Today’s celebration marks three important things. It is the Octave of Christmas and the Feast of Mary the Mother of God; it is the World Day of Prayer for Peace; and it is New Year’s Day, a day to give thanks for blessings of the past year and to look forward to the year to come.
At the heart of today’s celebration, from today's gospel, we hear these gentle words of what the shepherds of Bethlehem saw: “they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.” In Matthew's gospel, which speaks not of shepherds but of magi from the east, there is a similar sentence: “The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage.” This quiet moment of reverence, this gentle scene, is the still centre at the heart of the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, and at the heart of our celebration today.
But our celebration today also invites us to some hard work in looking at our world, including a look at the past year, in order to prepare to enter a new year. Of course there are many blessings, many things for which to give thanks. I invite you, in your families or with friends, or in the quiet of your day, to take some time to think of the many blessings you have received over the past year, and that we have received as communities in our part of the world. There is much for which we can give thanks.
But as we look at our world, we also see a lot of suffering, anger and despair. Yesterday up in Saskatoon I visited a priest friend, younger than I, who is terminally ill; and the head of a religious community who a few months ago suffered a debilitating stroke which has left her deeply discouraged and frustrated. Most of you have people in your lives who suffer with various kinds of illness, and many of us ourselves carry pain of one sort or another. Today we lift all of that to God and ask for blessing and healing.
In addition to individual wounds and suffering, we also see major wounds on a societal level. In this country, over the past year, we have seen the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and lament how the dignity of human living and dying is being eroded. We live in a world where human trafficking is a $35 billion a year trade. Statistics suggest that over 2.5 million people were trafficked in the past year, probably many more, most of whom are women or children. Our world is characterized by violence and the mass displacement of peoples. In 2013, the United Nations reported that there were 16.7 million refugees in the world; in 2014 the number of migrants and internally displaced persons grew to a record 38 million. These people have left their homes in order to survive, driven out by wars and ethnic or religious conflicts. By the end of 2015 that number had topped 65 million. Indicators suggest that these numbers continue to increase.
We live at a time of political instability and confusion. To flourish on this earth, we need to reach a maturity - reflected in economic and political priorities and decision-making - that would correspond to our technology and the ways in which our world is changing, becoming more interconnected. But we have not seen too much of that large global vision over the past year. We certainly didn’t see much of it in the highly publicized American election. We witness the rejection of a way of governance that has proved ineffective, now replaced with, well, we wait to see the fruits, but hopes are not high, and fears are many.
In today’s message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis notes that while in the 20th century there were tragic world wars, today “we find ourselves engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal.... [This] causes great suffering: wars in different countries and continents; terrorism, organized crime and unforeseen acts of violence; the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment. Where does this lead?”
As we look candidly at the pain and confusion of our world and prepare for a new year, we can ask ourselves some difficult questions: Dare we to believe that life is fundamentally good, a blessing? Dare we believe there is something to hope in, someone in whom we can ultimately place our trust? Dare we to believe that the universe, and we within it, were created for a purpose? That the suffering others and we ourselves experience can be held in some larger context of meaning? That death is not the last word?
As a people of faith, we do indeed dare to believe that life is a blessing, that we have reason to live in hope. And in this holy season, the grounds of our hope are focused on a birth, a little child; they focus on a God who chooses not to remain distant, to to come to be with us, and the way that God enters into our world - in poverty, humility, becoming one of us - not only disarms us, it also brings wonder, hope, warmth and light.
In the tension between the deep hope of this season and the discouragement which can arise from the world and its present struggles, Pope Francis invites us to remember that Jesus too was born into a world marked by suffering and violence, and he reminds us of the ways that Jesus dealt with injustice in his day: “He unfailingly preached God's unconditional love, which welcomes and forgives. He taught his disciples to love their enemies (cf. Mt 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (cf. Mt 5:39). When he stopped her accusers from stoning the woman caught in adultery (cf. Jn 8:1-11), and when, on the night before he died, he told Peter to put away his sword (cf. Mt 26:52), Jesus marked out the path of nonviolence.”
