Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will

Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve Mass 2022

One of the favourite aspects to the celebration of Christmas each year is singing Christmas carols. Some of these carols can be traced back to medieval times, while others come to us from recent centuries.

They evoke the wonder, beauty and joy of the birth of Christ.  As we sing “Silent Night”, or “Away in a Manger”, or “Joy to the World” or, a favourite of mine, “O Holy Night”, we are transported to a place where we contemplate the humble yet beautiful nativity scene in Bethlehem.

We are lifted out of the stresses and strains of daily life to ponder the joy of the birth of Christ. We find the true spirit of Christmas descending upon our souls, away from the commercialism and materialism.

For a moment we are in a different place, and it is a good place to be.

We could perhaps say that the very first Christmas carol was sung by the angels to shepherds on that first Christmas night. The words of their carol, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will,” are very familiar to us.

They are the first lines of the magnificent hymn, the Gloria, which we pray on most Sundays and major feast days at Holy Mass. This ancient Christian hymn, the Gloria, has its origin in the sixth century, and has been part of the Liturgy since the 12th Century.

It is in the form of a hymn of praise and invites us to express our wonder at who God is and all that he has done. Thus, as the words of the Gloria say, we want to praise Him, to bless Him, to adore Him, to glorify Him, and to give Him thanks for His great glory. After all, this surely should be the first disposition of every believing Christian.

The Gloria reflects words of the Book of Revelation that describe the hymn of praise sung by the saints in heaven:

Great and wonderful are your deeds,
O Lord, God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the Ages!
Who shall not fear and glorify
your name, O Lord?
For you alone are holy.
All nations shall come and worship you,
for your judgments have been revealed (Rev. 15:4-5).

The Christian, especially at Christmas, stands in awe at the wonder of the ways of God. The angels rejoice as they know so well how wonderful God is in all his ways.

And no action of God has been greater than sending his only Son as our Saviour, born of Mary in the humility of the stable at Bethlehem.

Tonight, our souls soar in wonder and gratitude and our hearts sing out with the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest”.

We are reminded here of an important truth. Christian joy is not about ourselves, not about our personal feelings of happiness or wellbeing, but about our wonder at who God is and what He has done.

Thus, Christmas is not just about having a good time, eating and drinking with family and friends, good and appropriate as it is.

Christmas is about what we are doing here at this Mass, lifting our hearts to God in gratitude and thanksgiving, giving glory to the greatness and wonder of God.

In the second part of their hymn the angels invoke a blessing on humanity: “and on earth peace to people of good will”.

This blessing is worth reflection. It declares that the blessing of peace will come upon the hearts of people who have “good will”.

‘Good will’ is a disposition of the heart whereby we are open to others and seek their good. It is a disposition of kindness, of forgiveness, of acceptance.  It is a virtue whereby we firstly seek to see the good in others, rather than stand in judgement on their shortcomings and failings.

Businesses rely upon good will in order to retain their customers. So they work hard to satisfy their clients. Without such good will they know that their businesses will fail.

Business, they understand, is more than just transaction. It involves human interaction and relies upon establishing good relationships.

Good will is an intangible reality, but necessary for healthy social interaction. Its opposite is distrust, suspicion, and antagonism.

What this does is close down and puts barriers in human relationships. It divides rather than unites.

Human society needs a strong dose of goodwill so that the quality of our social engagement can be healthy and fruitful.

Sadly, our current climate in social media, public discourse and political engagement has seen a decline in good will.

Trolls in the virtual world, cancel culture in public discourse and polarisation in the political realm have broken down common decency and civility in relationships and speech.

At Christmas the angels have reminded us of the importance of good will. We can see that its lack has diminished our culture, and will continue to do so.

An important element in our celebration of Christmas this year can be that we will seek to foster good will.

We can all take a moment to consider whether we have good will in our hearts towards all. When there is good will in our hearts we will find and foster peace, in our relationships and in society.

We believers can set an example through the goodwill that we extend to others, as we show kindness, patience and charity in all our discourse, both in private and in public.

May the message of the angels to the shepherds on that first Christmas night re-echo in our hearts and families this Christmas: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Saturday, 24 December 2022

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