Christmas and "Peace on Earth"

Justice on Earth, part 1

A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired on ABC on Thu Dec 6 this year. Perhaps some of you saw it. I haven’t seen it in years, but I watched it every year when I was a kid – and I remember it well. Charlie Brown and that dinky little tree he gets – the Vince Guaraldi music. And the speech Linus gives to say what Christmas is all. That recitation was strangely moving to me. I didn’t believe it any more than I believed in Santa Claus, but Linus’ voice speaking those words of Elizabethan English was a wonder. I was mesmerized.

Charlie Brown says: "I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

Linus says: "Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about."

The audio goes silent for an unheard-of 7 seconds while we watch Linus walk out to the middle of the stage. "Lights please,” he says, and a spotlight forms on Linus while the rest of the stage darkens.
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
Then the audio goes dead silent again, this time for 10 seconds, as we watch Linus pick up his blanket and walk back over to Charlie Brown, where he says, “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

On earth, peace, good will toward men. Our question today is: What are your hopes for peace and justice in the new year, and how will those hopes affect your life?

The first year A Charlie Brown Christmas aired was 1965 – I was 7 years old. In 1972, when I was 13, the Ms. Magazine cover of the December issue was filled with the large-print words, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to People.” So I learned to say it that way. Later, I’d say, "Peace on Earth, good will to all."

Linus was reciting from the Gospel of Luke, King James Version. Later I learned that no original copies of Luke have been preserved. The oldest surviving documents we have are third-generation copies of copies, with no two completely identical. Some of them say, “on earth, peace, goodwill toward people.” Others say, “on earth, peace toward people of goodwill.” It’s the difference between saying “Peace for everybody, good will for everybody” and saying, “peace for the good people.” The New Revised Standard Version gives, “On earth peace among those whom God favors” – with a footnote that “other ancient authorities read ‘peace, goodwill among people.”

At the time Luke wrote his gospel, it was about a century after the birth of Jesus – a century after that night that he wrote that angels proclaimed to shepherds, “peace on earth.” He already knew it hadn’t happened. Now it’s been over 2000 years. How’s that “Peace on Earth” thing working out for us?

Unitarians have a tradition of noticing that we haven’t lived up to the angelic promise. In 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the Carol, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." He noticed that the angels had sung about peace on earth, but we had failed to make peace happen.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Contrast that with "Angels We Have Heard on High," also written in the mid-19th century, but by a Catholic bishop. It is pure triumph and celebration, stretching "Gloria" over 18 bouncy syllables. Quite different from the Unitarian attention to the unfulfilledness of the promise. And Edmund Hamilton Sears was no outlier among Unitarians. The Unitarian poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's mid-19th-century carol, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day" also noticed the disconnect between the angelic promise and the earthly reality.
"For hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
good will to men,"
wrote Longfellow.

So I challenge you, my fellow UUs, and challenge myself, to take the words, "Peace on Earth," to heart, to reflect on what we've done in the past year to build peace, and what we will commit to do in 2019, and I do so standing in a long tradition. We do not merely stand on the shoulders of giants -- we are carried by them. We are born aloft and forward by the doings and sufferings of 200 years of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists thinking hard and living passionately the quest to love this world, ourselves, and each other as we ought to be loved.

This year, as we come again to the Christmas season, and once more reflect on the mythic tale penned by an unknown author we call Luke and voiced by child actor Chris Shea as the cartoon character Linus, we cannot avoid noticing that another year is coming to its close, and we have still not found our way to hush the noise of battle strife – have still not harked to what the herald angels sang.

But we could. We know we could, because, very slowly, we are. Yes, the horrors continue. Fighting in Yemen is leading to mass starvation. The civil unrest in Haiti, the fighting in Syria. Even with all that, it’s better than it has been.

Archeologists estimate that in many past societies, from pre-historic times up to the birth of Jesus, more than 10% of deaths were the result of one person killing another. Now it’s a lot less. Scientific American last year reported:
“Most scholars agree the percentage of people who die violent war-related deaths has plummeted through history; and that proportionally violent deaths decline as populations become increasingly large and organized.”
The challenge to us is to take the words, "Peace on Earth," to heart. And also Justice on Earth.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Justice on Earth"
See next: Part 2: Environmental Issues Are Race and Class Issues
Part 3: A Kind of Trinitarian-ish Logic Comes to Unitarians

No comments:

Post a Comment