10pm Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, 24th December 2013
There is no doubt that the story of Christmas is fascinating. It contains – even within its most commercialised versions – something which makes us stop and think, to realise that life is deeper than its commercialised depiction and that, in the end, all our hustle and rushing may leave us satisfied for the moment, yet leave us afterwards with just a void.
We begin to celebrate Christmas at that moment in which we stop and pause. We begin to celebrate Christmas when we leave the hustle and bustle aside. Coming here this evening, we will all have somehow shifted gear emotionally, from the hustle of the preparation to this moment of collective calm and serenity which we share not just with one another, but with Christians all around the world, even in places torn apart by conflict; even in homes where relations are frayed; even among those who have no home, but who experience Christmas through the care of others. Christmas can and must change hearts.
Christ brings people together to think differently about who we are as individuals and as the family of humankind. Christmas spontaneously releases generosity. I would once again like to express my thanks for the wonderful response to my Crosscare Food Bank appeal.
Crosscare received over 70 tons of food: nothing of luxury, but simple basic food for families who might otherwise not have had enough to eat in these days. These are our neighbours, not just in the broad theological sense; they are indeed our next-door neighbours, people living in this city and in this diocese.
When Jesus takes on human flesh he teaches us who God is. At the moment of his birth, the good news reaches out to only a few and indeed to the unexpected. The birth of kings is usually celebrated within the halls of royalty and announced with trumpets. Jesus is born in poverty and defencelessness. He is revealed only to shepherds, nomads who like himself do not have a fixed home. These shepherds are not the tinselled shepherds of our Christmas cards: they are rough and dirty. They were considered impure and were excluded from the worship-life of the community. Jesus is revealed just to these marginalized. Life in the inns and the hostelries, which had no space for the new born Jesus, goes on without noticing what is happening.
Jesus’ birth reminds us that God – then and today – will only be recognised and understood by these, to use the well-repeated word of Pope Francis, who “smell of the sheep they tend”, rather than of the sweet perfumes of the noble and the elegant. Jesus reveals to us that God is not to be found among those who flourish in the superficial, but in the real world where people survive to make ends meet.
Jesus takes on human flesh and he teaches us what it is to be a human being. The essence of our humanity is not to be found in any self-created comfort zone, where the harshness of life is covered up or placed conveniently out of sight or where the rawness of human relationships is romanticised in superficiality.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not the God of the magic-wand who turns the challenges of life, Cinderella-like, into a fairy tale. Jesus tells us that being human is about being really authentic. If the only cold and snow we really encounter at Christmas is the cotton wool and spray of the shop windows, then we miss the message of Jesus and our lives will remain within the artificial and superficial. If we perfume away the deeper realities of what life is about – our own lives and the lives of those around us – then we reject the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ which alone can save us and change us.
The story of Jesus birth is not just a nice fairy tale. It is also about the harshness and the sinfulness and the self-centredness which exists in human hearts which Jesus came to change and which can so easily be institutionalised and consolidated into structures in society which entrap and imprison. Church and State have separate roles; faith does not impose any particular political or social order. Politics and economics are never an end in themselves. Harshness and corruption and disregard can become consolidated in any model of society, numbing or replacing that vision of the prophecy of Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading: lifting up the yoke that is weighing on our brothers and sisters, breaking the bars which weigh heavily across their shoulders, and removing the rod of oppression and abandonment which frustrates their aspirations.
Christmas is not just a day, it is a way of life, where day after day the focus of politics and economics – and above all of the choices we all make in our own daily lives – always contain within them, and not just as something external and extra, a preferential love for the poor.
Politics and economics are at the service of people and their true effectiveness is to be discerned and measured – before, during and after austerity – in how they respond to the needs of the poor and the marginalized.
Jesus takes on human flesh in poverty. He becomes poor for our sake. Addressing the needs of the poor and the marginalized is not just about the politics of poverty or even of doing things for the poor; it is about identifying ourselves with true poverty, about a life of self-giving rather than a life of self-aggrandizement or accumulating wealth. Following Jesus’ poverty is not just about politics and economics; it is about how we live. None of us would be here this evening if we had not encountered and been accompanied on our way by men and women who followed the path of the self-giving love of Jesus and gave themselves for us. This very evening there are parents with meagre means who are bringing happiness to their children with small gestures.
Today and tomorrow the loneliness of many who live on their own will be brightened up by someone who calls on them; the hearts of many mothers and fathers will be warmed up this night by that long-awaited phone call from a sadly-missed son and daughter who had to emigrate. It is not enough to talk or philosophise about the poor: the follower of Jesus must meet the poor and know in their hearts what poverty and loneliness mean.
Christmas is a Feast of humanity and what is best in humanity. Perhaps the most striking – if indeed the saddest – story I listened to during this entire year was a story told to me by a young man. He had been a very talented young boy, but at school he was very fragile and insecure and uncertain and vulnerable. He had two teachers. One took up his fragility and vulnerability and gave him confidence and encouragement and brought out the very best in him. The other noticed that same vulnerability and fragility, but betrayed him, humiliated him and sexually abused him. In the world around us, each of us can look at the same reality of the life of others and can react in opposing ways: through giving and encouraging and challenging and rejoicing in the other’s achievement, or through disregard, disinterest and exploitation.
Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus which we heard just now, reminded us that when “God’s grace was revealed in Jesus Christ he made salvation possible and taught us what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God”. Jesus takes on human flesh and tells us who God is and what it means to be a human person. In Jesus God and humanity are united and we learn that the way to the fullness of our humanity is in following the way of Jesus, who showed us who God is by becoming poor so that we can be saved.
Our reaction must be to recognise that God: not just to recognise God with the momentary emotion of this evening, but to join with the shepherds and the heavenly host to worship him, to render glory to the God in the highest who is revealed in Jesus Christ and to pray that God’s kingdom will be spread by us in such a way so that all can enjoy the peace that he alone can bring.