St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
We are now on the tenth day of Christmas and our scripture readings keep echoing that message that the Word of God has become flesh and dwells among us. That is such a momentous message that we need at least 12 days to reflect on what that says about God and about us as human beings. Those who think that Christmas is about a one day eating binge have little to offer the world as we struggle with many deep crises and challenges. What do I hear in our readings today?
Firstly, debates about faith very often begin with arguments about sexual morality or other structural aspects of being church. If only we adopted certain practices, we would be more up-to-date and acceptable. That sounds very like the sort of temptations that Jesus had to face after his Baptism. But the Gospel message begins from something quite different. The faith that we seek to understand takes as its starting point God revealed in Jesus, and in what that belief says about the value and purpose of human life. Without faith in Christ, discussions about morality and structures are merely a philosophical argument. However, we start with our belief that Jesus took on human flesh and that he really did die to take away the sin of the world. All morality is derived from that belief in the dignity of the human body that will be raised up on the Last Day to share Christ's divine life. Thus, the faith that we seek to hand on begins with belief in the Christmas love of God, in Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and in the Holy Spirit who dwells in our bodies. Our Christian morality then comes from that conviction about the sanctity of the body and the eternal significance of all that we do in the body. That divine self-giving solidarity with us lies at the heart of the Christmas message. Without a basis in the Word made flesh, moral arguments end up being earth-centred debates rather than God-centred insights.
Secondly, St Paul stresses how the birth of Jesus is part of a bigger story. Before the world was made, you were chosen in Christ to be God's adopted children. Paul is clear that this is God's free gift to us in Jesus. It is not something that we have to earn merely by keeping the laws. Unless keeping God's commandments is based on, and a result of, 'living through love in God's presence', it is of little or no value. God wants us to live, knowing that we are loved by God and not merely fearing being caught. Keeping the commandments is the result of accepting God's love revealed in Jesus. As St Paul says, it takes wisdom and perception of what is revealed in order to understand this. Faith comes when the eyes of our mind are enlightened by grace and when we are amazed at the generosity of God's love. That then leads us to praise the glory of God's grace. That is why silent praise and adoration are a core part of our faith. Merely ticking legal boxes is a hollow mockery of real faith. Without trust in the love and mercy of God, moral rectitude can be a poor hollow substitute for an active, growing faith. Unless we have the big picture, unless we know the story of our faith recited in the Creed, Christmas is just a sorry cry for solace in the dark of winter.
Thirdly, Jesus is described as the true light. I have no doubt that the Church has to constantly look at its ways of acting and repent of its blindness and sin. We must take the log out of our own eye before we point to the splinter in someone else's. A legalistic, harsh way of being Church will never draw people to the love of God. But I suspect that there is another reason why faith will always be attacked, even for preaching the Gospel. In his own time, Jesus asked his followers to shine an uncomfortable light on what was then the dominant way of looking at the world. Christ's message will always be criticised for not conforming to the current ideology. We will always be asked why we are not subscribing to the constantly changing norms of society. But I suspect that some of the criticism comes not from a desire to make the Church better but from an urge to get rid of those who do not conform to the new idea of 'normal people' and specifically in the area of sexual morality and ideology. Indeed, we lose our prophetic voice if we fail to shine a light into dark corners. Thus, we will always be under pressure to conform our moral teaching on sexuality and power to the norms of the time. But integrity, not popularity, is the aim of Christ's followers. We will not let Christ's light shine by hiding our light under a basket. We seek to make Jesus known and loved, not just to make ourselves popular and inoffensive. Church has always been at its best when it was a strong critical voice for the weak against the establishment. Church has been at its worst when it became the establishment or allied itself to the powerful - and was tempted to lose its prophetic voice. When we stop wanting to hear prophetic voices that shine the light on Church failings, we damage our own ability to offer Christ who is the true light. When we fail to be salt to the earth and light to the world, we cease to be Christ's disciples and deserve to betrampled underfoot.
Over the next week, we are invited to journey on with the baby of Bethlehem. On Wednesday, on the Feast of the Epiphany, we will encounter the strange visitors from the east. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ's Baptism in the Jordan – and we are asked to reflect on what that implies for those who have been baptised. Over the next days, can I invite you to reflect on, and pray about, Jesus, the true light? What light does he shine on the dark corners of how we are Church and on some of the ecclesiastical bandwagons that we are asked to jump on board with? And what light does he ask us to shine on the dark corners of our society and its new infallible dogmas? And then, precisely because it will show up uncomfortable truths, we will be better able to understand Jesus' mission and out own mission as the Church of the baptised. And if we get that right, who knows where we will be led this year by the Word who was made flesh and who continues to dwell among us?
+ Donal McKeown