A New Hope

ChristmasWrapperFrontHomily at St Philip Evans for Christmas Day 2015.

A long time ago, 
in a village far far away...

a child was born –  a child who was the subject of ancient prophecy. He was born at a time when a great Empire ruled over much of the known world. In a small province, one tribe resisted the imperial demands to worship their Emperor – the Jewish people. The Jewish child born at Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, would be the one, not to ‘bring balance to the Force’, but to deliver the ultimate triumph of light over darkness.

We remember certain films we’ve seen because they tell epic stories. The original Star Wars movie took a simple farm boy and showed how he succeeded in destroying a powerful enemy. In the sequels, Luke Skywalker set out to rescue his friends and even made a strong attempt to persuade his archenemy to abandon evil. As for a certain film released a week ago – no, no spoilers from me. But it’s no secret that the new film is called The Force Awakens.

We human beings tell three kinds of story to explain the way things are. Each story is an epic, but only one can be correct.

In the West, we’ve grown used to the epic story called Science. We study the world around us, and discover the rules by which it operates. Science is good, as far as it goes – I was a research scientist myself before I became a priest – but if science is all there is, this epic is a lonely story indeed. We humans are the only creatures on this planet – and perhaps the entire universe – capable of understanding and controlling the world around us. This story says: we’re on our own, we’re free to create our own moral values, and when our bodies turn to dust we live on only in the memories of our friends.

In the East, the great cultures of Asia have long told a different kind of story. Many believe there is a ‘force’, a ‘life-force’, known by many names – prana, ki, chi, bioenergy, a force which balances good and bad, light and dark, yin and yang. Healing practices such as Chinese medicine, reflexology, acupuncture and reiki all draw on these beliefs. No doubt George Lucas had some of these ideas in mind when he imagined ‘The Force’ in Star Wars.

Lucas’s Force can be used for good or for ill. What distinguishes the ‘Dark Side’ from the Jedi way? The evil Empire seeks to control its citizens, but those who walk in the light respect the freedom of others.

The third epic story is the one we celebrate tonight. It tells how the ultimate power in the Universe is not a Force but a person, the one we call God. Jews, Christians and Muslims all speak of a God who is Good, and though there are dark forces in God’s creation, they are not equal to God in power.

What we celebrate on this Christmas Night is the awakening of a person, a newborn child. The Bible calls him the “Word of God”. When God, the Father of Mercy, wanted to speak to us, his beloved people, he sent part of His own being among us. God knows that we understand the language of stories, so God became part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Our Christmas story is full of drama. Would the pregnant Virgin Mary be rejected by St Joseph? Would the wicked King Herod find and destroy the new-born child? At every stage, God-made-flesh is in mortal danger. A chorus of angels fills the sky, but then a small family sets out on a lonely journey to become refugees in Egypt. And what we celebrate at Christmas is only the first reel. In a few months we’ll be invited to two sequels – on Good Friday, The Devil Strikes Back, followed on Easter Sunday by The Return of Jesus.

Our Christian story is indeed epic – but what’s the moral of the tale? To help us grasp the message, Pope Francis has declared the year now beginning a Year of Mercy. Outside every Catholic Church in Cardiff you will see a banner, ‘No-one is excluded from God’s mercy’. Because God’s light comes into the world, says the prophet Isaiah, our boodstained battlegear will be burned. When the light of Christ shines in our human hearts, we let go of old resentments and become ready to make peace. We open the door so that others can find mercy.

Some of us here tonight will feel that we are not worthy of God’s love because who we are, or something we’ve done in our life, doesn’t deserve it. Foolish we are, if that we believe! Rather, listen to these words from the Letter of St Paul to Titus:

When the kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed, it was not because he was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own compassion that he saved us.

This is God’s gift to you this Christmas. Hear these words: You are loved.

God loved you so much that he sent part of his own being to walk among us, and to die an agonising death on a Cross of wood, to show what he was willing to endure for you.

Yet if the God of the Universe is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much trouble in our world? We have already glimpsed the answer – if the hallmark of the Dark Side is that it seeks to control others, those who walk in the light must be free to choose for themselves – free to choose even to turn the darkness, or to turn away from it.

The God who respects our freedom asked the Virgin Mary if she would consent to bear His Son into our world. She said yes.

The God who respects our freedom allowed Jesus to choose whether to give his life for us. He sweated tears of blood in his agony at Gethsemane, but he said yes.

The God who respects our freedom sent out disciples into all the world, to tell the epic story of the Christ Child who came among us, to invite us not only to follow his teachings but to become members of God’s family through baptism and know God through prayer. Pope Francis continues this same work by inviting you to baptism, to confession, and to walk through a door which is open for you – and you will find these invitations on the card which you hold in your hands.

Tonight, then, decide which story you will believe. Is there nothing more than human ingenuity? Is there a Force we can use for dark or noble purposes? Or did a loving God who respects our freedom live among us as a new born baby?

In a galaxy far far away, the children of light wish each other well by crying, “The Force be with you!” But those who are wise to the message of the Star of Bethlehem will understand the deep meaning of an ancient Christian greeting: The Lord be with you!

(And with your spirit!)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit! Amen.