Peace on Earth

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Matt. 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

This is a week of Peace. That is perhaps surprising news in light of recent events: armed gunmen in a Connecticut elementary school or the recent Israeli Hamas conflict. Yet in the season of Advent this week is one marked by the topic of peace. This is the week we remember that God is quite interested in overhauling the world geopolitical order; restoring justice for those who often find themselves at the mercy of the powerful and violent.There is a line in a new song by the artist JJ Heller that is echoing in my mind as I write this “sometimes life doesn’t make any sense, it’s full of war and pain and accidents. We’re singing I don’t know…I don’t know what you’re doing. But I know who you are.”

Looking around the world today I confess I see no easy fix. For instance there was an article in the New Yorker advocating for more stringent gun control laws in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut. This struck me as ludicrously naive; the gunman intentionally went to an elementary school with the intent of killing people. There is no rational explanation for his attack, these children could not have slighted him, there is no misunderstood vengeance at work. His actions were in a word, Evil- naked and unprovoked. No amount of legislation could have halted so sinister a plan. Gun control laws are indeed valuable and may prevent some rash violence- this shooting does not fit that characterization. If there were no guns on the face of the earth this person would have found some way to slaughter children. You may be sure that actions like this imply “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”

There is an old story about the birth of Jesus that seems pertinent to today’s events. It comes from the end of the second chapter of Matthew, commonly referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.” It is a morbid story about how the local king (Herod) felt threatened by rumors of a new king in Bethlehem and decided to kill all boys under the age of two as a preventative measure. Such violence in the world and in scripture often troubles me. I struggle to understand why God does not show up in such moments, terrible and grand and flashing with fire and lighting to the defense of innocents.

Yet I am reminded of the fact that the story of Jesus birth includes such a story for a reason. God does not stand far off from humans in the midst of their violence. He does not wait at a distance for us to get our act together, for the end of rape, infanticide, our general callousness toward each other etc. True in the gospels we don’t read that God acted supernaturally from distance to end suffering. Instead he walks right into the midst of our suffering. He trusts a poor Jewish couple with his Son at a time that it wasn’t safe to be a child in Palestine. He isn’t squeamish about our tendency toward destruction but instead becomes one of us that he might show us the way out. This is why his birth was announced with news (and a prayer) of “peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.” God is drawing the world toward himself in Jesus, drawing the world toward peace. The pull is as imperceptible as the tides but no less real. Thus it is not with an awareness of the apparent irony that I say, with complete sincerity, “this is a week of peace” and at the same time “deliver us O Lord from such evil men, and bring peace to the families of those who grieve!”

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The Annunciation

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This is a work by a young Leonardo Da Vinci and his master Andrea Del Verrocchio. “The Annunciation” as it is often called is the moment when Mary learns from an angel that she is going to conceive and give birth to Jesus.  This all happens despite the fact that Mary is a virgin.  Now, whatever your opinions on the virgin birth or the existence of angels, you’d have to admit that this would be incredible news; This is an emotion which the understated title “Annunciation” does not adequately capture.  Many artists throughout time have depicted this moment, and because they tend to be religious, they often obscure the surprise, dismay and fear that I expect Mary would have experienced.  Often the Annunciation shows a regal, calm Mary treating the angel (Gabriel) very much like a common household servant.  So many of them (at least in my humble and uninformed opinion) don’t seem to take the reality of the situation into account.  This painting is better than most.  Since Verrocchio painted the majority of the scene with lead paint and Da Vinci painted the angel the angel is literally of a different substance than the rest of the painting (under x-ray the angel disappears).  The visitor to this heavy reality is lighter and brings otherworldly but nonetheless real news.  Mary and Gabriel are about on the same plane, though the angel is bowing to Mary, the superiority of her position is slight.  In other words, she functions more like a real person and less like someone used to dealing with angels.  The angel seems in earnest to share the news but there is significant distance between the figures.  The desk between them is another obstacle which further implies that this news may not be the most welcome, and certainly unexpected.  Yet despite all this she seems willing to listen.  Often in the world we live in news about God working in the world is disconcerting.  Hearing such news frequently puts people at a distance from the messenger yet there is something about the message that seems to keep people listening.  Mary was the sort of person who was willing to listen to what God is up to in the world and participated in it.  This is why many sects of Christianity hold her in such high esteem.

A New Sort of Birth

Lo! In the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ‘ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright

It may surprise you to learn that the Church has seasons. There is a rhythm to worship and spiritual growth in the Old Testament; certain days of the year were marked by feasting and others by times of repentance. These often correspond- rather poetically- to the actual seasons of nature- i.e. the changing of the leaves in Autumn, the slumber of trees in Winter, the explosive growth and new birth of Spring, and the joy of harvest in Summer were connected to the feasts of Tabernacles, day of Atonement, Passover, and Pentecost etc. The juxtaposition between the original sense of the season and the current manifestation in Western culture has gotten me thinking.
To say “the nature of the Christmas Season is different than its roots” would be an incredible understatement. To put it bluntly, there is no meaningful day of religious observance that advocates mass acquisition and consumerism. The marks of the season have become simply holiday drinks at Starbucks and a deluge of marketing. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not expounding on the old evangelical adage “we need to put the Christ back in Christmas.” Others have taken up that cause and I have little to add to the matter. I have nothing against the giving of gifts to family and friends and businesses indeed need to make a living but I think it is interesting to consider the beginning of the season.
Historically speaking the phrase “Christmas Season” refers to “Advent,” something of which many have only vague knowledge, if any at all. The word Advent literally means “arriving” and the arrival in question is that of Jesus at Christmas. It began with the Gauls in Spain in the 5th century or so as a way of helping new converts to Christianity prepare for baptism on the day of Epiphany. The season lasted about 40 days and was marked not by acquisition but by fasting, spiritual growth and a deep seeking after repentance.
Advent then is individual and corporate preparation of Christians for the coming of Christ. This of course refers to the symbolic coming of Jesus at Christmas so long ago; but also the very real belief in a return of Christ at some point in the future. Since this return could happen at any moment, Advent becomes a reminder for us that we need to become a people *prepared* for the coming of The Lord.
To paraphrase Meister Eckhart (13 century) “what good is the Advent of Christ at Christmas if He doesn’t Advent in me?” That is what the season of Christmas is for, to prepare our hearts for a new birth. Jesus was born into miserable surroundings so long ago, something that seems appropriate when I consider that I need him to be born in me. The first Advent was such a momentous, remarkable world changing event that we would miss its significance without a season of preparation before hand. It also reminds us that the next advent will be even more so and thus we must call out to one another “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
None of this is to say that we should be somber during the Christmas time, just aware. Christmas should indeed be marked by great Joy and the giving of gifts, since Joy himself has come as a great Gift to the world. It often intrigues me that some of my neighbors, who would disdain much of the content of scripture, would celebrate such an overtly Christian holiday. Perhaps there is some subtle trick in reality that causes even those who don’t particularly care for Jesus to enjoy celebrating his arrival on the scene of human history. May the community of people who celebrates the coming of Christ continue to grow! May we see the birth of something new this Christmas!