Given at the Metropolitan Police Carol Service at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday 15 December 2015.
As many of you will know, credit for the introduction of the Christmas Crib goes to St Francis of Assisi. In the town of Gubbio, in 1223, he introduced a living pageant of the birth of Jesus, with real animals and, in it suggested, a living baby. It was a huge attraction and evoked great joy and emotion. And it gave rise to a wonderful variety of cribs, all over the world, in so many different styles and cultures.
Not surprisingly perhaps, one of the more unusual cribs appeared here in England towards the end of the 16th century. The manger itself, in which lay the baby Jesus, consisted of a mince pie. The crib lasted only till dinner time on Christmas Day, when the pie was duly eaten! Such eccentricities were later banned by the Puritan authorities, following the First English Civil War. But then Christmas itself was banned as a terrible corruption which had infiltrated England from Rome!
Now St Francis is said to have had a very clear intention in putting up that first crib, in the thirteenth century. It was to direct people’s attention away from the material side of Christmas and all the parties and presents, and focus their attention on the birth of Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, born in our flesh. So not much changes! Now I have the same intention myself and I am glad St Francis is on my side!
Even so, I probably need all the help I can get, so let me point to some of the other figures in the crib. Let me ask the help of St Joseph. There he is the husband of Mary. But he is not the natural father of Jesus because, as a truly divine person, truly God, Jesus is conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. But Joseph is there, rejoicing in his title of guardian, keeping watch over this vulnerable and holy family.
I look for his help because you, like him, are guardians, working hard to keep us safe. He will understand you very well indeed. I thank you most sincerely for this role that you fulfil, for the work you all do. In many ways, we are entrusted to your care, just as Jesus and Mary were entrusted into the care of Joseph. They faced many challenges and dangers. They were a migrant family, being forced to travel, first by political interests that wanted greater control over their lives and then by the death threats a powerful occupying force. They faced social rejection and homelessness. They truly were in need of protection as are many today.
We too face risks and dangers at this time. The current threat level with which we live is severe and you know all that is implied in that better than I. You study the risks confronting us and you prepare to face them and to help us all respond intelligently, calmly and correctly. As I look at St Joseph in every crib I see, I think of you all, and many others alongside you, and I thank God for your presence, your vigilance and your courage. And I pray for your families too, those you are caring for in that very personal, loving way. I pray that you will be protected from all harm, that St Joseph will be a guardian for you too.
Among the other figures in the crib, for me, some of the favourites are the angels. There they are, trying to attract our attention to this great event, the birth of Jesus, the One who can teach us the best path of life, the One in whom we will find the loving mercy for which every human being longs.
The announcements of the angels were noisy Glorias and a lot of singing. It was probably quite intrusive. I can just imagine that there were complaints made about all that singing way after midnight. Sometimes when I hear your sirens piercing the silence of the night I offer a prayer for those involved in that rapid response, preparing to face what may be a tricky situation.
As you know, it is profoundly part of our Christian thinking and way of life to see in the one in need the very presence of Jesus himself. This is the deeper meaning of his birth in the stable at Bethlehem: that he who is God chose to identify with us most closely in our vulnerability and weakness. Somewhere in that needy person, in that victim, in that distressed and disoriented offender, there is a spark of the divine, just as the child in the cold manger is the fullness of the Godhead. As I listen to the sirens I pray that as events unfold those who are in attendance will sense God's presence with them and see in their actions attentiveness to the handiwork of God himself.
I am so pleased to have this opportunity to thank you again for your work in this great city. I do so on behalf of all its citizens. I thank you for your service and I assure you of my prayers. I also wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Some of you, no doubt, will be on duty. So will I. Some may be on call. Many of you, I trust, will be with your families.
But whatever these days of Christmas bring, I hope nothing takes from you the gift of peace that this child Jesus can bring to us. I say that because once we see beyond the surface events of his birth, told so touchingly in carols and cribs, we begin to understand how the coming of this child is so important. He, who is uniquely truly God and truly man, bridges all the great divides to be found both within our souls and within our lives. Only he can do this because only he holds together our humanity, our capacity for greatness and for evil, with the divine life of God from whom that life comes and in whom is its fulfilment. If Jesus is not truly God then his is no more than a touching, human story, without power to change us. If he is not truly one of us, sharing in our human nature, then his message remains in the sky, beyond our reach.
But he is both truly God and truly man. He can change us with his grace and his strength. This is our faith and the faith of the Church. This is the reason for our joy and our abiding peace. He is come! We may find and meet him. Then we can know that in him our wounds are healed and that he will never desert us.
This truly is a wonderful gift!
A truly happy Christmas to you all. Amen