We might hear a voice within us contrasting the violence of Jesus’ day with the highly technological forms of violence and warfare in ours. We might ask if his way of responding to injustice make sense today, given a different kind of evil and darkness? Does it still make sense to respond to violence with love, with forgiveness? But I think we do well to realize that people of every age have grappled with those questions, and that for us as Christians, it is only the cross that ultimately allows us to answer in the affirmative. Even as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our minds turn to the end of the story, to how the God who comes to dwell with us chooses to give himself fully to us in self-giving suffering love. To resist evil by taking it upon oneself, by countering it with a love that gives itself, a love which transforms, that would seem forever out of reach for us human beings, idealistic and unrealistic, but for one thing: that this is God’s way; that this is the way in which God, author of all creation, transforms and redeems the world. And it can be our way too, because of the power of the cross and resurrection at work in us. Pope Francis writes: “He (Jesus) walked that path to the very end, to the cross, whereby he became our peace and put an end to hostility (cf. Eph 2:14-16). Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God's mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation.”
In today’s message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis marks out for us the way of nonviolence as the Christian way. Permit me to read you a few excerpts for this strong and challenging text:
“Can violence achieve any goal of lasting value? Or does it merely lead to retaliation and a cycle of deadly conflicts that benefit only a few ‘warlords’?”... Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.”
“I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life. When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promotors of nonviolent peacemaking. In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.”
"To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence. As my predecessor Benedict XVI observed, that teaching ‘is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness. This more comes from God’. He went on to stress that: ‘For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person's way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God's love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone.’ The Gospel command to love your enemies ‘does not consist in succumbing to evil…, but in responding to evil with good (cf. Rom 12:17-21), and thereby breaking the chain of injustice’.”
“Peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church's continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms; she does so by her participation in the work of international institutions and through the competent contribution made by so many Christians to the drafting of legislation at all levels. Jesus himself offers a ‘manual’ for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount. The eight Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-10) provide a portrait of the person we could describe as blessed, good and authentic. Blessed are the meek, Jesus tells us, the merciful and the peacemakers, those who are pure in heart, and those who hunger and thirst for justice.
“This is also a programme and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives: to apply the Beatitudes in the exercise of their respective responsibilities. It is a challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost. To do so requires ‘the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process’.
“All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers. In 2017, may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and to building nonviolent communities that care for our common home. ‘Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace’.”
It is a challenging text and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.
Meanwhile, there is one last thread to today’s celebration, that of the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. In our world of suffering and anger, there is not much space for contemplative quiet. In today’s Gospel, Mary shows us a different way. We are told that she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary is an icon of who we are and what we’re called to. She opens herself to the calling to be a God bearer. She accompanies her son. She ponders. We are invited to join her this morning in her pondering.
What does she ponder? Probably what God is doing at this moment in history, pondering what has happened to her, and how she has been drawn, through the mercy of God, into something much greater than she can understand: the mystery of God in our midst; the mystery that the God who has created us, who has created all things, has come in search of us, has come to find us, and has done so by being born as one of us. Mary carries the mystery within her very flesh, for nine months; she gives birth to the mystery, cradles the mystery.
As we enter into this new year, how might we change our lives so they are more open to the presence and hidden action of God? How might we put ourselves at the service of God’s desire to transform and redeem all of humanity through self-giving suffering love? How might we create more quiet space, and learn the resources to turn hate to love, suffering to comfort, war to peace and misery to joy? How might we be a blessing to others and to the world around us?
We do well to begin by remembering that this new year comes with God’s blessing. In our first reading, from the Book of Numbers, we heard the blessing which God tells Moses to pray over the people of Israel, a blessing that God continues to pour down upon each and every one of us: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his face, and give you peace.” Sisters and brothers, may we know anew God's blessing, and daily extend that blessing to others.