25 Dec 2019

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Identity. Adolescents have been searching for it since the 1960s and still take decades to find it. After that it’s nearly time for a mid-life identity crisis. The search goes on – until you don’t care who you are anymore…

Some of our I.D. comes from family, nation and culture. But modernity prefers self-generated identities.Much of it is said to be about what we identify with: ethnicity, sexuality, profession, politics, loyalty groups. In an era of ‘liquid’ personality, avatars and multiple universes, you can be one person at home, another at work, a third on the road and various online.

Sometimes it’s just code for self-indulgence. We humour our preferences with the excuse it’s who we are. No need to abide by laws of faith and reason or to compromise to the needs of others. Safe spaces and trigger warnings coddle our fragile egos. As desires change, we can revise our bodies surgically or our beliefs ideologically. But reducing ourselves to our tastes or to a single attribute risks neglecting other important things about us, allowing one dimension to control us and how we are perceived. Amidst celebrity adulation and identity politics, narcissism is now endemic. Too much focus on identity can be distorting…

Of course, there are dangers in having too little sense of self too. Our identity can be shaken by events like divorce, migration or job loss. Without self-awareness and self-criticism we are morally and spiritually stunted. If we are confused about values and vocation, we’ll be disinclined to plan or commit. Disengaged from family, Church and society, we fall easy prey to isolation or extremism. Too much identity, or not enough…

When Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?” He pre-empts those very modern questions about identity. Peter, speaking on behalf of all Christians, famously gives the answer “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13-20). The Gospels begin with Jesus’ family tree, demonstrating that as a descendant of Adam, Abraham and David he is a human being like us, a Jew and a king. Today’s Old Testament prophecy says He is the herald of good news and cause of joyful song, a liberator and saviour (Isa 52:7-10). The Epistle says He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, Heir of God the Father, Redeemer of sinners and Judge of the world (Heb 1:1-6). And our Gospel calls Him the Word and Glory of God, the only-begotten Son, close to the Father’s heart, light and life, grace and truth for all, the source of our adoption as children of God (Jn 1:1-18). That’s quite an identity!

Yet Jesus’ question is not just about Himself but about us. Our answers to who He is turn out to reveal who we are. To call Him our Saviour is to say we need saving – from sin, death, enemies, even ourselves. We need liberation – from vices, addictions, all that cages our spirit. To call Him Son, Grace and Glory of God, is to acknowledge that we need a power greater than ourselves. To call Him the word made flesh and splendour of the father is to recognise that He has remade us as the wisdom, peace, light and glory of God. As St Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive; and life for the human being is in beholding God!”[1]

In 1989 Zita, the last empress of Austria, died. She’d lived nearly a century and worn the black of widowhood for 67 years. A fervent Catholic, she lived to see her husband Karl’s cause for canonisation introduced. Following her funeral Mass, 8,000 mourners followed the hearse to the Capuchin Church where the imperial crypt is located. There, in keeping with tradition, her Chamberlain knocked on the door and a friar called from inside, “Who goes there?”

The attendant reeled off her titles: “Her Imperial and Royal Majesty, the Empress of Austria, Apostolic Queen of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia… King of Jerusalem… Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Cracow… of Lorraine, Salzburg… Parma, Piacenza… Portugal” and on it went. But the door remained tight shut. A reply came from within the church: “I know you not!”

A second knock and “Who goes there?” “Zita, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary.” Again the reply: “I do not know you.”

Finally, the Chamberlain hammered a third time. “Who goes there?” the friar inquired. “Zita, a sinful mortal” – and the great door opened wide. Her many identities and titles were as nothing that day. What mattered was only this: that she was God’s creature, and however imperfect, a disciple of Jesus.

So, who are we? Each one here is an image of God. But unlike God, we are far from perfect. We are sinful mortals like Zita. Yet at Christmas we recall the Word made flesh, God made baby for our sake. The encounter with this man-God, Jesus, makes us Christians. It incorporates us into the Church, a community of word, sacrament and service, made up of people who share our struggles and ideals.

Forces threaten our identity and even our existence from the first moment of conception. Some seek to marginalize Christian identity in particular. But your presence here today speaks volumes. It says that our core identity as Christians graces us to be, not just better believers, but better friends and lovers, children and parents, citizens and colleagues. It purifies, moderates and integrates all the rest. It means being faithful and prayerful, grateful and kind, honest and forgiving are at the core of who we are.[2] More and more we say with Paul “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20; cf. Mt 6:10; 26:42) No other self-concept so completely serves our flourishing and fulfillment.

Today as we gather round the crib of Baby Jesus we discover not just who He is but who we are. Christmas is not just for Him: it is so we can be Christ-ened, Christ-massed. Jesus shares with us an exciting and challenging identity, founded upon the creative and loving will of God rather than the contingencies of fate or our limited choices. Today He lends us that identity, so that our own stories are charged with meaning and purpose, our particular love-songs sung with joy and fervour, our unique selves enlarged and enriched. Today we participate in the greatest story ever told, the greatest hymn ever carolled, the very Self of the One who is, who was, and who will be for ever. Amen! 


St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

My thanks to all those who have contributed to today’s beautiful celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, including our concelebrants and deacons. Our Master of Ceremonies Fr Lewi Barakat, the Dean, Precinct Manager and Cathedral Sacristan, with their teams of clergy, acolytes and servers, extraordinary ministers and lectors, ushers, staff and volunteers, ensure that our liturgical and devotional life are worthy not just at Christmas but all year round.

Our Director of Music, Thomas Wilson, and our wonderful choir, organists and instrumentalists, have enabled us to join the angels singing glory to God in heaven and peace to people on earth. Many other people assist in the daily life of this great cathedral and I thank them all.

Some of you are regulars here; others less frequent; some visitors from overseas, interstate, other parishes, even other faith traditions. Please know that you are always welcome at St Mary’s. The God who shares his identity with you today, wants to do so all year round.

On behalf of all of us at St Mary’s Cathedral I wish you and your loved ones every blessing of this holy season of Christmas and of the New Year of Grace 2020.


St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

People of Sydney I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people: today in the city of David a Saviour has been born to you: He is Christ the Lord (Lk 2:11).

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for today’s celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. I offer this Mass with you and for you, and for all your loved ones, that you may experience the glory of God in heaven and the goodwill of people here on earth.

That we might receive the Christ-child into the crib of our hearts this day, and receive the Apostolic Blessing with Plenary Indulgence under the ordinary conditions, let us repent of our sins and ask Christ to make us anew…

[1]        St Iranaeus, Against Heresies, Bk 4, ch. 34, §7.

[2]        ‘Poll on Religion in Everyday Life’, Pew Forum, 12 April 2016 https://www.pewforum.org/2016/04/12/essentials-of-christian-identity-vary-by-level-of-religiosity-many-nones-say-honesty-vital-to-being-a-moral-person/