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Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christian Message that Rings Down the Ages

Christianity is alive and well and helping to shape our future for the better.

The birth of a new era: Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi, c. 1473 Photo: ALAMY

By Archbishop Vincent Nichols

Christianity is and remains a major source of inspiration in our society, the Prime Minister made clear in his speech last week marking this, the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. “Christianity is alive and well in our country,” he said as he called for more confidence in our Christian identity.

You would, of course, expect me as a church leader to echo this Christmas what David Cameron had to say, and I do. But I would like also to give you two practical examples of how I have seen Christianity alive and well in our country, shaping our future for the better. Both are events that I have been privileged to participate in over the past 12 months, and both provide grounds for hope this Christmas season.

In October, in Westminster Cathedral, I joined with youngsters from more than 400 church schools and other organisations to launch a programme aimed at building 100 Days of Peace on our streets to coincide with the London Olympics next year. Based on the ancient Greek tradition of a “sacred truce”, which allowed those heading for Olympia safe passage to the games through what were often war-torn states in the 50 days before and the 50 days after the events, and highly pertinent after a troubled year on Britain’s streets, this project will run from June 8 to October 8, covering the period before and after the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Right now, while the athletes are busy training for their events, the young people who have pledged to back the 100 Days are also preparing – for the challenge of bringing peace.

What exactly does that mean? In the cathedral that day there were also representatives of young people, working through London Citizens, who are seeking to establish a network of City Safe-Havens. They do this by befriending local shopkeepers and asking them if their shops can become a safe-haven for any youngster in trouble or fear. Many, as I heard, have responded very positively, not only to the project, but also to the hand of friendship. Wherever people know each others’ names, barriers and divisions can be tackled.

This was certainly true for the hundreds of youngsters who crowded the cathedral, wanting peace on their streets and willing to work for it. Their leaders spoke eloquently of the respect due to everyone, of the need for clear moral standards, of the innate dignity of every person.

They would agree with Mr Cameron’s words that the first truth of our faith – that we are made in the image and likeness of God – “gives the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights”. This, in turn, directs our attention to God’s Incarnate Word: Jesus, born of Mary, in the stable at Bethlehem. In Him we have spelt out what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. He demonstrates beyond ambiguity the compassion, the commitment to truth, the forgiveness, the love and the self-sacrifice that are the litmus test of that image within us.

Among those that I met that day in the cathedral was a group of youngsters from a school in Hackney, scene of the riots in the summer. That outburst of looting and disorder may have tempted some into holding that within young people’s hearts there is nothing but a store of violence just waiting to be unleashed, given the chance. Certainly the riots did represent the realisation of a destructive tendency within the human heart, present there as a consequence of original sin. But this is not the whole story, as the support of these Hackney youngsters for the 100 Days of Peace made plain. I applaud the great passion of so many young people for justice, and their immense desire for peace.

The second event that comes back to me powerfully this Christmas is the marvellous pilgrimage to the Holy Land that I shared in November with 100 people from my diocese. We visited Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Thoughts and prayers filled our hearts and minds. The power of the Most High stoops into the shadows of our lives in that stable in Bethlehem. So we, too, stooped low to kiss the silver cross that marks the place of Christ’s birth.

And in our churches this Christmas we will kneel again before our newborn Saviour, our hearts full of thoughts and prayers. Take your time there. See in the images of the crib the great act of God’s loving humility, coming to us in poverty so that we may not be overwhelmed by God’s majesty but drawn to God’s love.

In the child’s outstretched arms is the invitation of Christmas: that the Lord, in coming to us, wants above all to draw us to Himself. He loves us, each of us, in our hidden selves, more than we could ever know. He can inspire us afresh, moving our hearts to new generosity and compassion for all that we see in our struggling world.

Yet the journey to Him is often elusive and confusing, just as it was for those who first came to Him. The coming of the “wise men from the East” to Jesus is not well documented. Maybe they came to Him in Bethlehem. Maybe they came face-to-face with Him in Nazareth when He was already six years old. Maybe they were Zoroastrians. Maybe they were not three in number at all, although we are told there were three gifts.

Maybe none of these details matter. For over two millennia, the person of Jesus has continued to attract and is, I firmly believe, doing so now in our own country. The gravitational pull of Jesus continues to exert its influence. He nurtures within us those deepest desires for forgiveness in place of bitterness, for hope in place of distress, and for peace instead of destructive violence.

It is surely no coincidence that God chose to place the Word-made-flesh into our world in the embrace of a family. It is there, within the love of husband and wife that the child best flourishes – something else the Prime Minister has been outspoken about recently. This action of God is the ultimate affirmation of marriage in the pattern of nature, its “irrepressible foundation”. So, too, family life is the first learning and testing ground of what it means to live “in the image and likeness of God”. There we learn to give way to one another, to understand that which is different, to forgive and to be loyally generous. At a time of family gatherings, Christmas may well test those qualities, for it is a time of such high expectations and quickly fading excess. The fact remains that from so many families comes the inspiration for our future.

Youngsters like those preparing for the 100 Days of Peace want so much more than the quickie answers of popular culture. Inspired by the gospel, they want to fashion a society in which there is a deep-seated commitment to greater connectedness between rich and poor; where there is a pattern of business that seeks a social dividend as well as a commercial profit; where a neighbourhood means familiarity and friendship and where differences are not divisions. These young people are prepared to struggle with the dilemmas of having both clear moral principles and compassion for those in difficulty. They are learning, as I witnessed, how to organise themselves and exercise leadership so as to stand alongside other youngsters whose circumstances are more burdensome and whose sights are set so low.

The coming of the Son of God in our flesh, celebrated at Christmas, is deeply and rightly ingrained in our culture as a unique turning point, the start of a new era. This was the act of redemption, a further pulling back of humanity from a destructive path by a unique act of self-sacrifice. The light blazing forth from that birth, as the power of the Most High stooped into the shadows of our lives, continues to spread. Sometimes it does so in a powerfully public way. More often it slips under our doors, disguised as acts of random kindness, bringing its warmth and invitation into our hearts

The Most Rev Vincent Nichols is the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

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