Homily for Midnight Mass

‘O Cave, prepare yourself to receive the Mother who carries Christ in her womb. O Manger, receive the Word who destroyed the sins of all. O shepherds, keep watch and then bear witness to the awesome wonder. O Magi, come from Persia, and bring your gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the King. For the Lord has appeared from a virgin Mother. She bows to him like a servant, and speaks with him at her breast, saying, “How were you conceived in me? How did you grow in me, my God and Saviour?”’

So goes a beautiful hymn from the Byzantine liturgy.

Yes, we have arrived!  Our Advent journey has reached its goal. We have come to Bethlehem. How many there must be converging tonight / today in faith on Bethlehem – encouraged by unseen angels, propelled by an inner star, as we are. Two thousand years ago also, Bethlehem was packed with people, there at the behest of the State, gone up to be enrolled. It’s nicely evoked in Bethlehem, A Christmas Poem by Carol Ann Duffy:

Everyone there who had to be there.
The lamps lit; all Bethlehem full;
every cave stabled with beasts, jostling for hay in the fusty gloom;
every room peopled and packed from rafter to floor;
barley bread in the ovens rising…

A hundred suppers – honey, fig, olive, grape,
set before stone-cutter, potter, tent-maker, maid nurse, farmer, child.

The Inn bulged; travellers boozed, bawled, bragged,
swapping their caravan tales; money-lenders biting their gold coins;
painted women dancing on tables; mules brayed outside in the stable;
a youth in the courtyard strummed on a harp.
Then a few hours (and lines) later comes:
…the small, raw cry of a new life.

And Mary wondering, “How were you conceived in me? How did you grow in me, my God and Saviour?”

Tonight’s Gospel begins with a decree from Caesar Augustus, the first of the line of Roman Emperors. It begins with government and bureaucracy, with a census of the whole world, that is, the Roman Empire. ‘And everyone went to his own town to be registered.’ Putting a positive spin on it, here was a State organizing itself, creating a space of law and order, of peace and security, with possibilities of communication and trade and prosperity, and even of higher culture. Rome did manage all this. Rome succeeded in registering, enrolling how many cities and tribes and peoples into its own project, over a great area for several centuries. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes gave the famous description of what life is like outside such civilization: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” And ancient Rome did build a house where it was for some better than that, where it was possible to have a modicum of stability and social life.  It fell, but others have succeeded it. How many hundreds of thousands this last year are flocking to the house of Europe for a better life, desperate to be enrolled!

And how enrolled we are in this house, this household! Enrolled and registered and on innumerable data-bases, with passports and driving licences and bank statements and cards and pin numbers. Caesar has us all. And it’s all ‘sort of okay’ as far as it goes. ‘So Joseph set out…in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.’ Joseph and Mary went along with it too. ‘Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’  But something else was afoot, mercifully. If we’d been there, perhaps we’d have heard, ‘A donkey’s slow, deliberate hooves on the stones.’
We might have heard a conversation at the pub door. And if we’d tagged along,
‘seen, the stable behind the inn;
present, animals, goatherd, shepherds, Innkeeper, wife…
then the small, raw cry of a new life.’

And Mary wondering, “How were you conceived in me? How did you grow in me, my God and Saviour?”

‘O believers, says another Byzantine hymn, let us celebrate…the nativity of Christ; let us raise up our minds to Bethlehem, and we shall be raised up in spirit. We shall meditate on the Virgin who is on her way to the cave to give birth to the Lord of all and our God…who grants mercy to our souls.’

This small, raw, new life is the foundation stone of another house, the beginning of another household.

This child who is ‘born for us, this son given to us’, this son of royal David, this new Solomon, has built a better house than any Caesar. ‘Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end.’ His Bethlehem, this House of Bread, has nourishment for us which will never leave us hungry. Enrolled in it, we can render to God what belongs to God and enjoy our full humanity, ‘raised up in spirit’ by the God who came down to our flesh.

‘The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting stand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome’
(G. K. Chesterton, The House of Christmas)

At the beginning of this millennium, we are living unprecedented displacement, dislocation, uprooting, transitions, exiles and migrations of every kind: physical, social, ethical, technological, geo-political, cultural and all the rest. The physical migration is the visible outward sign. There are 244 million migrants in the world as a whole, that is, people living outside their own country or homeland. Closer to home, by the end of this year there will have been some one million people claiming asylum in the European Union. But the dislocation embraces every area of human life. If ever it was true that here we have no abiding city, it is now. If ever every level of our being was crying out for a house, a home, it is now. St Paul’s words have point: ‘We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ (Eph 4: 14, 15).

So, in the end, in what, with whom, do we enroll ourselves? Our truest selves, the selves that can never be satisfied with life under Caesar? Let’s try the raw, swaddled child, the wondering mother, the thoughtful, practical Joseph, the awe-struck shepherds, the magi swaying on their camels. Let’s enroll for the crazy stable, the House of Bread, the empire of Christ. The shepherds were enrolled by the angels, the wise men by a star. We are enrolled by baptism, inscribed on the database of heaven. We are enrolled by faith, written on the palms of his hands. May our faith be reborn tonight beside the manger! Let’s enter our names, our inmost selves, for the house that God is always building out of our ruins, the open house with the merciful door.  To be grounded there is to be rooted in heavenly things. That’s the best gift we have to offer our contemporary world.

Let’s go to Bethlehem,
‘to the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home’,
and find there a beginning of peace.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122