Isaiah 9:2-7 | Matthew 2:1-12
Last week we heard and reflected on the words of the angels to the shepherds – glad tidings of great joy. We didn’t pay much attention to the detail of the rest of their message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace”.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah today picks up the theme: “he is named… prince of peace… there shall be endless peace”.
On Monday this week we got a stark reminder in Sydney on why peace is such a recurrent theme in our hopes and our prayers; why peace is so longed for, so needed, and so tragically absent. And while our eyes were understandably turned to events so close to home, in Pakistan over 140 children were murdered in their school in an act of mindless brutality, further evidence, were it needed of our desperate need for peace. And then just yesterday, in Cairns, a mother arrested and charged with the murder of eight children, seven of them her own.
And it all doesn’t really feel very much like Christmas.
But perhaps it might feel a bit like advent.
For the story of the birth of Christ is set in a time and place of violence and bloodshed. As I read the gospel this week, I was struck by a phrase that I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about before. The Magi come to Jerusalem, and ask about the new king born, and “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him”.
To the extent that I’ve even noticed those last few words “and all Jerusalem with him” I guess I’ve just discarded them as hyperbole. But this week they’ve taken on a different meaning. Herod was known as a violent, paranoid ruler – to be honest, there weren’t many who made it to (and kept) positions of power under the auspices of Rome about whom that couldn’t have been said. And when a paranoid, violent man is frightened, all those around him are very wise to be frightened too.
As things would turn out, Herod’s fear would lead not to violence against the people of Jerusalem, but against the children of Bethlehem. Children of his own people, victims of the struggle for power that defined Herod’s life. The parallels with the Taliban slaughter of Pakistani children this week hardly needs to be drawn.
And as then, so now; violence creates fear, and fear leads in turn to violence, and the cycle continues.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace”.
“he is named… prince of peace… there shall be endless peace”.
Each year, around this time, I’m reminded of the words of the U2 song, Peace on Earth:
“Jesus, in the song you wrote, the words are sticking in my throat – Peace on earth – I hear it every Christmas time, but hope and history won’t rhyme, so what’s it worth, this peace on earth?”
And I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t have an answer, I have three. And perhaps between them something might emerge.
The first lies in my original reflections for this Sunday – for once this year, I started to sketch out what I might say each Sunday in advent weeks in advance (a mistake I won’t make again). I wanted to take the four theme words – hope, love, joy and peace, and link them in with aspects of the Christmas story.
And I chose to link “peace” with the story of the Magi because while it highlights the greatest violence in the Christmas narrative – Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – it also offers a vision of another way.
For in the story of the Magi what we have is the other; the foreigners, the outsiders, the worshippers of other Gods. Those from far away come to worship. Not to convert – for we have no reason to believe, in the narrative or tradition, that the Magi became god-fearers, or followers of Judaism or Christianity; but they came with their faiths and their insights and their wisdom, and they became part of the story of God’s people.
For that story has always had, in its background, that promise; that the people of God would be a light to the nations, blessed so that through them all the people of the world might be blessed; that through the throne of David their would be peace and justice and righteousness throughout the world.
The second lies in what is really the simple truth lying at the core of the Christmas message – indeed, at the core of the Christian message – that God comes into the mess, into the brokenness; that God doesn’t stand apart and judge, but becomes an actor, and takes his share – and far more – of the suffering and mindless paranoid violence that the world has to offer. That God comes into the world not to rule it, not to control it, but to offer it a different way, an alternative to the cycle of violence and hate and fear and more violence; an alternative of forgiveness, and reconciliation, and hope.
And my third answer comes from perhaps the most unlikely of sources – Kendrick Ferris. This is certainly the first, and probably the last time, that I will ever quote a tweet by an Olympic Weightlifter as part of a sermon. For Mr Ferris tweeted this week: “I can’t remain the same and expect to make a impact on this world”.
There is a saying, attributed to alcoholics anonymous, that the definition of insanity is keeping on doing the same thing, and expecting to get different results. And yet it is an insanity that we as a society, perhaps even as a species, seem addicted to. We keep on responding to violence with violence, anger to anger, fear to fear. We see a video of an aid-worker beheaded, and we respond with drone strikes. We see Arabic writing on a flag in a window, and we respond with vitriol against another faith. And don’t get me wrong, this is no diatribe against us in the western world, it is a characteristic of humanity: we see children educated in schools outside our control and we slaughter them; we see girls who insist on their right to go to school and we shoot them.
And we know, we know that all we are doing is perpetuating the cycle of violence. And there is the wisdom in Kendrick Ferris: “I can’t remain the same and expect to make a impact on this world”.
And this week we also saw the alternative. Seeing Moslems, especially Moslem women, afraid to take public transport, fearing a backlash against the events of Martin Place (not unreasonably, given the unconscionable report of events by some sections of the media), Australians of all faiths and none, of all cultures and national backgrounds, started to use the #illridewithyou hashtag on social media to declare their willingness to stand up against any racist backlash that might emerge.
Empty symbolism, some called it.
Symbolism, yes, but not empty. For this was symbolism which said “I refuse to be part of this cycle of violence. I refuse to blame you or your faith or your nation for the acts of another. And I will raise my voice as a person who believes in the possibility of peace, who rejects the narrative of the inevitability of revenge and violence.”
Peace on earth? No. Not yet. Perhaps not ever, if by peace you mean that there is no more violence, no more conflict, no more hatred, no more prejudice, no more oppression.
But a way of peace on earth? An alternative to violence? A way to move beyond “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? An alternative founded in reconciliation, in love of enemy, in the power of forgiveness?
Perhaps that is the peace that entered the world at Christmas, the alternative that God made real by becoming part of the mess, the story that the Magi acted out when those who were from far away came near to the Christ child.
Perhaps it is the path of peace, not the destination, that was given to us at Christmas.