Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Luke 10:21-24
We have been having some very beautiful evenings in Rome the past week or so. There are few clouds and it gets dark early. There are lots of stars in the winter sky including that big one (Venus? the Christmas star?) just below the moon. On the footpaths the few remaining dead leaves glisten in the moonlight. Living here one is restricted to imagining the frost in lands further north, frost settling for another night.
Presiding over these quiet winter evenings is the moon. It contributes significantly to our peaceful nightscape although it cannot itself really be described as a peaceful place. This is because there is no life on the moon. Where there is no life there is no struggle, or anxiety, there is no need, or threat, or fear. If the moon is peaceful then it is the peace of the graveyard, the kind of peace found in dead places and not the full, rich, reconciled, healed, and justice-based peace that the Bible calls shalom.
The earth is not at all like the moon. Here there is life, many kinds of living things, and so there is much struggle, and anxiety, there is need, and threat, and fear. Where there is life there is the possibility of it being damaged, wounded, and even lost. Living things are aware of their surroundings and must keep watch and be attentive. Living things are always anxious or at least alert and they are always needy, for food, shelter, or a mate. Where there is life there is also threat and fear, even (perhaps especially) from other living things of the same kind.
Today's first reading paints a picture of paradise, the restoration of all things to an original peaceful cohabitation, the lamb entertaining the wolf, the calf and the young lion resting together, the children safe with no more hurt, no more harm. The great, groaning act of giving birth is over, and the creation settles into the shalom which comes with salvation.
But before that the earth, in particular the human world, is a place that needs justice, some kind of management and balancing of struggle and anxiety, of need and threat and fear. Inevitably, we contend with each other. We jostle with each other for food and influence. We are aware of each other as potential partners and friends and collaborators but also as different, as rivals, as perhaps not fully trustworthy, not really ‘on my side’.
The human world remains a place where we must strive for justice although justice often seems to be beyond us. Where people take action to restore or introduce justice they often end up doing some fresh injustice. Where one kind of exclusion, discrimination and inequality is removed, fresh kinds of exclusion, discrimination and inequality appear in their place.
Jesus lived in Palestine, the place where Europe, Africa and Asia meet. It was a key province of the Roman Empire, guarding the great trade routes to the East and to the South. For centuries it had been fought over by Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans. Even today ‘Palestine’ presents the knottiest of human problems. It is the place where Jews, Christians and Muslims struggle to live together in justice and in peace. There are many other places where cultures, languages, races, and religions meet and where they must find out how to live together. But ‘Palestine’ is symbolic of them all, in particular of the difficulties they all face.
Jesus was born into this knot in the world’s history and geography. We believe him to be the Messiah promised in the scriptures, the one who has initiated God’s reign of shalom. The word means peace but not just in the sense of no fighting. It means a rich, reconciled, healed, justice-based peace, the peace that comes with the Messiah and is won, as it turns out, through His rejection, death and resurrection. ‘He himself will be peace’, the prophet Micah tells us. ‘In his days justice will flourish and peace till the moon fails’, says the great messianic Psalm 72, speaking about the kingdom of a future son of the House of David. Through him the earth has been filled with the knowledge of the Lord.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the first book to be called Politics and in it he says that human community and civilization are built on communication. It is by talking and listening that we recognize and establish justice. Thomas Aquinas liked the idea: ‘communication builds the city’, he says, commenting on Aristotle’s text. It is part of human greatness that we understand the need for justice and can work together to try to build it. And we build it through listening and talking.
The Word became flesh in Palestine in the first century. Into the knot of human struggle and anxiety, of need and threat and fear, God entered to speak His Word. Jesus is God’s contribution to the human conversation about justice and peace. We will find peace, he says, only by loving our enemies. People laughed at this, of course, but he has shown us that it is the only way: you must love one another as I have loved you. We celebrate his birth because he is our hope. He is the light shining in this world’s darkness. With the birth of this Child the time has arrived in which justice has begun to flourish and his peace grows till the moon fails.