Advent Service On Peace
The idea of peace comes up at Christmas in the well-known narrative of the shepherds abiding in the fields who were visited by angels with glad tidings to them and all people.
In Gospel of Luke we read:
And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
At that time there were shepherds abiding in the fields nearby keeping watch over their flocks.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people:
Today in the City of David has been born to you, a Saviour. He is Christ the Lord!
And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Then there appeared with the angel a heavenly host, praising God and saying:
Glory to God in the Highest and peace on Earth goodwill toward humankind.
This is a message of that comes to ordinary people, shepherds, doing ordinary things, their daily work of minding their sheep, and not expecting anything…and that is something to keep in mind.
But it is not an ordinary message. It is a message about a birth, which is of national historic importance to these Bethlehemites – a birth anticipated for hundreds of years. This baby is the Messiah according to the angel – the Messiah who like Moses and King David will defeat their enemies and bring the Jewish people freedom from their oppressors, the Messiah of whom the prophet Isaiah said: unto us a son is given…and the government shall be upon his shoulder and he shall be called…prince of peace.
It is a message about a birth of universal significance to the Christians who put this story into the Gospel with the description of a newborn baby “who is Christ the Lord” – a very Christian set of words referring to the Saviour of us all.
It is a message about a birth of cosmic significance - addressing and connecting two realms of being
Glory to God in the Highest
Peace on the Earth and Good will toward humankind.
But that bit of the message about peace on Earth is also a perplexing puzzle. We know what it says, but we also know what things are actually like. There isn’t peace on Earth. Why such a gap, such a failure? What is it meant to mean?
Is it a promise, or a command, an observation, a prophecy, a blessing, or a hope?
Is it perhaps – and this might be right out of left field - is it perhaps a political statement crafted for the time. Caesar Augustus the emperor who had ordered the census, which had Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, had declared himself the Savior who brought Pax Romana, peace to Rome and the Empire, which was what he thought of as the World. He had ended the civil wars that had devastated Rome for years and instituted a policy of peace. If you go to Rome today you can see the Ara Pacis Augustae the Altar to Augustian Peace erected in honor of his peace in 13 BC, just 9 years before the birth the angels are announcing.
These angels, or whoever added them into the narrative, are perhaps correcting the picture and pointing back to God in the Highest for peace on Earth and away from Caesar Augustus.
Maybe that’s it, but either way we don’t have the promised Peace on Earth.
Perhaps that’s because the translation we’ve got doesn’t correctly render the Angels chorus in English. What we’ve known from the King James Bible, and the translations, paraphrases and Christmas carols based on it, have got it a bit wrong, say some scholars.
It’s NOT peace on earth and good will toward mankind, BUT peace on Earth to people of Good will – OR possibly, to people on whom God’s favour rests.
Are these different versions more correct, or are they merely a diminished promise favored by translators who want to make an excuse for God and justify the apparent failing of the broader option of universal glad tidings encompassing the Earth and all humankind?
Steven Pinker, an American Author and Harvard Psychologist, might help here. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, he considers amongst other things whether the world is getting worse or more peaceful and less violent.
He charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, “though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given [the wars and violent atrocities that still go on], we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.”
Apparently, per capita there are far fewer people killed in violence, far fewer people living in theatres of war and conflict, far fewer people affected by war or violence.
Now Steven Pinker doesn’t attribute this to God. He is an ardent defender of atheism. While he refers to angels in his title he is quoting Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural presidential address in 1861. Lincoln, on the brink of Civil War, was addressing the Southern States that had seceded from the Union asking them to remember the ties of brotherhood and shared tradition that held them together with the Unionist states, and to be moved by “the better angels of our nature”.
By using the quote Pinker is directing us to our human nature and its power, not really to angels or religious faith.
Pinker believes that what has caused the escalation of peace on Earth is the decline of religion and belief in God. He sees in the Biblical and Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) a dreadful God and inhuman behaviour by His followers. Perhaps unfair charges - though not entirely without justification.
Pinker’s view is that the massive increase in peacefulness is due to the fact that more and more of us have thrown off the shackles of superstitious religious fantasies and taken as our guides to moral behavior our own powers of rational thought and ability to empathise.
Added to this, he notes that the world has become increasingly intermingled and open so that we are in touch with greater and greater diversity of people allowing us to see them as similar to ourselves – via the better angels of our nature.
There is an inescapable truth here, and it’s not un-Christian. Perhaps Pinker has hit on the very Peace on Earth to PEOPLE OF GOODWILL that one translation of the gospel has the angelic host announcing?
