At the beginning of this and every Advent season John the Baptist voices God’s call to repent. We probably listen. We may examine our lives. Possibly we even resolve to modify the way we approach the birth of the Christ Child.
But the repentance we are called to is far more deep seated than is usually brought to light by a positive response to the Baptist’s call. It is a repentance that is particularly well fitted to this season when our desire for justice and peace are aroused.
In 1863 the US Civil War was raging. The Battle of Gettysburg had been fought early in the summer of that year; but the war continued, and tens of thousands would still die in the battles yet to be fought. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet living during those years; and, towards the end of 1863, he wrote a poem which would endure through decades of Christmases to come. Soon after he wrote it, it was put into song.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play;
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men.
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.
Then rang the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
I have no idea how many skirmishes and battles and wars have been fought around the world since a disheartened Longfellow wrote his poem. Certainly there have been many; and the battlefield deaths number in the millions. In the end however, as his poem suggests, it would seem that our poet would cling doggedly to the hope we all have, the hope that the wrong shall fail and the right will prevail with peace on earth and good will to men.
Longfellow’s hope is an ancient one. The Psalmist anticipated our poet by centuries, though his hope is expressed in a more untroubled and relaxed conviction.
The mountains shall yield peace for the people,
and the hills justice.
Justice shall flower in his days,
and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
Both men found the presence and participation of God to be a necessity in the realization of justice and peace. Such does not seem to be the case today. As far back as the early 1900’s President Woodrow Wilson was convinced that a League of Nations would ensure the realization of justice and peace among the nations of Europe. Two short decades later England’s Prime Minister would declare “Peace for our time.” The initial movement of German troops, which set WW II into play, came less than a year after Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration. It would appear that Hitler had been quite agreeable to peace; he just spelled it differently and applied it to Czechoslovakia and Poland. He wanted a piece of each country; nothing else would do. Wars of all types — military, economic and cultural — have been fought over different ideas of what is just, and conflicting ideas of what is a proper or meaningful peace. History suggests some painful lessons in these matters.
At the beginning of this and every Advent season John the Baptist voices God’s call to repent. We probably listen. We may examine our lives. Possibly we even resolve to modify the way we approach the birth of the Christ Child. But the repentance we are called to is far more deep seated than is usually brought to light by a positive response to the Baptist’s call. It is a repentance that is particularly well fitted to this season when our desire for justice and peace are aroused.
Justice in our human world is ephemeral.
Peace in our human world is a fantasy.
These statements are true, not because peace and justice cannot really exist, but because they are only possible in the context of a love that is of God. Justice and peace which come from the human spirit alone are always compromised by human weaknesses, self interest and our individual distortions of reality. And the result is always a more or less approximation of the only true justice and peace which are possible. We can admire those who work for justice and peace and still understand that, as long as their work is born only of human empathy and conviction, it is but dust, blowing in the wind.
Repent! For, in the end, it appears futile to anxiously pursue justice and peace without first pursuing God. Justice and peace will come only when people put on the mind of Christ and welcome the peace only God can bring.