Homily preached by the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, at Midnight Mass in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool
Our God doesn’t play around with us by keeping secrets, he is a God who surprises us at every move, and none more so than tonight, when the anointed one comes not in power and in splendour but as a child in a manger. Quite scandalous really – but it caught us by surprise, despite the prophets and other hints that God had given us. We don’t get any fuss tonight – just a child in a manger.
Yet despite this, everyone wants to get in on the action. I received a Christmas card showing the crib scene with St Dominic kneeling in the crib. It’s a famous scene by Fra Angelico from the Priory of St Mark in Florence. At a nativity play I attended there were four inn keepers. Everyone had a part and the audience were invited to stand around the crib at the end of the play singing carols. Everyone had a part to play.
And if there aren’t enough parts then make some up. I am always amused by the octopus who appears in the Christmas concert in the film Love Actually. All God’s creation somehow is drawn to the crib and into it.
Maybe it’s because the crib draws us like a magnet that some people are so opposed to what it stands for. Christmas may be a big surprise but when the shock of that subsides there remains only commitment to a way of living and loving that often opposes the accepted norms and current fashions. One political party in the build-up to the recent election de-selected a prospective candidate because he was a Catholic and his beliefs would be in conflict with party policy. Why is it that our society finds us so difficult to deal with? Why is Christianity and Catholicism in particular an object of criticism by so many people? What makes them so afraid – a child in a manger, a man dying on a cross?
There are many people who wish to dismantle the structures of our society regarding the way we educate our children. There are others who would rather have an empty manger than face the birth of a child. Meanwhile there are many families who would be hungry this Christmas if it were not for foodbanks and the charitable giving of Church communities.
The child who is given us tonight calls us to do something about it. But what do we do? Going to the crib can only be a starting point. The people of Jesus’ time were oppressed by a foreign power that was draining the wealth of its people and sending it to Rome to support the empire; that was using mixed blood kings to keep God’s people under the thumb, and their expectations of a liberator were not met by the child in the manger – at least they could not see how Jesus who thirty years later preached a Gospel of love was going to free them. We know what they did to him but what do we do?
Above all, tonight, we must rejoice! Be happy, because our salvation is at hand. We must not become victims and feel that we are an oppressed minority. That would be a false picture. Catholics in this country have the freedoms enjoyed by all members of our society. People are flocking to Britain because it is still a place where freedom is cherished.
Our response to the changes in our society which we do not like or believe to be unfair or are simply downright wrong must be to live our beliefs on a daily basis. We cannot keep our beliefs hidden in a little box deep within us labelled spirituality. Being a Catholic is not a secret to be kept but a surprise to be revealed and enjoyed. People should know you are a Catholic because you look like one. Just think of the way you react to situations amongst your friends. Why is it that we are sometimes hesitant to say we disagree with an opinion? Or collude with behaviour that is uncharitable. Why are we afraid to take five minutes off to pray during the day? The Muslims aren’t – and their practice of regular prayer at certain moments in the day may well have come from the early Christians.
Tonight, we are surprised that God has come to us as a child who needs our help – who needs feeding and changing, who needs our love and care. We too can surprise the world by being Christ to others. If you allow Christ to be born in you, then just think of the difference you will make to the world.
We will no longer be helpless members of a society that has lost its way but we will strengthen its moral backbone. You can do this straight away in your personal life, but you can also be active in our free society to ensure that those freedoms are passed on to generations to come, through science, commerce, politics or whatever it takes.
The Holy Child, this night so helpless and demanding, inspires us to be strong, to stand by him in the crib but also to stand by our beliefs and to live them in our daily lives. What a surprise we have been given, let us now surprise the world by making our personal faith a living reality.
Merry Christmas to you all.
+Malcolm McMahon OP
Archbishop of Liverpool