My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and all people of good will, I speak to you as a gathering of so many individuals, mostly, but not exclusively, identifying yourselves as Catholic Christians. Let us be aware that this is more than a private experience; it is a corporate celebration because we are part of something done in solidarity with many millions of people throughout the world. It unites us within a tradition of Faith reaching back over two thousand years. Far from diminishing your individual worth, this is something that actually adds value to you. The religious truth presented to the world in this feast of Christ’s Incarnation is that God is with us as Saviour. The image we are invited to reflect on is the natural birth in extremely basic circumstances of a young woman’s first child. The image is crucial: It serves to help us know the nature of the God in whom we place our trust. It shows us not only God’s desire to be with us but also how we might begin to respond to God’s desire. Many people admit their lack of a belief in God. It is worth asking them to tell us about the god they don’t believe in. It may well be that we can agree with them and reject the god they describe. More positively, we can try to convey what we believe about the God we know, as revealed in Jesus. It may surprise them. Such a conversation is not aimed at winning an argument, but simply and respectfully sharing what we believe to be true. They can take it or leave it.At its heart there is the gift of new life, seen, heard, touched and even smelt. It is a baby! We insist that life is received as a gift, not as a right. If it is a gift then there must be a giver of the gift, just as there must be a recipient. At this point let me share a brief story. A grandfather was out of touch with his grandson’s generation. He didn’t know what gift to get him for Christmas. So, he took the easy option and put cash in an envelope, knowing that the boy was into ‘tec’. Come Christmas, the family gathered and the present-opening commenced, imagine the scene. The boy opened the envelope, withdrew the money and with a happy expression began to count. His expression then started to change. He looked again in the envelope, recounted the money and began to look decidedly disappointed. When granddad asked what the problem was he said it was only £150. To buy what he wanted would cost £250. The gift was not enough. I’d like to say that the lad received a slap, but I’m not allowed to say that! Poor Santa. Annually trying to satisfy our wishes, going about it in such a generous way, but where are last year’s presents now? Most have served their purpose. They are lost, or broken, or spent, or consumed, or out-grown. Few last. That is the nature of this world’s gifts, good for a time only. This isn’t something we need to be miserable about. All we need to do is recognise the nature of things that pass. They will not satisfy our deepest longings. Perhaps the greatest reason why so many reject the Christian religion is because it doesn’t seem to achieve its task. Evidence abounds to show that suffering and evil still thrive, and most damagingly, in our official structures. This we cannot deny. If the eradication of evil is its objective, the gift has not had its desired effect. It appears to have failed. It is not enough. Let’s go back to the crib and the gift of this little new life. God the Father has given us His only Son. Within our Faith tradition, firmly rooted in the soil of the Jewish tradition, we recognise here life at the mercy of life; Divine Life at the mercy of human life. It appears to stand God and religion on its head! If this plan is to work it will rely heavily on a generous response. This child won’t just do it for us. This child will demand a great deal of us, continually. This child will ask us to adopt a new way of life ourselves. This child will draw from us what we had no idea we are capable of. Life at the mercy of life. This child will ask us to recognise that certain things are of passing value, others eternal. It is my hope that each of you will be touched as if for the first time by the Christmas story.
I pray that something good will be re-awakened in you from your past, and from far deeper than that. I pray that you will sense something of your own spiritual life – possibly long neglected and starved of care. I pray that the God-given good in you will be strengthened, that you will believe you are not alone in your fight against sin and temptation. I pray that the gift of being healed and healing will be given you. I pray that the balance of hope will shift within you in favour of the light, a light that this world’s darkness cannot overcome. I pray that your prayer-life will be re-awakened and refreshed, and that you will find a joy in life that refuses to be defeated. I pray that you are given a peace of mind and heart in the midst of all the things trying to frighten you or make you anxious. May you know that this child came to answer your prayers, to fulfil your desires, to restore your lost dignity, and give you a purpose for living, no matter what your age, status, health or past have been.
I pray that God will break into the stable of your soul in order not to steal, but to leave His precious gifts, gifts perhaps you don’t think you deserve or that you’d given up hope of receiving. I pray that you will believe Jesus has come to keep you company and lead you on His way.
By way of conclusion, Groucho Marx was once leaving a party and was saying good-night to the hostess: She asked if he’d had a lovely evening to which he replied: ‘Madam, I’ve had a wonderful evening . . . . but this wasn’t it!’ For many, Christmas can be a disappointing experience, being spoilt or leaving you feeling short-changed – very short-changed in some cases! Your Christmas may be far from perfect. Keep in mind that a huge part of the Christian celebration is about Christ’s Second coming at the end of time, maybe at the end of our time. He came to share fully in our life with the simple desire that we will eventually come to share fully in His.
Season’s greetings to you all!
Bishop of Lancaster