SERMON BY THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
AT CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL
CHRISTMAS DAY 1998
Let me begin this Christmas Address as I normally do by wishing each one of you a very happy Christmas. Wherever you come from, be that the United States, Australia, Japan or just down the road from one of the villages around, you are most welcome to this Cathedral Church.
Christmas is of course a time when we express our love and affection to our families and friends in all kinds of ways, whether through cards and letters, visits and ‘phone calls or in giving presents. You may know the story of the father who, when his children asked him what he would like from them for Christmas, said that he would hope that it would be a present that the whole family could get something out of. Imagine his surprise when they took this to heart and bought him a new wallet!
Yet in the midst of all the parties and presents which we enjoy on a personal level we must not ignore the wider perspective of the world in 1998. And what a year it has been!
Indeed, in many ways, the word insecurity sums up 1998. As the end of the year approaches there is a palpable sense of unease in many areas of our life about what the legacy of this past year will turn out to be: there is a chill wind of uncertainty about the economic future - about job losses and factory closures - blowing towards us from the all too real economic crisis in the Far East.
It has also been a year in which our insecurity and vulnerability in the face of the forces of nature have been heightened in many parts of the world: the terrible flooding in Bangladesh, the Philippines and China; and most recently the awful destruction wreaked by hurricane Mitch in central America, which has left Nicaragua and Honduras with thousands dead, many more injured and homeless, and the infrastructure of both countries destroyed. And let us remember too the places where armed conflicts continue to cause many millions to suffer, notably in Iraq, the Sudan, the Congo and Kosovo, but in many other places as well.
It is against this background that we do well to pay attention to a message at the heart of the Christmas story which speaks of security when all around is shaken. Whether you think of the greeting of Gabriel to Mary, the message from the angel to Joseph in a dream, or the announcement of the angels to the shepherds, the phrase ‘Do not be afraid’ comes time and again.
And that message of reassurance has, I believe, a very special meaning for us all at this time.
But God’s message often comes in surprising ways as his ‘angels’ often disclose themselves in a form not immediately recognisable to those who meet them.
I was particularly moved by a story told by Bishop Leo Frade, the Anglican Bishop in Honduras who, together with his wife, has had such an outstanding ministry during the crisis caused by Hurricane Mitch. In a letter written soon after it had struck, he tells of a terrible incident where 600 people, many of whom were either very old or very young were trapped on a small island in the middle of a river. The waters around it were rising fast and there was a real danger that everyone on it would drown. They had a motor boat but no one who had the confidence to handle it in the rapids.
Just then a young man appeared with long hair, an earring and shorts at least three sizes larger than they should have been. He was greeted with suspicion when he offered his help because of his appearance. Eventually he showed the people his ID card. He was a Cuban but from Miami and working with the US Coast Guards. His help was accepted. Then at considerable risk to himself he made journey after journey in the most terrible conditions to transport the 600 people from the island to the mainland. A friend of the Bishop’s said that it was like a scene from a war movie or from the film Exodus but eventually the 600 exhausted men, women and children, dressed only in rags made their way to the city of El Progreso.
Later, the Bishop asked his friend if anyone knew the name of that Miami Cuban. But the answer came back ‘no’. No one knew his name. He had saved 600 people and then had simply disappeared. Bishop Leo ended his letter with the words: ‘I really wonder if there are angels with long hair that use ear rings and shorts about three sizes larger? If you see any of those with a Cuban accent please tell him ‘thank you’ for us.’
Now, I don’t know what those angels looked like who appeared to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. Perhaps they too spoke with foreign accents or looked slightly unusual. But their message of comfort to people suddenly confronted with all the insecurities of the unknown have this common theme to them. ‘Do not be afraid’. ‘Have no fear’. ‘Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’
‘Don’t be afraid.’ It is easier said than done, isn’t it? We are fortunate indeed if this year has been one when we have not been shaken by some of life’s uncertainties. And of course when we are shaken we tend to cling to the cushions of money or possessions. But so often the latter fail to bring us the support we long for. John D. Rockefeller, the multi-millionaire, was once asked how much money he needed. ‘Enough to feel secure,’ he said. ‘And how much is that?’ responded the questioner. Back came the reply ‘A bit more than I’ve got now’.
But if money and possessions are not the answer perhaps like me you are sometimes irritated when all people offer are words. The phrase ‘Don’t be afraid. It’ll be all right,’ can trip lightly off the tongue, but what we need in such situations is actions as well. The Cuban ‘angel’ may have comforted those 600 people with words, but he also did something to bring them to safety. So too the Angel in Luke’s account goes on to say: ‘I bring you good news of great joy… a Saviour has been born.’ God has acted in a way only he can.
And that joy is what we celebrate this morning. For Jesus Christ was then and is today the greatest and surest antidote to the fear we feel, the insecurities we shall meet and the troubles we shall undoubtedly face.
Here in Britain we have been immensely blessed by Almighty God and been given so much by him. Our land has been shaped by its Christian heritage and I am delighted that this is now being strongly emphasised by politicians of all hues, as we prepare to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ this time next year. But like many of the most developed nations we are in danger of trusting a little too much in things that will pass away.
Successive governments have taken a commendably close interest in measuring the quality of British life, as a necessary part of the process of trying to improve it. But all too often those efforts, those carefully compiled surveys, miss a vital dimension that we all know is central to our sense of well being and value. They take no account of our spiritual health as a nation and of the inward life of each and every one of us round which everything else revolves. They forget the words of Christ that, ‘A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’. My hope is that we as a nation will use the opportunities of the coming year in preparing for the Millennium to address that imbalance. Our spiritual health matters. For, as a society, if we lose a sense of the importance of faith in God, much else is lost with it – morally our compass bearings drift and, in a fog of relativism, we lose our way.
But this is not just a problem for nations. Think too of the Church worldwide and the particular churches we come from. All too easily we can let fear creep in and lose sight of the One who must always be our primary focus. My experience of the Lambeth Conference reminded me of this and encouraged me no end. Even though our Communion confronts vast problems and great challenges, we have good grounds for optimism. Numerical growth is happening in many parts, our rich tradition of service continues and, along with that, there is a deepening of faith and the blossoming of leadership.
In this country too we have much to encourage us. If there have been times in the past when we have been so disoriented by the discontents of our world that we have lost sight of our primary function as a worshipping and witnessing body, we are beginning to address that imbalance. Our task is clear; it is to enable men and women to find their destiny and home in God. As the Early Church Fathers used to say of the Incarnation; ‘he became what we are in order to make us what he is’.
And that is where true security and confidence is to be found - in the good news which saves, restores and gives hope for all humankind. In Jesus Christ the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. In the Word who is still active in our world, often in the most surprising ways. In the Word who is God’s final and complete answer to the fears that beset us. For he gives substance to the message ‘Do not be afraid’. And that is good news indeed.