Friday, December 22, 2023

I Heard the Bells

      As we near Christmas this year, it’s with two destructive wars in the news, both between nations in which some think the other has no right to exist. People displaced by both wars stream to other countries, ours included, where they may not feel much welcome and find themselves distrusted, ignored, and actively despised.

      The governor of one of our states is using immigration issues — often involving people
looking for asylum from dangerous situations in their home countries — to stoke fear and score political points. In my own city, we find ourselves too often unable to agree on what to do about those asylum-seekers who have been brought to us. A Presidential candidate — the front-runner for one party — said this week that migrants from Africa, Asia, and South America were “poisoning the blood” of the US, the kind of language normally used by advocates of white supremacy. Some of the members of his party have called him out for those comments, but others have tried to excuse them and, according to one poll, 42% of voters are actually
more likely to support him after his words. 

     The divisions in our world — racial, political, ethnic, economic, and generational fissures — seem as wide and deep as a century and a half ago. We seem unable to agree on even the basic values; that human lives matter, that no one should have to live in fear of tyranny and violence, that freedom and responsibility must go hand-in-hand, that everyone should have access to basic needs like food, shelter, education, and health care, that those who have should share with those who don’t. 

     I’m reminded this year of the Longfellow poem set to music, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Longfellow wrote the poem after his wife died in 1861. Two years later his son, who had enlisted to fight in the Union Army in defiance of his father’s wishes, was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run. Longfellow wrote: 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the songs he heard played from “the belfries of all Christendom” didn’t match what he was seeing around him and feeling in his heart as his country tore itself apart. The carols were drowned out by the “black, accursed mouth[s]” of cannons “in the South.” So: 

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!”

This is one of those years I can relate to Longfellow. 

     Can you? The danger, of course, is that we let the hatred around us infect us, turn us, make us sufficiently afraid and angry that we take the language and actions of hatred as our own. That we demonize everyone who thinks differently from us, call them names and accuse them of evil or idiocy. That we attack everything we consider evil except the evil that has squirmed into our own hearts and is reproducing itself there.

     That isn’t the response that the coming of Jesus should instill in us. 

      Maybe we need to keep in mind the fact that Jesus came to a divided world, too. Paul writes in Ephesians 2: 

[R]emember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision”…were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners  to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once  were far away have been brought near  by the blood of Christ. 

Jesus came to a world where Jews were hated and could turn that hatred right back into the faces of the “uncircumcised” Gentiles. It was a world in which racial and ethnic supremacy was a live issue and no doubt divisions were perpetuated to try to prevent the “poisoning” of pure blood. 

      Paul reminds those who were far away from Israel and their God that they had been “brought near by the blood of Christ.” Paul didn’t care about protecting the blood of Israel. He preached that the only truly pure blood had been spilled to end the hatred between Jews and non-Jews: 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh  the law with its commands and regulations.

Paul’s saying that Jesus died to bring about peace, that what he did tears down the walls between human beings by rendering meaningless the things that we use to set ourselves apart. In Paul’s day, Jews might have used the Law of Moses to mark themselves off as distinct from and superior to the Gentiles. Gentiles, I’m sure, had their own dividing walls. And, of course, so do we have our walls that we erect, real and metaphorical barriers by which we keep separate those who are different, not like us, and, therefore, inferior, threatening, or even evil. 

      Jesus died to destroy those barriers that we so self-importantly build to protect ourselves and to keep out those who we don’t think deserve what we have. To “protect our way of life.” To keep our blood pure. 

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace  to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.

I guess who’s “far away” and whose “near” depends on which side of the wall you’re on, right? But Paul’s point is that whoever you think are far away from you and maybe even from God, and whoever you think are near, you’re wrong. In Jesus, there is peace — peace between human beings and God, and peace between human beings and each other. To those in Christ, whatever barriers we might put up to keep others far away are torn down. “Peace on earth, good will to man” is not just possible; it’s God’s agenda played out in Christ.

     Sometimes we try to separate issues of acceptance and justice and care for all people from the gospel. But Paul says here that Jesus didn’t just die for our individual sins. He died to redeem the sins that keep us apart and bring us together —“to create…one new humanity out of the two.” 

     You know what that means? It means that the dividing walls we’ve carried with us, dividing walls that maybe even were bequeathed to us by our ancestors, they belong to a pre-Christian time. When Christ comes, they are leveled. Done away with. And to cling to them is to cling to the old ways of hatred, injustice, and violence in the face of the love, grace, and compassion that God has given to us in Jesus. 

      In Christ, God has brought us “near.” And he offers to us the chance and the responsibility and the spiritual  power to do what we can to work out his purposes in our world — the creating of one new humanity out of the splintered, divided one that sin has created. 

     Let’s welcome the coming of Christ to heal the division in our own hearts and minds.

     And then, through words and actions of peace, let’s begin to heal the divisions that plague our world. 

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