25 Dec 2023

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 25 December 2023

“On the twenty-fifth day of December in the Year of Our Lord 2023, when ages beyond number had run their course since the redemption of the world; when century upon century had passed since the Cross called all humanity to peace; in the twenty-first century since the apostles went out to all the world; in the 78th year of the reign of the United Nations; on the eve of the 33rd modern Olympiad in Paris; Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Gaza being at war, and Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen all in mortal conflict; so much of the world not being at peace: JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by His most loving presence, came once more in the celebration of His Nativity according to the flesh.”

It’s not quite the Christmas proclamation which is usually proclaimed at Matins before the Midnight Mass of Christmas. Not quite what we heard the angels sing at the Nativity (Lk 2:1-14). But at the close of this year, it can seem hollow to keep carolling about peace when the news is daily of conflict. Instead of goodwill, we witness man’s inhumanity to man. Instead of hope, despair, as people worry about war, climate, family tensions, health, making ends meet… Christmas can seem like a fairytale: a nice story we tell our children and ourselves, but not one reflecting our realities.

In the official Christmas proclamation, we are told that all the world was at peace when Jesus was born. The period of the Pax Romana was the most tranquil period for the Roman empire, but it was a fragile peace only maintained by force of arms. As the Caledonian chieftain, Cal/ga/cus, wryly observed, “The Romans create a desolation and call it peace.”[1]

The father of that Roman peace was the very one who unknowingly forced Jesus to be born not in Nazareth but in Bethlehem: Caesar Augustus. In a ceremony to celebrate peace in the Roman empire, he closed the Gates of Janus in 29BC. He did so again in 25BC. And again in 13BC. Once should have been enough in such a supposedly pacific age! The Roman senate then commissioned a monumental Ara Pacis—altar of peace—as more propaganda for Augustus’ peace myth; it was consecrated only a few years before Christ’s birth (9BC). Each occasion marked a temporary cessation of hostilities against a backdrop of ongoing conflict between the emperor and his rivals, trouble at the borders, and especially in provinces like Judea.

The Gospels relate that a decree went out from this supposed prince of peace, Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of “the whole world” (Lk 2:1-14)—no doubt with a view to more taxes, conscripts and controls. Joseph and Mary complied, but a few days later had to flee as refugees with their newborn into Egypt. Caesar’s puppet king, Herod, was anxiously killing all the baby boys of Bethlehem, lest one threaten his throne. So peace in the Judea of Caesar and Jesus’ day was tenuous indeed. And still today, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Israel and Gaza, terrorists and armies do their damnedest, blood flows in the streets, innocents die, and people live permanently on edge.

In our first reading (Isa 52:7-10; cf. 9:1-7; Lk 2:14; 2Thes 3:16) Isaiah foretold the coming of one who “brings good news, heralds peace, occasions happiness, proclaims salvation”. Yet behind this text things are clearly not so nice. It’s people who’ve had bad news who crave Good; those who’ve suffered war who crave Peace; the sad who most need Happiness; the lost who are looking for a Saviour. “Break into shouts of joy,” the prophet says, “you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord is consoling his people”. Amidst division between nations, within communities, families and individual hearts, there is a cry for harmony. But it can be elusive. No end of good will, sound policy, peace negotiations, or counselling, is enough. We need a peace the world cannot give (Lev 26:6; Isa 45:7; Jn 14:27).

Which is why the coming of Christ is heralded as peace. Not because all will be hunky-dory when He comes. But because He will stand for something altogether new, enable something very different to Caesar’s faux peace. : We call Jesus “lord of peace” and erect altars to Him, not out of fear of arbitrary power as the Roman Senate feared from Caesar. Who but mad Herod could be afraid of a baby? We revere that Babe because He commands peace,[2] inspires it,[3] and enables it by a God-given grace for hearts and minds.[4] Jesus blessed, breathed, bequeathed peace upon His disciples, again and again.[5]

Yet to this day atrocity breeds righteous anger, righteous anger unrighteous, unrighteous anger reprisal—in many places, but perhaps most blasphemously in the land of the Saviour’s birth, near Jerusalem which means “the city of peace”. A refusal to forgive. A hardening of hearts. An endless cycle of retaliation. We become combatants ourselves (Mt 5:21-22; Jas 4:2-3). “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Oppen-heimer said in this year’s film, echoing the Hindu scriptures.

