30 December 2020

Still we wait: Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ, Roman Catholic Church of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, London, Christmas Day 2020

For nearly all of us, the time of waiting that is Advent is over before it has begun. Usually, most of our celebrations of the feast have already taken place in the season of preparation: four weeks and it is over in two. This year it is different, as the national feelings have been subdued, and we are anxious about the mutations to the virus, the dangers coming closer, perhaps further lockdowns, and what the future holds for us in 2021.

But, while we are used to the mounting pitch of celebration and its climax on Christmas Day, for the the Mother of God and St Joseph, this their day of glory is really when their waiting begins in earnest. So this year our experience is theirs, and their perspective is ours.

What lies ahead? First, we and they both, whose life at home has been disrupted, must remain distant from the life-assuring closeness of family and friends for months. While we face our own kind of uncertainty, St Joseph - the architect who builds houses - cannot settle his family in a safe dwelling place. Many of us are unable to reach the places we would normally visit; for them, the land of Judea makes them strangers and they seek refuge at a distance in Egypt. Innocents in Bethlehem lose their lives not to an indiscriminate plague, but to a targeted scourge from an amoral ruler; and Mary remembers what she was told: that her Child will be set for the rise and fall of many, and that a sword shall pierce her heart as his life unfolds before her. For our part, we look out not knowing, but looking forward. Reaching Christmas this year gives us joy, and light in the darkness, as we steel ourselves to encounter what a new year heralds, this time without fireworks.

So, this year, are particularly close to the Holy Family of God the Son, as it faces both the Light Who has come into the world, and looks out on the dark that gathers to shroud around Him. We have to wait while our lives are restricted for weeks and months to come; while we are gradually vaccinated not knowing if our future health requires that we will need to be vaccinated again; we are held back from the normal human joy of seeing our family and friends, holding and hugging those we love, and being embraced by them in return.  Even to see those we do not like or get on with would be a welcome relief to get back to normality, and put the past behind us. We wait, to know how our lives will develop, whether work and living will ever be the same again. We wait, not entirely sure how the lives of those most at risk in our society, the infirm and vulnerable, the homeless, the powerless and the poor, will be sustained, as we proceed with some uncertain, flickering lamps rather than clear beams, and walk onto new, untrodden paths.

But we are not the first to face fears, or to walk paths that are not well lit. The Holy Family that fled to Egypt under the protection of St Joseph was following the path of Joseph the patriarch of the Old Testament, who from a new land brought corn to end a famine in his homeland in the Holy Land of Canaan. From Egypt’s land of waiting and exile, his descendants the Hebrews, led by Moses, set out to meet the Lord God in a desert filled with nothing, received His Word in the Law and the Commandments, just as we in this desert receive the Word made flesh, and from thence entered into the Promised Land, that flowed with milk and honey.  And just as Moses at the end of that journey saw across to the Land of Promise from a mountain, so Simeon the Prophet saw Jesus the Son brought up into His own high Temple and there acclaimed him the Light of the World. Now at last, he says, I have seen the salvation which You have prepared before all peoples – a Light to enlighten the nations and the glory of Your people Israel.

In the same way, we our conveyed along by the hope, too, that somehow the Lord’s loving hand is there to be with us and uphold us whatever happens - to bring goodness, mercy, kindness and blessings wherever and instead of where adversity has befallen us. In this vale of tears, the tears were His too. Whatever has torn us to the heart, with all that people have had to deal with in the strains on our patience, our material resources, our mental wellbeing, not to mention our hidden spiritual strength, or even to the loss of life itself, we each one of us have a story of another human being who has come to us with warmth, and love and selflessness, and made the difference, by the humanity that we Christians know as the love of God for man, in man, that peace and good will among people that is also glory to God in the highest, whose Name is called Jesus, the very Son of Man.

And we have seen this compassion all played out before. For the Little Donkey that we celebrate in songs, who carried Mary from Nazareth, and then the Mother of God and her Son to Egypt, had a cousin who carried the Lord into Jerusalem to face His Passion and the Cross for our sake. The bright and warm stable with the animals, where the Light of the World first shone, is a familiar surrounding, when you think another room not His own will be prepared for that last supper, when Judas will leave the Light and go out into the night. The shepherds’ fields where the angels sent by God the Father Himself sang “Glory” at the top of their voices, shift through a crack in time to reveal their eternal meaning: the night-time dark Garden of Gethsemane, where the Son will pour out His heart and blood in prayer and those who once sang “Hosanna” will cry with shouts to arrest Him and take Him to His trial and execution. The Three Wise Men who come with gifts, give place to a false King Herod, an unworthy time-serving High Priest Caiaphas, and a foreign power’s governor, Pilate. They will apply a Crown not of gold but of thorns. They will not offer the myrrh of salvation from death, but supply Him with vinegar. Nor can they offer the glory of incense, for the right to be acknowledge the true King comes not from the highest compliments of earthly importance, but from the complete self-giving of utter sacrifice, in absolute love without reserve for us, and unconditional forgiveness.

To Mary at this moment, all this lies ahead; but she awaits its coming with a steady eye. She prepares for the high joys and the collapse of hopes, and a sword to pierce her heart, all alike. Unusually on this most joyful of days, this year we find ourselves waiting with her, looking ahead not only suffering and the Cross, but what they will bring about. For just as the birth of the Word made flesh will lead to the crucifixion of that flesh on Good Friday, so the death on the Cross will lead as day follows night to resurrection. Because the life to which Mary the Mother of God gave birth cannot be held back in the dark earth but must break forth and take our lives and hers with it, bound for a new Promised Land, the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Our beloved Cardinal Hume taught us that when we set out on such a journey and see light at the end of the tunnel – that is hope. When  we see no light yet still proceed on into and through the tunnel – that is trust. Today with Mary, her hopes and fears, with the Light of the World before us, we still contemplate the dark around us. As we go, we wait for what will come, for there is little else, while we are in this desert; and we persevere not with dismay, but with trust. We go on with our faith, our love, and our belief in peace and good will, and glory around and through and beyond it all.

May God fill you with this faith to see you through. May the road taken by His Son for Your sake lead to new life, new hope and new joy, and may you know it for yourself. May the love of a Mother’s worry shield and protect you. And may “the hopes and fears of [these two] years” be met in Jesus Christ who is the heart of our own heart, “the joy of the whole world”, its healing and its promise from God that will never be broken.  Peace, good will to us all, and glory to God in highest heaven.