Cardinal's homily in Westminster Cathedral on the Feast of the Epiphany
posted on 06 January 2005
Text of the Sermon to be preached by HE Cardinal Cormac-Murphy O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, at Westminster Cathedral at the 1730hrs Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany, Thursday 6, January 2005:
'I have just re-read a poem by T.S. Eliot entitled, The Journey of the Magi. In it he describes the hard and cruel journey of the Magi from the kingdoms where they lived in some luxury to the place where Jesus lived, the Child of Bethlehem. And at the end of the poem, he concludes, Were we led all that way for birth or death....this birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. I shall be glad of another death. Confronted as we all have been by the most extraordinary and tragic events of the past ten days, many people have been asking what this terrible catastrophe means in terms of belief in God. How could God have allowed the sudden and cruel deaths of over 150,000 people and the countless numbers of men, women and children who are left bereaved, broken and seemingly without hope?
Of course, there is no easy answer to the questions that evil and tragic events put to the person of faith. It is too easy and facile to say that God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. It is also too easy to say that the God whom we worship is beyond all our understanding and that He is not a God who conforms himself to our expectations or our image or our desires for understanding and answers and comfort. So, too, is it too easy to say that God created this world with its laws, and a world in which there is not only goodness and joy and fulfilment, but also tragedy and devastation that can come upon individuals or in vast numbers in the form of wind and fire and flood and earthquake.
So there are no easy answers to the question of the terrible events that we have witnessed and seen on our screens and in our newspapers. I suppose if we cannot understand why God permits such evil things to happen, it is because we cannot understand what it is to be God. For our God is the God who transcends and is above all human understanding and makes Himself known in the other mystery, not the mystery of evil but the mystery of love. For we Christians, our only answer and it is not the complete one, is to direct our gaze to the Cross of Christ which confronts us with the ultimate mystery of all existence. For it is on the Cross, on the Christ who was born at Bethlehem, that we place all the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions of human experience. Here is the contrary view to the view that God is indifferent to our sufferings and our pain and our grief, because here He himself becomes the victim of evil. Here, even to the extent of saying to God his Father: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' In the Cross we are confronted by the juxtaposition of evil and of love because God himself, who is Love, becomes the victim of evil. What God would be credible who was aloof from and showed no solidarity with suffering? The mystery of Christ and the Cross does not solve the mystery of suffering and pain and evil and the terrible events we have witnessed over these past days. Rather, it challenges us to deepen our faith in the God who is beyond all our understanding but whom we adore and we love and we acknowledge as the God of all things. The God of Whom scripture speaks in today's reading: Shine out Jerusalem, for your light has come; the glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples.
Is it birth or death, then? Yes, there has been much death but also a certain birth, and that birth, it seems to me, is the birth of a realisation that countless millions of people from all over this world belong to one world. The reaction of everyone, from every part of the world, has been not of indifference to this tragedy but of solidarity with the thousands who mourn and the thousands who have died; a recognition that they are indeed our sisters and brothers, and that we must help them in any way that is open to us. The world is full of good Samaritans. The generosity that has been shown through the huge sacrificial giving to CAFOD, and to all the other Aid Agencies for the international relief, it seems to me, sheds something of light in the darkness of these days. The seed that dies can bring forth fruit for God. Even the sorrow and the death and the mourning are not always the end, but can bring fresh shoots of generosity and love.
When the Wise Men went into the house, 'they saw the Child with his mother, Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh'. They offered their gifts to an innocent child who was sent by His Father to die the cruellest imaginable death - death on the Cross. But He, the Son of God, died that death so that the whole of humanity might have eternal life. We all have to face our death, few of us in the tragic abruptness of a natural disaster like last week's Tsunami. But the message of our Christian faith is that death, however cruel, is not the end but the beginning of our eternal life in the embrace of God, our Creator.
'The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and returned to their own country by a different way'. Perhaps the tragic events that have come home to us during these past ten days will help us to go back by a different way to our own country where we live by faith. This way brings us to a new understanding of the meaning of this terrible catastrophe and of the questions it poses, but also of the hope and love that it engenders.'