Welcome to each and every one of you: I am glad you are all here, on this most holy night!
I have always loved Christmas. When I was growing up in Johannesburg, in Alexandra and Soweto, my Christmas presents were often limited to a new pair of socks, or perhaps shoes. This taught me a lesson at a very early age which I value to this day, which is of course that Christmas is much more than its outward trappings, its material side. So although I enjoy gifts as much as anyone else, and especially the joy they bring young children, my childhood association with Christmas as a celebration of much more than that helps me to feel intuitively its deeper meaning in a very real way.
Thank you, Mr Dean and your staff, who make this Christmas Eve Mass such a great occasion, as we learn all over again – as tonight’s hymns tell us – how “God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven” and how God does that through the gift of God’s Son, “born that we no more may die, born to raise those of the earth, born to give [us] … second birth.”
Two very random thoughts come to mind on this holy night. The one might seem rather absurd but it is a reminder of a poster I saw recently. It was of Santa Claus riding on his sleigh with all the reindeer named in the famous poem, called ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, by the 19th century Anglican, Clement Moore – what were the reindeer’s names? Dancer, Prancer, Cupid, Comet … I can’t remember them all any more, although I do recall that in South Africa two of them are very close to words that have unfortunate connotations in our context in the Western Cape, namely Donner and Blitzen!
Anyway, the poster shows Santa, carrying bags and bags of gifts, meeting Jesus carrying his cross. Santa asks Jesus: ‘How many presents?’ Looking at his cross, Jesus answers, very poignantly: ‘Only one. And it is enough for everybody.’ The poster spoke a great Christmas truth.
The second thought is a reminder from many years ago, when I was at school. I was walking along a path and rather distractedly picked up a piece of glass that posed a danger to others. As I walked, turning the glass over and over in my hand, at one point the sun’s rays fell on it and to my mind a small miracle transpired. The invisible light of the sun suddenly became visible in a whole spectrum of colour as the light was refracted, or bent, through broken glass, to create a rainbow!
I have since often recalled that moment as my life’s journey has repeatedly taught me a great spiritual truth: that miracles often happen in the midst of brokenness, inadequacy and failure. Indeed those moments often seem to be God’s preferred terrain for times of new life. The Christmas story is a powerful confirmation of this truth. It is the story of the God of Love being born in a stable, some kilometres from the centre of power, in a time when political power was dragged into the mire of the politics of suspicion, revenge and unhealthy intrigue – as we see in Herod’s reaction to the news of Jesus’s birth. It is incredible to think that one so entrenched in power could be so disturbed, so threatened by a prophetic Word emerging from the margins.
Yet it was so and it seems that little has changed along the contours of history. Recently, we were reminded by one seemingly entrenched in power in our own parts to stay out of politics and to confine ourselves to prayer. Can you believe it? A President of a democratic South Africa telling the Church to stay out of politics? You would be forgiven for thinking that you had climbed into a time machine and gone back 30 years into the past, when apartheid presidents said the same thing. I am very pleased that the bishops and their chapters in the three Western Cape dioceses – Cape Town, False Bay and Saldanha Bay – have rejected President Zuma’s comments and have told him very firmly (and I quote): ‘NO, Mr President, we will not refrain from engagement in the political terrain. Our people live there, work there, suffer, cry and struggle there. We live there too and cannot and will not stop commenting or acting on what we see and what, in our opinion, is unjust, corrupt and unacceptable to God’s high standards of sacrificial love.’ (ends quote)
We in the Church live in and know communities which are afflicted by the darkness of pain, sorrow and despair. Our communities yearn for hope and the courage of leaders to stand up and speak truth to power. We hear the cries from those on the edges of our society. Mr President, we will ignore your call, made from the palaces of power where you and your fellow leaders live in comfort. We will lament and ask God, ‘Where are you, God, when your people are marginalised and excluded?’ We will continue to wage the new struggle: the struggle for equality of opportunity, for equality of outcome and to end economic inequities, especially those created by skewed access to resources, health and education.
Fear and entrenched positions still prevent us from sensing where God is at work, still prevent us from being surprised by the unexpected places where love is being born. So beyond and beneath the glitz and glamour of gifts and celebrations, this holy day challenges us to look to the margins, to train the ‘ears of our hearts’ to listen to the voices on the peripheries and to deal with that fear that stymies growth and discounts what would open us up to ‘the things of God.’
For all the enormity of the challenge that Jesus’s birth in a stable poses, for all the vulnerability that it suggests, it remains a story filled with courage and hope. It is after all the story that is captured in the name Emmanuel, the reminder that as we deal with our fears and face up to our challenges, it is always an ‘Emmanuel moment’, a reminder that God is with us, that we are not alone as we struggle to respond to our challenges, as we grow in solidarity with those who suffer and live under the rubric of marginalisation.
So we must refuse to be cowed by fear, prevented from praying for and pronouncing God’s goodness, God’s mercy and God’s judgement. We are not alone, God is with us and even more stunningly those who suffer and eke out an existence on the peripheries are not alone either because solidarity means that we live with sensitivity and support, alongside them. It means that we take up with them the issues that alienate and marginalise them; that they know we are with them because our vulnerable God is with us. For example, on the question of land and reconciliation in South Africa, might we need some sort of land Codesa to reach a negotiated settlement of this contested issue?
