Words on the Word

Christmas Midnight Mass

Isaiah 9:1-7: Every cloak rolled in blood is burnt and consumed by fire.
Titus 2:11-14: The Appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Luke 2:1-14: Peace to people of good will.

The word left resounding in our ears at the end of this Gospel is ‘Peace’: ‘Peace to people of good will.’ It is a comforting announcement. All of us wish to have a share of peace. But what is peace? We may think of it as security. We may think that to be peaceful is to feel reassured, to be protected. The iconography of Christmas embodies that notion with its shepherds, gentle kings, and persil-white sheep around the Holy Family. One sometimes hears of people seeking ‘solace in religion’. I take it that they seek, precisely, peace, hoping that the practice of faith may procure it.

Rituals of worship can instil a sense of peace. Going to church can afford a comfort zone, a bubble of difference where everyday concerns do not enter. There is nothing wrong with pursuing peace at this level. But if our search for peace ceases there, we shall be disappointed. For what happens when the organ stops playing and we stand at the door, facing the car park? A cold gust of wind hits us. We remember everything that is not peace: wars, famine, poverty; conflicts at work; friendships that have died; difficulties in our families. We may experience a strange disconnectedness, as if the peace enjoyed at prayer, for seeming real, does not really touch the rest of our busy, messy, sometimes painful lives.

Everyday existence can seem just too distant from our Christian profession of faith. Can both be real? Yes, they can. That is what Christmas proclaims. The Prophet Isaiah describes the world into which our Redeemer would be born. It is a world we know well, held under the sway of oppressors’ rods, where women and men are weary and weighed down, where there are wars and rumours of wars, where blood-clotted relics of violent deaths are a common sight. It was to this world, this world of strife, that the coming of the Prince of Peace was promised. The darkness pierced by the light of Christ’s birth is our night. ‘But’, you might say, ‘what difference does it make? After two thousands years, the world is as brutal, violent, and cold as ever it was?’ The observation is true. We cannot pretend otherwise. If we wish to take Christmas seriously, then, we must adjust our expectations of peace. We must see how peace is presented to us and what it requires from us. Otherwise faith will be a matter of mere sentiment, cut off from fact and serious reflection. Christmas will be little more than a pretty story for children. That is not a satisfactory option for adult believers.

The Child whose birth we celebrate this night is God from God, Light from Light. He became one of us to save us. In Christian terms, ‘to save’ is ‘to set free’. As Isaiah foretold, Christ came to break the rod, not to substitute one rod for another. This is hard to grasp. God is all-powerful. In human terms, power equals dominion. Yet God became man not to be served but to serve. We cannot imagine God appearing more vulnerable than in the form in which we worship him at Christmas. Do we sufficiently take this on board? That Ultimate Power surrenders himself into our hands as the weakest of the weak? God does not impose himself. He extends an invitation. He waits. Extravagant though the statement seems, he is a humble God. This defenceless God asks us not to be afraid. That call is at the heart of Christmas. He asks us to draw near. We can be sure of this: God’s entry into our lives today will be just as discreet as his coming as man in Judah two thousand years ago. He does now what he did then. He lets us see his star. He tells us, by means of some angel or other: ‘Do you wish to know peace, freedom, joy? Go to Bethlehem.’ Then it’s up to us. To find, we must seek. God’s peace springs from a living encounter with him. It presupposes movement, desire, commitment on our part.

Christ is our peace. Yet look at the way his life unfolds. It is an uncomfortable truth: the Cross casts its shadow even within this silent night’s revelation of glory. Our Saviour’s life was laborious, short, marked by failure. He died alone, in ignominy. He knew this tumultuous, uncertain world. He came to transform it from within. God did not become man to make us feel good. He came to save us. His peace is not a state of half-oblivion. It is an active, working thing, a living ferment that silently grows in our lives, then spills over into the lives of others. To know Christ’s peace, we must let it overtake us. We must be filled by it. That involves challenge. It means casting out all that is not peace. It means living peacefully.

Peace shows us how: be merciful; pardon wrong; speak no evil; feed the hungry; comfort the sorrowing; pray at all times; be whole, so as to become holy. God’s peace is the potency of life renewed. If we embrace it, it will carry us. We shall live inwardly in peace, even when worldscrumble without. The Child in the manger presents himself as a proposition. Will we follow him, become like him, live our lives in union with him? He needs only our consent to grant us peace, to cause the heavens to open over our patch of ground, making our lives joyful and light, even when we do have heavy loads to bear. But our Yes must be resolute and free. The Child bids us respond to him as adults. If we do, we shall carry his peace into this world of tears. By grace we shall become a leaven of hope, a light in the dark. So do not be afraid—of anything. If you seek, you will find.