Peace on Earth

In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?

Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.

When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.

Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.

When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?

What happened to the promise of peace?

There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:

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!”

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).

Killing all the children

What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?

Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from King of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.

It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.

Shalom incarnated

In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.

First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.

But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.

In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.

We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

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It’s Beginning to Look… a Tiny Bit Like Christmas

It’s the second day of December. And it’s the second day of summer. And here in Australia, the latter is more evident. I am approaching my 7th holiday season in Sydney, and while this is now the single location in which I have celebrated Christmas the most often, this year is not quite the same.

Usually, I have been in Denmark for the build-up period, experiencing autumn and winter and rueing the dark and rain. The joys of travelling to the middle of summer at an instant (if 24 hours of flying time qualifies as an instant) are obvious: no more cold, getting wet not from incessant rain but from gentle waves at a sunny beach.

This time, though, I have been in Australia all through winter and spring, and summer feels quite in place. Christmas, however, does not. Sure, Christmas trees are up, both in our home and on streets and plazas. Holiday shopping is well underway for a lot of people. On Sunday, we’ll be going the Messiah at the Sydney Opera House. Things are gearing up for the festive season, but it does seem a bit awkward in the heat.

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Which once again highlights the brilliance of early church fathers when they chose to merge the pagan midwinter’s feast with celebrating the birth of Jesus. Light is best appreciated in light of darkness. Grace is best appreciated in light of condemnation. It’s easier to see a great light if you’re walking in darkness.

I will enjoy a long and warm summer. And don’t get me wrong, I am looking forward to Christmas. But I’m finally beginning to see that more distinct seasons have at least one advantage: it gives you something to look forward to. For now, living in the moment seems almost too easy.

The People that Walked in Darkness

In many ways Denmark is a nice place to live. Winter is not one of them, however. For the last many weeks, it seems, the sun has set before 4 p.m., and risen whenever it feels like it – that amounts to perhpaps once or twice a week.

So Christmas is a welcome celebration. Certain obscure theological purists object: Jesus was born in spring, not in winter, so celebrating his birth at midwinter is a heathen tradition. So what? Christ coming into this world is more of a turning point than winter solstice will ever be. Combining the two was a stroke of genius by whoever did it. Elijah says it clearly in this well-known passage:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Elijah 9:1)

This passage is also a well-known Aria in Händel’s Messiah, which I heard tonight with my extended family. The choir Camerata in their annual performance in Copenhagen’s Holmens Kirke – probably the best in town, and this year was no exception.

Christmas is finally here. Jesus has been born, and light is returning to the world (including Denmark). It is time to celebrate both. Happy holidays!

Christmas in Vienna

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My very good friend Kamilla is in Vienna, studying for one term. I was lucky enough to find extremely cheap tickets from SkyEurope, so last weekend I spent three days in Austria’s beautiful capital.

And Vienna proved to have the perfect mixture of classic grandeur, laid-back charm, and Christmas celebrations that are large-scale but very authentic and not too tacky.

In a couple of days I managed to drink melange at Café Central, visit Hundertwasserhaus, do a bit of Christmas shopping, visit Christkindl (Christmas market) at Schloss Schönbrun and hear Bellini’s Norma performed at the Staatsoper.

All in all, a very nice weekend. Vienna is well worth a visit, especially at this time of year. (There’s a few pictures from my trip on Flickr.)

Christmas Shopping

I don’t particularly like shopping for Christmas presents, but last night I spent several hours doing just that. It’s not that I don’t like Christmas – and of course, giving presents to people is a nice sentiment, too. Walking around in streets and shopping centres all decorated for the holidays is nice. But the stress and pressure of it all take away a lot of the fun.

The problem is, it’s so insitutionalised. It is that one time of year that we give each other presents. We know pretty well every year who we will give to and receive from, and also the average amount expected. So every year it’s a rush to find something within that price range that will hopefully make the recipient genuinely happy, not just thanks-for-the-gesture happy. Sometimes it works, and I hope I do have some good things picked out this year, but sometimes – let’s be honest – some of it is really crap. So why do it at all?