Listening, engaging, empathizing with one another, thinking about things that affect other people… imagining being in their shoes …all good! This is loving your neighbor as yourself.
But Pinker hasn’t completely dealt with the problem of the Angel’s chorus – not that he was trying to. There might be MORE peace. But there is still war and rumour of war. We might be moving in the right direction, but all sorts of other things indicate peace does not reign on Earth.
We talk of FIGHTING for our rights, rather than working together for everyone’s rights. So many of us seem to have rights that they believe they must fight the rest of us for…not only the Beastie Boys who “have to fight for the right to party”. Embedded in our ways of speaking and thinking we are at odds with one another.
It’s also obvious that so many people are at odds with themselves – NOT at peace WITHIN themselves – unhappiness, shame, despair, suicide. AND our consumerist economy is built on the creation of dissatisfaction, and the desire to be other than ourselves.
Neither do we live in a milieu that allows a peaceful life. Our world is filled with noise, constant distraction, overstimulation and sensory input, much of it unwanted, much of it we’re manipulated into an addiction for so that we crave it and to turn to it unthinking.
Finally, we have discovered, only recently, that we are not at peace with our environment. In fact we have been increasingly at war with the Earth itself.
But what about Jesus? His birth was at the centre of these angelic glad tidings. Did He bring peace, and if He did, how was He bringing it?
Was He a leader like the expected Messiah – or a revolutionary as some modern day critics would say - whose mission was to overthrow the existing order for a new and peaceful one.
Some of his disciples were revolutionaries – Simon the Zealot for one. Jesus says, whoever would be My disciple must take up his cross and follow Me – the cross being the method of execution of revolutionaries in the Roman world. One disciple says to Him, You are the Messiah. But Jesus rejects the opportunity of the enthusiastic crowd and its Hosannas – no doubt to the despair of many - perhaps why Judas turned against Him. My kingdom is not of this world, Jesus tells Pilate.
AND He didn’t seem to be against the prevailing regime – not for it or against it, maybe seeing it as irrelevant to His mission. He says, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. When we hear him speaking against the Pharisees he is not speaking against the ruling classes – they were the Sadducees, the High Priest’s party and the party of the Jewish elite. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a sect that sought to please God by obeying His Law with scrupulous attention to detail sometimes to a ludicrous degree – straining at gnats and swallowing camels, as Jesus joked with them about their practices. They were neither the rulers, nor the majority.
Was he then a social activist trying to bring about peace by reform?
He says, I am here to announce the Lord’s year of favour…to proclaim Good News to the poor. He says, woe to you who are rich now. And, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor. BUT most of these sayings in context seem to be about the inner transformation of the individuals listening, NOT about rejecting and transforming the prevailing social and economic arrangements. He also says, the poor are always with you – accepting that is the way it will always be.
So was He a pacifist rejecting all forms of violence?
He definitely says things that are like pacifism. But this didn’t seem to define or restrain Him. His turn the other cheek, don’t render evil for evil, do good to those who hate you, love your enemies, need to be seen against other things. For instance, He also told his disciples to buy a sword, and He whipped moneychangers out of the Temple.
Was He some sort of a peacemaker?
He says blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called the children of God. BUT when He started His ministry He caused outrage and violence and was nearly lynched by the people who heard Him. He seemed to incite a great disturbance raising anxiety over a possible riot – a thing not treated lightly by the Romans - when He rode into Jerusalem in a provocative gesture, on a donkey – apparently the way of a conqueror in that time. He caused a major uproar in the temple casting out those who plied their trade there. He said: If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters…he cannot be My disciple.
So was Jesus someone who sought inner peace by living apart from the world and its relationships, temptations and tribulations, escaping into asceticism and meditation?
He does teach that it is pointless to store up treasure on Earth. He does say, take no thought for tomorrow. He does say, foxes have holes and birds of nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He does spend a lot of time in alone in prayer. But equally He seemed to enjoy the world. He referred to the ways of the World and Nature in his teaching all the time. He was found at parties and relished company, had friends including rich friends, even condoning some lavish extravagances. He was very much part of the world He lived in, its people and its traditions – not a leader of group that set itself apart from the everyday world.
Was He than a teacher who gave us a code of behavior, by which we could live in peace?
He taught about goodness but His teaching implies that goodness is an impossible standard. He says, whoever’s angry with someone or calls someone a fool is a murderer, whoever’s just physically attracted by someone passing by is an adulterer. He says, be perfect like your Father in Heaven. Wow?! To meet this standard is NOT possible – NOR is it required. He spends His time in the company of those who seem most unlikely to have met such standards, and He is more in communion with, at peace with, these sinners than those who would be likely to follow a strict code of behavior.
