Laura Keynes is an English freelance writer. Although baptised a Catholic, she moved away from the faith in her teenage years and her twenties.
She imbibed the ambient secular liberal culture, assuming it was more enlightened than the Church of her childhood. As a young unmarried woman she fell pregnant and was thinking of keeping the baby until someone said, “You’re not seriously thinking of keeping it?”
Fearful that she would get no support, she decided to have an abortion.
Afterwards, she suffered severe depression and engaged in self-harm. She describes herself as having “gone off the rails” and “totally lost her way” going to a “dark place” seemingly with no way back.
One day she was sitting in a coffee shop and suddenly burst into tears. She had been looking out the window and seen a number of primary school children. They were about the age her child would have been.
Despite the upset, this was her turning point. She realised the significance of what she had done. She knew she had to confront her guilt if she was ever to heal.
So began a gradual return to her childhood faith. The Church was right about abortion, she thought, so it might just be right about other things too.
She went again to Mass, observing but not participating. That night, she dreamt she was in a chamber covered with dirt and soot, with a hatch suddenly opening at the top. The fresh air sucked the soot and dirt to reveal a beautiful stained glass window. She realised she needed the grace of Confession. After 20 years without the sacraments she eventually plucked up the courage and went, crying before, during and after, but feeling so much lighter as a result and able at last to return to Communion.
Though Laura felt personal shame at what she had done, we know that in many ways her choices were very limited and were conditioned by today’s child-allergic culture. In a world in which millions of unborn children are disposed of every year, it can be hard to resist the promptings of those who say “You’re not seriously thinking of keeping it?”
Yet Laura’s story shows how hard it is to extinguish completely the still small voice of conscience, the intuition that every human being should be welcomed, the maternal impulse to bear and care.
So much of what we do, in fact, only makes sense because it is done in pursuit of the good of human life: personal activities from getting up in the morning, washing and breakfasting, looking both ways before crossing the street, going to work, rearing children, cooking and exercising, through to sending of birthday, get-well and condolence cards, demonstrating outside nuclear bases or abortion clinics, paying health insurance and resuscitating people. It likewise explains a range of social institutions and activities such as: grocers, pharmacies, disaster relief operations, road safety laws, criminal courts, vaccination programs, vehicles with sirens, medical and nursing schools, hospitals, ministers of health and their departments, health insurers and so on.
It’s true that we mostly want to live because of the good things we can experience when we are alive. But human life is also enjoyed for its own sake. That’s why people are not generally expected to give further reasons for preserving, prolonging or transmitting life and avoiding death: these are sufficient reasons in themselves. That’s why people say ‘it’s good to be alive’ and ‘she’s the picture of health’ without having to explain what the person is doing with that life or health. And this sense that life is intrinsically valuable is why even non-religious people share with us the sense that life is sacred or inviolable.
That’s also why birth normally occasions great joy and hope, and death great grief, even when someone has had a long and good life, but especially when that life has been truncated in some way. And as Christians we have extra reasons to cherish life: we know human beings are made in the image of God and destined to be with Him forever; that God commands that we care for our own and each other’s lives in the meantime; that Christ died to redeem us and so renew the promise of immortal life with God. When we see a newborn child we have an epiphany, a revelation, of God’s love for humanity and a cause for great hope, beyond the here and now.
Babies bring us down to earth by their sheer fragility and neediness; but they also invite a more transcendent perspective as we humbly acknowledge that something so good could not be made by us alone. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany, a ‘Second Christmas’ as it were, for today the Christmas Babe is first seen and acknowledged by the kings of the earth as one of them and much more (Mt 2:1-12).
Today we celebrate the birth not just of the infant Saviour, but of our salvation, the birthday, as St Basil the Great said, of humanity and of all the cosmos made new. Wise Gentiles pay homage and they represent us, indeed all humanity, for as Paul says in our epistle, the Gospel of Christ is offered to all human beings (Eph 3:2-6). By making us His brother and sisters, Christ makes us heirs of the kingdom of God.
In the weeks and months ahead we will see that Jesus is indeed that “dawning brightness” Isaiah prophesied (Is 60:1-6). Christ comes to reveal the truth and justice, the love and mercy of God. He will confront sin and every evil; he will go about healing and teaching, exorcising and elevating.
People will be invited to follow Him in a life of the beatitudes, of blessedness. For Jesus is the divine pity, the divine mercy, compassion made flesh – and he offers us that mercy if, like Laura, we are humble enough to ask for it. This Sunday [3 January] is the first Sunday in a new year of grace, a year named a Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis.
It is customary to make resolutions as a new year begins. Perhaps ours might be, like Laura, to approach at last the Sacrament of Mercy – Confession – if we have not been for some time; or to approach it more often, more honestly, more deeply if we are already regulars.
If Epiphany is second Christmas, Confession is second Baptism. We must not let embarrassment or laziness or self-righteousness get in the way of such a new year’s gift. For the babe has come to smile on us, to giggle with us, to show us life itself is so good, your life so important to Him, that He will willingly give His all for you.
To approach Him in Confession is to receive balm for the soul, a healing remedy that lightens our hearts and replaces sin with peace and joy. May God strengthen our resolves to approach the Babe of Bethlehem not just in Christmastide but all year round, seeking His mercy!
This is an edited version of a homily for the feast of the epiphany which was to have been delivered by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at St Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday, 3 January. Archbishop Fisher is recovering from illness.