It’s easier with children. Perhaps my cynicism is due to the fact that there hasn’t been any kids in the family for a while. Fortunately, my brother and his wife are about to change that.

But if it’s true that it’s not really about the presents but about what they represent, wouldn’t it be better to leave it aside at Christmas? Because of the traditions, it can be hard to distinguish whether you mean it or not.

Instead of all the Christmas stuff, maybe we should start giving presents to people we love at times they don’t expect – all year round. Surprising someone is, after all, a much greater gesture than just conforming to tradition.

Messiah

No Christmas season is complete without hearing Handel’s Messiah. Yesterday I went with my parents to the beautiful Town Hall, Sydney, where Sabine was part of the mass choir at the 66th annual presentation. This was the Sunday afternoon matinée.

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The performance was in many ways different than what you usually hear in continental Europe. It is an English tradition to invite pretty much anyone willing to participate in the choir. This makes for an impressive both sight and sound, even if they are not up to par on the speedier parts. In “Hallelujah”, the tenors went astray like sheep and for several bars the whole choir was quite confused. Overall, though, the choir gave quite a good performance.

Conductor Philip Chu (who is no older than I am) seemed confident and engaged. The choir being amateurs, he naturally focused much of his conducting on them. Fortunately, the orchestra played as they should. And organist Peter Kneeshaw, who was playing his 25th Messiah in Town Hall, added a sense of calm and grandeur to the setting. Adding organ to the Messiah is uncommon in Denmark, but with an instrument as magnificent as the one in Town Hall, it would be a shame not to. Especially the 32-foot pipes sounded wonderful.

Tenor James Pratt was without doubt the weakest link in the performance. He probably had a bad day – audibly struggling several places, and not concentrated in his keeping in tempo with the orchestra. Bass Jae-Hyeok Lee had a good voice, but his Korean accent was a bit too heavy not to notice. The girls, meanwhile, were the stars of show. Especially contralto Helen Sherman was the musical highlight, but both she and soprano Simone Easthope (who is a Seventh-Day Adventist) did a wonderful job in narrating and making the words and music come alive.

There were several glitches throughout, but nothing serious enough to tarnish the overall experience. The performance was no match for Camerata in Copenhagen, but considering the young age of most of the performers and the amateur choir, this was a good prelude to a merry Christmas, indeed.

The Radio Community Chest 66th Annual Presentation of Handel’s Messiah
Sydney Town Hall, December 17, 2006
Combined Churches Choir
Conductor: Philip Chu, Organist: Peter Kneeshaw
Soprano: Simone Easthope, Contralto: Helen Sherman, Tenor: James Pratt, Bass: Jae-Heok Lee

See Amid the Winter’s Snow

It has snowed heavily today in Denmark. The air is filled with falling flakes, and the ground covered with a beautiful white carpet already an inch thick. On my way home tonight I came to think of Caswall’s beautiful Christmas carol:

See amid the winter’s snow,
Born for us on earth below;
See the tender Lamb appears,
Promis’d from eternal years:

Even as we are hastily approaching equinox, and birds are trying to break through with their timid voices, winter seems stubbornly unwilling to retreat. Will it ever end?

As we watch’d at dead of night,
Lo, we saw a woundrous light;
Angels singing “Peace on earth”
Told us of the Saviour’s birth.

Denmark’s Princess Alexandra once remarked that that she found it odd that here everybody talks about the weather. In Hong Kong, where she grew up, the weather is pretty much always the same, so nobody talks about it.

I believe the weather will change. I believe in spring, even though the groundhog apparently saw his shadow this year. I believe that this world is coming to an end. Spring is on the way. Aslan is coming.

Hail, thou everblessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Why? Not because the Earth’s axis is not perpendicular to its orbital plane, causing seasons to occur. No, because of Jesus Christ, who was God but became Man to show us His love and His grace.

Teach, O teach us, Holy Child,
By thy face so meek and mild,
Teach us to resemble thee,
In thy sweet humility.