A sermon preached at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town:
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome to this beautiful service in this beautiful cathedral among multitudes of God’s beautiful children, all of us made in God’s image. This is one of my favourite nights of the year, a night on which I feel a certain magic. I’m not sure whether it’s the spirit of kindness I feel emanating from all of you, or the joy I see in the eyes of our children, but whatever it is, this time of year always puts a smile on my face, especially when the sun goes down and the night comes alive with the twinkling of the Christmas lights.
And this Christmas, I also feel a renewed energy in our country, a little like the way I felt when our children took us a few weeks ago to the Global Citizens’ music festival in Johannesburg. (Although I have to admit that I couldn’t stay long enough to watch Beyoncé!!) This Christmas, I believe we’re about to re-enter a new age, an era where we define the new South Africa.
So tonight, thankfully, I don’t feel compelled to spend as much time as at past Christmases speaking about the need for our leaders to become more enlightened, more illuminated and more conscious about our country’s social and economic crises. This doesn’t mean we should relax our vigilance – despite feeling more hope-filled this year, we must remain vigilant and not be captured by those in power the way we sometimes have been in the past. But our new dawn does appear to be on the horizon, and we are grateful for that.
Before I continue, I do want to express concern for our sisters and brothers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who were meant to be voting yesterday in what should have been the country’s first democratic transition of power since independence nearly 60 years ago. Please pray for Archbishop Masimango Katanda, for Anglicans in the Congo and indeed for all the country’s people, as we look forward to elections, hopefully delayed only to next Sunday.
Tonight I want to focus on the biblical themes of hope and light facing us, and somewhat less on the challenges of darkness and sin. It’s a time for us as South Africans to speak about finding our cultural confidence, a time for us to remember our national values and mostly, a time to begin trusting again. Our Gospel reading (Luke 2:8-20) provides a rich context for our reflections on this holy night, and the ambience in the cathedral provides us with tools for deeper connection. Let us return to the crib and the Christmas story!
Tonight, nothing remains ordinary; everything is extraordinary. Of course, at a spiritual and theological level, as Christians we know why: we are gathered here together to remember the night on which Christ was born and to unpack the message of the Incarnation which begins with that birth. Those of you who have heard me preach on this night in past years will know that I am captivated by the Nativity scene which is part of our Christmas celebration. When I look at the simple crib and the humble figures who crowd in around it, I associate it with the title of that little book by Arundhati Roy, called “The God of Small Things”.
The book makes the point that pivotal moments, huge leaps in history, are often rooted in very small wonders, and each year on this holy night we are challenged to face this truth: that God’s vision of hope and light is embodied in a fragile, vulnerable baby. God’s hope is manifested in an outbuilding in the courtyard of an over-crowded inn, placed in the care of itinerant parents, in a time of political occupation, in a place regarded by the worldly as the back of beyond.
As we journey through the 12 Days of Christmas to the Epiphany, we will see that challenge underlined again with the story of the Magi. There we are told quite categorically by Matthew (2:9-10), that once those wise men left Herod’s Palace, the star which they were following appeared again. And when they arrived, despite being definite outsiders and having no claim to a place around the crib, there was a place of welcome for them.
We are told that there was “no room in the Inn” but there was room around the manger and there still is today. Indeed a close reading of the Nativity narrative not only affirms that there is room enough for all around the Manger but that is a special place for the marginalised, for those born in the back of beyond. Christmas reminds us that hope did not reside in the institutions of power or in the machinations of the powerful. Christmas is the festival of the God of Small Things and marginal people. It reminds us to interrogate the unlikely places if we are to find God’s new and bold initiatives of being with us. The Word is made flesh (John 1:1 ff) in unlikely ways, in unlikely places and in unlikely people.
Words of hope, light, gestures of welcome and an ethic of belonging all emerge from the activity of the God of Small Things. In the past year, as we have celebrated the centenaries of both Tata Nelson Mandela and Mama Albertina Sisulu, we have again seen powerful proof that the God of Small Things works in otherwise ordinary people and situations to bring about huge blessings.
