December 25, 2020 by Bishop Paul Swarbrick
HOMILY FOR MIDNIGHT MASS OF THE LORD’S NATIVITY.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and all people of good will,
Whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever has happened in your life and your world up to now, I welcome you and share with you the blessing, the peace, joy and encouragement of our Saviour’s birth. Happy Christmas!
We few are fortunate to be here for this Midnight Mass, during which, as in every Mass, on the altar the bread and wine will become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. This is the miracle of the Mass, and it happens so that we can take Jesus out into the world, into the homes and hearts waiting for Him. We are fortunate, not because we are better than others. Some will come to Mass this evening and be told there is ‘no room’ for them. (I’d be the first to offer my seat, but no one would take it!) And yet, many have greater need than us. The Church is not a place where the sinner is unwelcome. Fears, frailty and failings should be all the more reason for coming to Jesus. He welcomed sinners, ate with them and prayed for the good of those who persecuted Him. How will our presence here tonight benefit those turned away because of restrictions on space, those unable to come, those who have been hurt by the Church, those who think they have no place here?
Were are here to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Light in our darkness, our way to the Father’s heart. It is a personal matter for each of us, but carries a public responsibility. Before a child can be born the child must be conceived, and nurtured for nine long months. The Word of God took flesh silently, hidden, within Mary, so that she could be counted a child of the Father. Similarly, the child must be conceived in you – in a silent and hidden way – so that you may know whose child you are, so that when you are asked, “Who made you?” you may reply, “God made me.”We have a responsibility to pray in this Christmas Mass for all unborn children, for their mothers and fathers waiting for their babies to be born, that they will know something of the precious gift of life, and that they will love their children. To help us know how important such prayer is, just consider that as we are told each day the number of Covid victims, (how many is it now?) yet each year in this same country over 200,000 children’s lives are ended through abortions. What did they do to deserve it? Why were they not loved? Are we not being told to save lives? Do their lives not matter?Globally, many babies do not survive until birth because of unfortunate medical complications and economic deficiencies. Many women do not survive child-birth. But Jesus did survive. He was born in extremely unhygienic circumstances, (realistic crib smells . . .) He survived infancy’s accidents and illnesses and grew to adulthood. He survived and carried the grief of losing St. Joseph, seeing His mother widowed whilst still quite young. In many ways He lived as the world dictates, He complied; that’s why we know so little about His first thirty years. And yet, He would not be defined by the world, because He was the Word made flesh, Son of God. Remember He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” There is something more than the world here.Our Christmas is different this year for obvious reasons. This pandemic is damned inconvenient! Despite your careful planning, you have to make serious, often heart-breaking sacrifices. But what is essential remains unaffected, the Mystery of the Word made flesh. And do we want to know just how Christmas changes things and why it is important? Well, there is a simple image we can use to help us understand. It is this: Stones become bread. The Old Testament, based on the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, written on tablets of stone, carried down from the mountain, preserved in the Ark of the Covenant. Stones are heavy things and will take your strength. If carrying stones is the way we do religion we are going to find ourselves getting weary, losing strength.But look what happens now, as Jesus gives us His New Commandment to love one another, and commands us to “Do this in memory of me”. The Bread of the Eucharist, Holy Communion, becomes His new way for us to do our religion. The bread becomes the Body of Christ; instead of taking our strength it gives us strength for body and soul. (What makes me smile is that it’s as though He took the idea from the devil himself. Do you remember the first temptation, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread”? Clever!) In the Tabernacle of the Jerusalem Temple they preserved stones. In the tabernacle now is the Bread of Life. Simple!We are creatures of habit. We tend to like what is familiar, what we are used to. Christmas can be little more than a nostalgia for what we have known. (The smell of cigars takes me back to childhood family Christmases. Dad always smoked cigars at Christmas!) If we are brave enough, perhaps even desperate enough, we can receive – as a gift – what Jesus wants to give us, an encounter with the living God. It is not gained as the fruit of our hard work or careful planning. These can always disappoint us as unforeseen and unwelcome factors spoil them. Instead, even with the smallest, most pathetic scrap of Faith, within us, the Word can be conceived. We may not be aware of it. We don’t know how it has happened. It is pure Grace, pure gift, utterly undeserved. Stones become bread: the Word becomes flesh. My plans fail so that God’s greater Plan may succeed.You can meet people who declare with great confidence and great sincerity, “I don’t believe in god”! It may even be said by children, and you can be stuck to know how to answer them. Perhaps there are two ways to proceed. Firstly, you might say, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in”. Then listen. You may find you can say, “And I don’t believe in that god either!”. The second response you might give is to ask, “Do you believe in Jesus?” Then listen. His sole purpose is to enable us to know the one true God, who changed stones into bread. The sole purpose of the Church is to enable people to know, and come to know better, the one true God and in so doing come to know themselves.“Why did God make you?” “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next.”And there you have it! A reason for living, a purpose irrespective of status, wealth, health, age, qualifications or criminal record. You also have a direction for life to travel and an ultimate destination to look forward to, beyond the mess and mistakes of this world. I must not be too negative about this world. It is created by God and was created good. It holds a beauty. But it is a beauty that holds a sadness because it does not last.Let me conclude. I know Christmas for many of you has been spoilt because you are not able to be with loved ones, yes? (say yes!) Many of you will be remembering those who have died, and you miss them deeply. Some may have died recently. Others will have gone years ago. Often, our grief does not fade with the passing years, it can become heavier, we miss them more. I mentioned the smell of dad’s cigars taking me back to my childhood Christmases. Every Christmas now I recall seeing mum’s coffin in church surrounded by Christmas decorations. Strangely, it hasn’t spoilt my Christmas. Rather, it has made Christmas more special, helping me know more deeply what Christmas gives us; the Word become flesh and dwelt amongst us so that we might one day dwell with God. Grief is of this world, hope is of heaven. Stones into bread.May the peace, joy and encouragement that only the coming of Christ can bring be yours this Christmas whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever has happened in your life and world up to now, and whatever is yet to come.
Bishop of Lancaster