New Year’s Day Sermon 2016
Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa, ON
Archbishop Fred J. Hiltz, Primate
At the very heart of Christmas is The Child: The Child whom Gabriel announces and names, Mary nurses and Joseph guards, angels sing and shepherds adore; The Child in whom Simeon and Anna rejoice; The Child to whom magi come from afar bearing sacred gifts of mystic meaning; The Child whose frantic mother clutches closely as she and Joseph flee from Herod’s fury to seek refuge in Egypt; The Child whose parents take him to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover; The Child feared to be lost but found sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; The Child who increases in wisdom and years, in favour both human and divine.
All these images of The Child found in the narratives of St. Luke and St. Matthew are the very making of the carols of Christmas, and manner in which we pray in this holy season.
These are the earliest moments through which we begin to comprehend this great coming of God among us: this self-emptying; this taking upon of our flesh in all its strength and frailty; this humbling to know our dependence in the care and nurture of our mothers and fathers, siblings, and friends; this humbling to share our human nature “day by day like us he grew” says one of our carols, “tears and smiles like us he knew”; this humbling so to share our sorrows and our joys. As that same carol says “he feeleth for our sadness and he shareth in our gladness”.
Of this great mystery of the Incarnation Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “the single contribution of the Christian faith to the world is to bring the news that the divine has come into the human, that God is present in human history…Why is this important?” asks, O’Driscoll.
“Because if men and women are to retain the capacity to live creatively within history, in spite of its terrors, they need the reassurance that comes from the knowledge that God shares that history. To believe that God has entered human history in Mary’s Child, is to know that God is not an infinitely remote being who gazes from beyond time and space on a struggling self-threatened species called humanity. To believe in the awesome fact of incarnation is to believe that the author of the human play has stepped into the play and is an actor in it with us.”
O’Driscoll goes on to remind us that, inasmuch as God does not assume “a grandiose posturing heroic part, but instead plays his lines as servant, peacemaker, and finally prisoner, makes his coming among us all the more wondrous and hopeful”.
To O’Driscoll’s list, I would indeed add “Child”. Kneeling at his manger and pondering the wonders of his love and the glories of his righteousness it is never long before any of us are recalling the words of “Away in a Manger” and the beautiful prayer with which it ends
“Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with you there.”
(Hymn 126, Common Praise)
These words leave us to consider how it is that we can be his heart of love for the children of the world, his voice to protect and encourage them, his hands to feed and guide them.
Looking back on the year that is past, I am struck by the number of times in fact that it has been a little child who has moved the heart of the world, the heart of the Church, the heart of each and every one of us in some way or another. Let me highlight my point with references to a few specific events and developments.
I think first of that heart wrenching moment on September 3rd when the body of three year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. Still fully clothed, his lifeless body grabbed the heart of the world and jolted us to the immensity of the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
Alan’s photo sparked countless images of other innocent children who have suffered through the war in Syria. Tragic are the images of lifeless children and their parents lying in the ruins of bombed-out homes, many having suffered the effects of chemical weapons.
Countless are the images of those who have fled Syria and against all odds taken perilous voyages in unsafe overcrowded boats in search of refuge in Europe. Countless are the images of young mothers and fathers with babes in arms and children in-tow walking across Europe in the hope of a welcome somewhere.
Political Leaders scrambled to meet the crisis, some in outstanding measures of generosity. Others struggled with their capacity to receive more than the initial waves. And in some cases we saw barriers erected and families but the space of a chain link fence between despair and hope.
Europe of course is not only the place to receive refugees. Among other countries is our own. It is heartening to see how the federal government is working hard to honour its pledge to receive and settle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. In that massive sponsorship effort, the Church is playing a significant role. A number of our dioceses are Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders, and numerous parishes are receiving refugees and accompanying them faithfully as they settle in Canada.
As huge as the Syrian crisis is, it is in fact but one among many in which some 60 million of our brothers and sisters worldwide are refugees.
