Sunday 25 December 2022

Archbishop's sermon for Midnight Mass, Christmas 2022

 “Our Indivisible Humanity”

Sermon for Midnight Eucharist  
Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr
The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba
Archbishop of Cape Town
Christmas Eve 2022

Lessons: Isaiah 62: 6-12: Titus 3: 4-7; Luke 2: 1-20

May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Welcome to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, and to all of you, a happy, blessed and, above all, a peaceful Christmas. Thank you, Mr Dean, the Director of Music, the Organist, your clergy, your staff, Churchwardens, and all of those who have worked so hard to uphold the wonderful tradition of Midnight Mass at St George’s.  (Sermon continues below video).


A week ago I was in the office of the Mayor of Lviv, in western Ukraine. I had travelled there via Poland on a pastoral visit, to see and learn for myself the costs and consequences of the war there, now in its 10th month. Just as we sat down, the air-raid sirens wailed. “Don’t worry,” said the Mayor, “the missiles will take 70 minutes to get here if they are fired from Belarus, or 30 minutes if they come from Russian ships in the Black Sea. We can go the bunker if you like.” He then politely asked us whether we wanted tea or coffee.

Two days later, I was in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, on the day the media reported that Russia had attacked the country's critical infrastructure with dozens of “kamikaze” drones in the early hours of the morning as we slept. As we went up to see the Mayor of Kyiv, a former boxer who has gained renown with his defiance of the invasion, his staff had just emerged from the basement after being warned by an air-raid siren of the third air strike since our arrival. The Mayor said, “Welcome to Kyiv, which is unsafe and cold but where we fully guarantee your safety.”

What is this year's Christmas message for us and all people globally, especially those affected by war and conflict? What is the message from the margins of our societies?
In South Africa, the message that emerges from the turmoil of recent days and weeks is very clear: that we hear too little of sacrificial service from our nation's leaders, and too much of using political influence to secure personal and family advancement. South Africans need to see their government focussed on fixing the real problems of the country – joblessness and loadshedding among them – and not on internal party disputes. The root of our problems lies in the scandalous gap between the rich and the poor. We won political liberation nearly 30 years ago but we have not achieved economic liberation – that is the biggest issue facing us. And if the politicians do not address it, they will be made to pay for it at the polls.

But tonight I want to focus on the implications for us of the war in Ukraine. Firstly, my experience there has helped me to put into perspective our problems – to realise anew that no matter how challenging the political environment we find ourselves in, we can thank God for the way in which the leaders of previous generations – leaders such as Madiba and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – steered us into a future in which we have political turmoil, uncomfortable as it is, rather than war. Living through the low-intensity war of apartheid and understanding living in conditions of full-scale war are two different things.
But some of you still might ask: why did I bother to travel all the way to a distant European country instead of focussing on Africa or the Middle East, where there are many intractable problems and violent conflicts?

It is a valid question, and I turn to Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, to help me answer it. In his Nobel lecture in 2001, Kofi Annan observed that the 20th century was “perhaps the deadliest in human history, devastated by innumerable conflicts, untold suffering, and unimaginable crimes.” And, of course, nuclear weapons were developed for the first time – weapons which threatened, and continue to threaten the future of humanity. In response to those terrible events of the 20th century, leaders came together to unite nations as never before and created the UN, a forum where, as Kofi Annan described it, “all nations could join forces to affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and to secure peace and development for all peoples.”

But now, by invading Ukraine, Russia has acted in flagrant violation of the UN Charter. Article 2.4 of the Charter outlaws the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, and by breaching it, Russia has set Europe and the world back by nearly a century.

