our conviction be clear: that, living in the presence of God we strive for truth, respect, compassion and forgiveness. May God's presence be seen not only around our family table, but in our reaching out, as best we can, to all who need that care.
The birth of Jesus is a recorded fact, marked in time, as we heard in the Gospel. The life he holds out for us is not a theory or a philosophy or an ideal. It is a relationship with him who alone can work the change in each one of us that we truly desire. He is our Saviour, our Redeemer. He has come to us. Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
A very happy Christmas to you all!