One of the best portraits I’ve ever seen is of a man pointing.
He points behind him.
His name is John, John the Baptist.
Your eye is drawn not to his face but to the pointing finger.
Because he wants you to know he’s not the Messiah.
He’s the one who points to the Messiah; who prepares the way for the Lord.
These are amazing readings we’re given this Sunday.
They begin with words which are very familiar to us.
Because these are the words which Jesus reads in the synagogue at the start of his ministry.
“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.”
After living thirty years of a hidden life in Nazareth, Jesus feels the Holy Spirit coming to him and saying, “The time has come now to embark upon your ministry.”
And he embarks on an extraordinary ministry of preaching and healing and teaching.
This ministry shows him to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: the one who Isaiah prophesied would come to give sight to the blind, to proclaim liberty to captives.
We know that, after three years, he was rejected by his own people.
They put him to death but then he rose from the dead.
And, as he prepared to leave them, he taught them: as I have done so too must you – bind up hearts that are broken, reach out to the poor.
He promised them they wouldn’t be left alone in this: he would give them the most extraordinary help, an Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
Down through the ages, we have seen some people who are truly Spirit-filled.
They inspire us to believe that the Holy Spirit is really at work in them.
Once such person whom I find a huge inspiration is Blessed Oscar Romero.
We’ve been thinking about him a lot this year because it was exactly a century ago, in 1917, that he was born.
He was born in one of the world’s poorest countries, El Salvador.
I say one of the world’s poorest.
In fact, it held rich resources but these had been concentrated into the hands of a small elite who left the remaining 95% of the population in dire poverty.
When Blessed Oscar became a bishop, he told the rich they should love the poor, share with the poor some of their plenty.
The rich resolved to silence him.
He came from quite a poor family himself.
When he was only 11, his parents ran out of money for his schooling.
So he left school to become a carpenter.
But he was feeling the call to priesthood.
So he went to seminary and was ordained.
He had a rich ministry as a priest.
It was when he became a bishop that everything changed.
He began to visit the priests of his diocese and realized just how poor his people were.
He saw peasants collapsing in the fields from sheer hunger.
Some workers went on strike because they were not allowed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset; and were shot dead.
The Archbishop denounced their murderers and said they must be hunted down.
He received the first death-threat.
He was told, “A bishop’s vestments are not bullet-proof!”
Soldiers entered one of the towns in his diocese, occupied the church; desecrated the Blessed Sacrament – all to intimidate him.
But he continued to preach; and his homilies were broadcast – daily – across the nation.
The last Christmas before he died, he spoke words which have a deep resonance with all of us who live in the centre of this city as it prepares to celebrate Christmas.
“If we wish to find the child Jesus today,” he said, “we shouldn’t expect to find him in beautiful crib figures. We should look for him rather among the malnourished children who went to bed tonight with nothing to eat. We should look for him among the poor newspaper boys who will sleep tonight on doorsteps, wrapped in their papers.”
“I don’t think that even the poorest people are born in caves on a cushion of hay,” he went on, “but for Jesus there was not even a decent bed where his poor mother might bring him to light.” Few of his listeners could have known that the Archbishop never slept on a bed throughout his childhood either.
What we behold on Christmas night, Blessed Oscar concluded, is “the image of a God who humbles himself … what theology calls ‘kenosis’”: a God who empties himself of glory; a God who appears rather as a slave and will allow himself to be crucified and buried as a criminal.
It means emptying oneself.
We hear St Paul use it, when he says, “Although he was in the form of God, Jesus did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself talking the form of a servant.”
The word Paul uses for emptying himself is ‘kenosis’.
Kenosis explains Christmas.
It explains what happened to Blessed Oscar next.
He received a second threat: this time a formal one – that, if he didn’t cease to speak out, he would be silenced.
He told his friends he was frightened; he was frightened of dying.
“But I trust,” he said, “that, if I am killed, then, at my last breath, I shall know God’s loving embrace.”
And so it happened.
He continued preaching against injustice towards the poorest in society.
He was preaching in the hospital chapel where he used to say Mass.
As he ended his homily, only he could see what was happening at the back of the church.
He saw the door open and a lone marksman raise his rifle to shoot him in the chest.
Five minutes later, he had bled to death.
His funeral was the biggest El Salvador had ever seen.
Pope St John Paul II came in homage and respect some years later to visit his tomb.
Pope Francis has declared him Blessed; and seems likely soon to declare him ‘St Oscar Romero’.
It seems right, as we stand on the verge of the Great Feast, to ask Blessed Oscar’s prayers for us –
that we might welcome the Christchild worthily;
that we might seek Christ not just in the crib but when he comes to meet us in the poor, the hungry, the cold;
that we might empty our pockets and ourselves to relieve their plight – even if just a little;
that we might learn from Blessed Oscar that the true meaning of Christmas is, in a word, kenosis – self-emptying.
Blessed Oscar, pray for us.
Bishop Nicholas Hudson, Parish Visitation, 17 December 2017