And so here we are, drawn to the manger once more by the promise of the angels:
Peace on earth, goodwill to all people whom God loves;
for to us has been born a saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.
And because the promises of God will not fail, and the faithfulness of God endures forever, our hope is born anew for that peace that passes understanding, and the love of God that prevails over all ills, even in the face of the evidence all around us that life still has its ups and downs, to say the least.
Bethlehem has always been a hotbed of political as well as religious activity. The actions of God in the world are not without consequence for the powers and principalities that we erect, our Babel congregations.
Centuries ago, David was born in Bethlehem, and anointed king while there was somebody else already and still wearing the crown. And Luke’s gospel is clear about setting the Christmas story within a clear historical and geopolitical landscape, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Quirinius was governor in Syria, and Herod was the king in Judea.
The birth of a child itself has often been political. It changes the line of succession, whether the succession of power, or wealth, or of affection. The birth of a child wreaks havoc on the settled order of the world, as any parent or relatively close observer knows.
And what more political, and welcome, declaration can there be than the announcement of peace to a people under occupation and oppression; or the anointing of a new king from among a poor and politically helpless people shuffled like pawns on a board by the empire that rules over them.
Two months ago, I visited Bethlehem for the first time. To get there, we passed through militarized zones and the security wall, erected to keep the people of the West Bank in their place. On the wall, amongst the other graffiti, we saw the familiar emblem of the dove that announces peace between God and the world, carrying an olive branch. But this dove, rendered by Banksy, wore a flak jacket, against which the laser sights of a rifle were reflected.
In Manger Square, people thronged. We slipped through the back of a church and down into the grotto, the cave where Jesus was said to have been born. Most pilgrims were lined up in the church next door, more ornate and older, to enter the same shrine, but on the other side of a wall which the Christian denominations had built between them, dividing the site of the birth of Christ as though defining their shares in him.
When we had had our fill of the manger, we headed out to the Shepherds’ Field, where the angels sang their Gloria, and announced peace to the weary and waiting world. Wandering into a chapel, we stumbled into a choir of pilgrims from another far-off land, singing the angels’ song, but slowly, as though it were a prayer, awaiting an answer.
The answer, God tells us at Christmas, the answer does not come from pomp, power, or the proliferation of the potential for violence, the weaponry of war, the mechanisms of might. It does not come from defending our piece of the pie, nor even our piece of Jesus, at the expense of others.The peace of the world is not the Pax Romana of emperor Augustus, nor the capitulation of Herod and Quirinius to its principalities. The hope of the world, God tells us, is found in the love of its creator, shown forth at Christmas in the birth of Jesus, the love of God breaking into the world, demolishing walls between heaven and earth, so that shepherds hear the angels sing; demolishing the divisions between inside and out, Christ the saviour sharing space with the homeless and the helpless; demolishing the thrones of the mighty, by anointing a new king; demolishing our hearts, breaking them open with the cry of a child; committing revolution, not with the blood of battle but with the blood of the birthing room, the complete surrender of love.
With the utter dependence of a newborn infant upon its mother’s blood, its mother’s breast, God wails out, “See how much I have loved you?”
And outside the stable, the politics of Bethlehem and Judea continued to swirl. Pontius Pilate’s wife had her first dream about the stranger who would ruin her husband’s reputation. Herod began his spiralling descent into madness. Augustus wondered whether he had felt some kind of an earthquake, a tremor disturbing his sleep.
Even now, we rebuild walls that God would demolish, and wonder why our prayers for peace were so slow to grow into fruition; but for the shepherds, who heard the angels sing and came quickly to find Jesus for themselves; for Mary, and Joseph, and for their child there was no doubt that God had broken through their defenses, and changed their lives for ever, for good, and for a moment, in the fullness of their hearts, it was enough.
May the coming of Christ this Christmas be enough to break our hearts open to God’s goodness, to demolish the walls of sin that divide us from Christ and from one another, and the love of God bring us once more to our knees, astonished anew at the love that God has for us all, without exception; the good news that the angels bring.