The Archbishop of Cape Town’s Christmas Eve sermon

102

Isaiah 62: 6-12; Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2:1-20

May I speak in the name of God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

On behalf of the Cathedral, the Diocese and the Province, my family and I wish all of you a blessed, peaceful and happy Christmas. Wherever you are – whether online or sitting in a Cathedral pew – please know that on this holiest of nights, you are equally welcomed, loved and cared for as a child of God. And thank you, Mr Dean and your staff, for all you have done in the difficult conditions of our second Christmas under Covid to make this Mass one that lives up to the finest traditions of this Cathedral’s liturgy. 

Sadly, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is not with us in his customary front pew tonight. Please say special prayers for him and for Mama Leah and their family tonight; their health is not great but of course at their age we cannot expect otherwise. We are deeply grateful for his life and witness and when God in Jesus does call him home, we know he will be in the trusting and loving hands of the incarnate Christ.

I started my sermon last year by saying that 2020 had been an unspeakable year of intense suffering. Who could have predicted that 12 months later, after the hope given to us by the arrival of vaccines and the adjustments we have made to take this virus in our stride, that we would be faced with a challenge such as we have now? We were told that we would be hit with new variants, and so we were, with Delta and now with Omicron. But now we have to get our heads around the complexities of Omicron; that while it has not so far made people as ill as Delta has, one study in Hong Kong says it is 70 times more contagious than Delta. It reinforces the need for all who want to move around freely in our community to be vaccinated not only for their protection but for the protection of others – a need our church’s Provincial Synod has underlined by making vaccination mandatory for clergy. 

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’“

It is hard to hear those words when so much of our lived experience this year drowns out voices of joy and celebration. The Covid pandemic, the loss of livelihoods, the pandemic of gender-based violence, rising unemployment, the ongoing scourges of racism and corruption, all rob so many of the joy of life. Yet this night, this holy night, is one of deep joy despite all that is happening around us. It is the night when the celestial has touched the terrestrial, holiness and humanity have met, and hope and history chime together.

There are moments in the Christmas story when joy comes in the shape of solidarity. In the shepherds’ story we are told that it was at night, in the vulnerable time when the world is dark, that they received the good news. We are also told that the presence of the angels “shone with the glory”, breaking the tyranny of darkness. 

The Christmas story assures us that even in places of darkness today, light shines through to encourage and inspire us. God, our Emmanuel, is with us, amongst us, aware of our situations, so aware that God continues to send angels into our situations to bring light. Emmanuel is with all those who like Joseph knock on doors and find that they remain shut, those who seek proper places for their families, those who are going through tough times in their lives. Finding no room is the story of God’s solidarity with those who, despite all the adversity and all the obstacles they face, yet discover that sometimes they are also the sites of new life, of new possibilities. 

Sometimes – and this is at the heart of the Christmas story – the joy of God comes disguised, in unpredictable ways. It takes our willingness to seek the Lord in those unlikely places, to sense God’s abiding closeness, to understand that we need to look out for God’s presence in the night times, the darkness, of our lives and when the doors are shut in our faces. Emmanuel – there also God is with us. 

The Scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph went up to Bethlehem for the census. One of the reasons for a census was for the Roman authorities to establish how many men were available for conscription so that they could ensure there was peace in the territories they controlled, the pax Romana as it was called. Of course it was not the real peace that is born of justice, it was an assertion of power through bullying and war, a peace enforced militarily from the top. The other reason for the census was to bolster an economy that benefitted a very few, and exploited masses of people on the margins.

The lessons to be drawn from the Christmas story are particularly apt for contemporary South Africa. There can be no dispute that our economy benefits a very few, with the disparity between the rich and the powerful and those on the margins among the worst, if not the worst in the world. The consequences can be seen in the results of a recent report from Afrobarometer, the leading African opinion pollster. 

A survey which Afrobarometer conducted in May and June of this year illustrates starkly how distrustful South Africans have become of their politicians. It found that whereas 10 years ago, 61 percent of South Africans had trust in our governing party, by this year this had dropped to 27 percent. Trust in opposition parties also declined, from 40 percent a decade ago to 24 percent this year. Parliament and provincial premiers suffer the same lack of trust – 28 and 27 percent respectively – and although by this year our current President enjoyed a little more trust, it was still limited to fewer than four in 10 South Africans (38 percent). 

