Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-14, Guildford Cathedral, Midnight Mass 2016
The human race has many gifts, but one of our most frequent failings is an inability to live at peace with one another. Whether we are worse at this that our animal cousins is a question for Sir David Attenborough and his film crews, whose footage of belligerent baboons and tetchy tarantulas might suggest otherwise. But the wide vocabulary of the species homo sapiens, together with our remarkable technological achievements, means that we are capable of falling out in ways that other animals could never dream of.
Take three of the place names in our Gospel reading this evening, for example - Syria, Bethlehem and the shepherds’ fields - and we’d have to say that the angels’ message of ‘Peace on Earth’ has singularly failed to get through. The merciless bombing of Aleppo has been just the latest atrocity in Syria, as the civil war enters its fifth year, with its massive loss of life and flood of refugees, a few of whom, thank God, have found sanctuary here in Guildford and elsewhere in Surrey. Bethlehem meanwhile speaks of civil war of another, more simmering, kind, with the eight-metre high wall around the little town graphically symbolising another conflict whose resolution seems as far off as ever. And even the shepherds’ fields outside of Bethlehem act as a quiet reminder that Christians themselves don’t always get on, as the Greek Orthodox shepherds’ fields compete for tourist business with the Franciscan shepherds’ fields and with the shepherds’ fields belonging to the YMCA.
It would be easy, of course, to conclude that religion itself is the main problem, and in some parts of the world perhaps it is; but the irreligious wage war every bit as effectively as the religious, and the death toll from irreligious conflict and in the last century alone could be counted in the hundreds of millions. And it’s not just war we’re talking about either. It’s the deep fractures in the West revealed by the Brexit referendum and the most dishonest and discordant American election campaign of all time. It’s the strikes of baggage handlers and train drivers, of pilots and post office workers, causing such misery to families this Christmas. It’s people driving lorries into crowded Christmas markets. It’s the statistics for domestic violence, which remain stubbornly high and growing here in Surrey, though often hidden beneath a respectable veneer. And it’s your conflicts and my conflicts, sometimes storms in a teacup, sometimes a whole lot more serious than that.
Of course that’s only part of the story. Of course the human race is also capable of acts of extraordinary love and self-giving generosity – a genuine altruism on behalf of its own species (and indeed of other species) that is highly unusual in the animal kingdom. One of the great privileges of being a bishop is the chance to meet extraordinary people from every walk of life, whose shining example helps to restore a faith both in the human project and in the transforming power of God. But there are times too when we can understand elderly people leaving all their worldly possessions to their cat or a local donkey sanctuary, rather than to their fellow Man; and at the heart of such cynicism lies our frequent inability to live at peace with one another.
So what’s the answer? In theory, at least, reconciliation should be a relatively easy process. Sitting down together, listening carefully to our differing points of view, saying sorry, hugging and making up: these are the basic ingredients in the Peacemaker’s larder. In more intractable disputes, the presence of an impartial third party is often helpful, a kind of Mary Berry figure, whose wisdom and quiet authority ensures that all the basic ingredients are added to the mix. But even the business of getting people in the room together; even the articulation of just how we feel; even the choice of an impartial mediator, can often seem too high a bar to jump. And strained relationships have a habit of becoming so complex and mixed-up that even the most brilliant of mediators have their work cut out, as unresolved issues are aired for month after month, before finally, wearily, being dumped in the ‘Too Hard’ basket.
And the Good News of Christmas and indeed of Easter – of the birth, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – is what St Paul describes as the message of reconciliation: a message that contains at its very heart peace with God, peace with one another and even peace within ourselves. For here in this Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord, the Mediator of Mediators, for whom nothing is too hard, and whose very arrival on earth is as disarming as is humanly possible.
Even as a baby, this Jesus draws around himself a most unusual group of people: not simply the pious peasant couple from down-at-heel Nazareth destined to become his parents, but also the shepherds whose daily contact with blood and excrement makes them ritually unclean in the eyes of the Temple authorities, and the Magi whose generous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh can’t mask the awkward fact that at heart they are pagan stargazers. And it’s a pattern that continues as Jesus grows up, and as the most unlikely bunch of people are drawn together around this extraordinary man like bees around a honeypot, and more than that, are drawn around God, Our Father who art in Heaven, through Jesus’ preaching and prayers, his fullness of grace and truth, culminating in the cross, the empty tomb and the pouring out of His Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
And if we’ve been Christians for a while, we know this stuff, and on a good day we rejoice in it. And yet the idea of Christ as Peacemaker can all too often remain a rather dry theological concept for us rather than a lived reality. Meanwhile the storms of our human relationships – some of them storms in a teacup, others a whole lot more serious than that – rage unabated; and all too often our clumsy attempts to make things better only end up making them worse.
So here’s where the Bible writers, together with the authors of some of our most popular carols, introduce us to a theme that we often forget in the frenetic pace of our daily living: the theme of stillness: for it is in times of stillness that we come to receive the peace of God, to move from the theological and theoretical to the applied and practical.
The Israelites in the book of Exodus, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, with the Egyptian army hot on their heels, are strangely, surprisingly, instructed by Moses, their leader, that ‘the Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still’. Elijah the prophet, exhausted, demoralised, urgently seeking fresh vision to release him from a serious mid-life crisis and failing to find it in the earthquake, the wind and the fire, hears God speaking instead in a ‘still, small voice’. The Psalmist, reflecting on God as his Shepherd, speaks of being led by ‘still waters’. ‘Be still and know that I am God!’ is the instruction in another of the Psalms, as wars and natural disasters shake the whole world order. And what of Jesus’ own words to the raging seas: ‘Peace! Be still’?
Some of the carols pick up this theme as well: ‘O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie’; ‘The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing’. And it’s no coincidence perhaps, that the one thing that briefly brought months of appalling bloodshed to an end in the trenches on Christmas Day 1914 was the sound of a group of German soldiers softly singing,
Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’.
Stillness is more than silence. While silence can be empty, lonely, even threatening, stillness is always restful, reflective, expectant: what we might call a ‘pregnant pause’, rich with possibility. That’s the sense in which holidays were originally holy days; and days off were originally Sabbath days; and recreation was originally re-creation. Because experience shows that simply relaxing, slumping, doesn’t nourish the human spirit or resolve the inner tensions within or around us. We need times too of stillness, of waiting upon God, allowing the spirit of the Prince of Peace to fill and strengthen us, and to give us the wisdom we need to respond with grace and truth to the storms in teacups and the wilder kind.
For me my spirit is often at its stillest when my body is on the move – when I’m walking beside a river, say, or up a mountain. For it’s there that the still small voice of the Spirit of God can break through into my rather preoccupied and muddled brain. But since we’re all here, gathered in this mighty Cathedral on Christmas night, perhaps we might have a little practice as we prepare to receive Communion or after we’ve come back to our seats: not just chatting merrily to our neighbour, but closing our eyes and praying in the stillness that the Spirit of God might come and fill us with his peace.
Given the lateness of the hour, you may then need to be woken by your neighbour for the final carol – but this simple action, repeated daily, could have a transformative effect in the days and in the months and years ahead. For the human race has many gifts, but one of our most frequent failings is an inability to live at peace with one another: and in all the joy and celebration and, above all, the solemn stillness that surrounds the Christmas story, the Prince of Peace is at work, transforming broken people and broken relationships so that we in turn might transform a broken world.