22 Dec 2021

St. Mary’s Cathedral

‘The great slave revolt’: so the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called the triumph of Christianity in the ancient world and he thought it no good thing.[1] Before Judaeo-Christianity came to dominate the West, he thought, morality was based on a distinction between virtuous individuals (the brave or proud or otherwise excellent)—the supermen—and the common-and-garden-variety low achievers. Logically not everyone could be excellent, and it was best to be clear who were the (few) moral heroes and who were the masses of middling-to-bad guys.

But then came the revolt of the slaves, who had long suffered under the thumbs of the moral heroes and whose morality Nietzsche called ressentiment. They wanted everyone to be treated equally and the weak to receive particular support. For Nietzsche such altruism, compassion and works of mercy were degrading because they hindered individual excellence, creativity and self-development, and achieved an artificial equality through a poisonous envy and collective powerlessness.

Nietzsche’s view that altruism is just a nasty power game is wrong on many counts, but he wasn’t wrong to identify the moral upheaval that came with the rise Christianity. The notions that all human beings are one family from the same parents, made in the image of God and restored to that likeness by Christ’s redemptive life and death; that this grounds universal dignity and the required reverence for every human being; that we are called to a radical loving, including of the weak and lowly, and even of enemies; and that we must do something about disadvantage—these were indeed radical ideas in the ancient world and in many ways still are. Yet Nietzsche was mistaken when he characterised this as ungrateful and envious underlings rising up against their natural betters. Mary’s spirit soars as she magnifies God today, not because of any revolution she has initiated but because of what God has done (Lk 1:46-56): He has stooped down to his lowly handmaid and done great things for her; He has extended His mercy to every generation; He has routed the proud and exalted the humble.

Which is all very well but Nietzsche said that when he looked around all he saw was self-hatred masquerading as humility or a more feigned and hypocritical humbler-than-thou act. Yet as the eighth-century abbot, Ambrose of Aupert, observed, Mary’s self-designation as ‘lowly handmaid’, her identification with the ‘lowly’ who are exalted and the ‘hungry’ who are sated, has nothing to do with seeking to be admired. Unlike Nietzsche’s heroes, who aspired to celebrity for their excellences, Mary had not the slightest regard for worldly honours. The only approval she cared for was God’s. If people are truly humble, Ambrose said, “they would desire that God, not they, should be praised by men, and their spirit would rejoice, not in this world, but in God.”[2]

Of course all generations have, as Mary predicted, called her Blessed—and a whole litany of other titles. Yet, in the end, she insists, it’s all about God. “From this day forward all generations will call me Blessed for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name… his mercy extends… his power is shown… he routs… [and] he exalts… He has come to help needy Israel.” Mary has no puffed-up self-regard, no secret ambition for earthly glory: she recognises that her role as Blessed Mother is all gift from the Mighty, Holy, Merciful One, not for any deserving on her part.

This is the great twist of Christianity: that the lowly are made equal to the mighty, not by their own revolt, but by a Divine grace that turns our human conceptions of excellence inside-out. In our ‘psalm’ Hannah sings that God ‘lifts up the lowly from the dust, from the dungheap he raises the poor to set him in the company of princes’ (1 Sam 2:1-8). Mary’s Magnificat is clearly inspired by this song, but she tweaks it: in her version the lowly are raised, sure, but mighty are also brought low. But why would she want that? Surely it would be enough for the disadvantaged to be raised up…

Enough, maybe, but it’s not the way of the Christmas God. In the great Christmas reversal the lowly are indeed exalted: a mother so poor and powerless she’s forced to give birth in a lowly cattle shed will soon be known as Mother of God and Queen of the Church; those nobodies, the shepherds, are invited into the court of heaven as they join angels in praising the infant Messiah; above all, the baby Himself, so insignificant He’s wrapped in paupers’ rags and laid in a feeding trough, will eventually be acclaimed ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’. So, yes, the lowly are indeed exalted—but the mighty are also cast down. Kings come and prostrate before Him, handing over their wealth so the Babe might become their true treasure, lest like King Herod they are driven by the envy of the supermen to violence and madness; powerful angels are reduced to standing beside ox and ass to glimpse the strange reversal; above all, the Almighty Himself leaves His heavenly throne, empties Himself, takes the form of the most powerless of beings, a newborn Babe.

This is the Christian reversal: not just raising up sinners into saints, victims to vindication, the disadvantaged to flourishing; but upside-downing all our pretensions, so that whatever our earthly excellences, we are all lowly before God, and could never deserve heaven; but the Almighty looks upon that lowliness and makes it His own, so we might indeed enter the divine court, the heavenly banquet. In becoming one of us God-in-Jesus has wiped away all differences between mighty and lowly, making us all one royal family.

Christmas has so many angles, like the lights and baubles, each with its facets. But one is to contemplate today what you have brought to the Christ-child. The angels brought carols, the shepherds brought lambs, the kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. How about you? Well, you have brought God the gift of yourselves, putting your talents to the service of His kingdom in your various roles in our Archdiocese. For this I honour you as my blessed colleagues in leading and serving the People of God in Sydney and beyond. But in the end you need no honours from me. What matters is that in the great Christmas reversal, you are raised up to being a guest at the first Christmas celebration, indeed more than a guest, an adopted son or daughter of the heavenly Father, a sibling of the boy-God. I thank you for another year of devoted service and offer this Mass in thanksgiving for each of you. And I pray that this Christmas you may know with Mary that the Almighty has done great things for you and Holy is His name! May God bless you and your loved ones in the holy season ahead!


St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to our end-of-year Mass for the staff of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney. I am so pleased that we are all back to work together and able to meet together in person both for Mass and for our party today. But we know that the present respite is fragile and we must hope and pray that things stay safe for gatherings over Christmas and beyond. If you haven’t had a chance yet I invite you to come along one night this week with your family and friends to look at the Lights of Christmas display on the façade of the cathedral each night from 8:30pm.

The ‘O antiphon’ for today prays “O come, desire of nations, come; come king and cornerstone and make us one; save the race you made from clay and draw us to you Christmas Day”. To prepare ourselves to receive the desire of nations into the crib of our hearts at Christmas, let us repent of our sins…

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), I, 10; III, 14; cf. Beyond Good and Evil (1886),260.

[2] Ambrose of Aupert, Sermon 2, on Assumption, PL 39