Gerard David Nativity 1495 - on view at Farm Street until Feast of the Epiphany
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, gave the following homily during Christmas Day Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street, London, on Christmas Eve 2016.
First of all on behalf of the Jesuit Community who have care of this church once again a very warm welcome to you and may we wish you a happy and blessed Christmas. Always so uplifting to see our church so full at Christmas so may I say thank you for coming, thank you for being with us this morning - it's wonderful to see so many familiar faces but may I also repeat especially if you're here for the first time you are very welcome - maybe you're visiting London or maybe you come just every so often to church, maybe you're not Catholic but wanted to come to a Christmas service. Wherever you're from you are most warmly welcome. We mean that sincerely. We really like doing hospitality and extending a warm welcome to all. It's what we're all about here.
You might be wondering a bit about our church - it is a 19th century church built by generous donors and it's run by a group of brothers and priests in the Catholic Church called the Jesuits, or to give our full title the Society of Jesus, a 16th century foundation perhaps best known now through our Pope Francis, who's also a Jesuit priest - and the Jesuits are known for many things - different works, education, and our distinctive spirituality of finding God in the world - in all things - and at the centre of that a way of looking at the world which embraces the belief that God is to be found in our world, in real life, everyday life, amid sorrows and joys, troubles, opportunities, challenges. God here in the facts. Right here under our nose. And that's really what Christmas is all about too. Maybe you're here because you believe that too. Or maybe you're here just because it's what you do on Christmas Day. Or maybe you're among the 20% in the UK who aren't sure if you believe in God or not. Or you've been dragged here - if so poor you! Well, just to say we're used to meeting folk at different points of the faith/ doubt/ seeking compass - so feel very much at home.
But in particular at Christmas we do want to share with you why the birth of Jesus is important to us. And why? Well, in a nutshell he is the human face of God. The human face of God with us on our journey. Because very simply what we're celebrating here - and what Christmas is about - and indeed the distinctiveness, the core of what it is to be Christian in today's world - is a belief and a life based on the belief that God is right here in our midst in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ's life, his death, his resurrection, his model for human living as our inspiration, still and especially in a world which in many ways is becoming more inhuman, less tolerant, more divided, and yet groaning for meaning in life.
In Jesus we believe we have a model of something different: a model of compassion, of inclusion, welcome, unity, reconciliation. Through him whom we believe loves us so infinitely he has become like us; to experience all that it is to be human. That's really important to my personal faith. God is not some distant entity we worship and pray to; and we cannot find him by some sort of quest for spiritual perfection; no, he is right here in you, me, in our world, and knows our innermost desires, troubles, worries, and deep down our basic capacity for real goodness, true greatness, better than we even do ourselves. And he wants today to be with us on our personal journey to show us that understanding, his compassion, gentleness, his mercy, and reawaken in us that human desire to live lives of virtue in our dealings with each other on this planet in all its fragility.
So what is your journey? Where are we on our life's journey right now at Christmas 2016? Maybe we're not enjoying Christmas at all - amid all the talk of family and celebration it's perhaps a lonely time - maybe you can't wait for Tuesday, January 3rd - or maybe you've got relationships to sort out - or maybe you don't really think much about where you are on this journey of life. Wherever that is we believe that Jesus Christ - God become one like us - has been there - and wants to say he loves us deeply because he understands so much so he gives us total infinite freedom to do as we wish. And yet he desires us to be happy through following his values which bring peace to ourselves and to our world. And how much that is needed in our world right now, as it seems to be torn apart more and more through conflict, terror, indeed often in the false name of religion as it is twisted to look like religion to proclaim a counter-gospel of hatred and division.
