Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Luke 2:1-18
It came upon the midnight clear…
Christmas seems to be getting earlier and earlier each year…which ironically means people complaining about Christmas being early is also getting earlier and earlier each year! But whether you’re already sick of the endless loop of Christmas songs in the shops or actively look forward to the annual avalanche of Wizard, Cliff and Wham, I’d like to know – what’s your favourite Christmas single? Which artist or band can get you tapping along to a seasonal song? Do you go for something classy and classic from Judy Garland, Bing or Sinatra; can you just not resist a bit of “It’s Chhhhhhhristttttttttttttmmmmaaaaaaassssssss” with Noddy and the boys; perhaps Mariah Carey or East 17 hit the spot each year for you; or do you look forward to singing a bit of ‘Galway Bay’ with Kirsty, The Pogues and A Fairytale of New York? There are, in my humble opinion, so many great Christmas singles…so many bad ones as well…but so many good ones which can stir up the nostalgia, raise the Christmas spirit and melt even the Grinchiest of hearts.
Having said that, one of my favourite seasonal songs dismantles the romanticised view of Christmas and highlights just how different the world around us can seem from that portrayed in other cosy Christmas scenes. It was a song first released in 1975, contained images of the Vietnam War in the video and was sung by Greg Lake…anyone?
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas. They said there’ll be peace on Earth.
But instead it just kept on raining a veil of tears for the virgin’s birth.
Merry Christmas indeed! But the reason why ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ is one of my favourites is because it highlights one of the biggest tensions of the Christmas story – the angels’ song of peace on the hillside in Bethlehem. Of course, Greg Lake wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to point the apparent distance between what we sing at Christmas and what we see in the world around us. The carol we just sung, It came upon the midnight clear, notes how the angels’ message of ‘peace on the earth, good will to all’ was followed by ‘two thousand years of wrong and warring humankind hears not the love-song which they bring’. We know this all too well. Last month, we marked the centenary of the end of what was called ‘the War to end all Wars’. Tell that to the starving children of Yemen, the grieving families of South Sudan, the refugees in our own community. As U2 sum up in a song inspired by the 1998 Omagh bombing – ‘Hear it every Christmas time but hope and history won’t rhyme so what’s it worth, this peace on Earth?’
Personally, I think it’s a valid question and I can understand why those who only hear about Jesus’ birth at Christmas, when it’s told through tinsel and tea towels in the school nativity play or pictured as a cosy idyllic scene on Christmas cards, might well dismiss the whole thing as so removed from life today that they place it in the realm of myth and fairy-tale…and yet the real Christmas story couldn’t be further from the truth for the tale of Jesus’ birth is a radical one that says God took on human flesh and came to our messy, broken, warring world; that Jesus wasn’t born into a privileged life of luxury or even into a sweet and peaceful, silent night – rather he was born into a world of dictators and oppressive empires, mass killings and refugee crises. Jesus experienced first-hand the suffering born from the violence and so given that, the real question for me is whatever did those angels mean in their message of peace? Was it a command, a hope, a pronouncement…?
Perhaps another Christmas carol can shed some light on the issue –
Hark! the herald angels sing, Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.
In this Christmas favourite, Charles Wesley seems to be sharing the belief that the declaration of peace on that first Christmas never really meant the end of conflict on Earth but instead referred to the reconciliation between God and us. The thinking goes that in Jesus, the divine and the human had come together in a unique, paradoxical, miraculous way that would forever change the relationship between God and humanity. Some understand this to mean that our turning away from God…or even God’s turning away from us…has forever ended through the birth of the God-man, Jesus…or as Wesley puts it in a later verse often overlooked today – ‘Second Adam from above, reinstate us in thy love’.
Other Christians have come to speak of this reconciliation, this peace, as ending any separation between God and humanity – the Creator and the creature – even suggesting that ‘He became what we are so that he might make us what he is’. Isn’t that a remarkable thought? That the divine became human so that the human might become divine! And if that sounds radical today, it was all the more so two thousand years ago when the line between gods and men were more sharply drawn. It was a time in which all flesh was seen as fallen, gods lived in their separate world and even Moses couldn’t look at the face of God and yet here were angels announcing peace, reconciliation, indivisibility between the divine and the human as witnessed in the Christ-child. Perhaps, then, the peace announced by the angels on the hillside was not exactly a reinstatement of God’s love, as Wesley suggested, for God’s love for us was always strong. No, perhaps instead it was the revelation of what has always been true if only we could have seen it – that we were made to be carriers of divine life and love. That the word became flesh to hallow and bless this world and to show us that all human life is sacred. Can you imagine just how different, how peace-perfused, our world would be if we lived this out – if we saw every human, every woman, man and child as made in God’s image and deserving of respect, compassion and peace.
