Christians are the people of hope.
This is especially the case during the season of advent and the following celebration of Christmas. Hope is a peculiar thing in this world; without God the violence and death of the world would be all that most humans would have to look forward to. Yet, we find in this season a great joy and a hope for a kingdom of peace and life. The most striking poems of hope come from the Prophets, those lone voices speaking out at the edges of civilization, declaring that another world is possible.
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
For You have broken the yoke of their burden
And the staff across their shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor,
As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s boot used in battle,
And the garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning as fuel for fire.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end
These are the words of the Prophet Isaiah who announced this Kingdom of Peace from of old. The words of the prophets are full of life, of the Holy Spirit. They speak hope to a world “rolled in blood.”
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the lamb together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And will assemble the outcasts of Israel
The prophets spoke of a world without killing, without enmity, without exploitation. A world where the violent are converted to the way of a peaceful child. A world where the outcasts of Israel, and even those gentile foreigners, are brought together. Where race and nationality no longer divide. These things would all be brought about by the Messiah. The Christ. The King. This King would raise a new banner for the nations. A banner of peace. A banner of hope. When this Christ comes, the order of the nations will be overturned. The Kingdom of God turns the way of the world on its head.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In these ancient words we hear their hope and expectation, foretelling of a great wonder. Mary herself continues this tradition, writing the oldest advent hymn in history, the Magnificat. In this hymn she references the prophets of old and continues their prophetic message, singing
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.
‘As He spoke our fathers.’ What did God speak to our fathers? He spoke of casting down the mighty from their thrones, of sending the rich away, of lifting up the lowly, and of filling the poor and the hungry with good things. This is a prophecy of hope. There are so many in this world today who are oppressed by the mighty, who are poor and starving, who live daily in fear of death from violent men. The way of the world is a way of death. And yet Mary, in the tradition of the Prophets, found a “great light” to hope in. This light would destroy the Kingdoms of this world and their way of death.
And then was born, a child. And it was proclaimed by heaven itself,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill among all people.”
This is the proclamation of the Kingdom for which the ancient tradition of hope had waited. Peace on Earth. Good will among all people. And this peace did not come through overthrowing the kings of this world with violence, as many zealots had hoped. It did not come on a fiery chariot. It did not come with a sword. It came in a manger, as a little child. The little child that Isaiah foretold, leading the lion and lamb. The most helpless, weak, meek, and poor child the world had seen. Born as a political refugee under a violent Herod. Born to a poor, teenage, unwed mother. Born to the care of the elderly Joseph, a working man. This King wore only a crown of suffering. He overthrew death by dying rather than by killing. He conquered the violent and dark world, not with more violence as so many from Alexander to Napolean have tried to do, but with simple words, with love, with peace. Just as the prophets foretold, he exalted the poor and lowly. Christ Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, echoing his prophecies,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
This day as I sit, filled with joy of the Nativity services, of the birth of our Lord, of family and of love I think of all those who do not have homes or family or peace. Those who now are clinging for their life in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, and captivity. And I hope for the Christ who has come and will come again to set us all free. I think of the words of the Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many years ago in the face of the darkness of the American Civil War, where brother killed brother,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
With these words I remember that Christ was not born once long ago, but that he is indeed born in us whenever we imitate him, in meekness, in poverty, in righteousness, in peacemaking. And I remember that even after the Christmas season is over, we remain in advent, in the season of hope. An advent that will last until Christ’s Kingdom comes, on Earth as it is in heaven. Until that time we will continue to proclaim the words of hope, as we do every liturgy, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will among all people.”