Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End. All time belongs to him and all the ages: To him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen!
With these words we began our solemn Easter Vigil, marking this great Easter Candle as a visible sign of Christ among us. In the readings which have been proclaimed, we have recalled the history of God’s Actions and God’s People, from the Beginning until the wonderful morning when the women at the tomb discovered that Jesus is not dead.
We have proclaimed that all time belongs to Christ, and having recalled the history of the children of Israel, I ask you now also to recall with me the recent history of our own nation.
There was a time when Britain was a Christian Kingdom. Most of you can remember it.
Divorce was not easy to come by.
The shops were closed on Sundays.
Human life was protected.
One by one, the values of Christ’s Kingdom, written into British law, have been overturned.
In 1967, abortion was made legal throughout Great Britain.
In 1969, the Divorce Reform Act was passed, with its implicit message that marriage need only be a temporary lifestyle choice.
In 1994, Sunday trading was permitted to large stores and supermarkets.
In 2004, people of the same sex were able to claim equivalent rights to married couples by forming a civil partnership.
Within a human lifetime, the fundamental assumptions of Britain’s lawmakers have changed. Our heritage was that Britain’s law should be based on God’s law. Now, our politicians see that in our nation there are people with many different faiths and beliefs, and so they say: let people be freed to do whatever they wish, as long as they don’t harm others.
Because of this new freedom, much has changed, and Britain hears a new message.
Abortion clinics are free to advertise in print, and at the end of this month will be able to do so on radio and television. More and more documentaries are made about seriously ill people who would choose to end their own lives if only they had a legal way of doing so. Britain hears the message: “Human life is only valuable if it is a wanted life.”
Alternative relationships are not only tolerated, but celebrated. Primetime television soaps and drama series now present same-sex relationships, as they have long presented casual sexual relationships, as positive and life-enriching. Anyone who dares to suggest that they should not be celebrated in the same way as traditional marriage is denounced with one of the most damning of modern condemnations: Homophobe! Britain hears the message: “Anyone who doesn’t think same-sexual relationships are a very good thing, is to be shunned as a bigot.”
We are gathered here tonight to keep vigil and listen to God’s message. We are God’s people. Our Kingdom is not of this world, and we march to the beat of a different drum. We dare to say: Human life is valuable because it is made in God’s image. We dare to say: alternative lifestyle choices may be tolerated, and must not be persecuted, but should not be celebrated, because God calls us to live by his standards, not ours. We dare to say: Our King is Risen, and Alleluia! is our song.
The Bishops of England and Wales have a gift for you this evening. As I speak, the servers will come among you with a small card which you might keep in your purse or wallet. This card is a reminder of six things that we are called to do as Catholic followers of Jesus. Yesterday, at the Good Friday Liturgy, I spoke of the importance of forgiving others. On Thursday evening, we recalled the command to love our neighbour. We must keep close to Christ, through regular prayer and also through the sacraments. Finally, we are challenged to share our faith with other people, and to use the gifts we have been given. Whatever talents or abilities we have, they are gifts from God; they are granted to us for a reason. That reason is that we may serve others, inside and outside our church community, and the Prayer of Cardinal Newman, on the other side of the card, invites us to meditate on this calling.
There is one small glimmer of hope, shining on the beach as the tide of British Law ebbs from the safe shore of Christ to the ocean of personal freedom. It is this: In principle, our national law now celebrates the right of believers to practice and make visible their faith.
We are, in principle, free to do all the things which are printed on the faith card. But to make what is permitted into a reality requires courage, the courage to live out our faith in public and without shame. In past decades, it was not necessary for us to be vocal about our values, because the structure of our society already embedded them. Now, if we do not speak up as believers, our values will be lost in the clamour of those rightly proclaiming racial equality, demanding reasonable adjustments for disability, and those sincerely but misguidedly celebrating same-sex relationships as a simple extension of marriage.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we declare to God: “Yours is the Kingdom! Yours is the Power! Yours is the Glory!” How, then, are we to live on this earth as subjects of a heavenly King?
If a few Christians say: “I don’t want to work on Sunday,” British society will say: “Don’t be awkward.”
If a few hundred thousand Christians say: “I don’t want to work on Sunday,” British society will say: “Of course, we believe in accommodating all reasonable beliefs.”
If a few Christians wear a cross to work on their lapel or around their neck, British society will say: “You don’t need to do that.”
If a few hundred thousand Christians wear a cross to work on their lapel or around their neck, British society will say: “Of course, we must adjust our dress code to accommodate discrete signs of faith.”
British Law now says: “Your faith is only important if you make a claim for it”, and Pope Benedict recognised this with alarm on his visit to Britain in 2010, stating the need to voice his “concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance”. You may have heard on today’s news, reports that Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland is calling on each and every Christian to “wear proudly a symbol of the cross of Christ on their garments each and every day of their lives”.
My dear friends in Christ, we are blessed this night to have two men among us who will be baptised as members of our community of faith. Together, we share the responsibility of keeping our nation a place where each one of them can be free to practice their new faith – free not only because the law allows freedom in principle, but because together, we create a climate where we exercise our freedom in practice. The more we assert our religious identity, the easier it will be for us, and for new members of our community, to continue to occupy that space. But to claim that space, we must act now, before the tide flows out any further.
In a few moments, first our new members, and then each one of us, will make our baptismal committment, that “I believe in the Catholic Church.” How will you show by your future actions that you believe in the Catholic Church?
If you are invited to a workplace meal or buffet on a Friday, will you point out that Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays?
If you are asked to work weekend shifts, will you point out that attending Mass is something that needs to be accommodated?
If you do not already wear a cross, or another Christian symbol, will you consider the Cardinal’s call to do so?
It may seem very un-British to make a fuss about such things, but the old Britain is passing away. In the new Britain, faith will either be claimed or be squeezed out. As individuals, asserting our faith is a lonely calling. But if we decide, as a community, that we will do these things, then we will, in time, create a space where Britain once again celebrates these values. And we do this based on an empty tomb, a whisper of hope, and our belief that we belong to a Kingdom which has not yet come in its fullness. As we stand with the holy women at the tomb, saddened by what has been lost, and not yet witnessing the Return of the King, let us claim the territory for his return and so declare that this age also belongs to Christ. With him, let us pray to the Father, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ: For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are Yours, Now and Forever! AMEN!