“The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night”
These words from the Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, highlight the incomparable meaning for all of us of the incarnation of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The significance of the birth of an infant Jewish boy in a small town in Roman-occupied Palestine two thousand years ago, may not have been noticed by the great and powerful at the time, but came to be recognised as so exceptional that the most widely used calendar separates the history of mankind into before and after that event. Indeed for us, as Christians, it must be seen as a cosmic event, because this infant was Himself the creator of the universe come to dwell among His creation. From our first ancestors, in their primitive awareness of the God who created them, through successive revelations of His purpose, right to the consummation of the age, mankind’s destiny is conjoined with the Eternal Son of God.
The promise of his long-awaited coming was cherished by those to whom God had unfolded His purpose. We have heard how the Apostle St. Paul reminds the Galatians of the promises made to Abraham, which were fulfilled in Christ and in which we, as the children of God, who have put on Christ in our baptism, become sons of God by adoption.
The angels who proclaimed His birth to the shepherds, declared “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The New International version of the Bible translates that as “peace to men on whom his favour rests”, so are we to understand this means that God’s favour is shown to the totality of mankind or as the English Standard version would suggest, only “peace to men with whom he is pleased.” We know that God desires the salvation of all and that the Gospel message, also called the “Gospel of peace”, is to be proclaimed to “all mankind” and is not for a chosen few, but we also know that God will judge those who choose evil rather than good and that they cannot enjoy His peace. To His apostles he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you: I do not give to you as the world gives.”
The sad truth is that the world does not give peace. Indeed, despite the best efforts of world-wide bodies such as the League and later, the United Nations, it permanently eludes us. It seems almost alien to the natural condition of man and since the beginning of time, enmity and strife, whether domestic or between nations, has brought death, division and desolation in its wake. The historian Plutarch tells us that The Temple of Janus in ancient Rome had “double doors, which they call the gates of war; for the temple always stands open in time of war, but is closed when peace has come”. In the whole history of the Roman Empire they were probably closed only nine times. How many wars have we seen in our own lives ? With our global awareness of what is happening everywhere, can we ever find a time when our world is at peace ?
I recall celebrating the midnight liturgy in our Bournemouth Church on Christmas Eve 1989 as the Roumanian people were throwing off the brutal regime of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and our praying that peace and freedom would come to our brethren there. By God’s grace it did, but on Christmas day Ceausescu and his wife were summarily executed – repaying evil for evil – a rough justice where mercy would have been more appropriate to the day. It was St. Cyprian of Carthage who wrote, “The world is soaked with mutual blood. When individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is called a virtue when it is done in the name of the state. Impunity is acquired for crimes not by reason of innocence but by the magnitude of the cruelty.”
This year of grace we celebrate the Lord’s Nativity when the ancient biblical lands are more than unusually unsettled. That little town of Bethlehem and the Palestinian territories cry out for justice. We deplore the aggressive establishment of settlements by an intransigent Israeli state, but who can condone the charter of a corrupt and bloodthirsty Hamas which calls for the killing of Jews ? In Egypt we have seen the disappointment of a peaceful Revolution, which overthrew a corrupt regime, only to fall captive to narrow religious zealots who seek to promote their own interests rather than the common good. Blood has been shed and we may expect that more will follow, because in that divided society there can be no peace.
Most of all we grieve for our brethren in Syria, torn apart by unspeakable savagery. We cannot deny that the authoritarian Ba’athist regime was built on foundations of violence and merciless bloodshed, but for a generation it had offered stability and promoted a society in which diverse faiths practised their religion without hindrance. That has now been destroyed and the ancient indigenous Christian communities, founded by the apostles and their disciples, which have co-existed alongside Islam and other faiths for centuries, are fleeing for their lives. All churches have been damaged. Christian communities have been targeted and threatened. Yesterday the Daily Telegraph reported that the independent British think-tank Civitas, The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, had warned that Christianity faces being wiped out of the “biblical heartlands” in the Middle East because of mounting persecution of worshippers, especially in facing the rise of militant Islam. It also spoke of “the blind spot displayed by governments and other influential players [which] is causing them to squander a broader opportunity. Religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally.”
Yet our current Coalition government, which prides itself on its promotion of civil liberties, equality and justice, both at home and abroad, has shown incredible short-sightedness in its response to the threat to Christian communities in the Middle-East. By supporting the so-called National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, proved to be dominated by Islamist elements and financed by external regimes, our government has effectively abandoned all possibilities to promote dialogue with both sides and has allied us to those who are destroying the significant Christian minority which has been there since apostolic times. Unlike Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, I cannot consider what he regards as Mr. Cameron’s “overtly Christian tone” in his Christmas address as being anything more than hollow words, when government policy doesn’t merely show casual indifference to the fate of our Christian brethren in Syria, but actively undermines them. In 1876 that great Liberal British Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, responding to the Ottoman atrocities against the Bulgarian Christians, wrote, “That such things should be done once is a damning disgrace to the portion of our race which did them; that the door should be left open to the ever so barely possible repetition would spread that shame over the world.” Our deputy prime minister, Mr. Clegg, claims to stand in that Liberal political tradition but where is his voice in support of those communities?
Conscious of our own impotence in the face of such momentous events, we may ask what we can do. First we must pray fervently, not only for those suffering but also for their persecutors, that the Lord may soften their hearts. Continued friendship and humanity between Muslims and Christians, who have lived alongside one another all their lives, offers some hope for the future. The late Pope Shenouda in the face of injustices shown to Coptic Christians repeatedly stated, “Terrorism has nothing to do with religions, as religions call for virtue and peace”. Secondly, we must call on our politicians to take active measures to ensure the protection of Christian communities and to encourage all Christians to offer both practical and prayerful support to the victims of Syria’s current chaos.
The Lord assures us, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew V: 9) but that is not merely a call to seek peace externally, but to bring us to an inner peace, so that we may become instruments of His peace. The source of that true “peace of God which passeth all understanding” is Love. St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us that those who imitate the Divine love must in all their doings cast out hatred, exterminate envy, banish strife, take away hypocrisy and extinguish from within resentment of injuries smouldering in the heart. “For as light follows the departure of darkness, thus also these evil things are replaced by the fruits of the Spirit: by charity, joy, peace, benignity, magnanimity, all the good things enumerated by the Apostle … [the] man is called a peacemaker … who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature.” So then, we are not entirely helpless, because the remedy to this malady of mankind begins with each of us. “Physician, heal thyself” counsels us to attend to our own defects if we are to bring healing to others. Today we also heard the Apostle St. John tell us that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” and also testifies that “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
Our hymn picks up this message with its refrain,
“But in the world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.”
 Galatians III: 15-IV: 18
 Luke II: 14
 Romans X: 15, Ephesians VI: 5
 John XIV: 27
 I Peter III: 9
 To Donatus, chapter 6
 Daily Telegraph, 23 December 2012, “Christianity threatened in the Bible lands.”
 The Lord’s Prayer & the Beatitudes.
 Luke IV: 23
 1 John IV: 8 & 12