25 Dec 2021

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydn

We all love a good ghost story. In the highest grossing film of 1990, Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, there was romance, comedy, mystery and cheesiness. But like many such films, it bumped up against the metaphysical problem of bringing spiritual and material beings together. Writers have various conventions about how souls and spirits might interact with the living, but they agree that pure spirits are invisible to the eye, are out of sorts with the material universe, and can’t easily interact with it even if they want to. People tend to walk right through them!

If there’s a disconnect between the spiritual and material worlds, what about that purest of spirits, God? God creates and sustains the cosmos and we can often see the effects of His action. Still, the Scriptures insist, “No one has ever seen God.”[1] Spiritualists might claim to cross into the spiritual realm, but Jews and Christians are no fans of this.[2] To speak of God being ‘present’ somewhere, such as in the Temple, means only that the people or things affected by God are there and attended to by us. God Himself has no particular address: He is beyond time and space. So our talk of seeing, hearing or touching God is also figurative.[3] Indeed the Bible insists that while God occasionally reveals Himself amidst cloud and thunder, from fiery bush or mountain, or in some holy person or place,[4] seeing Him is a terrifying prospect and only in paradise will we do so comfortably.[5]

On occasion God does grant people visions, words or dreams about Himself or the spirit world.[6] At the first Christmas, angels appeared to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, the Magi and, as we heard tonight, shepherds (Lk 2:1-14). Each was filled with awe and doubt as is inevitable when a material being encounters a spiritual one. But strictly speaking no spirit was actually in Bethlehem: rather the person who ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ it was. Spirits are only here or there in the sense of being where those they affect are.[7] You can’t kiss an angel.

We’ve all witnessed moving scenes of people at airports reunited after months of separation due to COVID lockdowns and border closures.[8] Phone calls, emails, live-streaming and Zooming are better than nothing, but they’re not the same as being together. When people say ‘online friends are not really your friends’ and ‘be careful about online dating’, it’s partly because we don’t really know each other until we’ve inhabited the same places, seen each other close up, read the body language.

Intimacy requires proximity. Most of those we love, live, work, play or worship nearby, and it’s hard when they don’t. The language of friendship is so often that of nearness: about ‘being there’ for someone, our ‘nearest and dearest’, being attached or close to them, not drawing away, becoming distant or growing apart. The lockdowns that kept family members apart and prevented them from attending weddings and funerals may have been necessary, but they really hurt. True friendship yearns for in-person connection, ‘up close and personal’. And that goes to the very heart of the Christmas story.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds by Nicolaes Berchem (1630), Bristol Museum of Art

The Creator so desired to befriend His creation that He became a part of our race, neighbourhood, family. When the Christ-child was born in a lowly stable, God was saying to every pauper: I’m here for you. When He suckled at His mother’s breast, God said to every family: I’m there with you. When the family fled from Herod, God told every refugee and trafficked person: I’m here about you. When He healed the blind and lepers, God said to all the sick, confused and alienated: I’m there for you. When He died and rose, God informed every mortal being: I’m here with you—and more and better is coming!

Though God is pure spirit, in Jesus He is also a physical, bodily being—with all the vulnerability that entails but also the possibilities of closeness. Though God is an intangible, other-worldly Being, intimated by thunder and visions, the Child is one of us. Though God inspires awe, the Infant inspires affection. And as God draws close to us in Jesus, we can now draw close to Him, like the shepherds hold the gurgling Babe in their arms and the magi crossing borders to be nigh.

Christmas is the story of God-made-man holding out his hand in friendship. The offer is real, tangible, personal, even physical. After two years of isolation, we crave it more than ever. In such dark times, Christmas is a ray of light, a sliver of hope.

Our word Christmas comes from the Middle English for “Christ’s Mass”, and the Mass is another example of God’s physical closeness to us. Even after returning to the Father, Jesus would not leave us alone. He gave us the sacraments as places of person-to-person contact with Him—and that requires presence. You can’t do baptism or absolution by email. No confirming, ordaining or anointing by Zoom. You can’t consummate a marriage at a distance.

The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dalí (1955) National Gallery, Washington DC

Above all, in Holy Communion we meet a God who doesn’t only want to be known by faith, written about in books or professed in creeds, but to be our friend and give us His all: first, His son, at Christmas; then, His life, at Easter; and now His body and blood, at Mass. His real presence means our substance can receive His, that He might abide in us.

How do we respond? When offered the hand of friendship, some pull back or even slap it away. Herod was like that, and many since have refused the offer of relationship with God. Some actually prefer distancing, separation, isolation—not just in emergencies. They build walls rather than bridges between people. They keep the borders of their hearts tight shut. They quarantine themselves from the vulnerability of romance and self-giving. They stay home to be completely in control.

But after two years of pandemic and lockdowns we’ve had enough of all that. We want to draw close again. We want to be reminded of just whose family, friends or neighbours we are. “Beloved,” St John says, because of Christmas “we are now God’s children; what we’ll be like in the future has not yet been revealed. But this much we know: that when all is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (1Jn 3:2), see Him face to face and so know Him as we are known (1Cor 13:12).

