Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dear friends, both here in the Cathedral and joining us online
Tonight we receive a very personal invitation to come to Bethlehem, to come to the manger, to come to Christ. During Advent, we have prayed and sung O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Now, we rejoice that Emmanuel has come. The new-born Saviour’s arms are open wide for you. ‘Come to me,’ he says, ‘I am born for you.’
Again this Christmas Our Blessed Lady and St Joseph invite you to meet their child, the Son of God, the prince of peace, the Lord of all. Every heart where Christ is welcomed becomes the stable in the little town of Bethlehem. Every heart where Christ is welcomed becomes the manger visited by the adoring shepherds. Every heart where Christ is welcomed becomes the birthing place for the Infant Lord Jesus.
Our prayers tonight, especially, are for everyone for whom Christmas is not an occasion of joy, nor a season of good will, nor a time of peace. In particular, we think of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine who face Christmas in a state of war. How desperately we need to put the angels’ message of peace into practice. Every time we recall the Nativity, every time we pause before the Crib, every time we hear the Christmas Gospel, something should change within us. Love must increase. Mercy must expand. Peace must reign. If this does not happen, we have not truly heard the Good News of Christmas. This applies on the world stage, to war, injustice and greed. But it also applies to my life and your life, to our hard-heartedness, stinginess and selfishness.
Whenever we look upon the Nativity, contemplating Mary, Joseph and the Infant Lord Jesus, we gain a privileged insight into God our Father’s heart. The extraordinary ordinariness of this new-born child reveals God’s loving sacrifice. He sends His beloved Son to be born for us; born to end division, born to win forgiveness, born to make us peacemakers. But do we have a heart to listen and a will to change?
Tonight we return spiritually to Bet Lehem, to Bethlehem, the name which means ‘House of Bread.’ We come to be fed, nourished and strengthened with new life and new hope. We celebrate the birth of divine love with a human face, the birth of divine mercy in person. Can we allow our encounter with Christ this Christmas to shape us to be more loving? Can we allow it to mould us to be more merciful? Can we allow it to craft us to be a gift for others? The extent to which we have heard the Nativity story is reflected in how we treat the weakest and the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the marginalised. If we really do want to follow the star of compassion, we will be guided quickly, and daily, to thosewho need our help.
In the early 1930s a devastating famine in Ukraine – the Holodomor – killed millions of people. Since then, bread – a staple food of life – has been treated with special significance in Ukraine. So precious did food become after that terrible time of starvation that a tradition arose where, if a piece of bread fell to the ground, it was kissed as it was picked up. I am reliably told this is still practised today. To kiss bread, to honour bread that has fallen to the ground; this has deep resonance for us and our faith at Christmas.
The tiny babe come down to earth from heaven is born in a town named ‘House of Bread.’ He is laid in a manger, a feeding trough, a sign that he comes as food for the life of the world. He will grow to identify himself as ‘the bread of Life which has come down from heaven.’ He will tell us ‘whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ The night before he died for us, our Saviour took bread, blessed, broke and gave it saying ‘This is my body, which is given for you; take and eat of it.’
Dear friends, this Christmas, in faith, we too spiritually ‘kiss bread.’ We kiss and honour the Lord Jesus, the Bread of Life born from heaven. The Incarnation, God taking flesh among us in Christ, is an amazing act of condescension. To ‘condescend’ means, literally, to descend with, to stoop down, to lower oneself. In his Son, God descends to be with us; the Son who will die and rise so that we can ‘ascend’ to heaven. The great condescension that happened uniquely in Bethlehem that first Christmas, in another sense, happens at every celebration of Holy Mass. This divine condescension, this descent of Christ to be with us, takes place on the altar in the Eucharist. Our Lord comes to be with us in the Bread that is his Body. Speaking of the Eucharist, St. Augustine once said: ‘Believe what you see, see what you believe and become what you are: the Body of Christ.’ Christ comes to us in Holy Communion, as food for life and food for love, precisely so that we can become his life and love in the world, and, one day, live forever with him.
Adoring Christ in the manger points us to the Eucharist. Adoring Christ in the Eucharist points us to serving others. Serving others changes our hearts to become cross-shaped through self-giving. When this happens, the Gospel takes root in us and really does bear fruit. We become more readily capable of recognising every person, each human life, as a gift from God. We no longer wait for others to change the world. We begin ourselves, starting small, whenever and however we can: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, cherishing the youngest and the oldest, reaching out in justice and reconciliation.
When Christ’s self-giving, his sacrifice, and his generosity, are born from our hearts, then the Word takes flesh through us in our world today. This is the timeless lesson of the Christmas school of Joy. This is what it means for us to be disciples.
We have the great St Francis of Assisi to thank, 800 years ago, for giving us the idea of recreating the nativity scene. He was so inspired by a visit to Bethlehem that he wanted to rebuild the Crib at home so people could worship the new-born Christ Child. Bethlehem – the House of Bread – and the Eucharist – the Bread of Life – are connected intimately. Writing to his Brothers in the Franciscan Order, around the year 1220, St Francis spoke beautifully about the Mass, capturing too the truths of the Nativity when the Word became flesh. He wrote:
Let us bow down,
let us adore
and heaven exult
when, by means of the priest,
Christ the Son of the Living God
is present on the altar.
What admirable dignity!
What amazing condescension!
What sublime lowliness!
What lowly sublimity!
That the Lord of all,
the divine Son of the Father,
should make himself so small!
To rescue us, he hides
under the homely form of bread.
St Francis then exhorted his brothers in words that speak to us at this and every Christ-Mass:
Observe God’s humility,
offer him your whole heart!
Be humble yourselves,
to be exalted with him!
Keep nothing back for yourselves
so that he who has given himself to you
can make you altogether his.
Dear friends, may God our Father bless you, and those you love, this Christmas. As we are drawn to his Son’s image in the Crib, may we always, through the Holy Spirit, come close to his Son’s real and living presence in the Eucharist: the Bread of life, the Bread of Angels, the Bread of Heaven come down to earth for our salvation. Amen.
+ John Wilson
Archbishop of Southwark