So if you're wondering what you're doing here today; if you have been cajoled into coming to church today; maybe just consider what religion means to you. And consider how to understand the changing culture of today we cannot ignore religion. In our own country the rise of extremist ideology and intolerance uses religion for its own malicious ends. We need to understand these tensions, get to the truth, and reclaim what true religion is all about. Perhaps we've been away from organised religion for a long time. That's OK - maybe it was for good reasons - perhaps hurt by the Church, maybe by priests. If that's the case we want to admit that, we want unequivocally to say sorry for how the Church has gone astray so badly in many ways and we want to simply welcome you back with the hope we can build something more faithful to the integrity of the Christian faith, showing the human face of God, mercy, compassion, the God who in Jesus is one of us, loves us deeply, always welcomes us back, whatever we've done, whatever our background, gender, sexual orientation, whether we're respectable and wealthy or we find ourselves on the margins of society. And we hope that here at Farm Street we can say genuinely, sincerely, we want to welcome everyone, because that's what Christianity is all about, that's what Jesus is all about, the human face of God.
Jesus on the side of the weakest. Because this human God was indeed despised himself by the secular and religious authorities of his day; he was indeed born into poverty and famously we can't help but be reminded was driven out of his own country - a refugee from childhood indeed. And so he stands for the weakest in our society and prompts us in the Church to reach out to the weakest: to the heartbroken, the bereaved, the addict, the mentally ill, the infirm, those treated with disdain and political and economic control because they don't fit the bill and culture - in views and association, financial autonomy, or because of race, gender, sexual orientation; the victims of human trafficking; and right now - in the unfolding tragedy of our time - refugees forced out of their homes by appalling violence and terror in Syria and Iraq, even in the false name of religion.
One of the highlights of my year was a visit to northern Iraq in September with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. We were with a delegation of MPs visiting Christians and others - Muslims, Yazidis, other minority religious groups - driven out of their homes by Da'esh, 'so-called Islamic State'. How on earth can we still believe in God, you might ask, when we see religion twisted into an evil movement by extremists? And yet in the people there we met real hope - Hannah, young mother of four wonderful children looking forward to returning to her family home; a 92-year-old lady in Alqosh, just ten minutes drive from the front line with Da'esh who said she would pray for us; Fr Martin, who escaped from his village of Karamalesh, rescuing the Blessed Sacrament from the church - two years later we attended his ordination where he told us he was determined to stay with his people. A determination to continue to practise faith brought to this part of the world by St Thomas the Apostle 2,000 years ago. A courage which puts Christians in the west to shame. People are still putting themselves on the line for Christ. People are still putting themselves on the line for Jesus Christ. If you have time please visit our Syria Shrine to pray for the Middle East before you go and for the release from captivity of our Jesuit brother Fr Paolo dall'Oglio, now missing since his capture in Raqqa, Syria, in July 2013.
The human face of God - where is it in our world? It can seem so absent in a world ravaged by conflict, when evil rears its ugly head, despair and depression grips us. But what does the Christian do? What can the religious person do? Should they do? The Christian looks around, reflects on the coming of God to earth - God is here in our midst beckoning us to allow his humanity in, his compassion, his mercy, calling us to hope more, love more, have still greater faith in what he is all about.
And what he is all about confounds the wisdom of the world. What he is all about is symbolized here in the crib. And at Christmas - no more words needed - maybe before you go today: simply visit our crib. A God Who was born in our world in human weakness and frailty - as a child born in a stable - and this is God - in the midst of this world always pushing back the apparent control of an all powerful Lord of the universe, is invited to come to the manger to gaze again on Who God really is, what God and religious faith is really all about. The heart of our Christian faith: an incarnate faith, a faith which finds its heart and soul in human longing, which sees strength in weakness, which has no place for a culture of control and dominance, of violence and aggression, or of self-importance, authoritarianism, holier than thou religion. And we're called - all of us - to welcome this God into our world again. So may the miracle of Christmas draw us more closely into the mystery of the journey of our own lives - and so may we truly celebrate this great feast with all the joy it merits: a very happy and blessed Christmas to you and all you hope to truly love!
Read more about Farm Street Church here: http://www.farmstreet.org.uk/default.php
Find out more about Aid to the Church in Need here: http://www.acnuk.org/