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The Rev. Dr. John Philip Newell The Rev. Dr. John Philip Newell
John Philip Newell is a poet, a scholar and a teacher. He is currently Companion Theologian for the American Spirituality Centre of Casa del Sol in the high desert of New Mexico.

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Look to the Child

Luke 2:1-14

Christmas Day - Year B

December 25, 2011

The great army of light sings, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace."  Do we believe this heavenly pronouncement? Do we really hope for peace on earth, peace in our lives and families, peace among us as religions and nations?

Last year in an interview the Dalai Lama was asked if he had hope for the future. He laughed and said, 'Of course I have hope. The future has not yet been decided.' Do we believe this? Or do we live as if we believe there is no hope, as if the future has already been determined, as if the fragmentations and divisions of our lives and world are permanent.

Today, throughout the world, we celebrate the birth of the Child of Peace. Even well beyond the Christian household, men and women with their families and children will mark this day with gift-giving and celebration. People and cultures everywhere will hear again the song of hope and will look to the Child.

Shepherds were the first to look, shepherds living in fields. Unlettered, unwashed herders of livestock existing at the margins, far from the power-centers of respectability and prestige. "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace." The shepherds were faithful to what they heard. This is a feature of the Christmas story. It is in fact a vital feature of Christianity, even though we have often failed to believe it--that new vision is born not necessarily among the holders of power. The message of hope emerges among the least significant, among shepherds, among those who could never have imagined that they would be forever remembered in human history.

Is this not where most of us are today, living in the 'fields' of our nations, in places distant from power and prestige? What is the message of hope today that we are to bear for the world and for one another?  And where now are we to look for the Child of Peace? These are questions for us all. For each of us has a role to play in this most essential story, peace on earth. The greatest of songs has been sung. It is still sung at the birth of every child--it is a song of hope. Do we believe it?

In St. Matthew's Gospel, it is not shepherds who come looking to the Child. It is wise men (or kings as legend has it), people of considerable resources and learning, international travellers who know the stars. Yet they also come from outside--from other nations, other religions, other cultures. But all are welcome. Interestingly, the shepherds and wise men never appear again in Gospel accounts of Jesus. Maybe they never heard the rest of the story. Maybe they never became Christians. This is not the point of the Christmas story. Everyone does not need to become a Christian. Everyone, however, does need to look to the Child if there is to be peace on earth.

The wise men bring gifts: gold, a costly stone that speaks of the preciousness of the Child; frankincense, a blessed aromatic that signifies the sacredness of the Child; myrrh, a curative ointment that points to the healing gifts of the Child. Preciousness, sacredness, healing--this is what the magi are looking for. This is what they come to adore. And it is this practice that we are invited to be part of today.

We bow to the Child who was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, the Child who shows us what is at the heart of every child, every man, every woman. But it is not just to the past that we bow. We don't have to look back, nor do we have to look far. For the Child is here and now, in our midst right now, in our family and in every family. The Child lives in the streets of our nation and in the streets of every nation.

And the Child is as close to us as our very soul. Yes, often hidden away under doubts and denials in our lives, but deep within us waiting to be born anew. The question is not where will we find the Child, for the Child is everywhere. The question is whether we will bow to the Child. The question is whether we will serve the preciousness, the sacredness, and the healing energies of God that have been planted deep within the Child, deep within us, deep within every person and nation, every species and life-form.

As we look to the Child today, we remember our own children and the children of our friends and families, wherever they may be. We remember their struggles and joys, their delights and their fears. We love them and deep within our hearts we long to overcome the things that may separate us from them, our distances, our differences. We also remember our brothers and sisters, those with whom we have shared life's journey of laughter and tears. And in remembering them we remember that we are all brothers and sisters, for everything in the universe is interrelated. And we remember our mothers and fathers, our grannies and granddads, those through whom the sacred river of life has flowed to us. These are the people we look to today. They are all born of God. We honour their preciousness, their sacredness, and the deep wellsprings of life and healing that are in them for the world.

Today I especially think of my father. He is frail, passing from us in his mind and memory. And as I name him in my heart, I ask myself what it is of my father that I am now to carry for the world. Part of it is his hope for peace. My father was born off the Shankhill Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the most militant of Protestant communities. He was born in 1922, the same month as the Irish Civil War began. He breathed in the infection of soul that tore apart the life of a whole nation. He knew within himself the hatred that divided North from South, Protestant from Catholic.

But in his mid-eighties my father asked me to take him to the south of Ireland. He had never been before. I arranged a family holiday in County Kerry and on the first Sunday took him into Dingle Town, naively thinking there might be a variety of churches to choose from. We could find only one, St Mary's. So there was I standing outside a Roman Catholic church, feeling slightly apologetic to my Protestant father. "You know, we don't have to go in there," I said. To which he responded, "I want to go to church and I want to go in there." Yet still unsure, I said, "And we don't have to stay for the whole service!" To which he replied, "I want to go to church and I want to stay for the whole service."

The priest on duty that day was a delightful Irish blether, whose warm style was endearing. When it came to the intercessions, he said, "Now we pray for the weather, Lord. It's not been too bad but it could be much better. And we have people visiting from all over the world, Lord, and we'd like them to see our beautiful country, so we pray for the weather, Lord." And on and on he went.

When it came to the distribution of the mass, there was my Belfast-born Protestant father with tears streaming down his face going forward to receive the bread and the wine from a Roman Catholic priest from the south of Ireland. There is hope for the world. Never in my life could I have imagined that this would happen.

What are the divisions in our lives and communities that we cannot imagine being healed? What is the hatred between religions and nations that we fatalistically assume to be eternal? The future has not yet been decided. Do we believe this? If so, let us turn our creed into deed, our belief into action. Let us reshape the future together.

I invite us today to hear again the song of hope. I call on us as nations to look for the preciousness of the Child in every nation. I call on us as religions to seek the Child's sacredness in every religion. And I call on us as families to be faithful to the healing gifts of the Child in every family. This is the way of love, the way of transformation. Only the power of love will save us, not our love of power. Only love-force will create peace on earth, not brute-force.

The love-force of God is our true soul-force. Shall we open ourselves to what we could never have imagined happening? The Child of Peace can be born again. We carry within us the precious gold of life. We carry within us the sacred fragrance of God. We carry within us the healing salve of love. A new salvation can be born. Do we believe it? If so, let us live it together. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace."

A prayer from Praying with the Earth:

Glory be to you, great creating Spirit

Who shines in distant stars beyond numbering

And on earth, peace.

 

Glory be to you, great creating Spirit

Who sings and wings in birds on high

And on earth, peace.

 

Glory be to you, great creating Spirit

Whose thunder shapes the shining firmament

And on earth, peace

 

Glory, glory, glory and on earth, peace.

 

(from John Philip Newell's Praying with the Earth: A Prayer Book for Peace, Eerdmans 2011)

 


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