Think, for a moment, of your first glimpse of a person you love. You remember so clearly the time and the place. Think of those treasured moments of life: a wedding, a birth, a child’s first day at school. The event and the place are bound together and together help you to recall the richness and impact of that crucial moment.
Place and event go together. That is true for our faith too. Just three weeks ago I was privileged to be in Bethlehem and to venerate, with a kiss, the silver star marking the place where Jesus was born. Christmas was very close for me then.
St Francis of Assisi was so convinced of the importance of keeping together event and place that he introduced a living Christmas crib, at Greccio on Christmas Eve in 1223. We follow his example and set up our cribs, at home, in church and, occasionally, in shopping centres or at roadsides. In this way we try to enter more deeply into the birth of Jesus and understand its message.
This evening, then, we do our best to come in spirit to Bethlehem, to seek to understand afresh what happened and where it happened: Jesus born not in a palace but in a stable, far from luxury, in absolute poverty, surrounded not by a noble retinue, but by the beasts of the fields and the most lowly of people.
This evening, as he comes to us, we are invited to meet him, to come to him. For he alone is the wholeness of the mystery of God in our midst. For each of us this is a crucial meeting.
Human history is littered with crucial meetings, especially meetings of the powerful. We often speak of them as summits. Sometimes they are remembered in history by where they took place: Yalta in 1945; Camp David in 2000; Glasgow for the COP26 summit on climate change, just last year.
But this night is a Summit of a different kind, a meeting with a different kind of power, with a more crucial outcome. It is a Summit of the Soul. Tonight each of us is invited to present ourselves at this Summit of Bethlehem, meeting the one who alone is the Lord of our hearts and lives, who alone can bring his salvation to our souls.
Many other places and meetings promise us fulfilment and success. But here, in the stable of Bethlehem, we find the one on whom we can truly depend. We welcome him again into our hearts. In this meeting, in the depth of this night, we can quietly recognise our relationship with him and the place of God in our lives.
Perhaps we should, for a moment, consider that we are not always as generous in making a place for Jesus as we should be. We might reflect that neglect of his presence in our lives shows itself first in neglect of our neighbour. When our neighbour becomes forgotten, irrelevant or simply too much trouble then the light of this stable meeting is dimmed. Every failure of compassion and respect is a sign of the failure of our meeting with the Christ. Then we are heading into the darkness.
Instead let us enter the stable and make new contact with this anointed one, the Christ. He is our teacher, our mentor, our guide, our light, our joy and our fulfilment. His is the only power that overcomes death itself and casts a totally new light on our daily experience.
Summit meetings are always surrounded by fanfares, expansive media coverage, grand promises and, quite often, subsequent disappointments. Our meeting, our Summit of the Soul in the stable, is rather different. Yes, there are fanfares, for the song of the heavenly messengers, the angels, filled the skies as they proclaimed the heavenly birth. The Gloria sung at Mass reflects the song of the angels, never more so than tonight. But those who first heard the angelic song, and were to be its earthly messengers, were scruffy shepherds who would not get much of a hearing today. So that task is down to us: to sing of the beauty and importance of this birth, announcing it with love, perhaps with presents, certainly with generosity towards those in need. And those in need are many today, here as we struggle with material hardship and elsewhere, where many others have their lives wrecked in evil and cruel conflicts not least in Ethiopia, in Yemen, in Ukraine.
Yet the promise of this night is not destroyed by the darkness. This wonderful night inspires us to bring to every hardship a generosity which expresses our gratitude for all we have received. Only one woman, Mary, is mother of Christ in the flesh but each of us can give birth to him in our time and place. This is our joy. This is the reason we can sing from our hearts of the wonder of Bethlehem and the Redeemer we meet there, lying in the manger.
I wish you all a very happy and fulfilling Christmas. May the Prince of Peace bring a fullness of his gifts to you, as you open your hearts to him on this Holy Night. Amen.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster
Pic: © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk