Full Homily from Archbishop Bernard Longley, preached at St Chad’s Cathedral for the Christmas Midnight Mass
Today is the birthday of Jesus Christ. Let us be silent and let the child speak. By spending time contemplating his face and cradling him in our arms, we are invited to be carriers of his joy, love and peace.
In her Christmas message and in words that recall the Christian ministry of her father as well as her own faith in Jesus Christ, the Prime Minister encouraged us as Christians to speak publicly of our faith and to witness to its impact on our lives and on the Christian virtues and values that form the historic foundations of our country. Mrs May said: our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of and that we can proudly celebrate the birth of Christ and the message of forgiveness, love and hope that he brings.
Faith in Christ is always personal but it can never be a purely private affair. The child born at Bethlehem wants to transform our lives not only as individuals but as families and as communities. As people are drawn to Jesus they are drawn to one another. Friendships in Christ, deeper relationships and an obligation to reach out and serve others are formed which are not incidental to being a Christian – they lie at the heart of Christian discipleship. So tonight we gather as the Church, united in an enduring fellowship by bonds of faith and affection that lead us from Christmas to Easter and Pentecost in a recurring cycle of faith that has brought us back to the crib tonight and that will send us out in service of the world.
For the last fifteen years here in Birmingham a crib provided by the Löwenthal family has stood at the heart of the German Market. This year it symbolized our sense of solidarity with the families and communities grieving over the loss of life and injury caused by the attack a few days ago at the Christmas Market in Berlin. We pray for their intentions tonight.
The same crib, which we have just blessed here in the cathedral, is not simply a tableau of that night in Bethlehem. It helps us understand the future direction and shape of Jesus’ ministry. His birth at Bethlehem comes at the end of a long and uncomfortable journey for Mary and Joseph, travelling for days on foot and by mule from Nazareth to comply with the demands of the census. No sooner is he born than, like so many of the Syrian refugees we have seen on TV, his family have to up sticks and flee to escape from King Herod. They are forced to make an equally uncertain journey into Egypt.
Jesus knew from the outset what it meant to be anxiously on the road – the insecurity of not knowing where to find safety, food or rest. His ministry in Galilee was travelling from town to town as a wandering preacher, curing sickness, casting out Devils and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. As his followers we must also be on the move ourselves – and we cannot turn away the refugee or asylum seeker because we can see Jesus’ face reflected in their trouble and distress.
The first witnesses to the birth of the Saviour of the world were the shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. These were not settled people or regarded as respectable folk – they didn’t occupy an important or central position but they were peripheral, at the edge of society. From the beginning of Jesus’ life God’s plan unfolded and was revealed not to the great and the powerful but to those on the margins of society, and these were the people he always sought out and befriended.
Our Christmas faith is simple yet profound. God became man in a helpless baby at Bethlehem, grew to maturity in Nazareth, preached his mission in Galilee, died and rose from the dead in Jerusalem. To some it is incredible – make-believe for children or the gullible – but for nearly a third of the world’s population it is the belief that sustains us day by day, that makes us reach out with the love of God to our neighbours and those most in need, that enables us to seek forgiveness and mercy and to be forgiving and merciful ourselves.
Later today I have no doubt that Her Majesty the Queen will refer to her personal faith in Jesus Christ during her annual Christmas broadcast and to the instinct for good that faith makes fruitful in our lives and our communities. Those references will be welcome not only to the Queen’s fellow Christians. I know from the friendships that I enjoy within the Birmingham Faith Leaders Group that the personal witness of Christian faith in those who serve us in public life is welcomed by men and women of all faiths.
A few weeks ago I was in Bethlehem on an ecumenical pilgrimage with Anglicans and Catholics from the Black Country and Worcestershire. We prayed at the Church of the Nativity and visited the Holy Places but we also met with the living stones of Bethlehem, members of the Christian communities who continue to witness, despite increasing challenges and hardships, to their abiding and ancient faith in Jesus Christ in the town of his birth.
We witnessed their deep desire as people of faith for peace – peace with their Jewish and Moslem neighbours, peace for Jerusalem as the key to unlocking the gift of peace for Israel and Palestine – peace for Syria and throughout the Middle East. This quest for peace in a world whose political realities are constantly changing, and where the many-headed serpent of terrorism is constantly insinuating itself in new ways, lies at the heart of every authentic expression of religious life and it is the dominant message of Christmas every year.
May Christ the new-born Prince of Peace answer every prayer for peace offered up in all parts of the world on this holy night.