We live in a world in which there are two Bethlehems. The first is the Bethlehem of the Christmas Carol that we have sang tonight.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
The carol was written by the famous Episcopal minister Phillips Brooks who was the Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia in the USA. He had visited the town of Bethlehem in Palestine in 1865 and later wrote the words to this first, poem and then hymn that his organist set to music.
But there is also a second Bethlehem that if visited today would show a very different picture from the one referred to in this carol. Bethlehem today is in the West Bank and remains a predominately Palestinian town that suffers from poverty, unemployment and violence and is accessible only through the check points in the wall of separation. The town remains an important destination for religious pilgrims who visit the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, particularly at this time of year. During the month of December there is much celebration in Bethlehem. A week ago a large Christmas tree was erected in Manger Square, as is done every year with all the accompanying fireworks and festivities.
Like much of Israel and Palestine there is continued conflict over the legitimate rights of people to possess particular religious sites and sacred places and their homelands. Even among the Christians there is argument within the Church of the Nativity, over who and when services can be conducted.
Nevertheless, Bethlehem remains a symbol for the possibility of peace in our world. In the narrative from Lukes gospel there are the glimpses of how peace might emerge and even conquer our world. There is in the mind of the Gospel writer a way and a programme toward genuine and lasting peace on earth that can be accomplished.
The first hints of this in the narrative are seen in the fact that the bringer of peace - Jesus - was born in humility and vulnerability and not in power and prestige. Peace imposed is only the cessation of war, but peace experienced and lived into, is the transformation of the whole creation. Interestingly, Jesus was born into the Roman Empire and that Empire actually saw peace as its number one goal. The Empires motto was Pax Romana "The Peace of Rome." But the message was clear this was the peace that is born from violence, war, Roman victory and then peace would be imposed. When we look around our world today it doesnt seem much has changed.
But we gather this evening to proclaim another way - the messianic story that is symbolized tonight by this town in Palestine. We proclaim that the way of peace is non-violence, justice and then peace. I strongly believe that our prayer for peace in our world is best serve as we work for peace. The message to the shepherds in the field was not quite the way it is translated in the sermon title. A more accurate interpretation is,
and on earth may there be peace to all on whom Gods favour rests.
So while there is Gods gracious gift of peace there is the human response and responsibility to be active as peace-makers. To get with the plan; to be in harmony with this story of the one who came in humility not in power, who practiced the way of peace not violence and whose message of life can transform the human heart they are the ones on whom Gods favour rests. But like the town of Bethlehem itself is small, even insignificant, nevertheless the story continues to whisper its message of peace in our world through faith and hope; love and justice for all humanity today.
The poet Maya Angelou, a favourite on the Oprah Winfrey Show, reflects on Peace and Christmas this way:
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder even than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
implore you to stay awhile with us
so we may learn by your shimmering light
how to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
All the earths tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of
We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
We look at each other, then into ourselves,
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.
Peace is not the single possession and any one nation of one religion. It is the hope of all humanity. It is not only an idea it is also practice and an activity. And so powerfully stated in the prayer of St Francis, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."