Christmas message from the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham

 The quality of mercy is not strained It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed It blesseth him that gives and him that takes (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Sc I) These words of William Shakespeare are spoken by Portia in the Merchant of Venice when she is confronted with unremitting demands for "a pound of flesh". The heartlessness of the demands, played out in that drama, is repeated often today, as indeed is the phrase itself: "I want my pound of flesh". Today the drama can be played out in the privacy of a personal relationship, or in the publicity of a courtroom or tribunal. Sometimes the issue at stake can be the gross betrayal, or patent negligence, of one of the parties. Sometimes it can be much less: a moment of inattentiveness or an error of judgement, without any malice of forethought or intention. It is not unknown for some to want their 'pound of flesh' no matter the mitigating circumstances. All of us know, from within ourselves, the hardness of heart, the ruthlessness which will pursue a matter to its bitter end. All of us know the corrosive experiences of disappointment and past hurts that squeeze out of us any readiness to be magnanimous or "big-hearted", readiness to forgive even at a considerable cost to ourselves. Something in us drives us on to see our offender humiliated, and our sense of self-righteousness fulfilled. The quality that is lacking in moments such as these is mercy, that readiness to see in another, and accept, the weaknesses and failures of human nature and to forgive their consequences. An appreciation of the flaws of our human nature are not hard to come by: we can simply look with honesty into the mirror. But the readiness to accept those weaknesses, without letting go of the striving to overcome them, is far more difficult to find. Portia says that mercy "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven". It is a gift that comes to us from without. It comes, often, as a surprise, part of the gift of love, bringing freedom and relief. To receive mercy from another is to be relieved of the burden of our weakness and failure. To offer mercy to someone at whose hands we have suffered and who owes us recompense is to give a great gift of freedom. But it can never be forced, never demanded as of right. The Christmas event takes us to the source and origin of that gift. Throughout the weeks of Advent the Christian community has been repeating the ancient words of Isaiah: "Oh heavens send forth, like the dew, the Holy One," (Isaiah 45 verse 8), for we have been looking forward to the birth of Christ. In him the gift of mercy is given, for he who is God takes on our human weaknesses, accepting them and making them his own. He does not despise our mistakes, but acknowledges them and forgives them. In the birth of Christ, the eternal love of God is given to us. The vulnerability of the child teaches us tenderness; the divinity of the child evokes in us awe and wonder; the secret that he brings is that God is merciful and is always ready to forgive us. To go to the crib in prayer is to approach the throne of grace and receive its gift of mercy. Christmas celebrates the giving of this gift of mercy. My prayer is that the gift is received, in every home and in every heart. I hope it is not neglected among the discarded wrapping paper and empty bottles. Rather let us receive and take to heart the gift of mercy. What we receive from the hand of the Lord we will then be able to offer to each other. Then our shared life together will be so much more gracious, so much more peaceful. May this be a happy and holy Christmas.

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