“Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord has been born for us …” With these words the Mass of Christmas morning begins. We will hear them this Christmas of 2015 conscious of many shadows around us: the shadow of a homicidal hatred which stalks the streets with terror, the gathering shadows of war and of a vast humanitarian crisis. In Western societies the shadows of relativism falls across whole generations, leaving not a few disorientated. It is amid these shadows and not apart from them that we accept the Christmas invitation first received by the shepherds: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).
A few weeks ago, while praying at the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I was particularly struck by the darkness of the place of Christ’s birth. From childhood I had always pictured the scene of the Nativity as a bright place, an illuminated stable. But the cave in which the Light of the World first shone remains to this day a dark place which seems to echo those words of St John proclaimed each Christmas morning: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
This same conviction is reflected in so many Christmas carols when of Bethlehem we sing: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” The very shadows of our world can serve to draw us closer to the light of Christ by means of prayer; the sincere confession of our sins; and, above all, in the Holy Eucharist. This is surely what Pope Francis intends in the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The Holy Year has already seen the doors of cathedrals and churches opened wide across the world so as “to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy by contemplating the face of Christ” (Misericordiae Vultus 25). St John Paul II made this same invitation on the threshold of the third millennium, when he urged us: “Be not afraid to open wide the doors to Christ. To his saving power, open the boundaries of states, of economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development.”
This invitation is given at a time when political leaders seek to define “national values”, values which are dim and uncertain lights in the face of the destructive ideologies already emerging in this 21st century. However, it is the annual celebration of Christmas which allows many around us to glimpse the heritage of Christian faith, hope and charity. This has been the light which has illuminated our pathway throughout our history. At Midnight Mass the Church declares again: “The night is made radiant with the splendour of true light”, inviting us once more “to walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you” (John 12:35).
In his last years Blessed John Henry Newman spoke with urgency and an almost frightening clarity of trials to come in which the Church would face “a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it”. However, Blessed John Henry also spoke with the calm and confidence of knowing where his faith was founded. On receiving the cardinal’s hat in 1879, he was undoubtedly conscious that the eyes of history were upon him, and Newman famously chose to speak of his struggle across a lifetime: “For 30, 40, 50 years I have resisted the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now.”
Amid these gathering shadows of apostasy taking shape in Christian Europe, Cardinal Newman wanted to leave a wider perspective on history which resonates for us today. In words less well known, he observed: “Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial to come.” The great cardinal explained that “Providence rescues and saves his elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend, sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”
This is the faith declared anew each Christmas: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Amid every shadow of our time, may Christmas bring for us this same invitation to confidence and peace, to “stand still and to see the salvation of God”.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury
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