“Where are you from?” Pilate put this question to Jesus when the Lord told him “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
It is St John and his Gospel who answers that question. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt (pitch His Tent)” John 1:1-14.
The Christmas message changes all God has come amongst us to give new meaning and destiny to human life.
This Christmas revelation has a huge impact on us as persons. It makes us children of God. “For all who received Him, who believed in His Name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of flesh nor of the will of men, but of God” John 1:12
The question of human ancestry and race must now subside; it is time to understand our true origins. Jesus gives us a new origin. He brings us to birth from God. If the message of Christmas were to really impact on us, we would see each other as universal brothers and sisters. Jesus came to bring peace and unity; our world today is built in competition and division.
I met during the year with the Thswane Ecumenical Forum. In November we meditated on what our message for Christmas should say. Having shared our thoughts, Prof Kritzinger finalized our statement. This is what we would like to say.
God for us in Jesus Christ – His miracles and preaching, His cross and resurrection – is based on God with us. For thirty years Jesus lived in Nazareth and became part of the people of Israel, identifying with the richness of their faith and culture but also with their daily struggles and their suffering under Roman imperial rule. The Word became flesh and lived amongst us, sharing our humanity, in all its beauty and all its brokenness, before doing something for us in His public ministry. This is God’s gift to us at Christmas. God’s unfailing and loving presence by our side, in our hearts, in our families, in our communities. So, this is the first challenge facing us at Christmas. The call to live with God, not to do things for God but to live before God with open hearts, receptive minds, and willing hands, like the Virgin Mary; welcoming God’s plan and rejoicing in God’s promises, even if the costs are high. So, this is the first surprise of Christmas. Our struggle to overcome the poisonous power of greed, selfishness, and corruption does not start with anything we do; it starts with opening our lives to God’s gracious presence with us, in deep wonder and gratitude.
Such a receptive and grateful sense of “being with God” then shakes us up and mobilises us to live a life of “being with” people; not doing things for (or on behalf of) others, but genuinely with them; listening to their stories, sharing their pain, struggling with them for justice and freedom, advocating with them for recognition and respect. In this way, we become more than recipients of God’s presence; we become active agents of peace, as we journey with God and with other people.
In 1 John 3:8, we read that the reason why the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil. God became human in Jesus Christ to join us in our life-and –death struggle against the evil forces that destroy human lives. Christmas is not a fairy tale to make us kind and gentle for a few days in the year. Christ came into the world so that we may have life in all its fullness (John 10:10). He came to bring “peace on earth,” as the angels sang in the fields of Bethlehem (Luke 2:14), but the second surprise of Christmas is that God does not offer peace to the world cheaply, like a Santa Claus dishing out presents. It is dangerous to talk glibly about peace, because we distort the good news when we raise false expectations among people or piously ignore the social injustices that are making peace impossible for them. The warning of the prophet Jeremiah is pertinent: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious – ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
If we accept God’s message of peace at Christmas we become agents of peace ourselves, which means that we do not stick plasters on the deep wounds that people have, but share their pain and work with them to remove the underlying causes of their suffering. And, as both the Magi from the East and the Holy Family discovered, that can sometimes mean dodging the bullets of the powerful who feel threatened by the message that the Messiah has been born and that God’s Kingdom of justice and peace is coming near. This is the second surprise of Christmas: the peace of God doesn’t fall on us like soft rain from above; it is like a flood from behind that pushes us to participate in God’s costly mission of peace-making among the wounded. And by becoming part of God’s movement of peace and justice, our own wounds are gradually healed.
The final surprise of Christmas is that the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus – and thereby the first agents of God’s peace movement on earth – were not the ones we would suspect. They were not the religious leaders or prominent citizens of the time, but people at the bottom and of society (like Mary and Joseph, devout but poor believers), people on the margins of society (like the shepherds) and people beyond the boundaries of the religion of Israel (like the Magi, who were astrologers from Persia or India). It is by gathering together unexpected strangers and unpredictable saints that God’s movement of peace, justice and joy is set in motion in our world. It is into this surprising and exciting movement that we are invited anew this Christmas.
I come to wish you the blessings of Christ’s presence this Christmas; I pray that He will accompany you in 2018.
Yours faithfully in Christ,
(Signed) +William Slattery OFM
Archbishop of Pretoria
17 December 2017