So this Christmas let’s stretch out our (duly sanitised) hand and take the hand of our relative, friend, neighbour, God. Let go of past hurts. Forgive. Trust. Where there’s loneliness and anxiety let the light in. Lend a helping hand.

Christmas is our chance to renew our faith, recalling the great mystery that God so loved the world He gave His only Son (Jn 3:16). Christmas is our opportunity to renew our hope, looking forward to an end to COVID and a better 2022. Christmas is a time to renew our love, to gather, reacquaint, make amends, exchange hugs and gifts, to come close in ways that say: friendship.


It’s always a joy to celebrate the Lord’s Nativity with you, but it’s been especially so this year after being so long apart. My thanks to all those who have contributed to tonight’s celebration, including our concelebrants and deacons. Dean Don Richardson, Master of Ceremonies Fr Lewi Barakat, Precinct Manager Helen Morassut and Sacristan Chris Backhouse—with their teams of clergy and ministers, readers, ushers, bell-ringers and more—ensure that the liturgical and other activities of this cathedral are worthy not just at Christmas but all year round.

I thank also our Director of Music, Thomas Wilson, and our wonderful choirs and musicians, who have enabled us to join the angels tonight singing “glory to God in heaven and peace to people on earth”.

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 in the New Year of Grace 2022.


St Mary’s Basilica, 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 to the Midnight Mass of the Nativity of the Lord. I offer this Mass for you and all your loved ones, that after another year of separation, anxiety and hardship, you may experience what the angels promise us tonight: the glory of God in heaven and the goodwill of people on earth (Lk 2:14). Last year attendance at this Mass was capped at 300, leaving many disappointed. While we are not suffering under such severe restrictions this year, the recent surge of COVID cases makes our present respite fragile, means we must still be careful and why many have stayed home. We keep all those who cannot be with us in our prayers tonight and unite ourselves to those taking part by live-streaming. I am excited and grateful to be able to celebrate the hope and joy of Christmas with so many of you physically present tonight. Joining me are Bishop Terry Brady, Dean Don Richardson and the cathedral clergy Fr Brendan, Fr Gerard and Fr Lewi. To ready ourselves to receive the Christ-child let us sweep out the manger of our souls…

[1] e.g. Jn 1:18; 6:46; 1Jn 4:12,20; 1Cor 2:9.

[2] E.g. Dt 18:11; Lev 19:31; 20:6; 1 Sam ch. 28; 2Kings 21:6; 23:24; 1Chr 10:13; Ps 97:7; 115:4; Wis ch. 14; 15:15; Isa ch. 41; 45:20; 61:1; Bar chs 5 & 6; Ezek ch. 6; Jn 4:24; Acts 17:16ff; Rom 14:17; 1Cor ch. 8; 10:14-19; 1Thess 1:9; 1Jn 5:21.

[3] Gen 3:9-19; 4:9-15; 6:13; 7:1; 8:15 etc

[4] Ex 3:2; 14:24; 19:16-25; 24:15-16; 33:7-11; 40:34-38; Dt 4:11-12,33-36; 5:4-19; Num 14:14; Jud ch. 5; 2Sam 22:7-16; 2Chr chs 5-7; 2Macc 14:35; Ps 5:7; 11:4; 18:6; 27:4; 84:1; 138:2; Sir 36:19; Isa 6:1ff; 66:6; Ezek ch. 43; Dan 3:53; Jonah 2:4-7; Micah 1:2; Hab 2:20; Mal 3:1. The prophets speak of the Word of God coming to them and say “Thus says the Lord”.

[5] Gen 16:13; 32:30; Ex 3:6; 5:24; 33:23; 34:10; Dt 18:16; Jud 6:22-23; 13:22; Job 19:26; Ps 42:2; Isa 35:2; Mt 5:8; Jn 1:51; Acts 7:56; 1Jn 3:2.

[6] e.g. Ps 66:5; Is 6:1-5; Amos 7:1-4; 8:1; 9:1; Jer 1:11-13; Ezek chs 1-3.

[7] St Thomas Aquinas, STh I qq. 52 and 63.

[8] “‘Love Actually’ scenes at airports as VIC/NSW border opens”, News.com.au https://www.news.com.au/national/love-actually-scenes-at-sydney-airport-as-vicnsw-border-opens/video/6bd670746f343a5fd7c8530f3cf45dff; Rachel Fieldhouse, ““It’s emotional”: Edwina Bartholomew fights tears as Aussies return home”, Over Sixty https://www.oversixty.com.au/travel/international-travel/it-s-emotional-edwina-bartholomew-fights-tears-as-aussies-return-home; Toby Crockford. “Love Actually recreated in our airports: Sydney, Victorian travellers return to Queensland”, Brisbane Times, https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/love-actually-recreated-in-our-airports-sydney-victorian-travellers-return-to-qld-20201201-p56jml.html; https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/live/2021/nov/01/australia-news-updates-live-covid-coronavirus-nsw-sydney-airport-border-reopen-scott-morrison?page=with:block-617f020b8f08fe3ad9f4565d#block-617f020b8f08fe3ad9f4565d