Peace at Christmastime
December. Season of carols, Christmas cards, mysteriously shaped parcels; frantic, desperate last minute shopping, flashing credit cards in hands giving no thought for the morrow, home to open envelopes with puzzled brow. “Who on earth are Edna and Graham?” we ask, as we look at the inscription on the inside of the card, the front of which shows a red breasted robin stranded on a log in a snow-covered landscape. “The post-mark seems to be Skegness. I didn’t think we knew anybody in Skegness.”
Read the printed messages inside cards, scan the verses of those well-loved, favourite carols, observe the messages hung in shops and stores with the letters outlined in tinsel, and one stumbles over again and again the words “peace”, “goodwill”, “happiness”, “joy” along with similar nouns and adjectives, reminding us that this anniversary is a celebration of delight; a time when lion and lamb can be expected to snuggle up to one another, secure and safe in one another’s company.
I was musing about Christmastime the other day and I wondered idly why Christmas had become a symbol of peace. Rather strange on the face of it, when you come to think about it. But then there is much that is illogical about the Christmas festival.
Take the story of the nativity around which the Christmas celebration is built. Joseph and Mary lived in an occupied land. A cruel tyrant, Herod, ruled, relying on his Roman masters to maintain him in power. The Roman overlords required a census to be taken under such rules that the heavily pregnant Mary, accompanied by her husband Joseph, had to make a long arduous journey, only to find at the end of it that there was nowhere to stay. They realised their plight just as Mary was coming into labour. Eventually, they did manage to find some shelter in an animal shed. One might get the impression from some carols that the place smelt sweetly of hay, but I believe in reality, without going into too much detail, it must have stunk to high heaven.
In such a setting, in labour, suffering the agonies of child-birth, I can hardly imagine the words “peace”, “joy”, “goodwill to all” were going through the parents’ minds.
We all know from daily reports on the radio and in the papers, that in present times, the land in which Jesus was born, where he grew up, preached and taught, and finally was executed, is not today a region at peace. But neither was it as the calendar changed BC to AD. Indeed, as even those with only a cursory knowledge of the Old Testament will ready recognise, the area had been a centre of armed conflict and dispute for centuries, long before Mary and Joseph found a make-shift maternity ward which doubled as a shelter for domestic animals.
Captured and transported time and again into slavery, in Babylon and Egypt, the Jews had experience of defeat in battle. Between times, successful campaigns had been fought by Israelite kings and others against invading tribes and armies. A heroic account of how the walls of Jericho had been breached comes to mind, no doubt followed by pillage and rape. The description of the manner in which Goliath came to be laid low is part of folk-law. Bethlehem, the birthplace of the of the child whose nativity we celebrate, was known as the City of David. David’s reputation had been built upon his successes as a leader of armies.
Is it not strange then that the birth of a child in an occupied country, a turbulent land long used to battle, a member of a race whose best-loved, long revered King was a conquering army general, should have inspired people the world over to talk of peace on earth and goodwill to all men and women?
Let me come back to this linking of Christmas with peace in a moment, for another thread crosses my mind.
Christmas is frequently described as family time. Christmas cards will stress this theme as they picture the Christmas tree or the laden table with all the family gathered round, laughing, smiling upon one another, welcome and affection in their eyes.
Presents are opened by wide-eyed, grateful children as their elders smile benignly. Adults receive tokens of affection, wrapped in coloured paper tied with ribbon, from their spouses and relatives. In traditional scenes of Dickensian bonhomie, toasts are drunk and gargantuan turkeys carved. The only tears are those caused by excess laughter. Such are the scenes which are used to illustrate the Christmas festival. The land may be gripped with winter frosts, but the warm hearts within the breast more than compensate.
Yet I have read reports by professionals, from children’s charities and other relevant charities, expert on the nature of relationships within families, that Christmas is frequently a crisis period when incidents of domestic violence rise, and physical abuse of children increases. Stress grows and explodes in violence. Not all is peaceful and calm in some homes amidst the celebration of the birth of a babe lying in a manger.
However, I must not become a kill-joy. A miserable scrooge saying “Bah” to Christmas and to those who join round the table with joy in their hearts, minds full of hope, words of genuine good-will on their lips. In spite of the contradictions, in the face of much tatty tinsel, commercial exploitation, false sentimentality and the rest, Christmas does succeed, if only temporally, to bring comfort and joy in numerous ways. Numbers of homeless are invited to come inside from the street, given food and warmth. Children whose lives are blighted in one way or another, are treated with generosity, some lonely are offered companionship for the day, charity appeal boxes are filled, consciences are pricked, old friends remembered.
Within our own communities and family circles, we suddenly renew contacts which should never have been neglected. We think, if only for a short time, beyond our immediate circle, and generosity wins a temporary victory against selfishness.
I spoke a moment or two ago of the stresses Christmas brings in some family circles over the Christmas period. No doubt a deal of that is due to the fallibility of human beings. But I have no doubt that pressures are added because of the ever-growing commercialising of Christmas, with relentless advertising, encouragement to spend and pay off the debt later. If sales are up on last year, that is good. If sales are merely steady, that is disappointing. If spending is down, that is disastrous. Peace of mind, joy and contentment, is incompatible with huge debt burdens. Charles Dicken’s character, Mr. Micawber memorably commented upon that fact that expenditure which exceeded income brought misery.
Perhaps we miss the point, as we often do. Christmas is not a time when the world changes. It is a time when we shield the flickering flame of hope as we tentatively raise our sights and see that the world might be changed for the better. It doesn’t have to be how it is now, given the will, things could be so different.
Certainly the child whose birth we honour was not born in a peaceful land, at ease with itself. His home-land was not free from strife. But his preaching and teaching through adulthood were about peaceful co-existence, love and charity, not of warfare and conquest. Like many before him, as well as a number who followed after, though the reward was violent death, the message did not waver. Violence begets violence, love and understanding lead on to peace.
We all have our favourite carols, I imagine. One of my favourites is the one we shall sing to close our service this morning, “It came upon a midnight clear.” It recognises the world as it is – far from peaceful, not even peace-loving in many respects. Yet there is a message. If only we would shut up for a bit, stop shouting at one another, peace could become a reality, not just for a day or two at the end of December, but throughout the rest of the year.
Just before I started to speak, we sang words in another of my favourite carols, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. May I remind you of them.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong
And mocks the song:
Goodwill to all and peace on earth!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, and does not sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail –
Goodwill to all, and peace on earth!”
So it is right to link Christmas with peace and goodwill, even if that is in hope, and with confidence that one day reality will match our dreams. Happy, peaceful Christmas
Hucklow 15 December 2002