Religious leaders discuss the word of God in this weekly feature. Published on Fridays, Church Talk discusses themes from the Bible as well as looking at current events in a Christian context.
In January, Pope Francis named new cardinals in order to keep the number of current Cardinals at 120. The pleasant surprise was that two of the new cardinals come from Oceania.
As we celebrate this festive season, our thoughts turn to that sacred event long ago when the Prince of Peace and the Light of the World was born,
If you look into the Scriptures, you will find that angels encircled the entire life of Jesus.
From the angel’s invitation asking Mary to welcome Jesus into her womb (Luke 1: 26) to the blessed moment of an angel announcing his being raised from the dead (Luke 24:4).
In between there was the angel that appeared to Joseph in his dreams telling him not to divorce Mary. (Matthew 1: 20). Then there were the angels at his birth (Luke 2:8), calling forth wonder, awe, and gratitude. The angel that appeared to Joseph informing him that Herod would kill Jesus if he found him and that he should take his family and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2: 13).
I want to focus on the song of the angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born. It was the custom that when a child was born, the local musicians would gather at the house to greet the child with simple music. As Jesus was born in a stable outside of Bethlehem, this ceremony would not have been carried out. So the music came from angels. Scripture even gives us the words of the song they sang. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours. (Luke 2: 14) It is a song which unites heaven and earth, giving praise and glory to heaven, and the promise of peace to earth and all its people.
In choosing a message for Christmas, one message stands out for me over all others and that is Christmas calls us “to give glory to God, for He is good, He is faithful, He is merciful.” I hope we can all come to know the true face of God the Father, who has given us Jesus. And if we do discover this, our response will be to glorify God by spending our lives for love of him and of all our brothers and sisters.
Starting on Christmas Eve, and again Christmas Day itself, our churches here in the Cook Islands would have reflected our giving this glory and honour to God by our attendance at church services.
Like the Shepherds on hearing the angels’ message, we too need to “Go up to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us.” (Luke 2: 15) The special hymns of the night – those solemn Christmas carols, the various decorations according to our traditions, all bring home to us that God has been faithful to his promises. That God is with us as the word Emmanuel implies.
Peace to Mankind
Equally, powerful in the Christmas message is that God has come to bring “Peace to Mankind”. In the words of scripture, “And peace to men who enjoy his favour”. Luke 2: 14
The lead up to Christmas for me in 2014 has not been particularly peaceful as I watch the news each night on television: The new threat of Isis in Iraq and Syria. A large number of schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria who will not be able to celebrate Christmas with their families. Another group of schoolchildren missing in Mexico. The slaying of 132 school children and ten of their teachers in Pakistan. These events happening in parts of the world relatively remote from the Cook Islands are easy to ignore. But then the siege in central Sydney, where hostages were held by an armed gunman, is not a world away from us. His eventual slaying of two innocent hostages brings the issue into our part of the world where it starts to register. This is the backyard of some Cook Islanders. If it can happen in Sydney it can happen anywhere.
Even America with the shooting or taking of lives of African-American citizens by police and the subsequent negative response by the authorities means that what is considered the civilised world has it problems too in maintaining peace. We are used to living in a peaceful, tolerant, secure society, free to go about our daily business as we choose, without fear.
Further darkness in the pre-Christmas season was the mother who killed seven of her own children and a niece outside of Cairns in Queensland. And not all this violence is the work of terrorists. The harmful effect of drugs darkens normal life. Perhaps the incident in Otara in Auckland last weekend when someone lost their life as a result of a disagreement over music being played at a party talks loudest of the chaos darkness brings about.
Our main street, Te Ara Maire Nui, is beautifully decorated with Christmas lights for Christmas. Outside our Catholic cathedral is a Christmas crib and a well-lit Christmas tree. On the Sunday night before Christmas, our youth entertained us for three hours with carols and acting out the Christmas story. Various ethnic groups making up our community participated, reflecting how Christmas is celebrated in other countries. And I am sure it would have been the same or better in other churches around the country. We did prepare for the arrival of the Light of Christ.
The Mixture of Darkness and Light
There is a mixture of darkness and light. That is though true to reality, as it often is, true also to the Gospel. In the middle of all the romance of Christmas, the astonishing good news of God made man for us, the angels, shepherds and wise men adoring, the Gospels report that all was not quite as it ought to be. There is suspicion about the pregnancy. The husband considers divorcing his wife. A mother nearing labour is required to travel a great distance and there is no room for them at the inn. The child is delivered in the squalor of a cave for animals. In the temple, the proud parents are warned of trouble ahead and the family must flee as refugees to a strange land. Meanwhile Herod’s henchmen kill the rest of the little children born at the same time as Jesus.
So I should not be surprised that the backdrop to the light which dawned for us at Christmas is in fact darkness. The Way, the Truth and the Life come to people who often lose their way, to a civilisation sometimes more comfortable with lies than truth, to what is a culture of death more than a culture of life. The Christ is threatened from the moment of his birth until the violence of the world finally catches up with him on the cross. And our world today is every bit as mixed up as it was at the first Christmas. There is plenty of talk of human rights, the dignity of the person, equal respect and care. We have all the modern day resources and technologies and know how to help people through troubled times. Even here in the Cook Islands I am aware of people falling through the cracks despite the good resources available.
We Christians do believe that the Babe of Bethlehem is the Prince of peace, the God who is with us, that God is one of us, God is saving us. So why, if the Prince of Peace has come, do these terrible things keep happening?
My colleague the archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Fisher put it this way after the siege in Sydney. Perhaps the answer is in the first Christmas carol; when the angels sang ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those of good will.’ The God who saves still leaves men and women free. We choose whether to be of good will or not. The Christ child proposes peace, again and again. He gives us the wherewithal to be reconciled and live peacefully with our neighbours; but in the end we choose whether to live in his kingdom, by his values.
There is something greater than hatred and violence. There is love, that humble self-giving love that comes in the shape of the Christmas Babe, the Prince of Peace. He can soften the hardest of hearts. He can convert the most hardened of sinners.
Come Prince of Peace, Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Bishop Paul Donoghue.