Christmas Midnight Mass 2023, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark

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Homily by Archbishop John Wilson, Archbishop of Southwark, for Midnight Mass at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark.

Full Homily

Midnight Mass
Christmas 2023, Southwark Cathedral

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

The shepherds mentioned in the Gospel of Christ’s birth were, to put it bluntly, a bunch of outcasts. They were poor. They wandered from place to place in search of good pasture for their sheep. Their unsettled lifestyle meant they were despised. The elite classes looked down on them. But these shepherds, unlikely characters though they might be, were the first to be greeted by the angel of the Lord who proclaimed ‘Good News’ and announced ‘great joy.’

Over and again, the Bible shows how God is attracted to those who do not seem to matter to others, those who are little, small, and hidden before the eyes of the powerful. In one way or another, we are more like the shepherds than we might imagine. Whoever we are – whether more or less wealthy, more or less secure, more or less healthy or successful – we all experience life’s fragility. Our vulnerability, our spiritual littleness, draws God to us and us to God, if we are genuinely and sincerely humble of heart. This is disclosed so beautifully in the Christmas narrative. It’s Our Lady’s humility and St Joseph’s loyalty that drew God to them as instruments of his love.

Perhaps, then, the most important question to ask this Christmas is a seemingly strange one, not about our strengths or abilities, but rather about our willingness to prostrate our hearts and egos before the crib: Are we spiritually little enough to lay ourselves down beside the Lord Jesus in the manger? Are we spiritually simple enough to want to share his tattered blanket? Are we spiritually humble enough to be warmed, like him, just by the breath of the cow and the donkey? In a cave-like stable, in the little town of Bethlehem, the divine greatness of littleness, simplicity, and humility is set before us to imitate.

We sometimes think of the Good News of the Gospel as good advice. We look to the teaching of Christ as a charter for living properly; and the Gospel certainly, and rightly, offers this. In fact, we can’t really claim to be living, or trying to live, as disciples if we’re ignoring Christ’s, often challenging, invitation to believe, to love, and to forgive. But there’s a priority in the Christmas Gospel. Trying to live as Christ taught us flows from living in the friendship Christ brought us. Let me say that again: trying to live as Christ taught us flows from living in the friendship Christ brought us. Preparing for action, requires that we are spiritually little enough to submit our lives to Christ – truly, personally, and lovingly. This is the surest foundation for living and serving like him. Do we have the faith and humility to surrender, interiorly, to divine healing and forgiveness so that, exteriorly, we can be shaped as servants?

The astonishing Good News that accompanies the angel’s declaration of Christ’s birth is not primarily good advice. It’s not, first and foremost, Good News about what we do for God. No, first, and importantly, it’s Good News about what God does for us out of pure and unmerited love.

It must have been terrifying for those shepherds, in the middle of the night, half-asleep, to have been awakened by the lightning flashes of God’s glory. No wonder they needed reassuring by the angel’s opening words: ‘Do not be afraid.’

How often we too need to hear these words spoken into our darkness – Do not be afraid. Overwhelmed by the unexpected, disorientating and frightening us, we need simple and humble faith to keep on trusting God’s promise. When we’re reduced to nothing and made small by circumstance; when we cower because of anxiety or weakness; or when others fail or abandon us, then, in our littleness, we remember the Lord Jesus is still, and always will be, Emmanuel: God with us; God beside us; God within us.

The news the angel brings beckons the shepherds to behold and to believe that a Saviour has been born for them, the same Saviour who was born for us, who was, and is, born for everyone. The news brings a joy from which no one is excluded, a joy to be shared by the whole people. But why does the news of a Saviour bring such joy? Because we and humanity need saving. We need rescuing from the effects of sin and the consequence of death. If we’re honest, we yearn for this; and if we’re honest, we know we can’t do it ourselves.

Our Saviour is Christ the Lord, Christos – the Messiah, the one promised by God and foretold by the ancient prophets. Christianity is about salvation through the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Prophet Isaiah foresaw a Messiah who would be the Mighty-God and Prince of Peace. How desperately our world needs rescuing from war and conflict. How urgently our world needs ‘a peace that has no end,’ with justice and integrity for all peoples and nations. If we doubt the need for a Saviour, for a divine summons – in person – to live in truth and love, then we only have to watch or read the news. How can we not pray and weep with people caught up in the middle of terror, warfare, poverty, and injustice? As we sing of Bethlehem, how can we not pray and weep with the people of the Holy Land, and in particular, on this holy night, with our brothers and sisters in Christ? We all unite in praying that the ugly scream of war is silenced by the enduring fanfare of peace.

Dear friends, this Christmas we can rediscover what it means to fall on our knees in adoration of our Saviour. The sign of salvation given us is a baby, wrapped in rags and sleeping in a cattle feeding trough. All worldly power is inverted by this child who is born to set us free. In our littleness, simplicity, and humility, we welcome him. We bow before him, praising God and singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people on earth.’

+John Wilson
Archbishop of Southwark