Much of our Christmas tradition and, for that matter, much of our Christian tradition is built around the notion of good news. In fact, the word Gospel could just as accurately be rendered “good news.” And so, on this Christmas morning, we can rejoice that we are hearers of good news… of glad tidings. But while the news may be good, it’s not simple and it’s not easy. So, let’s savor this good news for a bit.
Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is certainly one of the most beautiful and best loved passages in all scripture. It has long inspired poets and composers, painters and sculptors, and all manner of artists. It even seems to inspire cold hearted businesspeople interested in our cash more than our eternal salvation… but this is a day of joy and hope, so we hope that the joy will warm their hearts as well…
The coming of Jesus into this world is a very complex event with even more complex emotions. What could be sweeter than the sound of angels and choirs of angels singing “glory to God and on earth, peace.” Is there anything we long for more than peace on earth? But the coming of Jesus, of God in Human Flesh into the world is a revolutionary event, not a peaceful event. God’s peace is totally intertwined with God’s justice. We can’t have one without the other. And we are far short of justice.
In this year’s Advent time, Father Daniel Barrigan has been on my mind. Who you might ask…
Father Berrigan was a Jesuit Religious, a priest, and prominent peace activist during the Vietnam War, among other things. It was a tense and volatile era in which many in the US lost faith in government, in institutions, in the church, and in society. While many lost faith, new faith and new hope were being born in the civil rights movement led by folks like Martin Luther King, Rosa McCauley Parks, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Daniel Barrigan.
At the height of the anti-war movement Daniel Barrigan, along with several others, broke into a weapons manufacturing facility and damaged weapons. They were arrested and sent to prison. It was Barrigan’s second trip to prison, something of a record for a Jesuit…
In case you are wondering, here is why I have been thinking of Father Barrigan the lead up to Christmas.
I had a chance to meet Father Barrigan and hear him address a group of university students shortly after I entered the Order of the Holy Cross. He talked about his life and especially about his life of activism. He described what he saw as the way the world could be. And one of the students asked him, given his remarkable vision of what could be, how was he able to live in the world the way it was.
His clear and simple answer: As a Jesuit he lived in a community that, while far from perfect, gave him a glimpse of what heaven might be like – the beloved community of heaven. And if he could have a glimpse now and then, that was enough to keep going. In the same way, welcoming Jesus into our world gives us a glimpse of God’s Kingdom.
Someone else asked Barrigan what caused him and his companions to try to destroy a highly secure weapons facility. Well, he explained, he had helped form an interfaith group to read scripture together. There were Jews, Christians, and Muslims in this little study group, so they confined their reading to the part of scripture they shared, the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. They started reading Isaiah.
In fact, he said, they never went beyond Isaiah. Having read Isaiah together in love and faithfulness, they heard the profit’s voice. It became clear that they couldn’t just read Isaiah, they had to live Isaiah. That led to the attack on the weapons plant. It was the only reasonable thing to do, according to Father Barrigan.
In Advent we spend a fair amount of time with Isaiah. We first learn of Emmanuel, God-with-Us in the words of Isaiah. The idea that God will send us a savior in the form of a child comes from Isaiah. The identity of Jesus as the Prince of Peace is rooted in Isaiah. The notion that God seeks to reconcile all people, all races together into the Godly Family is revealed in Isaiah – a notion which challenges a long-held tradition that God really only wanted to save the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people.
Seven centuries passed between Isaiah’s time and the birth of Jesus in human flesh. And more than twenty centuries have passed between the birth of Jesus and our time. Yet still, Isaiah’s voice in Advent helps prepare us for today; for God to be among us in the flesh.
In those twenty-seven centuries, peace has not come, and God’s justice has not prevailed. So, God’s work is not done… our work is not done. Perhaps we have lived through twenty-seven centuries of Advent… in which case we will need more candles for the Advent wreath.
If I truly believed that we have been waiting twenty-seven centuries for the arrival of Messiah to bring peace into the world I would not be having a very joyful Christmas. But one of the things I am beginning to understand, or at least accept, is that God’s time does not move in a single file line like our human concept of time. Jesus came into the world and Jesus comes into the world and Jesus will continue to come into our world. It’s not a neat and linear process. Jesus doesn’t arrive once and for all in Bethlehem.
Day by day, Jesus comes to us whoever we are and wherever we are. Jesus brings us a profound gift: like Daniel Barrigan we get a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom, a kingdom of justice and peace, might look like. We may not see it perfectly, or as St Paul says, we see it in a mirror dimly. Still, even a dim, mirrored glimpse of paradise is beautiful beyond words.
But here is one other thing that we know about God. God works, most of the time, through human agency. We are God’s hands, God’s mouthpieces, God’s servants. Think back to the book of Exodus when the Israelites are at war with the Amalekites. When Moses has his hands up, Israel prevails. But if Moses lets his hands down, the Amalekites prevail. I used to think this was a really stupid story – why should it make any difference where Moses’ hands are? But what the story really tells us is that God works, whenever possible, through human hands. Where Moses’s hands are is the entire story. And so, too, where our hands are matters a great deal to God.
Jesus may come to bring peace to this world, but it will happen through our hands… we must be the agents of building God’s peace. In twenty centuries, we have not succeeded. Some might call that failure… but I think Daniel Berrigan would remind us that we’re just not there yet… the work is not finished, but it is not a failure.
One of the gifts of Volmoed is that it gives us a glimpse of what Heaven could be like. It’s not a perfect glimpse. It may be a bit distorted in the mirror of our vision, but it is a glimpse. And the community of Volmoed, like the community of St Benedict’s Priory, and like Daniel Barrigan’s Jesuit community, also gives us glimpse of heaven.
I believe for everyone who gathers around a manger and says something like glory to God and peace on earth, that a further glimpse is given.
My hope and my prayer for those gathered in faith this Christmas morning is that we can savor the glimpse we have been given. We don’t need to rush out to build peace on earth right this moment. That will come. We need to celebrate the good news that we have learned. As Jesus tells us, when the bridegroom is with us, we must celebrate. And having heard and seen the good news we need to let it find a place in our hearts.
But still, the work of Christmas, bringing the good news of Jesus to the world, is work that God gives us to do, each in our own way. We savor God’s love given to freely to us today so that it can sustain us tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that as we work to build God’s Kingdom on this earth.