On this Holy night, whoever you are and wherever you are from, I welcome you here to St.Peter’s Cathedral, Lancaster, and am glad of your company in our celebration of the Lord’s Nativity.
Let us begin in a dark place, because there is darkness in our lives.
‘The people that walked in darkness . . . . ‘ begins Isaiah in our first reading. He is referring to us, and not just us. We see the world lying in deep shadow. Think of those you love, and those you don’t love! Think of the news, so many struggling, trying to live in a form of darkness. War, famine, natural disasters, personal griefs, misunderstandings, health worries . . . . so many forms of darkness.
This morning Fr.Stuart Chapple kindly took me into prison (and kindly brought me back!). What do prisoners want for Christmas? Perhaps some door and gate keys, key-pad codes, perhaps simply a day out to be with their loved ones. It is Christmas, but they are still in prison, others still have terminal cancer, others have debts and no work. The trains are still not running, the war in Ukraine continues, the famine in the Horn of Africa gets worse. What can we say to these people in darkness about the difference Christmas brings?
Truly, God chooses to intervene, to do something about all this. What does He do? The Word became flesh, in a little war-torn corner of the darkness, a backwater of the world we know as the Middle East. We might ask, ‘Did God do a proper risk-assessment before He intervened?’ Jesus’s first nine months in the flesh were in the womb of Mary. (Let us pray for the unborn because the womb is not free from risk as we know all too well, given all that can go wrong.) But surely that was safer than what followed once she delivered her First-Born Son. Now He is in the wonderful but frightening world. Of all the infinite parts of the created universe, He chose what we know to be a trouble-spot, the earth. Most towns and cities have their rough quarters, and perhaps we live in the rough part of creation. If there is Intelligent life out there in space, and if they have learnt about us, maybe they are doing their utmost to keep us isolated, knowing our ability to self-destruct and spoil. But at least he Lord wisely chose to get to us well before the advent of Social Media and Global Warming!
So, God intervenes, and effectively becomes a statistic, part of the data of the census. We can ask, ‘Is this the best He can do? The answer is, If He had chosen any other way He would have been far less effective, less able to relate to us, less able to be anything more to us and for us than an extreme emergency response agent. You know what I mean, the sort of number you phone only when you have a problem.
We believe in God, and this infant in war-torn Palestine is His face. This is the God we believe in. He chooses to intervene, to come to us at a moment in time, in this way, to reveal Himself to us. Notice, His way of coming to us has this effect; He makes us aware of a darkness in our souls that the temporary lights of this world cannot penetrate, the temporary solutions cannot satisfy, good though they are while they last. Those lights work for a while but then leave us longing, still incomplete, still at risk.
You will have heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). There is a form of it that humanity is born with. In our theology it is called Original Sin, the Fall. We all carry the effects of its consequences. So, can this child born in Bethlehem really make a difference for us? If He is no more than an inspiring, humble person, undoubtedly gifted, obviously well intentioned, determined, then No, we are hardly any better off. But then comes Faith and Grace. Here we have more than a ‘statistic-person’, more than another mouth to feed, more than another opinion to hear, because this is the Son of God.
And here is an important truth to ponder; God’s intervention is not primarily done to sort out our messes and clean up after us. So, what is His purpose?
To let us know we are loved, even when all the love we have known has failed or been lost.
To let us know we are loved, even after we have behaved atrociously, shamefully, and do not deserve yet another chance.
To let us know we are loved, even though a form of darkness seems to cling to us, to imprison us.
To let us know that the limits and random restrictions of this life do not define us because He does.
To let us know that our origins lie in the heart of God – who is Love – and our ultimate and lasting life lies in that same heart of God.
How long does it take to get to know someone? How long does it take to come to know ourselves?
No matter how old you are or what you have been through or what you are facing, there is something more to know, further to journey into this Mystery of Divine love. Jesus tells us that the best is still to come. We can break down the word Christmas into Christ and Mass. This is the Mystery of Divine love, and we are in it here, now. It is possible to have a sort of life without Faith, living in darkness and constantly at risk. But we are called to know and live something far better. You may feel you have not found it, or perhaps once had it (as a child) but have lost it along the way. The beauty of Christmas is not that you have found a treasure but that you have been found. Your cry has been heard; your prayer has been answered. And what form does that answer take? A baby, wrapped in blankets, lying in the manger. But look more closely, take a little longer: Grace is at work even here! He grows and matures, and if you cannot see, He gives sight to the blind – and if you cannot hear, He opens your ears and teaches understanding – and if you cannot walk, He restores your limbs that you may walk. And He Himself becomes our Guide.
To conclude. Whatever your circumstances, difficulties, past, the Saviour has been born for you, dwells with you and leads you on. Even through the darkness of this and every age, He leads us on, to the heart of the Father, where we are meant to rest.
To each of you, and to your loved ones, and to all those you pray for, may you know the closeness of our loving Saviour through your celebration of His Blessed Nativity. May you know His presence in your homes and hearts this Christmas and in the year to come. May you have a peaceful and Holy Christmas.
Bishop of Lancaster