Many of you will know that for many years the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) has been accompanying refugees in many places including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Kenya, and South Sudan. Our work has been in providing food aid and medical supplies in partnership with Action by Churches Together (ACT). While we engage with refugees on the run we cannot forget the thousands and thousands who have spent most, if not all their lives, in United Nations Refugee Camps. Many of them are children and they know no life outside a camp. We just cannot forget them. Indeed, if anything, our commitment to accompany them must be enhanced and strengthened.
The tending of these holy innocents we do in the name of The Child who within weeks of his birth was a refugee in Egypt, and within weeks of his coming death was teaching us that in providing food and clothing and medical aid to those in need – and in welcoming the stranger – we are tending him.
In September, world leaders endorsed 17 Sustainable Development Goals under the overall theme “No one left behind”. Describing them as an ambitious agenda, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said, “We must redouble our efforts to banish global extreme poverty and inequality in our midst. Whenever we recognize the God-given dignity in each and every person in our world, we are compelled to reach out to them in love, whatever the cost. Without such a response from all involved in this endeavour – governments, the private sector, faith communities, the civil service and the public, we risk falling short of what is required of us – to love, compassion, to do justice and to walk humbly with God.”
The Sustainable Development Goals represent immense hope for the children of the world and especially the most vulnerable. Our commitment in working to achieve these goals as in keeping with the Gospel of the Holy Child, whose birth in a particular time and place in history has, as St. John and St. Paul would remind us, a cosmic dimension. Even as the nations tremble, peoples war, and the innocent suffer the powers of spiritual wickedness; even as the whole creation groans we await in him. We await a new heaven and a new earth, one in which, as the psalmist says, “Truth springs up from the earth and righteousness looks down from heaven” (Ps. 85:11).
Last month world leaders gathered in Paris struck an agreement with respect to slowing the pace of global warming through commitments to significant reductions in carbon emissions. Canada’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Change tweeted “An historic day. For our children.”
Some have criticized the agreement saying it is not binding. Others see in this truth, the enormous amount of strong political will necessary to embrace and honour the agreement through specific actions on the part of government and industry across all the countries party to it.
In the midst of the talks in Paris, there was a great ecumenical service in Notre Dame attended by several thousand people including a number of Canadians, among them Archdeacon Paul Feheley and myself. In a message to COP21, the Council of Christian Churches in France said, “Aware of the impact of the lifestyle of the most developed countries, we need to call into question the logic of our consumption and to allow our attitudes and actions to experience conversion, practising restraint and simplicity, not as a form of heroic renunciation but as a form of joyful sharing… Our hope as Christians rests in our belief that our world is not destined to disappear but to be transformed and that human beings capable of self destruction are also able to unite and to choose that which is good.”
And then as “citizens of the world” we were called to prayer, acknowledging that creation is suffering because of us. Acknowledging the poor who are suffering disproportionately, we asked for humility and strength in a call to conversion in our ways with the earth, our common home: its lands and resources; its waters and its atmosphere; and all its species of every kind. What is called for, as environmentalist David Suzuki has said, “[is] a massive shift of spirit” and what a young scholar from Kenya has described as a call to be “healers of the earth” for the sake of our children.
In just a few weeks time, my wife Lynne and I look forward to holding our first grandchild. Even as we await her arrival, I wonder what kind of a world she will grow up in, and will we so live out our lives as to help her “have an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in the works of God’s hand” (From The Liturgy for Baptism, BAS, p 160). I pray in the name of the Christ Child who in his ministry so often used the things of nature itself – its beauties and harmonies and rhythms to teach us about the nature of God’s reign.
In this New Year, the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission challenge us as a nation. For the last six years Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson have travelled this country hosting numerous community and regional national events. The banners that graced every event read “For the child taken, for the parent left behind”.
The Commissioners placed the survivors of The Indian Residential Schools at the very centre of their work. They heard testimony from thousands of former students; stories of humiliation, loneliness and abuse. They heard of the intergenerational impact on family life. They heard of the lingering effect of the Doctrine of Discovery that still casts shadows of racism across this country.
