“Glory to God in the Highest Heavens
and peace to all on earth because He loves you”.
When we read carefully Chapter Two of the Gospel of Saint Luke, where he records the birth of Jesus, we are struck by the scene he creates in the paddocks with the shepherds outside Bethlehem . Even today the town of Bethlehem is not a very big one. It still sits within a landscape of hills with some grass covering and a few trees. While there is a lot of building going on it is mainly on the more distant hills as the urban sprawl gradually moves towards it. So one can still sense what it must have been like when Jesus was born there.
It was in these fields that the shepherds were tending their sheep when, as Saint Luke tells the story, first one angel and then a whole lot of angels appeared to them. The sudden appearance of anything unusual was just as frightening then as it can be today. The first angel tried to calm them down, said that he had news for them and for the whole people, that it was news of great joy, and that it centred on a little baby in the town who had just been born and placed ‘in a manger’.
Last April I had a chance to make a brief visit to Bethlehem and while there I saw what a manger was really like in Jesus’ time and learnt what it was used for. It is a relatively small tub often made of stone, but sometimes of wood, and it served many purposes. Clearly it was used to put the food in for the stock – the sheep and goats, the cattle or the donkey. It was used to give the stock water drawn from the local well or spring. It was also used as the laundry tub for the family washing and even, from time to time, to bath the baby. I understood from that explanation that it was a very useful item in the life of the local community – a gathering place as well as a feed box. It was here, the angel said, that Jesus was to be found – right in the midst of the whole of the community life. This baby, the angel went on to say, was the Saviour that was long expected. It was indeed news ‘for the whole people’ and immediately available to them.
The second part of Luke’s scene is of a whole lot of angels appeared (a “choir” we are told) all proclaiming a message: “Glory to God in the highest heavens and peace to all on earth because He loves you”. A clarion call of praise to God and a proclamation of the Peace that only God can give.
Peace is such an illusive condition. Right throughout our human history there have only been very few occasions of genuine peace. It seems that in every age there is constant discord of one kind or another. The infant Jesus was born into a time and place of great civil unrest, oppression and discord, and into a country that had been conquered by a foreign power. We recall that even in recent times we are still influenced by injustice, racism and terrorism of such magnitude that there is a certain degree of fear that is part of our everyday life experience. We recognise it in our own families and homes, in local neighbourhoods and societies, and even among nations. And yet the clear message of Christmas is that God earnestly desires His People to live in peace. There is also the recognition that God has placed deep within our own hearts, as a reflection of Himself, a longing for peace. The peace that God intends for us, and wants for us, is not merely the absence of war or fighting but is based on the sure knowledge that we are all His children, that we all have dignity, and that each one is equal. Our sense of justice flows from that truth. In a special way we, as members of the Defence Force family have a special contribution to make so that the truth proclaimed by the angels can be a reality.
I want to quote from the Holy Father Pope Benedict’s Message for World Day of Peace on 1 st January. “Nor can I fail to mention the many soldiers engaged in the delicate work of resolving conflicts and restoring the necessary conditions for peace. I wish to remind them of the words of the Second Vatican Council: ‘All those who enter the military in service to their country should look upon themselves as guardians of the security and freedom of their fellow-countrymen, and, in carrying out this duty properly, they too contribute to the establishment of peace.’ On this demanding front the Catholic Church’s military ordinariates carry out their pastoral activity: I encourage both the Military Ordinaries and military chaplains to be, in every situation and context, faithful heralds of the truth of peace” the Holy Father has written.
Since last Christmas members of the Australian Defence Force have made an outstanding contribution to the establishment of peace, security and freedom both at home and overseas. In every case you have performed your duties with customary professionalism, dedication and genuine Australian sensitivity. You have continued to serve in places of lasting conflict and turmoil and you have quickly responded to natural disasters and civil emergencies. In every case you continue to be outstanding guardians and faithful heralds to promote and make possible that peace which only God can give. In this sense and in very real ways the work you have done, and continue to do, is deserving of all our encouragement, support and admiration. The sad reality is that many have suffered and some have paid the supreme sacrifice in their mission of service to others.
I want to mention the special contribution that you, the families of our serving members, make. It is a essential to our work and must always be recognised as genuine service too. You enable, encourage and participate in that service of stability and peace.
This feast proclaims that Jesus has come in a simple way into the very centre of our human community life and experience to bring the blessing of peace. My Christmas prayer and wish for all the members of our Particular Church , of our special Diocese, is for that peace for ourselves that we so generously and deliberately enable for others.
May we experience the blessing of peace in our own lives and families.
May those who are separated because of the requirements for service be especially strengthened and united by their mutual prayer for each other.
May those who mourn for those who died on service receive a special consolation from the Prince of Peace at this special time of His birth.
May Mary, our patronal Help, combine our prayers with hers so that the grace of peace brought into this world by the birth of her son Jesus may be a real experience for each one of us.
†Max L. Davis