Homily preached by the Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, at Midnight Mass of Christmas – Friday 25 December 2020 – in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool.
Not many people love the night. It can be a time of fear and uncertainty. Sometimes it is a time of death. Scientists tell us that our body rhythms are at their slowest at about 4am, deep into the night. When I took up my first appointment as a transport engineer, after three years' study, a degree and two years' graduate training, I was sent to work nights. I couldn’t believe it at first. It seemed to me that I shouldn’t be working at night – that was for other people, not for me. There was no doubt that I was scared – driving around East London after midnight takes some courage – and more courage was needed to enter bus garages choc-a-bloc with buses to make my way to the maintenance area to supervise the work. Homeless people would be asleep on these vehicles; occasionally they would be disturbed and make a run for it. At other times there would be drunks or fights to deal with – and then, just when I was at my wits’ end, one of the lads would hand me a cup of tea sweetened with condensed milk, and the world suddenly brightened up.
I couldn’t get on with the night. But for many people night is when the rush of everyday life ceases and there is time for thought and prayer, and for others the night is a time for work, like the shepherds in tonight’s Gospel. It can also be a place of peace, a time for sleep or of creativity.
A popular way of describing a person we do not fully trust is to say that there is something of the night about him, or he has a dark side. That is how people thought of the shepherds to whom the angels revealed the good news of Jesus’ birth. Of course, it was very unfair, as ordinary people did not know these night workers who lived on the fringe of society. They probably smelt of the animals they tended and wouldn’t be very welcome in company. They were in a sense dark people, and because of this they would be associated with crime, violence and drunkenness, and they would probably be accused of any local crime – a robbery of a house or theft of an animal. There are many people in our time whom we accuse unfairly. Let me name just a few: the travelling community, the homeless, asylum seekers and immigrants. God revealed his son, Jesus, to people like them. That is astounding in it itself. He revealed himself to the uneducated and socially disadvantaged first. The educated and wealthy, that is to say the Magi (or Three Kings), came later. Maybe God is saying something to us now through those less fortunate than ourselves? After all they are created by him and made in his likeness.
You don’t have to stretch your imagination too far to see that in our time a lot of dark things take place at night: drunkenness, being sick on the street, rowdiness, drug dealing and fights. We also know that a lot of dark things happen during the day: not just crimes but so many of our brothers and sisters have had their personal light dimmed through sickness or poverty, their self-esteem damaged as prospects of work and providing properly for their family fade.
And the coronavirus has brought a new kind of darkness to our world. The Christmas lights are shining brightly in our streets, but the tragedy of the pandemic has hit every one of us through death, isolation and even hunger. Darkness and the powers of darkness are with us today as strongly as they have always been, but – and it is a big but – we believe that Jesus overcame them, and that in the fullness of time that will become clear. Tonight, we believe that darkness is overcome by light – as the day dawns we will see clearly the redeemed creation that God has given us. This raises a question for us: when do we know that we are in the light? The answer is not as obvious as you may think. Is it when shadows will fill out and get flesh, and we can see them as people? Or is it when the blur that is their faces sharpens into bright eyes and smiles? No, I believe it is when we see them as sisters and brothers. Seeing others as God made them, children of the most high God and brothers and sisters of Jesus, and therefore our brothers and sisters too, is the moment when the darkness has been dispelled, and we can be sure that we are children of the light.
Let us remember that two moments of darkness – Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ death – took place in the dark: Jesus was born during the night watch of the shepherds, and as he died a great darkness came over the earth. God’s love made visible in Jesus Christ promises us new life, a time of light not just in the darkness of winter but also in the darkness of our world. His redemptive death shows us how sacrifice can be redemptive, how it can give us new hope, a new life.
We know that the Light of Christ burns within us – not just in the cribs in our home or in the fairy lights of our decorations. Christ’s light is a true light that overcomes our sense of fear, which naturally goes with the dark, and warms us and shows us our path in life. With Christ in us we can befriend the darkness and no longer be afraid. The night is no longer a place of despair or destruction but a place of creation and re-creation.
May the Christ Child be a light in your life this night and throughout the coming year. May you and your families rejoice in a light-filled and blessed Christmas.