“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to [all] on whom his favour rests” (Luke 2:14) will be read and re-read in our places of worship this Advent season as well as sung with gusto, sometimes glibly, to the words of Henry Longfellow: “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.”
Oh, how we need these words and music of hope at the end of 2013 when the nightly news brings us anything but a world of peace and tranquility: killings continuing in Syria, the police brutally beating protesters in Ukraine, Thailand’s downward spiral into citizen unrest, and sabres rattling between China and Japan over the ownership of a small, uninhabited island group in the East China Sea.
As we read the Lukan passage and sing the familiar Christmas carols to this noisy, violent backdrop, are we escaping to an ancient idyllic time romanticized by the gospel writers mesmerized by the coming of Israel’s messiah? Can we possibly apply the angels’ song to surprised shepherds on that peaceful Judean hillside to our own strife-riven world? Or are we just seeking refuge in some ancient folklore for a seasonal respite?
Faithful followers of Jesus could be excused for some cynicism at the end of this tumultuous year, but this is all the more reason to enter once again into the joy and hope of the season, but with a new appreciation that joy and hope are needed more than ever in our troubled world. For it is this time of year, at this time of history, that we remind ourselves again that our God reigns despite the surrounding despair that often engulfs us.
Yet, as an ancient story, it is hardly idyllic, or even romantic. While we have embellished this revolutionary event with the soft symbols of a baby in a manger, wise men bringing expensive gifts and shepherds leaning on their staffs while parents glow in the joy of a birth, the back story is far more dark and complicated.
God’s chosen Israel was living under oppressive Roman rule. Their own Jewish leaders, more concerned with the letter of Torah than in seeing the larger narrative of the coming Messiah as foretold by the prophets, were not prepared to accept the humble son of a carpenter as “God made flesh.”
The juxtaposition of peace and unrest are familiar parts of the story. The temptation is to romanticize the Joseph/Mary narrative and to overlook the fact that the ushering in of God’s reign in Bethlehem depends a lot on us who have committed ourselves to being God’s agents for peace in this unredeemed world.
We are now first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom (see “Discipleship as citizenship) and as such are commissioned to sing the angels’ song over and over again. Or as the editors of the newly released Herald Press book, Revolutionary Christian Citizenship, say in their introduction: “As Israel’s Messiah, [Jesus] claims the title of king and announces that God’s reign is finding fulfilment in him.
“He then gathers a community around himself and shows them how to relate properly to God, one another and wider society in all of its social and political dimensions. . . . Rather than confront rival kingdoms with violent revolution, he claims that God’s kingdom is manifest in service rather than dominion, vulnerability rather than coercion, love rather than fear. Jesus teaches his followers how to approach enmity, power, conflict, money and community in ways that are basic to any genuine political order.”
New multi-cultural column
Beginning in the new year, Canadian Mennonite will feature, on a rotating basis, a column in which New Canadians will give voice to the views and news of Mennonite Church Canada’s emerging church plants, representing the growing edge of our denomination. Brian Quan, pastor of the English-speaking Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church, leads off with the first such column on Feb. 17, replacing the New Order Voice of Winnipeg’s Aiden Enns, who is retiring as a columnist after eight years. We thank him for his challenging, sometimes contrarian views that kept us on our toes as faithful disciples. He also served on Canadian Mennonite’s board and was a national and Manitoba regional editor for Mennonite Reporter in earlier years. He continues as an occasional contributor.