I begin my homily by wishing you all a very blessed, holy and joyful Christmas. As I do so, I draw our attention to the messages of the angels, which begin with the words “Do not be afraid. Listen…”
Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife – from the gospel for the Vigil
The Shepherds were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people – from the Gospel for midnight mass.
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God.”
To Abraham in the book of Genesis –– “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward”
Through Moses to the newly freed people of Israel – “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today”
Pope St John Paul II began his pontificate with words that rang throughout the Church – “Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power.”
And I, a priest from a small parish in the middle of Surrey urge you too, to not be afraid.
I say this as, even on this most wonderful day, many of us are aware of seemingly overwhelming problems, challenges, and disunity among humanity. Fear is all around us. A headline in a November edition of the Metro ran “Actually, 2017 will probably be even worse than 2016.” The Daily Mail constantly preys on the fears many have – some legitimately and many not – and offers up bogus figures for hate and loathing – foreigners, immigrants, poor people, celebrities, and a whole lot more. Donald Trump offers another figure of divisiveness – to some a hero who will drain the swamp and to others a person bordering on madness. When there is fear around its natural to blame someone.
But it would appear that God’s most important message to us could be to ask us not to be afraid, not to give up, not to turn away, not to turn back but to face up to things as they are and to commit ourselves totally to doing things HIS way.
To be sure there are many things to worry about – plenty of things that should concern us. A whole host of things that demand out attention. As Christians we sometimes feel as though we are in a minority and it is tempting to run with the pack, with the “common sense” as it might be. And we may have lost confidence in our own abilities to understand any of it and perhaps that is how most of us feel.
Yet, we cannot escape that message – “Do not be afraid.”
It’s strange when we think of it that our biggest problems are answered with a very unusual gesture. The birth of a small child. In a small town. In a small country. To a couple on the very edge of society.
The message of the Gospel is a simple one but a difficult one for us to take on board. To accept.
It is quite simply that human ways of problem solving, of building society, of addressing important life changing issues, are all doomed to failure because human beings are trapped in a bankrupt way of doing things and of understanding things. Our solutions to world problems, by themselves, are merely sticking plasters on huge wounds and many of those wounds are self-inflicted wounds. They are caused by our ignorance, our violence, our pride and our greed. Selfishness adds another layer to this particular cake, as does hatred and tribalism. Like a game of chess, we have only so many pieces to move around and very little understanding of the consequences of various moves.
What we need is a new way of doing things; of seeing things and understanding things. St Paul, meditating on the gifts that we need reflects, “without love I am nothing.” And that is the answer that God gives to all our longings for peace and justice and for the ending of our fears. St John writing in his first letter puts it this way “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, …. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
The little baby child is God’s gift of love. It is a gift of love from pure love. Love for us – for you and me – despite me often descending into un-loveliness. It is a gift of power because “love conquers all” to quote Virgil and Chaucer. It is a gift that flies in the face of fear and all those demonic, divisive, forces that fear unleashes. The Christ child is a figure of unity that is for all peoples and all times.
This small vulnerable gift of love chose to remain small and vulnerable throughout his short life. This small baby whose birth we celebrate today made a choice that at all times and in all places and in all ways He would not be diverted from love and would demonstrate how this alone overcomes fear. In the face of love fear has no answer. Love is the truth about God – this is the genius of Christianity. Whatever Love is – that God is too. Whatever is of God cannot but be of love.
We will find that the more we are committed to love and to hope the greater will be our understanding of this great feast. If it remains only “something for the children” it will instantly lose its power to challenge and change. If we allow its mystery to pervade our lives it will reward us with a new set of challenges – as Thomas Merton wrote “The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.”
Jesus is the perfect gift of the Father’s love and how we receive it will reflect how ready we are to love in return and to be loved.