Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent High Mass Sunday 20 December 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.’
Christmas this year is different. The attacks in Paris, and the other terrorist atrocities which will follow on from them, are assaults on Christian civilisation. But that civilisation is also threatened from within, due to a lack of confidence about the place of Christianity in this country. So there was published a couple of weeks ago, to much acclaim and the nodding of wise university heads, a report called Living with Difference, a Report about the place and role of religion in contemporary Britain, by the Commission on Religion and Belief, CORAB. You might have read about it. One of the recommendations was that schools no longer need have an act of religious observance and that there should be “new guidelines building on current best practice for inclusive assemblies and times for reflection”. 104 pages like that. I’ve read this Report, twice. And in all those pages, a national consultation this is, there was no mention of the Christian Gospel. Nothing, not a word, nothing at all, not even a footnote, no mention of the living word which Augustine brought to England in 597 and which has informed and inspired national and personal life and manners for 1400 years, which has found expression in the best of our art, literature and music, and which will be born again in our lives this Christmas. There’s a lot about decline in church attendance, the changing ways people express their beliefs or lack of them and all that, we know all that, but this misses the point that Christianity, in whatever form the Spirit takes, is our way, the way handed down to us through tradition and scripture, our way of approaching absolute truth, the wisdom of the universe. As St Paul said, In Christ are hidden all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Christianity is not a hobby we have chosen; it is the air we breathe. Those who guide public policy in this country today accept no Gospel. Religious education, CORAB insists, is to inform, not to inspire, so the children of this generation will know about all religions, and atheism and humanism, and practise none, and they will have to sit through a period of reflection in an inclusive assembly, the void, nothing. So civilisation is subverted in the coming generation. No Lord’s Prayer for them.
No access either to the wisdom, the freshness of the story of the Visitation in today’s Gospel. Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth, and what happens is something that the Commission on Religion and Belief will never understand, because the two women at that moment stand outside any cult, any system of belief that can be taught in class. They greet each other. Both are pregnant. They didn’t need religious authorities to tell them what to feel. They knew within themselves, through the child within each womb, that God was calling them beyond their known religious duties, beyond what the world expects, beyond what either of them could imagine, into a world, a kingdom, a new life, where the only support was God’s love and mercy, but that love would be freely given, because it is God’s Son who is to be born. As St Luke puts it, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. They know the heroic task which awaits every human soul. This is Gospel, this is the living word of the Spirit, crafted to take us beyond what we expect, away from the world of prediction and control, forget those demoralising graphs of church attendance, towards the living truth which sets us free to respond to God’s call. This vocation will never be revealed in some dreary class on multicultural comparative religion.
Christmas this year is different, not because there are more reasons for fear, but because we know now what is at stake and can see that there are always greater reasons for joy. Elizabeth said to Mary that when she heard Mary’s greeting, “the babe in my womb leaped for joy”. Jesus is to be born into a world with resemblances to ours, a world of control, a time of census, of everyone being registered, a world of borders and tyrants and suspicion. But Jesus transcended his life and death. We can transcend our circumstances, distance ourselves from the pluralist interfaith ghetto of religion where our regulators would have us live. For the new world which opens up for us at Christmas, the kingdom of God which comes upon us, is unique, and has at its centre a treasure, the fragile and vulnerable new life of a baby, which we alone can protect. In that Kingdom, where not even the monster Corab can pursue us, we find again the elements, the chemical elements as it were, of a Christian civilisation which we guard literally with and through our lives, and which should be taught in every school in the land: love and mercy as shown by God giving us His Son; courage and humility as shown by Elizabeth and Mary trusting and God; and the joy and wonder and peace which you and I will know when Christ is born in Bethlehem, the greatest gift of trust ever, God’s life in our hands.