Given at Midnight Mass of Christmas 2018 at Westminster Cathedral
My brothers and sisters, tonight my message is simple: to wish you all a very happy Christmas, starting with this Midnight Mass and flowing out into all the days of the Christmas holiday.
You know, to step into a pulpit, especially this one, is both a privilege, and a challenge! As I begin my fiftieth year as a priest I become more and more aware of how difficult it is to find the right word, or image, to help us appreciate this moment.
You have come into the Cathedral off Victoria Street, decorated with thousands of lights, shining brightly in the dark. Christmas lights are everywhere. For me each light represents an act of kindness. In my eyes these countless lights come to represent the countless acts of kindness that so characterise our society. Yes, it is true, our society is full of generosity and compassion, although we do not shout about it. Constantly people respond to need, with quiet dedication and goodness. Yes, we are in difficult times, times of uncertainty and an absence of consensus. Yet these lights of kindness shine brightly in that surrounding darkness. In our parishes, for example, there are over 130 projects responding to food poverty and homelessness. So many of our schools provide breakfasts and vouchers for the most needy. Volunteers constantly come forward. I thank each of you who add to this effort. If, in the coming year, hardship increases, then we are ready to help in every way we can.
Tonight we take the step of naming this kindness. It springs from all that is best in the human spirit, and all that is best is an expression of the will of our Creator, the God in whose image and likeness every human being is made. The source of this goodness is the innate goodness of God, flowing through us.
We take another step, too. We see that these thousands of Christmas lights, visible in so many homes and public places, come together, coalesce, in the one great light, the light of God made visible in the birth of this Child, Jesus. He is the light that darkness cannot overcome, the goodness of God in our flesh, the pathway we are to follow. As St Paul says, he is the one in whom ‘God’s grace has been revealed’. Now that is the cause of our joy!
And there is a further step for us to take. Where is it that God’s grace has been revealed? How does God choose to show us the fullness of his grace, the source of the goodness which nestles within our hearts? God chooses to show the might of his love in a place of poverty and simplicity. God chooses to enter our world not in a palace or as an enforcer but by the route of human weakness and need. Here we see that God’s use of power is so different from the way in which we so often use the power we have. In entering our broken world God gives priority to places of despair and poverty. This is so radically important. Here we learn that this same priority is a pathway to the fulfilment and beatitude which is God’s intention for us. Only by having this same priority will the mighty of our world find the wisdom we truly need at this time. Only by taking this same perspective will the powerful come to see that their first and ultimate duty is service of the people in their genuine need. This, too, is at the heart of Christmas.
The Gospel of St Luke, as we have heard, tells us that two groups were the first to welcome the birth of the one who is our ‘Saviour’, the one who lifts us out of darkness. First are the angels. Then come the shepherds. I love the ironic quality of this scene. First the glitterati, all who are so good at displaying star quality in whatever they do, winning four straight tens, yet whose hearts are open and generous. Then the shepherds, who, in contrast, can hardly put two words together. They were the out and out rogues of their day. Yet, in the welcome of this child there is room for both, for all, just as there is room for every one of us here tonight: stars and rogues alike, and all that is in between!
We are drawn here by him, the newborn Son who is named Emmanuel, God with us. We may not quite know how this comes about, but in being here we can discover again the truth about the Church. In the compelling silence of this night we sense again that he is entering our souls, drawing us to himself. And that is the deepest truth of the Church whom we dare to call our Mother: not just an institution with all its failings; not just a human community with its comforts and irritations; but a silent and profound bond formed between us and our Saviour, and then between us who rub shoulders as we gather around him. He is our life and no matter the mess we make he will not leave us bereft.
Our light in the darkness; our way of wisdom and compassion; our bond of love and forgiveness, all given as a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!
A happy Christmas to you all! Amen.