Christmas Story Challenges World to Right Injustice - Archbishop's Christmas Sermon 2004
Saturday 25th December 2004The birth of Christ is a profound challenge to our self-obsession and self-comfort, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned in his Christmas sermon.
In his traditional Christmas morning address delivered in Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Rowan Williams described the stable with the new-born Christ as "the engine room of universe".
"The entire system of the universe, 'the fire in the equations' as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh," he said. "God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory."
Dr Williams added that we should be shocked and troubled by this revelation:
"... it ought to worry us – us, who are so obsessed about being safe and being successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to."
The Archbishop said that, given the terror and violence in the world, it was no surprise that security should be a priority: "We struggle for a secure world; so we should. But what if our only passion is to be protected, and we lose sight of what we positively and concretely want for ourselves and one another, what we want for the human family? We are not going to be living in the truth if we have no passion for the liberty of God's children, no share in the generosity of God."
Failing to understand what God was telling us, Dr Williams warned, had serious implications for the way we approached global problems:
"The likelihood of a reduction by half of people living in abject poverty by the year 2015 is not noticeably greater than it was four years ago...Some developed nations appear deeply indifferent to the goals agreed."
Dr Williams recalled that the churches had played a major part in promoting the concerns of the Jubilee 2000 campaign which advocated debt relief and urged the churches to go on displaying a 'generous anger about the world's needs'.
"Can the churches of this country do as much again in the coming year in pressing government and financial institutions towards justice – and in motivating their own members get involved in voluntary action, advocacy and giving? If the answer is yes, we shall have taken a step towards living in the truth."
A transcript of the sermon follows:
Christmas Sermon, Canterbury Cathedral
It used to be said that if you were travelling by ocean liner, the worst thing you could do was to visit the engine room; and I'm afraid it's a point people make to discourage you from visiting the Vatican or Church House, or even Lambeth Palace... Getting too close to the centre of things (or what people think is the centre of things) can be alarming or disillusioning or both: you really don't want to know that, people will say; you don't need to know how things work (or fail to work). Get on with it.
And that's where Christmas is actually a bit strange and potentially worrying. When we're invited into the stable to see the child, it's really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, 'the fire in the equations' as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.
It ought to shock us to be told year after year that the universe lives by the kind of love that we see in the helpless child and in the dying man on the cross. We have been shown the engine room of the universe; and it ought to worry us – us, who are so obsessed about being safe and being successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to. But this festival tells us exactly what Good Friday and Easter tell us: that God fulfils what he wants to do by emptying himself of his own life, giving away all that he is in love. The gospel reading sets this out in terms that cannot be argued with or surpassed. God is always, from all eternity, pouring out his very being in the person of the Word, the everlasting Son; and the Word, who has received everything from the gift of the Father, and who makes the world alive by giving reality to all creation, makes a gift of himself by becoming human and suffering humiliation and death for our sake. 'From his fullness we have all received'; Jesus, the word made human flesh and blood, has given us the freedom, the authority, to become God's children by our trust in him, and so to have a fuller and fuller share in God's own joy.
We live from him and in him. The whole universe exists because God has not held back his love but allowed it to flow without impediment out of his own perfection to make a world that is different from him and then to fill it with love through the gift of his Son. And our life as Christians, our obligations, our morality, do not rest on commands alone, but on the fact that God has given us something of his own life. We are caught up in his giving, in his creative self-sacrifice; true Christian morality is when we can't help ourselves, can't stop ourselves pouring out the kind of love that makes others live. Morality, said one prominent modern Greek Orthodox theologian, is not about right and wrong, it's about reality and unreality, living in Christ or living for yourself. Being good is living in the truth, living a real life, a life that is in touch with 'the fire in the equations' and that lets the intense creativity of God through into his world. The goodness of the Christian is never a matter of achieving a standard, scoring high marks in a test. It is letting the wonder of God's love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through – the God who achieves his purpose by reckless gift, by the cradle and the cross.
