In our Advent reflections at Collins Street, we’re listening to the ‘songs’ of those gathered up in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. In the first week it was Mary’s song (1.46-55) and this last Sunday Zechariah’s (1.68-79).
Zechariah’s song ends with a very moving affirmation of the peace of God and its merciful reach into the darkest places of fear and death:
‘By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
I wondered out loud just how much Zechariah understood the truth of his words. As sincere as his declaration was and as passionate his performance, did he really comprehend the extraordinary breadth of God’s purposes in the births of his son John and of Jesus? My suspicion is that Zechariah was as culturally blinkered as we all are. A devout Jew–deeply formed within a particular culture, story and tradition–Zechariah’s perspective on God, the world, and the nature of peace was limited, even prejudiced by his own context and humanity.
A carol we’ve sung since its advent in the mid 1800s is Phillips Brooks ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’
‘O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.
Above your deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet, in your dark street shining the everlasting light,
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
I confess that when I sing such a song, as sincere as my faith is, I do so with limited understanding. People like me–those for whom Bethlehem is really nothing more than a romanticised venue of still and starry nights–sing with such ignorance of Bethlehem’s reality.
This past Friday afternoon, I stood in Melbourne’s city square by a nativity scene set up for Christmas. On one side of this cut-out stable stood a large crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators with their placards and flags, and on the other side a small group of mostly elderly supporters of Israel with their banners and leaflets. The tension was thick. Amidst the chanting, the accusations and the slogans, I felt deeply sad as I looked on: sad about the passion and pain on both sides of the divide and more acutely aware of my own distant ignorance.
In 2011, three young men came together in Bethlehem to understand better what peace really means in a place of such conflict. They were men of three different faiths, one a Palestinian resident of Bethlehem, one a former Israeli soldier, and the other a Christian Palestinian refugee in Spain returned to his homeland. In a documentary called Little Town of Bethlehem the stories of these young men are told as they struggle to understand and to work together for genuine peace.
As part of the film, an adapted version of the Bethlehem carol is sung in Arabic. We listened to it this past Sunday. While most us us could not understand the words, we could help but feel the song.