In completing their work the commissioners issued 94 Calls to Action based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is of some great significance I think that the first of these calls addresses child welfare. It calls upon federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal governments to an overall reduction in the number of aboriginal children in care. It holds out the hope that child welfare organizations can keep aboriginal families together where it is safe to do so, and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments regardless of where they reside.
It affirms the right of aboriginal communities to establish and maintain their own child welfare agencies. It calls for the publishing of annual reports or the number of aboriginal children who are in care compared with non-aboriginal children, an important piece in what is expected in the Prime Minister’s Annual Report on the status and well being of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. It is indeed heartening that Justin Trudeau has declared that a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples is a priority for the Government of Canada as is a celebration of the contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis to the cultural fabric of this country.
There are numerous references to children in many of the other Calls to Action addressing health, the effects of fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the pandemic of suicide among teens, the tragedy of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, and the high rates of incarcerations of young aboriginal men and women. There are also references to children in eliminating the gaps in federal funding for education between aboriginal and non-aboriginal children and between those schools on and off reserves. Knowing that physical activity is a fundamental element of health and wellbeing, increased funding for sports programs is also lifted up.
Compared to many of the Calls to Action that have a very high profile, especially here in the nation’s capital, these Calls to Action with respect to the well-being of children could be overshadowed. We cannot allow that to happen. The children deserve our very best efforts and nothing less will do.
As people of faith we will respond to these Calls in the name of the Christ who would take children in his arms and bless them, who would speak sternly of the punishment that would ensure if anyone lifted a hand to hurt them; in the name of the Christ who would go with distraught parents to lay his hands upon their little ones who were sick; in the name of the Christ who would place children in the midst of adults as an example of the way in which they ought to embrace life and the wonder of God’s ways with the world.
In the interests of children and their well-being through pregnancy to their birth and their first few years of life, Canadian Anglicans are part of a very exciting Maternal Newborn and Child Healthcare (MNCH) initiative through the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) called “All Mothers and Children Count”. This five-year program funded through a $17.7 million agreement between PWRDF and DFATD now know as Global Affairs Canada, will focus on continuing work in Mozambique, Tanzania, Burundi, and new work in Rwanda.
“All Mothers and Children Count” will see an increase in bicycle and motorbike ambulances, the construction of health care clinics in remote rural areas, the building of Expectant Mother Houses, the training of birth attendants, and education for the health of mothers and their babies in the first five years of their life. This major initiative reflects a commitment to several of the Sustainable Development Goals including a lowering of the immortality rates among pregnant women, preventing deaths of children at birth and ensuring healthy lives and well being for all children.
The Church will be hearing much about this work as it rolls out this year. We take great interest in this kind of ministry in the name of Christ whose dear mother rejoiced to carry him in her womb and bring him to birth, to love and guide him into adulthood and then to let him go to his life’s work and ministry. This amazing program “All Mothers and Children Count” surely delights the heart of Mary.
Ten years ago the delegates of the Anglican Consultative Council (XIII) meeting in Nottingham England wrote a letter to the children of The Anglican Communion. It was an important message then and I believe it bears repeating as we step into this New Year. Could I ask you to stand and join me in reading it together?
To the Children of the World
We write to you, the children of God’s world today,
to share with you our concerns for the future.
We pledge to you as leaders of the church family, to pray and work for:
Justice for all people everywhere,
Peace in the world,
An end to all kinds of violence,
Support for families and communities,
Fair trade and an end to poverty,
A halt to the exploitation of women and children,
Freedom and dignity for all people,
Health care and education for young and old,
And the proper use of creation.
We will strive to share the Good News with everyone we meet,
and to be like Jesus in all we do and say.
Some of you, although you are still young, carry huge responsibilities.
Some have much in material things, while some of you have so little.
You are precious gifts to us. Be brave, know God loves you.
Help us to be like you in enjoying life and the beauty of the World.
Know that the church is here for you,
no matter who you are or where you come from.
Worship, study and pray together, and love each other as Jesus loves you.
May God bless us all.