On this night we mark the most celebrated birth in all history: the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, the City of David, the heroic King of Israel, anointed by God and a focal point of the ancient promises. Tonight we celebrate the coming in Bethlehem of the anointed one, the Christ, who fulfils those promises but in an entirely new way: in poverty not in power, in service not in domination, the one before whom kings bend the knee. In him we learn the true meaning of service and the greatest ambitions that can shape our lives and, in doing so, bring us true contentment.
Bethlehem, today a silent city. All public celebrations have been cancelled, out of mourning for the dead of the terrible war ravaging parts the Holy Land. A song has emerged from there, sung in English and Arabic, entitled ‘Hear Angels Cry’. Yes, the angels must weep for the callous murders, the horrendous butchery of 7 October and for the consequent terrible destruction and loss of innocent life among millions of displaced people who now languish in hunger and disease, their homes, hospitals, schools and places of worship destroyed. Let us hear the angels as they cry out for peace.
Let us join our voices to those of the angels, in prayer for such peace, for a cessation of violence, for the relief of such suffering and the release of hostages. For this is the birthday of the Prince of Peace, who alone by his power as God can heal our hearts, broken by sin, and through his sharing in our human flesh, can instil in us the same mercy and compassion. We also hear angels cry out in welcome, shattering the silence of the night sky of Bethlehem: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.’
Bethlehem. Tonight we might recall the great Francis of Assisi. Eight hundred years ago he set up the first living crib in the little town of Greccio. He gathered together the people of this poor place, who brought with them their animals, oxen and donkeys, to form a pageant of the holy birth while Mass was celebrated. It is said that he did not wish to portray the baby Jesus as he wanted everyone to see an empty manger and feel a great longing for his coming: so they would learn to welcome him not into the manger but into their hearts. He would want us to learn the same. May Christ be born again in our hearts today.
There is another lesson fit for Christmas that Francis taught. A few years earlier, after many attempts, Francis travelled into the war zone of the Crusades to speak of and seek peace. On 5 December 1219 he crossed the front line of the battle, suspended for a while, and approached the camp of the Sultan of Egypt, Malik Al-Kamil. They met, they talked, they found deep respect for each other and their faiths and Francis returned safely. May we too be messengers of peace, offering to all we meet respect and appreciation of their goodness. Out of those first steps can grow the reality of forgiveness and reconciliation, constantly needed in our world, yet constantly difficult to achieve. May the coming of the Christ, with whom Francis became totally identified in body and in spirit, become for us too the inspiration for reconciliation and forgiveness in every corner of our lives.
Bethlehem. The name means ‘House of Bread’. Today we could say it means a house of bread for the hungry, for the child of Bethlehem inspires many a food bank. The one who is born there tonight urges us to attend to the needs of the poor. In doing so we serve him, born in poverty and immediately dependent on the goodness and gifts of others: the gift of shelter in a stable, the gifts brought by the wealthy.
But the bread Jesus brings gives greater sustenance still. He gives of himself entirely in order to satisfy a far deeper hunger within each one of us: a hunger for an unshakable sense of purpose in our lives and a hunger for a truly secure future. This he does by his victory over death and through the gift of himself in the Eucharist, the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of eternal life. It is this gift which we celebrate in this Midnight Mass. Bethlehem becomes present on the altar, with the coming in every Mass of the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He comes to us not only in the stable but also in his death on the Cross, in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. We gather round this altar.
Like the shepherds at the crib, we fall to our knees before him present in the Eucharist. I welcome you to this Bethlehem, too.
May the coming of the Christ child bring a sure peace in your hearts. May he confirm in you a deep respect for every life, at all its stages, knowing that all life is his gift. May he move deeply within you, fashioning you to be a messenger of peace and forgiveness. May he strengthen you every day with his blessing. May he make this Christmas a time of joy and love for you and all those dear to you.
A very happy Christmas to you all.
✠ Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster