Texts in full
Archbishop of Westminster's Christmas homily Vincent Nichols
29 December 2011, 9:00
Tonight we proclaim with joy the birth of Jesus, Saviour of the world. We do so in many ways: by blessing the crib, depicting that precious moment itself; by the resonant words we hear: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light'; by the music that fills this cathedral ‘O magnum mysterium'; by the solemn announcing of the Gospel: ‘And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger' and by our presence here at this midnight hour.
‘What's going on?' passers-by might ask. We are proclaiming the birth of Christ, two thousand years ago, yet as important today as it was then, for he is Saviour of the world.
We are proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God come in our flesh and blood, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary.
This is our faith. This is the joy of this night, rich beyond all others, for in these events the course of human destiny is made clear and our sense of purpose in life changed.
Yet in all the small details of this event - the stable, the ox and the ass, the shepherds with their sheep - and amidst all the splendour of the glory of God, one underlying fact remains breath-taking and calls for our reflection. It is this: that the eternal God, creator of all things, in order to fulfil the great design of his love, had first to ask the permission of one of his own creation. God's saving work is dependent on Mary saying ‘yes', granting her permission for her creator to carry out this plan for our salvation.
And if this is true of Mary, then it is true of us too.
Let me put it like this. Without Jesus Christ there is no Gospel, no revelation of the immense love of God for each one of us, or of the true meaning of our lives. Yet without our witness to this truth, the Gospel will not be known.
Christ is central to the Gospel and we are essential to its proclamation. In this God, our creator, is dependent on us, his creation. God is waiting for our ‘yes', just as he waited for Mary's. God needs our permission for the Gospel to be proclaimed.
We who gather here this night enjoy the great privilege of the gift of faith. We have within our hearts a sharp sense of God's abiding presence in our lives. We are here because we acknowledge Jesus as the fullness of that presence in our midst. Of course our practical recognition of him as ‘Our Lord' sways this way and that, sometimes full of fervour, sometimes neglected and distant. But here and now we rejoice in the gift of faith.
So, tonight, as we ponder this sacred birth, we are also to reflect on the duty that goes with this gift, this privilege of faith. Our faith in God, our awareness of God's unfailing love, brings with it responsibility and obligation. There is, with faith, an accompanying question: ‘What am I to do?'
We are to see clearly the reality of the world around us. As we look at the real circumstances of Christ's birth so too we look with fresh eyes on the anxieties and insecurity which touch many peoples' lives. We are to be freshly attentive to the needs of those who, like Jesus himself, are displaced and in discomfort. We are to see more clearly all those things which disfigure our world, the presence of the sins of greed and arrogance, of self-centred ambition and manipulation of others, of the brutal lack of respect for human life in all its vulnerability. While recognising how complex moral dilemmas can become, we are to name these things for what they are. We too live ‘in a land of deep shadow.'
That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight.
Then, secondly, we are to look with fresh wonder at those closest to us, seeing again their goodness and their loyalty, their readiness to forgive and their desire to care for us. In offering our ‘yes' to the Lord, we are to respond together with kindness and forgiveness, with generosity and compassion to those in need. Together we become, day by day, an instrument of Christ's continuing mission in our world, even to imitating his self-sacrificing love for others. In the words of St Paul we are to be a people with ‘no ambition except to do good.'
St Paul also points to the third aspect of our task. He tells us that hope is the key. We live in a world in which the prospects for the future, in the terms the world can offer, are distinctly shaky. Yet we find an unshakable hope in our Saviour. As we celebrate his birth we remember that he is to come again. And it is this coming that gives us our enduring hope. St Paul tells us that we can only fulfil the duties of faith if we are a people who ‘are waiting in hope for the blessings which will come with the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus.'
The birth of Christ shows us that the narrative of life offered by the world, an account of human life which does not see beyond the confines of the created world, is only half the story. This birth shines a light into our world which dissolves those boundaries and opens up new and startling horizons, going beyond the vision of earthly eyes and confirming as true the hope that comes with faith: hope in eternal life and in a final destiny of fulfilment for all things, hope in one who has overcome every limitation, even death itself.
Tonight let us renew that gift of faith. Let us celebrate its joy, its comfort and its challenge. Let us be ready to play our part in word and deed. As we celebrate the loving response of Mary to God's invitation, let us ask her to encourage us always to offer our ‘yes' and, staying close to her Son, confidently put our faith into practice each day.
Then indeed this will be a happy and a blessed Christmas. And I can wish you no more than that. Amen
4 January 2012 16:36 (1 of 1)
I felt a jolt at Christopher Lamb's reporting in the Tablet of Archbishop Vincent's apparent condemnation of Israel in his passing prayer for the Christian families of the parish of Beit Jala in his Christmas Eve Homily. With respect, did Christopher Lamb read the papers of the July conference at Lambeth Palace, where Archbishop Vincent joined Archbishop Rowan to plan greater suppport for Palestinian Christians and where he ended emphasizing the spirit of the presentations those two days as pro-Christian being about being pro-Israeli and pro-peace? And did he read Hannah Bendcowsky's informative account at that conference of her dedication to Christan Jewish dialogue? (On archbishop of Canterbury's website). Also I find I am sympathising a lot with Denis MacEoin's heartfelt open letter to Archbishop Vincent - his detailed response to the Homily, writing as he can with deep knowledge of the Arab world and his editorship of the Middle East Quarterly. There is always another point of view and the Forum for the Discussion for Israel and Palestine wisely encourages that we take responsibility for our vested interests before we can listen to others'. There are so many shadowed areas in the world. But regarding the Middle East, there was light I so much wish that Archbishop Vincent and his advisors might have experienced 6 weeks ago - the visit to London of representatives of the Parents Circle Bereaved Families Forum - the 600 families Israeli and Palestinian, each of whom has lost a family member through the conflict and who strive together to spread the message of non violent solution and dialogue and reconciliation - through educational programmes and joint ventures - always a Palestinian and Israeli speaking together.The Deputy Mayor of Bethlehem sadly but courageously is a member of this group, having lost a dearly loved daughter, working with them for Gandhian non violentce - to stop the pain of further loss of life for other families. I believe that he as a Palestinian Christian would be glad for us to know about his organisation -- through the YouTube video - www.youtube.com/watch.v=3GZxLCGSCoW - 'could you hurt someone who has your blood in his veins?'.Their Blood Relations action - donating blood for hospitals on both sides - is a light in the darkness fpr today. The UK support group of their organisation includes Archbishop Rowan and Karen Armstrong as patrons(UK Friends of Bereaved Families Forum.)Round the world their courageous use of their pain to advocate non-violence attracts peace prizes and commendation. That outside encouragement is vital to maintain the sometimes risky work they persevere with, against such odds, with their ultimate aim to influence electorates on either side towards moderate solutions and the peace that the world longs for.
Take the knocks - they do the Church good
Popular culture is being surprisingly respectful of Catholicism now, argues Mark Lawson
Replace fear with boldness, cynicism with confidence
Lancaster bishop urges Church to ditch nostalgia and focus on mission
Mary, inspiration for students
US Cardinal Timothy Dolan celebrates the secret of Notre Dame University
Pope attacks the tyranny of the markets
Cult of money is today's golden calf, warns Francis
Hospitals must ensure the LCP is not misapplied
Professor David Albert Jones, Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre
Muslims are living in fear after the Woolwich murder
Gay marriage and disestablishment: better the muddle you know?
Medics don't want assisted dying legalised
Dr Gillian Paterson, guest contributor
Why do Catholic schools need to turn to Stonewall?
Church's safeguarding chief calls for public inquiry into abuse
Woolwich Mass for Drummer Rigby
Communion denial divides prelates
CS Lewis' stepson attacks biography