The Rector writes …
Christina Rossetti’s “In the bleak mid-winter” is one of the best-known and loved of all the carols sung at Christmas. It’s concluding stanza draws the events of Bethlehem into the present, as it asks: “What can I give him poor as I am?”, and responds, “if I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man I would play my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart”. The Letter to the Hebrews underlines the change brought about by the Incarnation. Before Christ’s coming into the world the Old Covenant was ratified by the repeated sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem, but in the age of the New Testament all that had gone before is superseded by Christ’s offering of himself. “At various times in the past, and in various different ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but now in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is”.
What can one give to someone who has everything already? The answer to that question for the Christian can only be that God has made himself the Gift and that the Son of Mary offers the Father the perfection of obedience and love through the humanity he chose to share with us. The words of the Psalmist fit perfectly with Jesus’ mission: “you who wanted no sacrifice or oblation opened my ear; you asked no holocaust or sacrifice for sin: then I said: ‘Here I am! I am coming to do your will’” ((40:6).The great mystery of human free will means that, although everything we have and are has been first given, the one present we have to offer is the return of love for love: each of us has been created in such a way that we can either offer or withhold the esteem which the creature should have towards the Creator. Genuine love can never be forced or coerced and the infinite, omnipotent One waits for a response from those who have been made in his image and likeness. All of this would be impossible for us to comprehend had it not been revealed through the humanity of Christ.
“Repentance results from a knowledge of the truth” (T.S Eliot). When we come to any understanding of God’s love for us as individuals, we can only marvel at our own poverty of response – how can so much be offered and so little returned? So how does one give one’s heart to God – how does one make the only gift which is possible and acceptable? For the Catholic, any answer to these questions must be bound up with our understanding of the value of the sacrament of penance. It is in the recognition and expression of failure that we are both reconciled and strengthened. John Wesley could talk of “the warming of the heart”: there can be no better way of describing the effect of sacramental confession. “However awkward confession may be, it is the decisive place where one experiences anew the freshness of the Gospel, where one is reborn. There we also learn to blow away our pangs of conscience, just as a child blows away a falling autumn leaf. There we find the happiness of God, the dawn of perfect joy” (Roger Schutz – founder of the Taizé community).
The next ten days in the lead-up to Christmas will be busy for everyone. In all our preparations we should not lose sight of the true significance of the season. God has given himself to us in the most intimate of ways open to him – he asks for a response. If we look honestly into ourselves we cannot but realise how lukewarm (at best) is our side of the relationship. It is not that friendship with God does not matter to us, rather it just does not matter enough. Sacramental reconciliation is one of the key ways open to us to renew this friendship. Please ask yourself whether you should make your confession before Christmas – either out of necessity or (even better) out of love. For Saint John Vianney (the Cure ‘Ars) God is “a beggar for man’s heart” whose “patience awaits … it is not the sinner who returns to God to ask him for forgiveness, but it is God who runs after the sinner and makes him come back to Him”.