Psalm 96 (vv. 1,2, 9-13)
Sunday 24 December 2023
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…
There are many names in Scripture given to God and many attributed particularly to the Christ of God whose dramatic incursion into our time and earthbound existence we celebrate tonight. Of these names offered by the prophet Isaiah, the title Prince of Peace has a jarring note this year.
Christmas has been cancelled in Bethlehem… at least in its public expression.
We sang the beautiful carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem earlier in the service but “how still we see you lie” is far from the images coming into our news feeds of bombed out buildings and raids on the last functioning hospital in Gaza, the Anglican Al-Ahli Hospital. At the altar of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, there is a nativity scene displayed where baby Jesus lies not in a manger surrounded by lowing gentle beasts, but upon a pile of building rubble. The doll lies underneath an olive tree — for Palestinians, a symbol of peace and steadfastness. The church’s pastor, Reverend Munther Isaac commented to one journalist that while the nativity scene represents the reality of Palestinian lives, it also reflects hope as “the infant Jesus is born in the rubble, a new light amidst pain.”
He said, “We believe in the existence of hope and the hope of the birth of Jesus in the city of peace…”
How do we proclaim “peace on earth” when terror and violence are the ready response, on all sides of conflicts and in so many parts of the world, even the birthplace of the Prince of Peace?
Yet perhaps, as we hear the ancient words of scripture, the proclamation of the Prince of Peace is not so out of place.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
In the text’s context of the 8th century BCE, darkness symbolises the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel, while light symbolizes freedom from foreign oppression. The Assyrians had invaded, brutalised and deported those living in the region of Galilee. The words of the prophet speak of God’s steadfast commitment in the face of these horrors, and the dawn of a new day when the rod of the oppressor will be broken, the war boots tramp no more and all people shall know freedom.
It is poetry that spoke with hope also to those in Roman occupied 1st century Palestine, with the words of the prophet Isaiah repeated in the story of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Last year at Christmas Eve I commented that these words spoke loudly not only to oppressed in different ages of the ancient world, but just as clearly and hopefully to those in Ukraine, sheltering and fearful of the next military offensive. Sadly, as that long war continues, perseverance in hope is needed if light is to be found amongst the deepest darkness.
So what does peace on earth mean to us this Christmas? Earlier this month a commentator from a Christian Media organisation, reflecting on both war and the impact of climate change, shared his feelings with honesty;
“What peace? ….It’s all in pieces—at least from my scorched earth perspective. Call me “Bah humbug.”
His words conjured for me a memory of a poem written by Pádraig Ò Tuama which plays on the line of liturgical sending- “go in peace”- and changing it to “Go in pieces.” It made me wonder if “go in pieces” might be a powerful and hopeful image this Christmas. Sometimes our illusions of completeness can be more dangerous that the reality of our brokenness. After all, when scripture is quoted by those beating the drums of war, and coherent religious or political meta-narratives are employed to justify violence, we should be looking rather for where light can pierce our brokenness than accepting the certainties of propaganda.
Pádraig’s “Benediction” reads;
the task is ended
go in pieces
our concluding faith
is being rear-ended
certainty’s being amended
and something’s getting mended
that we didn’t know
and are traveling to a place
with delusion as a fusion of
loss, and hope, and pain and beauty.
the task is ended
go in pieces
to see and feel
Perhaps seeing and feeling is a good place to start; a place that would lift us away from our addiction to certainties and our partiality for stories with characters that fit neatly into the binary categories of good and evil and ideologies that prefer building walls to shared tables. The possibility of peace is created when we don’t just believe the story of the incarnation at Christmas time, but live it out, following in the way of the God who embraced our humanity, seeing and feeling our world. The Word of God became flesh- not a book, nor a belief system or set of rules-but human flesh, full of grace and truth, a life that was the light of all people.
Perhaps that light shines best in pieces.
Perhaps the point is that the light of the world came not just as a solitary invasion to earth, but as an occupation of peace, shining out down the ages through life after life of those who follow the way of the child of Bethlehem. The weakness of a baby wields none of the colonising, coordinated power of empire, and is defenceless against violence and warfare. This Jesus, worshipped by shepherds and glorified by angels, would show the way of a life broken and given, shared for life, light and liberation in the world.
This blazing light that is our life is, by nature, in pieces…pieces on a scale that is both monumental and infinitesimal. Astronomers can tell us that the iron in our blood came from a supernova explosion that occurred before our sun was formed and that in fact, most of the elements of our bodies were formed in stars over the course of billions of years and multiple star lifetimes. The pieces that make us ‘us’ are far more radically connected than the stories we tell ourselves would suggest. The startling claim of Christian faith is that the creator of this vast expanse of interconnected life would take form using the raw materials of this same scattered stardust. That in amongst the darkness of powers that dominate with violence, divinity quietly creeps in clad in human flesh that will be broken and given, that we may know peace.
“What peace? It’s all in pieces!”
If you have felt yourself in pieces at any time this year, scattered or disarrayed, may you know the truth that you belong and that your wholeness is caught up in the love that holds all life. May you know, in amongst the loss and hope, pain and beauty of this world, that there is a light shining at the heart of everything, reflecting its brilliance in every act of loving courage and compassion in life after life after life.
We don’t have all the answers, and history suggests that peace eludes us whenever we think we do. We are never always right, and peace is further away from us whenever we think we are. Perhaps that is why the one who is love itself sent not a new set of rules, or divine oracles but a babe who grew to live sharing love, laughter and breaking bread.
Christmas does not give us an empire’s new king, come to rule with power and military might, nor even a settled doctrine which can be deliver all the answers. Christmas gives us a baby, lying in weakness and poverty, under occupied rule. Yet this moment in ancient Bethlehem – a brutalised, oppressed Bethlehem- was proclaimed by angels as good news of great joy. Light shines most brightly when the way is darkest, and so to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth this year in a context of war and violence is to hear all the more loudly the preposterous hope that we shall see peace, because God is present amongst us, in the pain and mess of our world. Hope lies where it has always done- not in the completeness of empire or the politics of fear but in all the scattered light-bearers throughout the world who know that the greatest power of all is love.
Go in pieces
To see and feel your world.