Many factors contributed to the rioting and looting that swept KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July. But can there be any doubt that the lack of trust in state institutions has undermined the authority and legitimacy of our government? In fact the only institutions which enjoyed the trust of most South Africans were the media – which has distinguished itself in recent years by exposing public and private sector corruption – and the Department of Health – which has engendered trust by its handling of the pandemic. More than 60 percent trust the media, and 56 percent trust the Health department. 

This year’s local election results bear out the conclusions of the Afrobarometer survey. We face difficult times ahead, especially if political parties cannot succeed in working together in coalitions. One of the other findings of the Afrobarometer survey was that two-thirds of South Africans would be willing to sacrifice regular elections if a non-elected government or leader could impose law and order, and deliver houses and jobs; moreover the most trusted government institution after the Department of Health was the army. The message is clear: if coalition politics do not improve people’s lives, then there is a real danger that South Africans will turn away from democracy to authoritarian rule. That has never ended well – ask those of our fellow Africans who have lived under an authoritarian regime.

But there is another side to the story of Christmas, and that is that we are not helpless in the face of the manipulations of politicians and profiteers who run society in order to enrich themselves. It is significant that the coming of the Christ, he who proclaimed the revolutionary message that all are equal in the sight of God, was announced not to the powerful. It was announced to shepherds, people who lived on the margins of an already marginalised community. They were people regarded as so low in status that they were not even allowed to participate in or give evidence in court proceedings. It was not the powerful in Jerusalem who first heard the Christmas message, no it was those on the margins, people who were counted as nothing, who first received a message that inspired them, enhanced their confidence, upheld their dignity and built their agency.

A close reading of the Gospels also shows that the God who enters our fragile world does so as a vulnerable baby, on the very periphery of society, far away from the places of power and institutional religion in Jerusalem. The Christmas story reminds us that peace and prosperity are not the playthings of the rich and powerful, not a commodity for politicians and profiteers; no, the realisation of true peace and prosperity are in our hands. Like the shepherds in the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus, we have agency, we are empowered to articulate a new narrative, a different course of action, to speak hope where until now despair and fear of the authorities has dominated. We need to take inspiration from the Christmas story, and use our agency to build back trust in government, and to realise the promise of democracy. 

In the Old and New Testaments the image of the glory of God was an affirmation that God was right there, that those who experienced it were in God’s presence. There is something powerful in the thought that men who were ritually unclean most of the time and could not enter the Temple were not excluded from being in the presence of God. The God who was being revealed was not a God who was far off, not distant because of status or purity laws. God was present amongst the poorest, the most excluded and the most marginalised. Maybe the great joy that the angels spoke about was also about God such as our God who was close to the broken-hearted, who had a special concern for the widow and orphan and the stranger dwelling with you in the land. 

It is incredible that those who could not give testimony in court now gave testimony in the public spaces and with such authority that people wondered about all they said. It is something that we are learning in so many parts of the world where the poor suffer, where needs are great, where all the pandemics of these days tear away at our personal well-being and our social cohesion, it is still the testimony of the poor that rings with authenticity, that underlines that God is in our midst, doing something new, raising different voices, exploring spaces of hope and for those who are sensitive to those intimations, 

Christ is born again in the very concrete realities of our lives. There is something powerful about the shepherd’s faith, that they leave their flock, their security, and test it against this new leap of faith that God has asked them to take. Sometimes in life we have to stretch out beyond the familiar, the affirming, the comfortable and trust God to take us to places of new possibilities, new life. Pursuing Jesus no matter where it takes us, is a priority for our lives.

In going out to speak about Jesus, the shepherds literally and spiritually found their voices. It is unlikely that they were qualified to speak or theologise. There was certainly no commandment to go out to share their discovery. They did it simply because it opened up new vistas for them; it included them and all like them who were thought of as outsiders. They did it because the spirit within them was ignited with fresh possibility with new hope that was being actualised nearby them in Bethlehem.

We too cannot be silent about the good news God has given us in this baby, of the way in which new life has emerged from the margins or the peripheral places in our lives, in our relationships and in our communal life together. When this begins to grow in us, then we will with  the eyes of faith and our feet firmly on the ground, know once again the truth of the angel’s message, that news of great joy has come to us.

A very happy Christmas to you. God loves you, and so do I. 

Amen.