Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Vigil of Christmas 2013.
A royal message has gone forth to the nations! A message yet to be revealed in its fullness, but hinting at fair play and co-operation between the peoples of many realms.
I’m speaking, of course, about the Queen’s Baton Relay.
In July 2014, the Scottish City of Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games.
Just as before the Olympics, a torch is famously carried around the host nation, so the Commonwealth Games have their own pre-games relay: Queen Elizabeth II writes a message which is rolled up and placed in a baton. This is then carried through all the states and territories of the Commonwealth until it is revealed and read at the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
Wasn’t there a great feel-good factor last year when Britain did so well in the London Olympics? I wonder if the same thing will happen at the Commonwealth Games? Knowing that good things have happened before helps us look forward to more blessings. Our second reading tonight looked back to the time when God rescued his people from Egypt. The first reading, written to the people of Israel at a time of great struggle, looked forward to the time when God would bless them again. The prophet Isaiah is so sure that God will bless the holy city of Zion, he says that he’s not going to shut up until it happens! But I wonder what the coming blessing might look like?
When a Queen, or a King, wishes to communicate with their subjects, they send a messenger. It’s not uncommon for the messenger to be their own son – indeed, Prince Charles read out the Queen’s Message at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. But the message comes in two parts. The first part is the very fact that the baton is visiting each and every realm. The Queen’s Baton Relay unites the world’s great nations with its tiniest territories; India, with its population of more than one billion citizens, will stand alongside Nauru with its ten thousand. Only when it reaches its destination will the second part, the hidden words, be revealed – and this time, Queen Elizabeth herself will read the message when the baton arrives in Glasgow.
What we are here to celebrate tonight is something strangely similar! Long ago, the King of Heaven wished to communicate a message of love to His subjects on earth below, and sent his own Son among us, as a human being. The first part of the message is “Emmanuel”, the very fact that God is with us in human form – tonight’s Gospel was part of the story of the first Christmas, the birth of Emmanuel to the Virgin Mary.
The second part is not revealed at Christmas, but at Easter: having travelled the length and breadth of Israel, preaching a message of peace and love, the grown-up Christ-child is executed, while calling for his executioners to be forgiven. Yet this marks not the death of God but the death of Death, for the Christ appears restored to life, with a message of how all human beings can renew their friendship with God.
This Christmas is the first which the Catholic Church celebrates under Pope Francis, recently hailed as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Every Pope faces a double challenge: to set out the expectations that God has of us human beings, and to proclaim loudly that God is merciful and always ready to offer us another chance when we fail.
We live in an age of sound-bites, so we must take care! Too often, a person becomes known only for their most prominent actions. Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were best known for setting out the Church’s demanding teachings. Pope Francis has so far published few rules or teaching documents, but carried out many gestures of taking the side of the poor, meek and lowly. He has visited a refugee camp on the island of Lampedusa, embraced a man with severe facial disfigurement, and invited three homeless men from the streets of Rome to join him for breakfast on his 77th birthday. By doing these things, Pope Francis has sent out a strong message that the Church cares about those whom the world considers of no importance.
We should not expect to see Pope Francis change the basic rules of the Catholic Church. But we can expect to continue hearing his message that in a messy world we must give more attention to showing love than to following rules. Because God always offers us a second chance, the Church should not rush to condemn those who struggle to do the right thing. And we can also expect him to ensure that the Church practices what she preaches in the way it runs its own offices at the Vatican.
Gestures are important – but limited. Those runners who spent an hour carrying the Queen’s Baton might have appeared on their local TV station but are now back at their places of work or study. The three homeless men who had breakfast with the Pope are back in their usual cardboard boxes on the streets of Rome.
These gestures matter not because a Queen or a Pope is going to rescue a few souls from obscurity, but because they remind all of us of the value of our neighbour. When the Christ-child came to earth, the angels sang of goodwill to all people. We all matter to God, and God invites us to look after one another. One Pope or one Queen on their own cannot give ongoing support to so many people. But two billion Christians – or two billion Commonwealth citizens – reaching out with a kind word or a Foodbank donation every week; yes, two billion people who care can definitely make the world a better place. Christmas comes but once a year; the baton of spreading goodwill is yours for a lifetime, if you choose to run with it!