In all the ways that we might think of someone bringing about peace, Jesus was NOT – not an over-thrower of the oppressive regime, not a pacifist or a peacemaker, nor a political or social reformer, not a world denier moving into a peace of asceticism and meditation, nor an ethical teacher with a guide to behavior that will bring about peace.
In many ways He was like ALL of these things, but He wasn’t restrained or fully defined by any of them – often acting in apparently contrary ways.
So what then is the PEACE that He brings into the world or that God sends into the world with Him?
If anything it is the message of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a way of being, of interacting with the world, of faith in God, it is a way of understanding and relating to reality and life, of living amongst people, with one another. But being in it is a state of being not a way of behaving.
And the Kingdom of God is not about the future – it is a right now thing. It is amongst us and it requires an urgent response from each of us. Everything that Jesus does is a demonstration of the Kingdom of God, and a message about its importance, and its imminence.
This Kingdom is NOT something that comes about because of a political movement or social organization – it can’t be made on Earth – it is NOT the result of our efforts on God’s behalf. It comes TO Earth – It will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven – it can’t be predicted or manipulated or brought about by what we do.
It doesn’t come about because of ethical commitment. All are invited to it – the prodigals, the sinners, those who have done much, and those who have done little. The sun shines, the rain falls, on the worthy and the unworthy. The guests who come to the feast of Heaven on their own terms, that is, according to their own claim to goodness are shut out. Only those that are prepared to discard their own sense of worthiness and receive God’s gift of acceptance can enter in.
The Kingdom is not something that comes about because of strict adherence to the laws of the Bible and tradition. Jesus says to those who think so, you have kept the laws but ignored the Command of God.
And the God of this kingdom is the Jewish God – BUT different – He is not a warrior – He has put aside the victory over the armies of Egypt and all others like it.
God has lost all His partiality - He judges both the Gentiles and the Jews, and invites them each into the Kingdom that has been prepared for them from the beginning of the World. He WAS the God of Abraham and Israel, He was the distant Creator, He was the Lord of Victory over the enemies of Israel, He was the righteous Judge of Israel and the nations, but in the Kingdom of God that Jesus knows and announces God is the welcoming Host, the generous Master who pays the half day workers the same as the full day workers, and the loving Father excited to welcome home the prodigals and sinners as His sons and daughters.
The Kingdom of God has become an invitation – to ALL who would respond – it has become a universal opportunity. It is love without object, accepting everyone who would be accepted. It is forgiveness of an extravagant kind – unconditional forgiveness without worthiness. It is a Kingdom open to all who realize that they are NOT worthy to enter into it, and closed absolutely to all who believe that they can earn it, who think they deserve it, who think that they can bring it to their own ends. Closed to the self-satisfied, the hypocrite, closed to those who are focused on their own virtuousness, and to those who want to make people obey their particular codes, morals and standards – the people of whom Jesus says, blind guides! You make the people who follow you twice as fit for Hell as you are yourselves.
In this Kingdom you CAN enjoy the things of the World, including material things, relationships and more BUT…
NOT when you could never give them up.
NOT when they become so important that they blind you from seeing that the Kingdom is come amongst us.
NOT when they cause unwillingness to forgive and accept.
NOT when they cause the inability to love your neighbor as yourself. Who is my neighbor? Whoever is presented to me in my daily life.
Jesus says, the pure in heart will see God. The pure in heart are those who don’t let anything get in the way of their perception of and connection with the Kingdom of God – that is their purity – not a moral purity – a purity of vision and connection. It is the awareness of being in the Kingdom of God that puts everything else into focus and perspective… into the peace on Earth radiating from the Glory in the Highest…as is it is in Heaven.
What can we do in response to this announcement of peace on Earth to all people of goodwill?
The message of peace came first to Shepherds who were doing what they did every day. But they heard the message. They were open to hearing it.
I wonder if I were there on the hillside that night whether I might not have heard anything, just the wind whistling through the rocks, the occasional bleating of the sheep – like a quavering note, just seeing stars above, nothing special – perhaps not pure in heart – perhaps not open to the Heavenly chorus and the glad tidings.
But those shepherds heard. And they went straight away to welcome this thing – the Kingdom of God – that had come along with this birth that we celebrate at Christmas.
That is our call at Christmas…in our places… in our daily lives…amongst our neighbours… our brothers and sisters… to hear the glad message and straight away to welcome the coming of the Kingdom of God…that is amongst us now…