In that Nobel lecture, Kofi Annan said the attacks of September 11 meant that the world had entered the third millennium “through a gate of fire”. Well, Russia’s aggression has opened a gate of fire for Ukrainians and that is why I visited them. I listened to how lives were upturned, families ruptured, towns and villages destroyed, and cities levelled. In Ukraine the forces of calamity and violence have been preferred by Moscow over diplomacy in a manner unseen in Europe since the Second World War. This is not something about which we can or should remain silent.
That is not to say that we should not also hold President Putin and the Russian people in our prayers. Just as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu declared that PW Botha, the most brutal of the apartheid leaders – the president who created police and military death squads – just as the Arch could declare that “PW Botha is my brother”, so I can say that not only President Zelensky of Ukraine but Vladimir Putin of Russia is my brother. At the same time, Archbishop Desmond also once told us from this pulpit, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.“ And so just as Archbishop Desmond and our church vehemently condemned apartheid while praying for PW Botha, we too can condemn Russia’s aggression while praying for its people and leaders.
In Lviv I also met Myroslav Marynovych, the vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, a man who endured ten years in a Russian jail for speaking out against the regime. He says movingly of surviving his time in prison, “Now I would say that faith was the basis of my strength; at the time, I was just tired of living in a world of lies.”

In Ukraine I saw the difference that strong, truthful leadership makes. It is leadership that sets the tone and makes the difference in these circumstances. Think of Nelson Mandela and of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond too. We should take our lead from them and from Kofi Annan, who said after 9/11, “if today we see better and we see further, we will realise that humanity is indivisible”.
Christmas is a time of the heart, and it is said that if we do not find Christmas in our hearts we will never find it under a tree. This was the constant refrain in Lviv, in Kyiv, and in the sites of atrocity and displacement I visited. My encounters there confirmed what caused me to set out on the journey: the message that humanity is indivisible, which is the essence of the birth we are celebrating on this most holy night.
In Ukraine, in towns where the Russians have been defeated, there are mass graves, torture chambers and evidence of deliberate assaults on civilian homes and lives. In Bucha, about 30 km from the centre of Kyiv, we visited the mass grave in the grounds of the church of St Andrew the Apostle. More than 450 civilians were killed in the invasion, over 50 summarily executed by the invaders, many with their hands tied behind the backs. Perhaps as many as 150,000 people have died in indiscriminate Russian shelling and Ukrainian defensive action, half this number estimated to be Russian military casualties.

More than 40 percent of Ukraine's 43 million people have been displaced from their homes since the start of the war. I visited one centre for displaced people in the company of the Ukrainian-Rwandan Olympic champion,  Zhan Beleniuk, which has seen 80,000 people pass through its doors. Some of the children are there without their parents, or with just one parent, their fathers fighting at the front.

And the costs of war are not to be measured just in terms of lives lost or infrastructure destroyed. It is the price of opportunities and livelihoods snuffed out, people going cold and hungry in the fierce Central European winter, and in the difficulty of sustaining normality in the face of incessant Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, especially in these freezing winter months.

Nor does the war have implications only for the future of Ukraine. Oleksandra Matviichuk, the Nobel Peace laureate who we also met in Kyiv, reminds us of the cost of the failure of leadership for others in the world. “Vladimir Putin is not afraid of NATO,” she says, “he is afraid of freedom”. The conflict, she says, “is not a war between two states, but between two systems, one authoritarian, the other democratic. Russia shows others what they can get away with. If we don’t invent something to stop such barbaric actions, it will encourage other authoritarians to do the same.”

The second reading set for tonight, from Paul's letter to Titus, reminds us of our true identity, justified by our faith, as heirs to the hope of eternal life. The reading came alive for me as I saw in Ukraine a determination not to be drawn into retaliating against Russia, but rather to defend the country and to instill hope, notwithstanding the challenges.

