Monday, December 19, 2016

Meditation for Christmas Eve 2016

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(Uses the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

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!
When Luke wrote his account of Jesus’ birth, he had the angels announce the birth with the words “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”. Centuries before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah wrote “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined...For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end,”. Centuries later, as the followers of Jesus told the stories of his life they remembered the words of Isaiah and saw Jesus being described. And so for generations we at Christmas time have sung the carols 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!
There is a power to the promise of peace at Christmas. Last Sunday morning I was testing the video we have just watched. Two of my daughters were watching it with me, and their considered opinion was that this had to be a fictional story. Such a thing could not happen. And I can see their logic. It goes against everything we have been taught about battlefronts. And there are stories that French soldiers in neighbouring sectors (most of the truce stories involve British troops) being shocked at what was happening. But it did. Not across the whole Western Front but in various places there are records of a very informal truce cropping up at Christmas 1914. Maybe some of them did include a quick pick-up game of football.

The promise, the possibility, the hope, of peace sticks strong in the human soul. There is a part of most of us that knows peace is the better path. Some seasons ago, Inspector Brackenreid of Station house 4 told Detective Murdoch and Constable Crabtree that one of the hardest things to do in war is to get men to intentionally shoot and kill other men. For those of us with Christian heritage, the words of Jesus about being peacemakers, about loving our neighbours and enemies, sink deep. We still want, in whole or in part, to join the song of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
But alas the world as we know it is rarely the world as we would want it to be. Longfellow wrote this poem, Christmas Bells during the US Civil War, a time when his nation was in the throes of a conflict that threatened its very survival. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was short-lived, just a few hours, and was not repeated in 1915, 1916, or 1917. Indeed the officers involved were severely reprimanded. Fraternizing with the enemy was deemed not good for morale, at the very least it was gross misconduct, if not treason. And besides, it is entirely possible that the longer the war dragged on the harder it would be to imagine behaving like that towards the men who spend the rest of the year trying to kill you.

After all these years it is still so easy to say:
And 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!"
We read the stories of the siege of Aleppo, a siege that has lasted over 4 years. Some of us remember the stories from the siege of Sarajevo or the massacre of Srebenica a generation ago. We remember the tales General Romeo Dallaire tells from Rwanda. During the week before Christmas a Russian ambassador is assassinated in Turkey and a truck crashes into a Christmas market in Berlin. Our news feeds tell us of an increase of people being attacked because of their sexuality, or their skin colour, or their religion. We are told to be afraid of Islamist terrorists just waiting to strike here in North America. It is easy to wonder if the will for peace is strong enough to counter the hate, the anger, the fear that threatens to drown out 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."
But once again it is Christmas. Once again we listen for the song of angels. Once again we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. There is still hope. God has not given up on the world, God will not give up on the world. God is breaking into the world again this night.

As we gather at the manger to see the new-born King we are invited to share his Passion. Jesus invites us to share a passion for God’s kingdom. As we listen to the angel proclamation we are invited to see what is possible. Despite all that happens in the world the bells still ring out. The song still echoes through the air. Emmanuel, God-With-us, is in the world. This broken world, with all its fear and hatreds and violence, is also the place where God is active. Peace On Earth is more than a sentiment on a card. It is the hope that is born again this Christmas as the bells ring the carols sweet, and the words repeat, of peace on earth goodwill to men.

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