Homily for Midnight Mass of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

25 Dec 2014


A very warm welcome to you all on this holy night. As we heard in the Christmas proclamation, after so many centuries of waiting, in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Son of God was born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. This was the turning point of history: all time is either BC or AD, before or after the moment of “the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh”. And the whole world was then at peace.

Such has not been so in our world this year past. Christians and other religious minorities are being persecuted to oblivion in parts of the Middle East by terrorist groups. Some of this trouble has even made its way to our shores, to a block or two away in Martin Place.

In such times our best instinct is to come together to express our hopes and dreams for “peace on earth and good will to all men”. In such times we come together to sing those aspirations as Christmas carols and ask God-made-Baby to give us what it takes to be peacemakers in our world, our land, our families and our hearts. Whoever you are, Catholic or not, from around these parts or visiting, regularly at Church or less frequent, a very warm welcome. I invite you tonight to make of your heart a manger in which the Christ-child might lie, so that you and those you love may know the glory of God in the highest and the peace promised to people of good will.

Homily for Midnight Mass of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 25 December 2014

On your way into the Cathedral tonight you saw for the last time the very beautiful Lights of Christmas display that has illuminated the façade this past fortnight. It included a cleverly animated version of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Many assume such nursery rhymes are nonsense. In fact they were often coded political commentary. Baa Baa Black Sheep is a satire on the Plantagenet wool trade, Mary Mary Quite Contrary a defamation of Queen Mary, and Pussycat pussycat about the court of her sister Elizabeth I. Jack Sprat Could Eat No Fat refers to Parliament’s refusal to finance Charles I’s Spanish campaign; and Jack and Jill went up Hill to the beheading of King Louis and Marie Antoinette whose head came tumbling after…

We might wonder, then, about those strange gifts on The Twelve Days of Christmas. Some of you might indeed get potted pear trees for Christmas, or some equivalent, but if you get a partridge, two doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five gold-ringed pheasants, six geese and seven swans as well, you’ll have a menagerie of 28 birds to deal with after Christmas. Unless, of course, you kill and pluck the birds, stuff them with the pears and glaze them with the goose eggs, and then cook and serve them to your fifty exotic guests – the eight milkmaids, nine dancing girls and ten leaping lords, with their orchestra of eleven pipers and twelve drummers!
What on earth are those Christmas presents all about? Literary historians think the carol was a secret catechism for children, sung in the recusant period in England when the Catholic faith could not be taught openly.

Our Christmas catechism begins by asking where Christians get what it is they believe. What is it that inspires them? Well, says our carol, some things are revealed to us by God. He gives us Five Golden Rings or books of the Torah, the heart of the Jewish Scriptures; Four Calling Birds or Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the heart of the Christian Scriptures; and Three French Hens of faith, hope and charity told in the Epistles. Together these make up the Two Turtle Doves of the Old and New Testaments.

So God has given us the Bible as a sure guide to faith and life. But He also gives us the gift of reason, to think things through for ourselves. The natural world and natural reason are the Six Geese A-laying, the six days of creation. With faith and reason we have what we need to make sense of God, the universe and ourselves. They are extraordinary gifts. Yet like insatiable children we search around the Christmas tree for even more…

Paul in our epistle tonight exhorts us to give up anything that does not lead to God and embrace everything that does (Tit 2:11-14). So the next few gifts are there to give us the wherewithal to live our beliefs day-to-day. There are Seven Swans or sacraments a-swimming on the waters of Baptism, seven ways God shares His life with us to enable us to do great things. There are eight milkmaids or beatitudes, promises to the poor, persecuted, peacemakers and others. Nine dancing girls or fruits of the Holy Spirit, such as love, joy and peace, assist us to live that beautiful life. And Ten Lords A-leaping or commandments are the Designer’s manual for a life befitting our natures.

So this Christmas carol is about faith and morals, what we believe and how we live it. Where are we to find reliable guides and real support to live these ideals? Along come eleven faithful Apostles, Peter, Andrew, James and the rest, Pipers Piping with their successors right down to our times. They whistle to the beat of the Twelve Drummers Drumming, the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed, such as ‘I believe in God the Father almighty’, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord’, ‘I believe He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’, ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church’, ‘I believe in life everlasting’ and so on. So we find our Christmas faith is built upon the Apostles and handed down the generations, even when it had to be learnt in secret. Happily, we are no longer an underground Church, at least in this country. But recent events have brought home to us the terrible persecution some still suffer for their faith in the Middle East – a tyranny witnessed so recently only two blocks away, in Martin Place.

Elizabethan Catholics used to interrupt the song to ask the children to name all Ten Lords or commandments a-leaping and so on. I haven’t listed tonight all twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed, all eleven faithful apostles, all ten commandments, nine spiritual gifts, eight beatitudes or seven sacraments: you can test yourselves and each other on the way home tonight or at Christmas dinner tomorrow… for our parties tonight and tomorrow and throughout the twelve days of Christmas are merely extensions of that first Christmas party when shepherds brought the rather simple gifts of wool and praise (Lk 2:1-14). In our carol we heard that in exchange God brought us His extraordinary gifts of creation and recreation, of word and sacrament, of apostles and saints, of the wherewithal for us to live these ideals ourselves. But there was one last gift – the first gift really – and it was given on this very night, on the first day of Christmas: A Partridge in a Pear Tree. Perhaps you’ve guessed by now: the partridge is Jesus Christ, the Mighty-God made Prince-of-Peace (Isa 9:1-7). The ancient tradition was that a mother partridge would feign injury or even accept injury to herself, as a decoy to predators attacking her helpless nestlings. Just before the end of His life Christ sighed: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kill prophets and stone those sent to you! How I long to gather your children together as a partridge gathers her chicks under her wings!” (Lk 13:34) Christ is that partridge ready to give Himself up to protect us. And He said this on the way to His pear-tree, the Cross.
At Christmas, then, we give God our hearts and songs of praise. We give each other gifts. But we receive so much more: we recall that we are constantly showered, every day of every year, with natural and supernatural gifts, to feed our faith and enable our good works. At times when our three French hens of faith and hope and love are sorely tried – as they have been in these days and months past – Christmas is there to re-inspire us for another year, to recharge our idealism, romance, optimism. And the giver of these good gifts is our Divine Lover, for On the Twelve Days of Christmas it was My True Love who gave to me…