Why, we wonder, does nothing seem to change? In the end, we know, Jesus will indeed bring an end to all conflict and establish eternal peace.[6] But before His second coming brings that kingdom to completion, He invites us to work with Him in building concord. Peace is a fruit of His Spirit working in us. If we are receptive to it, it will shape our character, perception, behaviour, relationships. It will make possible that elusive peace with each other and with God.[7] We then become peacemakers ourselves, ministers of reconciliation, good neighbours.[8]

The gift of spiritual peace and living as a peacemaker come at a cost. For Christ, it meant a life of self-sacrifice, told in the myrrh presented by a wise man at His birth. For His followers, it can mean persecution.[9] All over the Middle East this year Christmas decorations and celebrations have been minimised or cancelled altogether. It would be unseemly to revel while so many are grieving. But it is also a matter of survival: in this toxic environment, being openly a Christian can make you a target.

Christmas does not erase the realities of conflict in our world, our communities, our families, our hearts. Nor anxieties about climate, relationships, failure, loneliness, making ends meet. Yet something different is possible. There is, as our Gospel relates, a light to shine in the darkness, a grace and truth to fill our aching hearts (Jn 1:1-18), a love to conquer the hate. Christmas is our annual injection of hope and joy. “I am come into the world,” Jesus says, “come as Prince of Peace, for peace on earth among those of good will. My peace I give you; a peace unlike any the world gives. So let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid, but be at peace. In this world there may be trouble, but take heart: I have overcome the world!” (Jn 14:27; 16:33).


My thanks to all those who have contributed to today’s beautiful celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. Our Master of Ceremonies Fr Lewi Barakat, Dean Don Richardson, Precinct Manager Helen Morassut and Sacristan Chris Backhouse, with their teams of priests and deacons, ministers and readers, ushers, staff and volunteers, ensure our liturgical and devotional life are worthy, not just at Christmas, but all year round.  

Our wonderful choir and organists have enabled us to join the angels singing glory to God on high and peace to people here below, as they do all year round. A special mention to our Director of Music, Daniel Justin, who led all this wonderful talent at his first Christmas here in Australia.

Some of you are regulars here; others less frequent. Some are visitors from overseas, interstate, even other faith traditions. Please know that you are always welcome at St Mary’s.

Finally, 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 2024.

[1] John Cannon, A Dictionary of British History (3rd ed., OUP, 2009).

[2] Ps 34:14; Isa 26:3; Mt 5:9,21-26; Lk 1:79; Rom 14:19; Col 3:15; 26:52-56; etc.

[3] Rom 14:17; 15:13; Gal 5:22; Eph 4:3; 1Thes 5:23; 1Pet 1:2.

[4] Ps 29:11; 1Thes 5:23; Phil 4:6-7; Gal 5:22-23; Rom 15:13; Col 3:15; Eph 2:14 etc.

[5] e.g. Jn 14:27; 16:33; 20:19,21,26; 2Thes 3:16.

[6] Ps 4:8; Isa 2:4; 11:1-10; 45:7; Jer 8:11; Mic 4:2-4; Eph 2:14; Rev 21:3-4.

[7] Dt 20:17; Num 25:12; Jud 21:13; Ps 85:8; Rom 5:1-10; Col 1:19-20.

[8] Mt 5:9; 2Cor 5:18; 13:11; Rom 12:18; 14:19; Eph 4:3; Heb 12:14; Jas 3:18; 1Pet 3:9-11.

[9] Mt 5:10-12; 10:16-18; 34-36; 24:6-14; Mk 10:29-30; Jn 15:17-20; 2Cor 12:9-10; Gal 4:29; 1Thes 3:3-4; 1Pet 4:12-14; Rev 2:10-11.


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

Welcome dear friends to St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney for this morning’s celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. I offer this Mass for you and for all your loved ones, that you may experience the glory of God above and peace among people below. Our Christmas crib now has the statue of the Christ-child within and we recall that this year is the 800th since St Francis established a Christmas play in a cave near gretch-cho Greccio in Italy: soon Christian pageants and cribs were a worldwide phenomenon. We ask the Prince of Peace lying in the manger to enter into the hearts and lives of all people, especially those hearts hardened by conflict, and those lives wounded by grief, bringing them the compassion, love and joy of God.

As we receive the Christ-child into the crib of our hearts this Christmas, and so we might receive a Plenary Indulgence under the ordinary conditions, let us repent of our sins and ask Christ to make us anew…