Homily of Archbishop Leo Cushley, Christmas Midnight Mass 2023, St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, my dear friends,
First of all, let me wish each one of you a peaceful Christmas and a good New Year. Let me also, very sincerely, thank Mgr Burke my Vicar General and Administrator, our brother priests and sisters here, and the many volunteers who make Christmas at our cathedral a very special time.
Those of you who are members or regular visitors here will have noticed a nativity scene at the steps outside the front door.
It was placed there only a couple of years ago and has become a modest but visible way of letting passers-by here, at the top of Leith Walk, recall what Christmas is really all about.
Since St Francis of Assisi first gathered people at Midnight on Christmas to gaze upon the birth of Christ with only their minds and hearts and faith to help them – no statues then, not yet anyway – the nativity scene, carved in wood or stone, has been helping us recall this special moment in history.
I say “in history” here quite deliberately, but I’ll come back to that shortly.
When I arrived in Edinburgh as your bishop, now ten years ago, I inherited a tradition, whereby I joined the Lord Provost, the Moderator of the Presbytery of Edinburgh and the Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, along with the Salvation Army band and a few hundred cold but happy young people, in the joy of blessing a nativity scene that had been gifted to the city of Edinburgh by Sir Tom and Lady Anne Farmer some twenty years before.
That charming group of figures served the city well as a reminder of Christmas for all those years.
Recently, however, given that it was originally made in papier mâché, the passage of time was taking its toll.
So, by common consent, the artist and the donor withdrew the figures from public use.
The good news was that everyone from the Lord Provost to the original donor and all the local churches strongly supported the idea of finding a new nativity scene for the city, keeping Christ at the centre of Edinburgh’s Christmas.
But where to find such a thing?
Well, the consensus was that, given that the very idea of a nativity scene started with St Francis, that the Catholic Archdiocese should be tasked with finding an artist and, working closely with the City Chambers and the local churches, to commission a new crib for the city.
So, one idea that suggested itself to me was to approach one of the cities that Edinburgh is twinned with.
As it happens, the very first city twinned with Edinburgh, back in 1954, was the city of Munich, home to many Christmas traditions, and not just Christmas markets.
So, we got in touch with the City of Munich and with my colleague the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, to ask if, between them, they could help us find an artist capable of such a work.
They recommended someone to us, a man called Thomas Hildenbrand, and then work began on the design and size, exploring what our city and local churches would like, and what the sculptor would be able to achieve. And, after much negotiation, Thomas finally got to work.
Now, after nearly three years of fund raising and import duties and transport questions and wondering where best to put it, the new nativity scene for Edinburgh was unveiled and blessed four weeks ago. If you’ve not seen it yet, you’ll find it on the Mound, under the City’s Christmas tree.
And I have to say it is exactly what I hoped it would be.
It is the figures of the holy family, carved in wood and placed a stable.
t is modest in size but very dignified and worthy of the city and of our Christian faith. The scene manages to be traditional and yet also fresh and contemporary.
One thing however, that I did not expect, is to be found in the background of the nativity scene.
In the window at the back of the stable, the artist has placed a hill that can be clearly seen from the stable window, and on the hill is carved a castle, Edinburgh Castle…
Now, the artist was present here three weeks ago for the inauguration of the nativity scene, and so I took him aside at one point to ask him how it was possible to put Edinburgh Castle in the window of a stable in Bethlehem.
He replied that, if he had been making it for use in Bavaria, the local Alps would have been seen instead, because that’s what out the window there. Not to exaggerate the point, but I wonder if there isn’t an important little lesson for us in that.
To see Christ being born at the foot of the Alps, or the foot of Edinburgh Castle, is in a way to place Christ in history.
It places him in historic reality.
Christmas can too often drift off into nice feelings, mince pies and neighbourliness, when it is a celebration of an historic event.
Jesus isn’t a myth or a spirit or a good idea. Christmas Day isn’t Jesus’s birthday, but it is a celebration of Jesus’s birth in time, in history, in reality.
Jesus of Nazareth was born in the flesh, lived in the flesh and died in the flesh. He claimed to be the Son of God and he transformed the lives of everyone with whom he came into contact. The very first words of Luke’s Christmas story place Jesus at the centre of history.
He says, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census […] took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered.” These names matter because they place Jesus in history.
And, only thirty years later, Jesus would be crucified “under Pontius Pilate”, as we say in the Creed.
The existence of the Emperor Octavian, later Augustus, is beyond dispute. So is that of Pilate.
So is that of St Paul, who only twenty years after Jesus’ death would write in one of his early letters that, though Jesus’s nature was divine, he emptied himself so completely that he became one of us, born of a woman.
And not only was he born like us, Jesus suffered death, death on a cross. But he submitted so humbly, that his prayer was heard and he was raised on high to bring eternal life and joy to us all.
There is much about the mystery of Jesus that we must approach with faith and trust; but the historic reality of Jesus of Nazareth is something to be completely confident about. He became one of us, and was born in history, in the flesh.
He was born in Bethlehem, but He has also become a part of our reality here and now, at the foot of the Alps, and even in Edinburgh.
The reality of Jesus, His incarnation among us, and His life-giving emptying of Himself tonight, is something to be celebrated, tonight and always, with the greatest joy.
A very peaceful and joyful Christmas to everyone here. God bless you all!