A Christmas message from the Bishop of Durham
The Rt Revd Paul Butler shares his festive thoughts.
The sun was rising and the sky was aglow; frost covered the earth. It was glorious. It was so peaceful. The place? Travelling on the train down to London in the ‘Quiet’ coach, looking across to the silhouetted North York Moors.
Peacefulness is something we all long for and love. We long for a peaceful heart and mind. We yearn for a peaceful society, and world.
This Christmas season I have been reflecting a lot on the song that the angels sang to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hills, ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth …’.
I meet so many people who are not at peace. There are those, perhaps on a zero hours contract who are worried that yet again they need to use the food bank. There are those who are worried about the cost and standard of care of their elderly relative. There are young people worried what their ‘friends’ will say or do if they don’t give in to the cyber bullying. Then there are business owners who don’t know whether or not Brexit will work for them. Then again there are those worried about global peace when they see news of North Korea’s latest missile test and Donald Trump’s response. All kinds of things lead us, from all walks of life, to be anxious, fearful and far from at peace.
The Christmas story itself does not appear peaceful – ‘no room’ for a heavily pregnant woman; Roman occupation enforcing registration at the place of birth; Joseph and Mary becoming refugees in Egypt with their infant son Jesus because a tyrant ruler decides to slaughter all the baby boys under two. So what is this ‘peace on earth’?
When the boy Jesus became an adult and a travelling preacher, teacher, healer when he offered people healing he would sometimes say, ‘Go in peace.’ On the night of his betrayal he said to his closest friends and followers, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ This just before they are to be devastated by his arrest, unjust trial and crucifixion. It seems mad.
Yet the witness of Jesus’ followers through the ages is that peace is found in trusting him. Even in the hardest of times. For peace is not about absence; the absence of conflict, or difficulties and trials, or even deep poverty. Peace is about presence; the presence of love; the presence of justice; the presence of God.
I think the shepherds found peace in discovering that their little world of caring for sheep was not all there is. Yet at the same time discovering that they matter and were known and loved. The new baby told them God was real, in action, in control however much it might appear otherwise. The fact that they had been trusted with the news said they mattered to this awesome Almighty God. Mary and Joseph found peace in the midst of the storm because they knew God’s love was at work whatever else appeared to be the case.
Peace is found in discovering the presence of God even in the darkest, hardest places.
So here is my inner longing for peace this Christmas. Knowing that there are so many for whom it will not all be joy and delight for it will be lonely, or sad because of a lost loved one; it will be filled with worry because of the debts; it will be awash with fear because of the unknown it is my prayer that somehow the peace of God that is beyond all, understanding will be found by recalling why we have Christmas at all – the birth of a baby who mysteriously is the one who does bring God’s peace to us all.