Christmas Message for 2003 from CCCB President Archbishop Brendan M. O'Brien

Sunday, December 07 2003

“Glory to God in the highest. Peace to God’s people on earth!”

These words from the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke are frequently repeated throughout the year in the hymn of glory and praise at the beginning of our Eucharistic celebrations. Peace is not something to be taken for granted in our world. We are painfully reminded of this with too frequent reports of terrorist bombs exploding, killing and maiming innocent victims. Yet while we justly denounce these brutal expressions of violence, we too must deplore those less visible but just as corrosive attacks on the lives of communities and nations, including the economic exploitation that also violates human rights and dignity.

Already in ancient times there were those who saw how the absence of war was so vital for peace. This was precisely Isaiah’s vision of the day of the Messiah, when swords would be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks, when nation would not lift up sword against nation, nor the ways of war be learned (Isaiah 2). The birth of the child who was to be known as the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, would be the time when the rod of oppressors is broken, and when the boots of tramping armies and garments coated in blood are burnt (Isaiah 9).

Yet peace is more than the absence of physical violence. Peace includes reconciliation. It is the undoing of the knots of hate and anger in human hearts. It begins with pardoning and forgiving others, and by accepting their pardon and forgiveness in turn. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray. Or as Jesus explains in the Gospel of Luke (6.36, 38): “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful … for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Peace involves healing, integrity and wholeness. It concerns those who are nearest to us as well as those far away; it flows from the spiritual rebirth of humanity in Christ, in which there are no longer strangers or aliens (Ephesians 2.17). It means accepting and caring for every relationship: with one another, our neighbours, all humanity, and creation as a whole. The destruction of peace is described in the first part of the Book of Genesis as being exiled from the Garden of Eden, living in betrayal and violence, with man opposed to woman, children born in pain and suffering, humanity in combat against nature, banished from the face of God by angels with flaming swords.

But the birth of peace on Christmas night sees a new beginning: a child born in heavenly glory, night and nature filled with angelic song, and the marginalized told not to be afraid but to rejoice. Those who lived in exile from society were the first of those privileged to marvel at the miracles of God and the wonders of life, both human and divine – in a manger!

“Grace and peace” is a frequent greeting in the New Testament, and also often used in our liturgical celebrations. Peace is a grace – for it is a gift from God. As a gift freely received, so also it must be freely shared. Yet when we say it is a grace, we also recognize it as a miracle. No matter how much we do to make peace possible, there is always a dimension to it that transcends our efforts and is beyond our making. Peace is a revelation of God’s mysterious presence.

If there were world peace, in the sense of an end to war and violence, that certainly would be a miracle of God’s doing. The absence of conflicts – in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America. The disappearance of racial and religious violence – abroad and at home. An end to military and economic oppression – in foreign relations and domestic policies. Who cannot say all this would have to be the work of God?

But just as great a miracle is needed in order that we all renew and concentrate our efforts in repairing the ravages to human dignity through AIDS, world hunger, racial discrimination, child poverty and broken families.

Every miracle demands collaboration and vision. Jesus the Messiah was born in Bethlehem because Mary had said yes. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). The shepherds were able to see and believe in the glory of God and the promise of peace, because they had listened to the ancient prophecies of Isaiah and could hear anew the angelic voices in the night skies.

If we wish to see peace in our world, then we too must be able to recognize it, and prepared to collaborate with its humble beginnings. For this much is certain, we erode the possibilities of peace in our day every time we fail to treasure the wonder of life. We further violence and destruction in our society and in our world, whenever we fail to give hope and encouragement to our neighbour, to families and homes in our neighbourhood, and to those impoverished and marginalized around us.

When we encourage and assist families and the vulnerable, we sow the seeds of peace for today and tomorrow. When we foster life by creating a welcoming space for the excluded and the vulnerable, we contribute to peace for all the world. In healing and reconciling our relationships with one another and with creation, we make it possible for God to be with us and incarnate among us.

May this Christmas be for all of us a moment of renewed dedication to being peacemakers, men and women of reconciliation and pardon, for those closest to us and for society as a whole. The reconciliation and forgiveness we foster in our hearts and lives transforms those around us, just as the peace and healing that we bring to our neighbourhoods and communities are essential to reshaping and transforming all creation.

Peace on earth is the glory of God. If peace and reconciliation are not born and sheltered in our own hearts and lives, then how can our world hope to see and rejoice in the glory of God?

+ Brendan M. O’Brien
Archbishop of St John’s
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops