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By John de Gruchy
Christ stands before us, and peace is his gift,
Peace as the day begins,
Peace in the heat of noon,
Peace as the light wanes,
his peace at all times and in all places.
That gift of God's peace, the peace we share in the Eucharist, was born in Bethlehem, It was there that the angels first sang "Glory to God in the highest and peace to all of good will on earth." As you share the gift of peace on Christmas Day in Bethlehem, the whole church that is truly of goodwill stands in solidarity with you. We stand inside that frightful wall built to imprison you, crush your spirit, and suck away your life-blood. But as we embrace you and you embrace us with Christ's gift, the gift you first shared with the world, we continue to give thanks for your witness to that peace which passes all understanding.
Peace is the outworking of God's love in overcoming evil. So sharing the gift of peace is an act of love because in doing so we share God's gift of himself for the salvation of the world. Jesus said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God." Isn't it strange that the principalities and powers of this world, not least those that surround and hem you in, cannot tolerate of God's peace-makers? They pursue war and respond violently to peacemakers, arresting and imprisoning them instead of saluting their courage and the truth for which they stand. It has always been so. It happened to the Prince of Peace.
God's peace is inseparable from God's justice, for God's justice is the outworking of his love in the life of the world, in the public spaces we inhabit. There is no peace without justice. That is how love overcomes evil. In doing what is right and good, in standing for the truth, evil takes flight though never without a fight. Evil cannot tolerate those who make peace. Nothing reveals evil more starkly for what it is than its reaction to love in action in sharing peace. But we can do no other than witness to the peace of Christ as we embrace each other and even the enemy in the love of God.
Religion, all religion, not just Christianity, should be an instrument of peace. But there is good religion and bad religion. This is not saying that some faith traditions are good and others bad, but rather that we find good and bad religion within every faith, whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other. Religion goes bad when it turns its back on God's gift of peace, spread hatred of others, and sanctions violence. All of us who are heirs of Abraham are guilty of doing this. But the children of Abraham know that this is a denial of the God of Abraham. Together we, above all others, should be the agents of God's peace. This is our calling wherever we live and work. And that is why dialogue between religious faith communities and traditions is essential. If we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as we must, we have to work together for God's justice and human dignity in order that God's gift of peace may become a reality for all God's people in the Holy Land. A land which is holy for Christians precisely because God shared his peace so wonderfully and dramatically that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
In standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem as we all celebrate Christmas, we in South Africa feel a special bond with you. Coming from our own past of the struggle for peace and justice against the powers of racism and injustice, we have some sense of the struggle in which you are engaged. The global Kairos movement which has arisen out of the South African Kairos Document and your own Kairos Palestine Document speaks profoundly and eloquently to this struggle. But it is nothing more than a restatement of the good news that was first proclaimed by the angels hovering over Bethlehem. That first Christmas was God's kairos. For it was in the "fullness of time (kairos) that God sent his Son" (Galatian 4:4) in order that we might together become his children. This, as Paul says, was the promise given to Abraham. The Kairos Documents are not saying anything new. They are proclaiming something that was there from the beginning of our faith journey. It is God's will that we should live in peace and pursue justice in order to embrace God's gift of reconciliation both with God and with each other. That is our testimony this Christmas as it has been from the beginning.
Nowhere is this vision of what this peace means better expressed than in the Old Testament vision of the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). It is also the vision of the great prophets who spoke God's truth to power in their own day. And it is this vision which Christ came to fulfil as he declared that Sabbath day in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
This is why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This is the message of the Year of Jubilee which speaks so directly and clear to your situation. This is the peace of Christ in which love overcomes hatred and violence. May this coming year be one in which you know the favour of the Lord.