Tragically, of course, the Church is just as guilty as any other institution in treating those not in our tribe as less than human, less than divine. The war to end all wars was fought by mainly Christian countries, and the crusades, pogroms, slave trade, mistreatment of women and a whole host of other abuses and atrocities have given the Church cause to repent over the centuries. It would seem that the peace between God and humankind has not cascaded out across the world. Often the contrary seems to be true.
And the absence of peace on Earth is no more easily understood for those who believe that the angels’ song was referring to peace on the Earth being established through Christ. This line of thinking emphasises the fact that the glory of God and the peace of God’s people are two themes that run throughout the prophetic literature of the Bible. According to the prophet Isaiah, for example, the return from exile, the saving of God’s people would be accompanied by the world seeing God’s glory and peace reigning and so the angels’ song on the hillside could be seen as the announcement that salvation had come – that God was in their very midst. But while we do indeed declare that Jesus is God in our creeds and carols today, there’s no getting away from the fact that peace hasn’t reigned since Christ’s coming; that war rages on…so what gives?!
Well, perhaps the gospel writer Luke is pointing us to a deeper understanding in his locating of Jesus’ story against the backdrop of the reign of Caesar Augustus. Can you remember the first verse that Alison just read?
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
Today, the Emperor Augustus might be most associated with the census that kicks off Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem but in his day and for centuries afterwards, Augustus was known for the period of peace and stability he established across the Roman world. The Pax Romana or Pax Augustus as it was also known, was established by Augustus after the fall of Mark Anthony when he persuaded the power players of Rome that it wasn’t war that would bring greater wealth and prosperity to the Empire but rather peace. He thus changed the very nature of the Roman world and the decades of peace that followed led to a flourishing of the Empire and a lasting legacy for Augustus. Such peace, however, came at a high cost. It was a peace enforced by military might and involved not just the ending of war but oppression, the use of fear and the total destruction of the Empire’s enemies so that they would not have the power or inclination to fight back.
Perhaps then, Luke deliberately flags up Caesar Augustus as a comparison point for the reader as the peace that the angels announce on the hillside is of a totally different kind. The peace that God brings to the Earth comes not through a powerful Emperor who orders us how to live and crushes those who disagree but rather through a vulnerable babe in a manger, a wandering preacher who names peacemakers the children of God, a persecuted innocent who takes on all our violence and division and hatred and offers back forgiveness and companionship and love. As Swansea lad and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puts it;
“When God comes among us, he doesn’t first of all clear humanity out of the way so that he can take over; he becomes a human being. He doesn’t force his way in to dominate and crush; he announces his arrival in the sharp, hungry cry of a new-born baby. He changes the world not by law and threat but by death and resurrection.”
The wonder of Christmas then, is the nature of God that is revealed in Jesus. The God who forsakes power and might to come to us in vulnerability and grace; the God who is no divine dictator but rather a Prince of peace who invites us to partner with him in bringing peace to our world.
‘Peace on Earth’, the angels sang. ‘Well then, turn the other cheek,’ says Jesus. ‘Walk the extra mile. Give to those who ask. Welcome the foreigner. Break bread with the stranger. Forgive your enemies. Seek forgiveness from those you wrong. Pray for those who persecute you. Don’t get obsessed by wealth. Don’t judge others. Don’t even talk negatively about them. But care for the widow. Visit the imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Put away your weapons. Seek peace and love God, your neighbours, yourself.’
Jesus taught us the melody for the coming kingdom of peace and justice. If we’re frustrated that peace on Earth doesn’t reign today, perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten the tune.
And yet, last week you hummed that very tune as you sent greetings to political prisoners and protest to our government and its shameful selling of arms to Saudi Arabia. As we look toward Christmas and the new year, may we continue to add our voices to the angels’ song by forgiving those who have hurt us, trying to see the best in others not judging them by their worst, daring to view every human as having the potential to be the bearer of divine love. May we sing the song of peace in this church and in our homes as we let go of grudges, pray for those we find difficult, be a little kinder to ourselves. May we sing the song of peace in our country and throughout the world as we seek to protect the vulnerable, challenge the machines of war and refuse to buy into the widely spread narrative of fear and division. For when we join in the song of peace, when we watch and follow the conductor of the cosmos, only then might peace on Earth be sung above Bethlehem hillsides and South Wales valleys, on the islands of Yemen and the plains of South Sudan; only then do we point, with hope, toward the coming day;
When peace shall over all the earth in ancient splendours fling,
And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.