The Christmas understanding that Jesus is our Emmanuel, that he is God with us, present with God's people, became vivid for me as I met Ukrainians who are subject to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

What is happening in Ukraine affects us all, not just economically, but especially in terms of our values. We cannot preach the ideals and values of constitutionalism and then do business with those who flagrantly disregard human rights. We cannot speak of a common humanity and be comfortable with systems of government which ensure that some elites are more equal than others. We cannot rely on institutions to protect our rights and the fabric of order if we do not stand up against those who promote disorder and the breaking of international norms and rules.
No one person’s suffering is more or less worthy than another’s. As Africans we know, probably better than most, what it means to suffer under the yoke of a violent oppressor. We cannot turn a blind eye to others because they are not like us. The incarnate Christ breaks such barriers as we welcome him in our hearts and lives.

Any leader must be in touch with their people. Before going to the Ukraine, I saw the findings of a recent opinion poll which found that 75 percent of South Africans believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “an act of aggression that must be condemned”. Asked what South Africa should do if a sovereign democratic country is invaded by its neighbour, less than eight percent said South Africa should “offer no support”. More than 80 percent said the country should offer military, diplomatic or moral support. We should ask if our leaders are in touch with our people over Ukraine.

The American pastor Neal Strait once wrote that, “The coming of Christ by way of a manger in Bethlehem seems strange and stunning. But when we take him out of the manger and into our hearts and world, then the meaning of Christmas unfolds and the strangeness vanishes.”

In the light of that thought I have read and reread those words that begin John’s Gospel, the beautiful poetry and seemingly simple truth that the “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” It always strikes me that John uses very strong words, words such as sarx for flesh, logos for word and doxa for glory. For the Gnostics and Stoics, for the Docetists and the Greeks, the “word becoming flesh” would have had the effect of moving the story of God away from being a principle around which to organise their philosophies and towards being about a person to relate to intimately; to One who lives and moves among us, understands us, shares our dreams, and is able both to plumb the depths of our fears and anxieties with us and to celebrate the joys and hope that are part of being human. That is the heart of this holy night: God among us; Emmanuel; Nkosinathi; a God whom we can recognise in the contours of life. Taking Jesus “out of the manger” allows us to explore that challenge.

If African governments – and African people – want to take God out of that manger, they can do so by making their voices heard in international affairs, and standing up to be counted in this war. If we want our own rights to be ensured, we have to defend the rights of others. If we want to resist authoritarianism, we have to resist its practice everywhere.
As Isaiah reminds us, we should be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, “to build up, build up the highway”! Not to destroy, nor to invade our neighbours using artillery and missiles to level their cities, killing thousands of civilians and damaging the global economy. We must work to usher in the era of the Prince of Peace and not to impose a colonial order.
Peace-loving people everywhere must cherish a system that respects individual human rights, of inclusivity rather than elite protection, of the right to self-determination instead of imperialism, and of freedom over totalitarianism. It is as clear as day against night, of good over evil, on which side of history Africans should be.

As I conclude, let me return to our meeting with the Mayor of Lviv, whose mantra for looking ahead still rings in my ears: “Unbroken. Resilient. Survival.“ It's not a bad one for our times, not only for Ukrainians but for us too.

Our reading from Luke tonight tells us that “the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

On this holy night, from my heart, the hearts of my family and from the heart of this historic church, to your hearts, I send every blessing to you. May you be filled with abundant grace over this season. I pray that you will have a Christmas filled with miracles and memorable moments which you will cherish long after the decorations have been packed away and the last carol has been sung.
Let us go into this night of joy and of celebration also thinking of those less fortunate than ourselves, across our land, our continent and in places where there is conflict and the need for courage. And in this, may the generosity and sacrifice of others, a lesson of our Lord, inspire us all in the year ahead.

God bless you all and, again, merry Christmas. 

1 comment:

  1. Myroslav Marynovych26 December 2022 at 22:00

    Your Excellency, thank you so much for devoting your Christmas sermon to the horrible situation in Ukraine and for mentioning me in it. We were truly honored by your visit to the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and highly impressed by your personal courage while visiting the country so heavily bombarded almost every day. Let me join you in wishing the whole South African nation to "be filled with abundant grace over this season"! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!


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