Theme for the first Sunday after Christmas, 29 December 2019

Scripture for this Sunday:
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

In 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem, “Christmas Bells:”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

The poem bears similarity to the way that many of the psalms are written: it proclaims the joy of God’s created order, bewails some dire aspects of the human condition, then asserts the message of hope that God’s will shall prevail. Its repeated theme is “peace on earth, good-will to men.”

“Scène du massacre des Innocents” by Léon Cogniet (1824)

The story of the slaughter of innocent children in Matthew’s gospel reminds us that the peace and good-will heralded by the birth of Jesus was followed by the shadow of the darker side of human nature. It also reminds us that Jesus and his family were forced to flee (pheuge in Greek, which comes into English as the root of the word refugee) for their lives, as refugees, in circumstances not dissimilar to those experienced by modern refugees.

The adult Jesus was quite clear about the obligation to care for those in need – which begs the question: why do we tolerate or even encourage points of view that pick on the stranger, the migrant, the refugee, and place on them our burdens of fear of the stranger, of suspicion, of paranoia, of greed to retain power for ourselves?

We might pause to consider the possibility that in a world that is increasingly disinterested (mostly) or hostile (occasionally, unless one lives in a dangerous place) to Christian faith, we ourselves become exiles, or refugees in an alien culture: all the more reason for a sense of affinity with exiles and refugees.

If we trace the history of faith and salvation through the Bible, what we find is that humanity has been, and continues to be, on a journey. The Bible takes us through an unfolding story of God moving us from unlimited violence, to less violence (only an eye for an eye), to non-violence as taught by Jesus. Today, much violence is more often conducted in absentia, by extension, than by anyone in person. Individual acts of violence or terrorism are vastly outnumbered by the millions who suffer and die from conflict or wars in other places that seem remote or unreal. We become numb. Or afflicted with apathy. There’s even a term for it: compassion fatigue

But remember:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

It seems to be taking a long time for Right to prevail. But how much do we shrug off any responsibility, passing the buck to someone else, somewhere else? How often do we carry burdens of excuses and hard-heartedness that handicap us from being involved?

Peace on earth, good-will to men, can only arrive if we recognise the danger of personal, selfish greed and ambition.

We might not personally be part of a regime that kills small boys, but we are complicit in a society that all too often vilifies the stranger in our midst, that values personal security over compassion and care, that lets the innocent die through neglect, apathy and callous disinterest.

In this season when we try to celebrate the joy and peace that come with the birth of Jesus, let’s remember that from the outset there were shadows of trouble. Let us endeavour to do whatever small thing that we can, one small step at a time, to oppose the darkness that tries to obscure the light of hope.

One Response to Theme for the first Sunday after Christmas, 29 December 2019

  1. josephine Forster 2020/01/05 at 00:35 #

    What a good and timely reminder that we all know in our hearts but continue to ignore even when these days when we can see real time images and stories in our homes every day via modern media. Thank you

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