Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
It is a wonderful story, the one we tell tonight, a story that lifts the heart, inspiring the creative imaginations of composers, artists, and dreamers. Angels sang, shepherds quaked, kings traveled and Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. From a literary perspective, it is a story so full of contrasts, it fairly bursts with meaning. Mary was a very young woman who was engaged but not married. Elizabeth, her kinswoman and mother of John the Baptist, was an older, married woman who had waited years to have a child. The shepherds, common, working men, came to the manger and stood alongside three scholars from the east. The manger itself is a mark of the humility of the one whose majesty surely would have warranted a room in the inn. The whole story, so familiar to us that it wards off attempts at interpretation or criticism, is a study in contrasts. And why not, for it sets the stage for the life of One whose entire being was a paradox - divine and human, a descendant of King David, yet clearly one of the people’s own, murdered in a most heinous way, yet alive eternally, born a child and yet a king.
A light in the darkness, the Word made flesh, shepherds and kings, Herod and Simeon, in large and small ways, Christmas is a paradox around which our minds can barely reach but for which our hearts yearn. The prophecies from Isaiah that lead us to the stable were written to a people who lived in paradox. They describe a world that all who hear of it know will never be. But it is a vision of the world held in the mysterious mind of God. A ruler will come forth who will be righteous and wise, who will not be seduced by the limited knowledge that comes from sight and sound. Rather, the spirit of understanding will rest lightly on the shoulders of that one who will judge the poor and will decide with equity for the meek of the earth. All nature will change its ways. The lion and the lamb will live together and the lamb will not be afraid for the lion will be gentle and mild. A little child, still nursing at her mother’s breast, will play over the place where poisonous snakes live and will suffer no harm. No one will hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain. No one. All will be safe. Nation will not bring war against nation. Peace will reign. Peace.
And there is one of the greatest, the deepest, the most heart-rending of all contrasts – the prince of peace was born in a violent land and tonight, we welcome him again, into war-weary world. David’s heir was supposed to be a warrior – a fierce, passionate protector of Israel. That was the promise to people who knew sorrow and war and fear. Those were the words delivered to a people who lived everyday with the threat of violence, who were so familiar with the terrain of despair, they scarcely could remember a place that was safe. This was the reassurance given - that a child would come to them who would be a ruler greater than David, who would make the hills low and the valleys lifted up, who would restore them to their rightful place.
It must have been something of a surprise that the promised savior of Israel was so humbly born, that his mother was practically a child herself, that he made his natal bed in a barn. Of course, in the paradox that surrounds all of Scripture, these are words delivered to us too, shocking us, challenging us, demanding of us that we reexamine our assumptions about power and might and war and peace. I know the stories have become so familiar they practically glow and so they have lost their edge, but they were spoken first to a people who were despairing and marginalized and oppressed and powerless, and who lived in darkness. And they are spoken to us again, in the darkness of this night, in the shadow of war, to a people who have not yet learned the ways that make for peace, who still do not understand that the power of God is revealed most vividly in powerlessness and that the will of God is that all will live in peace.
I was very young when I learned the round dona nobis pacem – I don’t remember ever not knowing it. Grant us peace, dona nobis pacem. It’s been in my head these past weeks – months actually, and I’ve been singing it to myself. But then, one day, not long ago, in fact it might have been during those nine days between the presidential speech announcing the troop build-up in Afghanistan and the speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, it came to me how we’re always asking God to grant us peace, give us peace, fill our hearts with peace. As if it were God who is withholding peace from us. Dona Nobis Pacem, God, please. In what would certainly be a contrast of note, I wonder what if we were, instead, promise God that we will give God peace. Instead of dona nobis pacem, what if our prayer were, Domine, pacem offerimus tibi.
We come to this night of contrasts once again seeking the Prince of Peace and wonder if we will ever, will pour children ever, will the world ever know peace. We’ve been here before, haven’t we, celebrating the birth of the Prince of peace.
Let us nurture its tender, fragile life, keep it warm and protected and safe. Let us honor the hope it brings to us and to the world by singing with the angels, Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, peace, peace. And let us make this promise, Domine, pacem offerimus tibi. O God, we give you peace. Amen