25 December 2015: Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (Midnight Mass), Father Peter G Williams at St Patrick’s Cathedral
In 1987 an amateur song writer by the name of Julie Gold, who was working as a secretary for Home Box Office composed a song to reflect her belief in a kind and beneficent God. The song she said is about the difference between how things appear to be, and how they really are. It didn’t go very far at the beginning. She sent it to various performers and record producers but no one seemed particularly interested. There were a couple of singers who recorded it on albums, but these artists weren’t in the major league.
But in 1990 Bette Midler recorded it on one of her new releases and it was a runaway success winning the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1991 and it shot to the top of the adult contemporary chart. At that time the US was engaged in the first Persian Gulf War and the song seemed to resonate with many in the country. The lyrics certainly capture the historical moment.
“From a distance
We all have enough
And no one is in need
And there are no guns, no bombs and no disease
No hungry mouths to feed
From a Distance
We are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope
Playing songs of peace
They are the songs of every man
God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us
From a distance”
This song is still played today on radio stations that tend to feature classic hits and Bette Midler remains very popular as a contemporary singer. But there’s a problem, and that problem is expressed in the refrain of this very appealing composition. She sings: “God is watching us from a distance.” Now whilst I’m sure Julie Gold had her own understanding and experience of God as a believer, her lyrics betray the very reasons we are here in the Cathedral tonight celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Because the celebration of Christmas is not about God being distant from us, but rather God being as present to us as we are to ourselves.
That is personified in the birth of the child of Bethlehem. In the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons said that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”
This invitation that is at the heart of Christmas invites all of us to enter into a new and dynamic relationship with God through our belief in the Word made flesh – Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. The people of the Old Covenant had for centuries looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, the one who would inaugurate a new era of peace and stability.
As the prophet Isaiah states so elegantly: “For there is a child born for us… and this is the name they will give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince of Peace.” Every year as we gather to observe the Christmas season we pause and look at our lives and the world in which we live. And sadly whilst we all hope and pray for a better world, without conflict, exploitation, injustice, terrorism and violence – it just seems to be on a trajectory that is spiralling out of control without any indication that things are on the improve. Whilst the world scene is distressing enough, individuals also loom large in terms of behaviours that shock and bewilder.
In recent days Martin Shkreli, a US entrepreneur who controls a pharmaceutical company became overnight the most loathed person in the US when he raised the price of a drug used in the treatment of HIV from $13.50 to $750.00 because as he said, “the drug needed to make a profit.” Greed out of control, and disregard for the most vulnerable with no respect or regard for anyone other than self is the new hallmark that many people now aspire to. And such conduct is not limited to the Western world.
Corruption in third world nations is rampant and with a 24 hour news cycle and a relentless media there are new revelations of questionable conduct almost every hour! Being disposed to such behaviour is of course not new, and not particular to any age. St Paul in this own time recognized the disposition of human beings to put self-first and is rather blunt when addressing the young Titus in our second reading. “… what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world.”
In order to fulfil our potential as men and women made in the image and likeness of God we have choices in terms of the values, the beliefs and the moral code we choose to apply in the conduct of our lives. Those choices are sometimes not easy and are complicated in a world where value systems or the lack of them compete on a daily basis for minds and hearts. The new atheism claims that belief in God is responsible for much of the world’s ills – as if to say that God is the enemy and that human beings are held back by irrational and superstitious beliefs. Modern man and woman are now sophisticated enough that they no longer require reference to any exterior authority other than themselves.
The actual truth is that we are our own worst enemies and self-alienation leads to alienation from others. God’s intervention in human history that we celebrate tonight affords a new opportunity to recalibrate our self-understanding and fashion our lives through what we understand and know of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Church exists to foster and encourage that faith lived out in selfless service to others so that as we read in St John’s Gospel that “the world might believe.” That does not imply that the Church is perfect; in recent times we have been only too patently aware of that! By no means; the Church is a place for sinners, but working together we still believe that we can and should make a difference to the society in which we live. But the beginning point for us starts at the stable in Bethlehem. For all its poetic and picturesque imagery the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel can if we are not careful, draw us into the vortex of a sort of romantic sentimentality.
The risk to Mary and Joseph, the vulnerability of the newborn, the chaotic social disorder and the obscurity of it all point to the mystery of God’s purpose unfolding in a highly unspectacular way – yet the intent was clear and understood by the most simplest of folk. “Do not be afraid! Listen I bring you news of great joy. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” That ‘today’ is not two thousand years ago, but is now, it is this day which we have just begun. God’s offer of engagement with the human family remains as it was all those years ago when the child destined to be saviour of the world was born. As has been the case with Christmas past, so it is with this Christmas.
Can we sing with conviction and with hope the same song of the angels on that first Christmas night: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill?” Or are they simply words that get recited briefly once a year and then stored away with the Christmas decorations? If we are ready once again to embrace faith in this child born for us, then that process that Irenaeus rightly identifies as our true destiny in life can continue to flourish and we become “more like him” as St John reminds us, so ultimately “we shall see him as he really is.” If this transformation in Christ takes place in our lives then our observance of Christmas takes on a new dimension and we then can rightly take our place as agents of peace in a fractured and hurting world. Yes, God is indeed watching us… not from a distance, but in the gaze of the child of Bethlehem and He calls you to walk with Him on the journey of your life.
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