Christmas Day 2014
Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
The song of the Angels that first Christmas ~ ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours…’ (Luke 2.14) ~ is the song of our weekly Eucharist; and it is the stuff of our Christmas carols, including the one we sang earlier:
It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold!
Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King!
The Angels, God’s messengers, announce that the good news is ‘for all people’ and that peace has come ‘on earth’ – peace between God and us is for ‘those whom God favours’. Those words should not make us doubt that, for whatever reason you or I might not be favoured by God; the prophet Isaiah had promised that the child, the ‘Prince of Peace’ would bring a hope that is universal, that would exclude no one.
‘Peace on earth’? Yes, that is indeed a promise of what may yet be, in another reality beyond our current knowing and imagining. But Christianity is also a here and now religion. Jesus changed things there and then. So in our time we are called to ask what is peace here and where is it now? How are we to be ‘channels of God’s peace’ as we so often sing?
I first read the historian Stanley Weintraub’s book Silent Night in 2001 and I made a mental note; I decided to keep it in mind for this centenary year of that ‘remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914.’ Many other preachers have, no doubt, latched onto that theme too.
Pope Benedict XV’s appeal for a Christmas ceasefire had been rejected. According to Weintraub, the new influential American magazine The New Republic (which was published for the first time just the month before) suggested mockingly that:
the stench of battle should rise above the churches where they preach good-will to men. A few carols, a little incense and some tinsel will heal no wounds. A wartime Christmas would be a festival “so empty that it jeers at us.
It was inevitable, as I say, that the story of the unplanned, truce of Christmas 1914 would be meted out in pulpits, TV programmes, and articles in newspaper the world over in this centenary year: not so much one truce, but a whole series of scattered and random events along the Western Front. Even this morning SKY News was highlighting that the truce was by no means universal; for some there was no truce. Many, believing there to be a truce, left their trenches and were killed. So many events rooted in a measure of factuality, gain mythical proportions amplified by the oral tradition, and it’s hard to know what really happened. Accounts of the birth of Jesus are no exception, but what we do know is that his birth changed everything.
‘Peace on earth’
Few could have imagined that a supermarket advertisement harnessing that moment of truce to sell charity chocolate, as well as to promote its Christmas produce would generate such a polarisation of reactions: the comment boards online in response to that Sainsbury’s advertisement ranged from anger and cynicism among some to affirmation and delight among others. One said: ‘Using humanity’s lowest moment to turn a profit is disgusting.’ Another said, ‘It gave me goosebumps – beautiful and respectful.’ No doubt, as is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in a more complex and nuanced place between the extremity of opinions.
The advertisement prompted also a reminder from singer songwriter Paul McCartney that he got there first, in 1983 with his music video backing his anti-war song “Pipes of Peace”:
All around the world
Little children being born to the world
Got to give them all we can ‘til the war is won
Then will the work be done.
Help them to learn
Song of joy, instead of burn, baby burn,
Let us show them how to play the pipes of peace …
‘Peace on earth’
Both videos included the core elements – playing football, showing photos of loved ones, sharing chocolate, trying to make themselves understood. In the Pipes of Peace video however, Paul McCartney plays two parts – the part of the British soldier and the German soldier – Seeking understanding of the other, seeing himself in the other, seeing the same image of God in the other as in one himself – and, as well as that – wrestling within oneself for understanding.
A shell lands and scatters them back into their trenches of war and hatred for another four years.
A day’s truce was of little use to the 26 families in our Diocese who already by this Christmas one hundred years ago, were grieving the deaths of sons, brothers, husbands. The list of names was beginning to grow for that pillar there (on the south side of this chancel), and for memorials like it the world over, on all sides of the war.
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.-
Those words from that new magazine The New Republic “A wartime Christmas would be a festival ‘so empty that it jeers at us.’” – haunt me. One hundred years on, what in our world still jeers at our Christmases? Just as one hundred years ago, for many there was actually no truce, and the next day and for four years afterwards it meant little anyway, so too, still for many in our time, in different ways, there is no Silent Night.
‘Peace on earth’
Where is, and what is, ‘peace on earth’ for so many people still today? You know, as well as I do, the evils, tragedies, needs, contrasts and inequalities in our society, and in our world. The list is so familiar that it risks degenerating into cliché and, terrifyingly, onwards from cliché to normative, and from thence to the profanity of being acceptable; to a point where we are no longer shocked. And so we acquiesce: in poverty, hunger, loneliness, homelessness, isolation, discrimination, inequality, and injustice.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, writing about Saint Mark’s Gospel, talks about the word ‘Gospel’ as meaning, not only ‘good news’, but says that the word embodies inherently the idea of ‘regime change’: a fundamental regime change, first of all, in our own hearts and attitudes; it’s also a community change of heart and resolve about things that matter.
The Christmas message should steel our resolve, in the name of the Prince of Peace, to make a difference, here and now, for those who know no peace, or little of it. More than at any other time in history, ordinary people, ordinary Christians, have ways, not least through online media, to engage in in public discourse, national and international debate and to let their voice be heard. We should be doing so otherwise we surrender that space to those who do have the conviction to engage and to proclaim.
And let us remember that God’s peace is more than a truce. Worthy as these things are, it is more than a make-do shelter for the homeless. It is more than a temporary food supply to tide people over an extended holiday. It is more than a double social welfare payment. There is no peace – Shalom – in scripture – without justice. Equality is not based on tolerance or forbearance. True Christian love genuinely seeks for the other the very best of what God wants for other people, not just seasonally, when conscience is pricked. It should energise our Christian compassion and concern all the time. It involves putting ourselves firmly in someone else’s shoes or, in the other person’s trench, even an enemy’s.
The Christmas story about this vulnerable baby, the Prince of Peace, who changed everything and taught a radical message of love and the possibility of fundamental change, should inspire and energise us about change in his name and for the common good. It should drive us for Christ’s sake to engage with issues, to campaign, to try to influence, to volunteer, to become advocates, so that we ourselves do actually become ‘channels of God’s peace’ on earth, rather than only singing about it.
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace …’ (Luke 2.14)