Across the centuries Christians have gathered amid the winter darkness and the shadows of night to welcome a Saviour who has been born for us (Luke 2:11). No matter how profound the darkness, how disturbing the shadows all the faithful have recognised on this night: “a great light has shone,” in the words of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah (9:1) that “God’s grace has been revealed,” in St. Paul’s words, “and has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Titus 2:11); and have heard tonight the timeless message of the angels: “I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people” (Luke 2:10).
Past generations have gathered in this Cathedral on Christmas night amid many shadows which seemed to obscure the future for them. We think of the ideologies of the past century, Communism and Nazism, which in living memory threatened to shape and distort the whole future of humanity. These inhuman ideologies would challenge, in the name of progress, the received Christian understanding of the sanctity of human life and the family. Winston Churchill, Britain’s war-time Prime Minister, a man without clear, religious belief himself, saw in this deadly struggle nothing less than the defence of Christian civilization. The alternative he vividly described as a dark age made more protracted by the perversion of science. I would appeal to our political leaders this Christmas to similarly glimpse these deeper issues where respect for the sanctity of human life and the authentic meaning of marriage as the foundation of the family are threatened.
Tonight we might happily recall Shrewsbury’s Elizabeth Prout who set out from this town to become, as she has been called: England’s Mother Teresa. One woman set out from this town to confront the most tragic effects of the industrial revolution armed only with her newly-found faith. The industrial revolution saw in its slums the undermining of marriage and family, the loss of religious practice and threats to human dignity on a massive scale. Elizabeth’s faith gave her unflinching courage in the face of claims that such degradation of human beings was the inevitable cost of progress, to defend human dignity and especially the dignity of women.
We gather on this Christmas night amid the shadows of early 21st Century Britain. The eyes of the nation turn to this “child born for us” (Is.9:1) tiny and frail, it is this beautiful revelation of the Son of God which casts light on the darkest shadows of our time. The widespread neglect and ill-treatment of the frailest, elderly people in our society: concerns high-lighted in the Care Quality Commission’s recent report. The growing concern about end of life care and what is happening to the most vulnerable. The dark side to our own society is surely connected to the discarding of human life from the beginning in abortion on an industrial scale, in reproductive technologies, in embryo experimentation which our laws have sanctioned. “Today there exists a great multitude of weak and defenceless human beings, unborn children in particular, whose fundamental right to life is being trampled upon” Blessed John Paul II reflected in his 1995 letter The Gospel of Life, “if at the end of the last century, the Church could not be silent about the injustices of those times, still less can she be silent today” (Evangelium Vitae n.5).
This Christmas we are conscious of new shadows cast by a Government that was pledged at its election to support the institution of marriage. This vital foundation of society which, the 2011 census indicates, now stands at is lowest ebb. At such a moment the Prime Minister has decided without mandate, without any serious consultation to redefine the identity of marriage itself, the foundation of the family for all generations to come. This is again done in the name of progress. The great English writer, G.K Chesterton, warned: “progress is a useless word; for progress takes for granted an already defined direction; and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree” (American Notes). The British people have reason to ask on this night where is such progress leading?
In the face of what is presented as this inevitable march of human progress we recognise once more the Saviour born for us: “he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11) who meets us all along the path of history. The same Lord who promised those who follow Him would be called to give their witness amidst the most testing circumstances (Mt. 10:17). This, we recognise, is our moment, our, unique time to stand up for what is right and true as previous generations have done before us: to give witness to the value and dignity of every human life, to the truth of marriage as the lasting union of man and woman, ordered to the transmission of life, the education of children, and the foundation of the family. In this we are assured of “a light which shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overcome” (John 1:5). “On Bethlehem night,” Pope Benedict reflected in 2005, “the Redeemer becomes one of us, our companion along the precarious paths of history. Let us take the hand he stretches out to us …” (Urbi et Orbi Message, Christmas 2005). This is the good news offered to the whole people (Luke 2:10). The Gospel first brought to the English people fourteen hundred years ago. The invitation to take the hand of the Redeemer stretched out to us in gentleness, in such humility because Christ seeks to take nothing from us, Pope Benedict reminds us, but to give to all the light of life.
(Photo: Simon Caldwell, St Gabriel News and Media)