On Tuesday this week, I was pleased to make a pastoral visit to a prison in our Archdiocese. It was for the annual Christmas carol service, at which I’d been asked to say a few words.
We were a mixture of staff, prisoners, chaplains and visitors. It was a wonderful celebration of what is at the heart of the forthcoming feast of Christmas: that God’s love for the world was made real, in flesh and blood, in the tiny baby born at Bethlehem.
After the usual fascination from the prisoners as to whether my episcopal cross and ring are solid gold – they’re not by the way – we began our service retelling the events of that first Christmas in word and song, as we do this evening. And how important it is to retell the truths of our faith, to share them with others, to pass them on to our children, to put them into practice.
The timelessness of the Christian message never fails to amaze me. I, you, we, our world, need to hear over and again of God’s love, given lavishly in the birth of his Son. I, you, we, our world, cannot hear enough the Good News that sin and death are defeated and that the way to heaven is opened by our infant Saviour who is born to die and rise again. I, you, we, our world, yearn for ways to offer and accept forgiveness, to build peace and end injustice. I, you, we, our world, seek to believe again that hope in Christ is real, that the Holy Spirit can and does overshadow us as once happened uniquely to Our Lady; that God is with us and we do not need to be afraid.
The simple reconstruction of the nativity scene makes relationship with God, and relationship with each other, the centre of our belonging. From the humble shack of Bethlehem an enduring love radiates out to include every person.
Retelling the Christmas story matters to all of us. Why? Because it’s a love story; a love story which continues to embrace us today. And because it’s a love story which continues to compel us. Love freely received must translate into love freely given. Sometimes, accepting that we – you and me – are loved by God is actually harder than showing God’s love to others. There are plenty of people who put the Christmas truth of God’s love into practice; but they struggle to believe it really applies to them too. Here’s the Good News. It does apply to you. The Lord Jesus was born for you. He is God’s gift of love to you. He wants a loving friendship with you. He has prepared a place for you in heaven.
During our prison carol service we took time to dress the manger. You may have done this yourself. Each person in turn takes a strip of cloth and lays in across the wooden cradle where the image of the Christ child is to be laid. What begins with just a few strips of cloth slowly builds until a soft bed is made ready for the new-born Lord to rest upon. It’s symbolic, of course. Symbolic of the way in which we prepare ourselves, of the way in which we prepare our hearts and lives to welcome the Infant Jesus.
Just imagine that you are in Bethlehem; and that you have a strip of cloth to lay in the manger, something to symbolise your preparation for Christmas this year, something to offer personally to Christ – maybe it’s a gift, a request, a need, a sorrow, a hope or a dream. I wonder what it might be? What, in faith, do you wish to bring to the Lord Jesus?
The Most Rev. John Wilson
Archbishop of Southwark