I’ve said I’m not going to focus tonight on the behaviour of our leaders and our government. Instead I want all of us South Africans, every woman, man and child, to look at ourselves, and to examine our own behaviour and that of the institutions we work most closely with. Isn’t it time for all of us, working in our own areas of influence, to write our own story? We are on the cusp of 2019, and to me that means, while we know that embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, it is not nearly as dangerous as giving up on being part of something bigger than ourselves.
There are many entry points I can use to highlight the need for illumination in South Africa. Let me focus on the one that worries me the most: the high levels of aggression we see in many areas of our society. I am going to talk tonight about three of those areas.
Firstly, many of you know that one of the sectors that is closest to my heart is the mining industry, where I have taken a very active role over the last three years in creating a safe space for all those involved – management, unions, government, local mining communities and civil society and faith-based organisations in those communities – to meet on an equal footing to voice divergent thinking, to address the challenges the industry faces and to seek opportunities for collaboration and resolution.
But what particularly worries me is the violent intimidation we have seen during strikes in recent weeks, not only in mining but in the plastics industry. To date three people have been killed and others injured in the strike at the Sibanye-Stillwater mines, and a security guard has died after being doused with petrol and set alight at an East Rand plastics company.
Secondly, I am alarmed at the levels of aggression we are seeing in our schools, with learners attacking one another and even their teachers. During this past year, there have been scores of cases in which learners have assaulted their teachers in classrooms in the Western Cape. In other parts of the country, we have seen shocking videos of learners attacking their teachers. In one school in Gauteng a learner pulled a gun and threatened to shoot a teacher. In another in North West, a learner is alleged to have stabbed a teacher to death in a classroom.
Similarly, service delivery protests are rarely free of violence and the destruction of government property such as libraries, schools and clinics – the very facilities that are there to serve the communities that are inflicting this damage. And at the same time, as highly contested elections loom next year, we are seeing a spike in threats of violence, as well as the ongoing killings of political opponents in some parts of the country.
We welcome the changes in government since last Christmas, when I called for the replacement of the president at the time. We welcome those steps taken to clean up government and to root out corruption in the public and private sectors. But how far will good, clean government take us when people are being killed on picket lines, stabbed in our schools, beaten up in service delivery protests and assassinated in disputes over who will hold public office?
We are a nation that has grown up believing that outcomes are achieved only through violence. Our leaders, whether in government, business, organised labour, education and politics, have a significant responsibility to provide the moral leadership to redefine how we disagree, how we find consensus and create the society that we all strive for. But the solution lies ultimately in our own hands. The historical context of the interrelationship between protest and violence does not justify this psyche and behaviour. We will not be able to say that the quality of life for ordinary South Africans has been improved by our liberation from oppression until we are also liberated from our instinct to solve problems through violence, whether in schools, in workplaces or in political campaigning. This is a critical issue for our country, one that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. The flames of darkness associated with violence need to be extinguished forever. We owe no less to the Prince of Peace.
So we have much to work through in our hearts before we leave the crib tonight, much to be grateful for and much to contend with in the days ahead. But we are not alone, as John Bell of the Iona community has written in one of those wonderful poems for this time of the year. I quote:
Light looked down and saw the darkness
“I will go there,” said light.
Peace looked down and saw war.
“I will go there,” said peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.
“I will go there,” said love.
the Lord of Light,
the Prince of Peace,
the King of Love,
came down and crept in beside us.
At the end of the day that is, simply put, the truth we celebrate today, the spirituality that empowers us to live boldly and the vision that challenges us to see the new born Babe in marginal places where He invites us to adore Him. May all the blessings of this Holy Night also accompany you through the year ahead.
God loves you. And so do I.
God bless you, your family and God bless South Africa.
The Most Rev Thabo Makgoba