Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

The Nativity (El Greco)Homily preached by Abbot Cuthbert Madden at Midnight Mass, 25th December 2013.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, the tradition of keeping vigil before the major feasts of the Church’s year goes back to the earliest days of our Christian faith. It survives in our western Church in the nights before two great feasts: Christmas and Easter. By our presence here we are uniting ourselves with the generations who have gone before us and who kept vigil on this night and we are uniting ourselves with the generations who will follow us who will also keep vigil in the years which we cannot see. Both the Christmas Vigil and the Easter Vigil are moments of prayer and of great joy. We are joyful tonight because tonight our Saviour was born for us and the mighty work of our salvation has begun. The Church’s tradition of vigil always includes listening to the words of Scripture and reflecting on what those words mean for us in our particular situation. So what have we heard tonight? What do these words mean for us?

Let me begin with the closing phrase of the Gospel, the words of the angel choir as they sang a song of praise to God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favour” (Luke 2.14). “Peace.” It is significant, I think, that the angels sing of peace when the Saviour is born. The desire for peace is an almost universal longing among men and women. Although we are a race that seems to delight in war, for war is an almost universal experience in human history, yet we desire peace. Isaiah, writing for the ancient Jews, tells us that the child born for the people that walked in darkness will be called “Prince-of-Peace”. The ancient Romans established a ceremony of closing the gates of the Temple of Janus in the Forum when the Roman world was at peace. The ancient world sought peace. In the last century we saw the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 and of the United Nations in 1945 as intergovernmental organisations to promote and enforce peace. The modern world seeks peace. And yet the whole of human history tells us that, again and again, humankind has been engulfed in the violence and killing which is the very antithesis of peace. The news today speaks of mass ethnic killings in South Sudan, of insurgency in Nigeria, of a campaign of terror in Egypt, of deep unrest and killings in the Central African Republic; it speaks of civil unrest in Turkey, of violence against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, of anti-Christian violence in Syria and Iraq – and the list could go on and on. We are forced to admit that the peace of which the angels sang is absent from a substantial part of our world.

Christmas has something to teach us about peace. In the midst of the violence and killing of the First World War, at Christmas in 1914, the gunfire and artillery barrage fell silent, and Christian men on both side of no-mans-land first sang Christmas carols and then cautiously made their way out of the trenches to speak to each other. This was not a negotiated peace, nor was it a peace originating in the orders of military commanders: it was a peace which erupted out of nowhere. It was as if the seeds sown by the Gospel suddenly burst into bloom. Although peace may be a humanitarian good; although each of us should work to build peace; yet we have to understand that peace is a gift of God and true peace on this earth will not be established until we Christians learn to take the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, seriously.

It is easy to say these words; it may be easy to agree with them, but what do we need to do if we are to take the Gospel seriously? We have taken the first step: we have set time aside in which to keep Vigil. We have listened to the word of God and it is penetrating into our hearts. Let us listen once again to the words of the Apostle in the second reading, “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that 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 love good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing that will come...” It is when we are self-centred, focussed on fulfilling our worldly ambitions, that we unleash violence and war. And let us notice that the grace of God that has been revealed is not a “thing” but rather a person: it is a human person whom we are invited to know and to follow.

For most of us daily life crowds in from every side. It is a paradox that the more time-saving and labour-saving devices we have, the less time we seem to have – and it is time that is needed if we are to be able to come to know this person Jesus Christ. Tonight, we have created time. We have pushed daily life to one side in order that we might come into the presence of God so that he might change us. Perhaps there is a lesson here for the days and weeks that lie ahead.

Dear Brothers and Sisters, in the Gospel of St John Jesus says to us, “Peace I bequeath to you, | my own peace I give to you, | a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. | Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14.27) Real peace, authentic peace, is a gift from God; a gift which is freely given. In the same chapter of St John’s gospel Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, | and my Father will love him, | and we shall come to him | and make a home in him.” (Jn 14.23) Tonight we are being invited to begin once again a relationship of love with Jesus. As we keep vigil in this Church, we are invited by Christ through the angels who announce his presence to set aside all fear. We are called into the presence of the Christ-child. We are invited to accompany him in his journey from infancy, through childhood, to his adult life and to his death and resurrection; from this Vigil of Christmas night to the Solemn Vigil of Easter night. We are invited to surrender ourselves, the whole of ourselves into his hands so that he, Christ, may transform us by his word, and through his sacraments. We can, if we permit it, become by grace what Christ is by his nature. If we allow this transformation to occur, then our world will also be changed – and it just possible that a lasting peace, the peace of God, will be bestowed upon this world.