I have been struck recently by how apt and how poignant a 1963 radio message to the nation is in our current time. It was recorded by Walter Sisulu, who had gone underground. He said (and I quote): ‘I speak to you from somewhere in South Africa. I have not left the country. I do not plan to leave. Many of our leaders… have gone underground… to preserve the leadership; to keep the freedom fight going.’ He continued: ‘Never has the country, and our people, needed leadership as they do now, in this hour of crisis. Our house is on fire. It is the duty of the people of our land – every man and every woman – to rally behind our leaders. There is no time to stand and watch.’
It feels as if we are back to the national pain of 1963, living under a state of emergency, imposed on us by careless and corrupt leaders who have forgotten us, stripped us of our dignity. Many have tried to steal the means by which we might uplift ourselves through our own hard work. I wish I could ask Walter Sisulu for advice now. If I could, I would ask: ‘Tata Walter, what does it mean to rally behind our leaders in our current situation? Do we rally behind all of them, regardless of what they are doing to us? Do we rally behind the corrupt ones? We don’t plan to leave the country, we don’t plan to go underground but we do want to do something to preserve our hard-earned dignity, equality and opportunities.’
As we look ahead to 2017, we see a ruling party at war with itself, crippled by division to the degree that some serving members of the Cabinet believe the President must step down. As a result we see a government becoming paralysed by an inability to stick to achieve policy certainty and to chart a clear way ahead. People of faith need to begin asking: At what stage do we, as churches, as mosques, as synagogues, withdraw our moral support for a democratically-elected government? I don’t want to be asking these questions. I have so far not joined the call for our President to resign, but said that he should step aside while his party leaders address their crisis. But our situation compels us to ask: When do we name the gluttony, the inability to control the pursuit of excess? When do we name the fraudsters who are unable to control their insatiable appetite for obscene wealth, accumulated at the expense of the poorest of the poor?
And let’s not confine these questions to politicians. We need to ask them of our business leaders and, indeed, of ourselves. These are not just the ‘sins’ of politicians and business leaders, in these sins and ills we see our own shortcomings.
But in spite of our current crisis, we can celebrate Christmas this year with both confidence and hope. For unlike in 1963, we are a democracy, and our democracy is vibrant. South Africa is not broken. We have a sound Constitution and we have seen over this past year that we have resilient institutions. The courts, especially the Constitutional Court, civil society, the media, whistle-blowers in the government and private sector, and the many honest and hard-working public servants we do have—they are all doing their jobs well. It is true that we in the Church are not doing enough, and it is to that end that I have commissioned a series of Bible studies, entitled REFLECTING, PRAYING AND ACTING TOGETHER, which I urge you to download from my blog and consider using this coming Lent.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. My father used to say that ‘a single candle defies darkness’. We cannot expect others only to be the light; we have to find the light within ourselves to have the courage that light generates. And it is in the Christmas story, in this birth, that we find the centre of all energy, the ‘voice’ of light. God is birthed tonight. Love and light are birthed today. Through our baptism we become this love and light. We here tonight are a thousand candles. We, as a nation, are 55 million points of light. Friends, if 55 million points of light are enough to be seen by astronauts circling the earth, just think of how much that illumination can be energized to be an historic catalyst of change.
I suppose my last point will come as a bit of a shock amidst the festive noise that characterises this time of year, but the Nativity also points us to the gift of silence. It is a reminder that it is from carefully cultivated silent spaces that courage and generosity of spirit flow. A deep inner silence allows us to hear God and respond appropriately. In all of the Christmas story, we never hear a single word from Joseph, yet out of that silence, he is able to hear God and act in ways that are appropriate for protecting the life entrusted to him. Out of that silence he is able to resist Herod’s evil, deadly political strategies and dishonest, elitist schemes. We are reminded by Luke that Mary ‘ponders these things in her heart,’ and out of that silent space she nurtures this new initiative of God. That silence later emboldens her to stand in solidarity with the remnant of Israel’s hope at the foot of the Cross, believing that her Son’s crucifixion was not the end but rather another threshold moment that expanded God’s definition of love.
Christmas reminds us that our world and our public spaces as well as our own hearts are impoverished, that our public declarations are inadequate, if they are not rooted in silence, in the quiet of the Christmas moment. The carol, ‘Silent Night’ suggests that for the shepherds, the recognition of what God was doing in nearby Bethlehem, this awakening of the poor, the vision of the angels, the sign of a deeper understanding and interpretation of the mystery, was all rooted in silence. The Quaker William Penn used to say: ‘True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.’ Christmas challenges us to create little pockets of silence, reflective spaces where we can ponder what God is doing and what is happening around us. It was out of silence that Walter Sisulu spoke those words of courage and hope. It was out of deep reflection that Martin Luther King Junior said that “our lives begin to end” on the day we stop speaking out about the things that matter.
In coming to dwell with us and in being one with us, our God, Emmanuel, proclaims that we cannot just hope that things will get better. We need to act. This Christmas, and in our Lenten studies, we need to ask ourselves: What should, could and must South Africa become? What should, could and must Aleppo, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Nigeria, South Sudan, the USA and Zimbabwe become? What kind of environment should, could and must we leave behind on this planet for the next generation?
On this most holy night, we are reminded that God is with us, loving us into wholeness, and if our hearts are open to the margins and there we make room for sacred spaces in our busy lives, we too will know the joy of the shepherds and hasten to the places of new life. May it be so for us and for our world!
Amen, and happy Christmas!