When St Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth insists on the need for generosity towards the poor in the church at Jerusalem, he appeals, not to an abstract moral principle, but to the fact of God becoming human. 'You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ', he writes, 'that though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich' (II Cor. 8.9). He doesn't argue that we must simply reverse the relations, so that those who were poor become rich and those who were rich become poor, but rather for a situation in which everyone has something to contribute to everyone else, everyone has enough liberty to become a giver of life to others. When material poverty is extreme, it is difficult to have that dignity – though, miraculously, so many poor people have it; the greatest gift we can give to another is to let them give as freely as they can, so that they can supply what we are hungry for. Love is given so that love may be born and given in return. That is the engine of the universe; that is what we see in the helpless child of Bethlehem, God so stripped of what we associate with divinity that we can see the divine nature only as God's act of giving away all that he is.
And if we want to live in the truth, to live in reality, to live by the Spirit who is breathed out from the Father and the Word, this has to be our life. It is not an academic question. In the year ahead, this country takes its place in the chair of the G8 group of nations; and we have already heard from the Chancellor of his aspirations for the UK's role in this context. So far, the attainment of the 'Millennium Development Goals' has not progressed very far or very fast. The likelihood of a reduction by half of people living in abject poverty by the year 2015 is not noticeably greater than it was four years ago. There are plenty of ideas around for instruments that would accelerate the pace – the International Finance Facility, a further push on debt reduction, a regime of incentives to encourage pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug prices and improve distribution systems for needy countries, the development of systematic micro-credit schemes, a new look at agricultural subsidies. The new Africa Commission is at least a beginning to the search for co-ordinated policies. But despite the vision of some in the political world and beyond, the will to take this forward seems to be in short supply. Some developed nations appear deeply indifferent to the goals agreed. It is all too easy to be more interested in other matters – not least the profound anxieties about security that are at the moment so pervasive, massaged by various forces in our public life in the West.
No-one could or would deny that we face exceptional levels of insecurity and serious problems in relation to an unpredictable and widely diffused network of agencies whose goals are slaughter and disruption. It is not a mistake to be concerned about terror; we have seen enough this last year, in Iraq and Ossetia, of the nauseating and conscienceless brutality that is around. But some of you may remember words used at the end of that worrying and wide-ranging television series in the autumn, 'The Power of Nightmare': 'When a society believes in nothing, the only agenda is fear'. We struggle for a secure world; so we should. But what if our only passion is to be protected, and we lose sight of what we positively and concretely want for ourselves and one another, what we want for the human family? We are not going to be living in the truth if we have no passion for the liberty of God's children, no share in the generosity of God.
So as we go into this next year in which our country can do so much to advance the vision of the Millennium Goals, the year too in which we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid, why not make this our central priority as churches and as individual Christians? It is a time to ask ourselves whether we are really living in the truth, motivated by the engine of the universe that is revealed to us in the child of Bethlehem. It may mean risk, it will mean facing the prospect that the prosperity of the developed world can't go on expanding indefinitely; it may mean that we have to look at our security far more in terms of how we make each other safe by guaranteeing justice and liberty for each other. But we shall have recovered a passion, a generous anger about the world's needs that is our surest long term answer to issues of security because it looks to a situation in which all are free to give and receive.
A few years ago, the churches made a tangible difference in their advocacy for debt relief through the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Can the churches of this country do as much again in the coming year in pressing government and financial institutions towards justice – and in motivating their own members get involved in voluntary action, advocacy and giving? If the answer is yes, we shall have taken a step towards living in the truth. The law of all being, the fire in the equations which has kindled all life and which burns without restriction in every moment of the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection, will have kindled in us. 'I have come to cast fire upon the earth', said Jesus. We may well and rightly feel a touch of fear as we look into this 'engine room' – the life so fragile and so indestructible, so joyful and so costly. But this is the life of all things, full of grace and truth, the life of the everlasting Word of God; to those who receive him he will give the right, the liberty, to live with his life, and to kindle on earth the flame of his love.
Scripture reference: Luke 12:49
'fire in the equations' – The Fire in the Equations: Science, religion and the search for God by Kitty Ferguson
© Rowan Williams 2004