The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has cancelled his Christmas homily at the last minute. Lambeth Palace said that the archbishop is suffering from a “severe cold”, which he has had for several days, and decided this morning that he would be unable to speak at the Christmas service at Canterbury Cathedral. The homily will instead by delivered by the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, the Very Rev Robert Willis.
Welby was expected to use his Christmas sermon to warn against constructing a “tidy” but “fictional” version of Christmas that doesn’t reflect the true state of the world, or the true meaning of Christmas. He was to tell the congregation at Canterbury Cathedral at 11am this morning that Jesus came into this world to “transform that reality”.
The Archbishop was also expected to draw on the First World War as an analogy, in this, its centenary year. The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British forces emerged from the trenches to shake hands and play impromptu games of football has entered into the public conscience this year as a nostalgic, somewhat veneered version of remembrance, most notably thanks to a Sainsbury’s advert which used the story to great effect.
“At Christmas 1914 soldiers took the risk, crossed a battle-line and kindled an evening of friendship and football. It is the moment all have picked on this year, whether in adverts or sermons. The truce illustrates something of the heart of Christmas, whereby God sends his Son, that vulnerable sign of peace, to a weary war-torn world. The problem is that the way it is told now it seems to end with a ‘happy ever after’,” the Archbishop was due to say.
“Of course we like Christmas stories with happy endings: singing carols, swapping photos, shaking hands, sharing chocolate, but the following day the war continued with the same severity. Nothing had changed; it was a one-day wonder. That is not the world in which we live, truces are rare…
“The Christmas story could be told simply with a happy ending where the gospel reading ended. ‘Shepherds are cold, shepherds see angels, shepherds head into town and see baby, and shepherds disappear into sunrise, happy’. If we end there, Christmas removes us from reality. Christmas becomes something utterly remote, about lives entirely different, fictional, naïve, tidy. That’s not Christmas. Jesus came to the reality of this world to transform that reality – not to take us into some fantasy kind of ‘happy ever after’ but to ‘Good News of great joy for all people.’”
He would then have gone on to say that it is good news, not because Jesus helps us to escape reality, but because He helps us “to transform and take hold of our past, our present and our future”. This means that we must “we must truly face the state of the world”, but also “be equally realistic about the difference he makes.”
Meanwhile, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, used his homily on Christmas Eve to say that Christians in the Middle East are under threat because “power crazed” jihadists see the Kingdom of God as a threat.
“This kingdom, with its supreme law of love, is an affront to the power-seeking regimes of our world,” he said.
“It was so to the Roman authorities of the first century who recognised the subversive potential of this new movement. Totalitarian regimes of the last century recognised this too. Hence the 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than any before it.
“And this century, with its power-crazed extremists witnesses the widespread persecution of the followers of Christ. We pray for them, and for all victims of such violence, as we kneel before the Christ-child tonight.”
And in Bethlehem, where Christian pilgrims from across the world assembled for a Mass on Christmas Eve, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, used his homily to call on members of all faiths to “live together as equals”.