Editorial: Christmas and the ironies of peace
There is one perfect love that spanned the arch of time; and made the Son of God the Son of Man.
Albert was shocked to read in the morning newspaper a report of his own death – mistaken, of course! But what hurt him most: was the way he was described – as a man who had devoted his life to making weapons of war. He determined to turn his life in a new direction – working for world peace. His full name was Albert Nobel. He was the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize. An irony here to lift the heart! An arms manufacturer whose name became a synonym for peace!
Irony works at many levels of consciousness and appropriateness, The Church’s liturgy of Christmastide puts before us the heart-stopping loveliness of the baby Jesus in the manger. Here we see God in human flesh – a baby – join us, join the human ram, He will live and die as one of us, in the great mystery of the Incarnation.
This image of joy and beauty is followed by four sombre feasts, the first featuring the stoning of the blessed martyr Stephen and his magnanimous prayer: “Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them!” Then on to the feast of John the Evangelist – “young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, then, homeless in Patmos died”. Next day, we celebrate those all too vulnerable babies, Herod’s victims, those little Holy Innocents, their martyrs’ palms grasped firmly in their little fists, waving them at us as we reflect wryly: “We don’t know much, do we?” Lastly, on December 29 we celebrate St Thomas Becket, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and was cut down in the cathedral there, by four drunken knights, For centuries, the shrine of St Thomas Becket was the most famous pilgrim shrine in all England. This is the setting for TS Eliot’s drama, Murder in the Cathedral, featuring the death of Thomas. We quote from the archbishop’s sermon.
As Archbishop Thomas preaches in the Cathedral on Christmas morning, 1170, he points up this very irony, this paradox: “I wish only that you should meditate in your hearts the deep meaning and mystery of our Masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we reenact the Passion and Death of Our Lord, and on this Christmas Day, we do this in celebration of His Birth … Beloved, as the World sees it, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once, and for the same reason?
“Now think for a moment about this word ‘peace’, Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace (to the shepherds at the nativity), when ceaselessly the World has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?”
Thomas is in the same dilemma as we are in with Israel and Palestine, the US and its coalition, and the Taliban and its supporters. There are no easy solutions. All of them require giving, conceding something, and that goes against our obsession with strength, partic ularly strong nationalism. Concessions are read as wimpishness. Conventional wisdom sneers at words such as Dante’s: “In his (God’s) will is our peace.” The original sin – pride – which manifests as independence, chauvinism and exclusiveness, is preferred over sharing and interdependence. We forget that the earth is the Lord’s, whatever conventions of ownership we design for ourselves. It seems to beg the question to say that if we are men and women in love with our God and all his creatures, we can achieve this love and pay its price. But Christmas tells us we must at least have a go.
We may not be able to do much about peace in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq, about hospitality to the stranger in our land, our own homeless poor, but wherever the chance does offer, let’s seize it with alacrity, be it ever so small. As the Chinese say: “Nothing matters; everything matters.”
God be with you this Christmas and always. Our last word is from Francis Webb:
The tiny, not the immense,