China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Dec

The gift of peace on earth for Christmas?

Around the world, when people think of Christmas, they first think of gifts. Christmas gifts were one of the casualties of the economic crisis of late 2008. People in the United States of America and Europe had good reason to stop buying. As a result, factories closed in China and workers returned to their villages. This holiday season, the situation is better. Indeed, a sudden upturn in demand means that presents “Made In China” are being delivered just in time to other continents neither by ship nor by flying reindeer, but by cargo jets.

Pope Benedict XVI on gifts

Our current pope is one of many people who have analysed the sad state of the global economy. On June 30, he issued Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Love). One point of his encyclical is the indispensable role of gratuity. Gifts freely given promote solidarity and make life fully human (n. 38, n. 52). Profit and loss, trade and contracts all have their role to play. Yet when life is reduced to maximising profit and cold calculation, humans suffer.

God’s creation is a beautiful gift. This earth is to be used respectfully, taking care to preserve it for future generations (nn. 48-51).

Peace, the gift of Christmas

An even more surprising gift is the coming of the word of God into our world, Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. If we forget God’s gift at that first Christmas in Bethlehem, then this holy season is cheapened into an overly commercialised holiday season. The angels announced a gift beyond price, the gift of peace: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those of good will” (Luke 2:14).

What kind of peace do we want on earth? Someone distinguished five different kinds: the peace of the knave, the peace of the slave, the peace of the grave, the peace of the brave and the peace of the saved.

Peace through deception?

Knave is an old word for someone who is dishonest and a swindler. Having been tricked by a knave, the victims may not discover the true situation for a long time. In the meantime, they are blissfully unaware of their loss. This is peace based on deception, not true peace.

Classical Marxism regarded religion as “the opium of the people,” nothing but deceptions to keep the masses numb. The official outlook has changed drastically. Mainland officials have lauded different religions for playing a role in building a more harmonious society (和諧的社會). With their codes of conduct, taboos and exhortations to do good deeds, religions promote decent conduct among citizens. If the different religions all make such fine contributions, would China be better with more religious believers?

Especially during December, many people look for peace in a shopping mall. If they can only get their hands on the latest fashions, toys and electronics, then they think they will be truly at peace. They feel happy carrying heavy shopping bags. Yet afterwards, they feel dissatisfied and have the urge for more retail therapy. Newly rich consumers can become addicted to upscale shopping. At least most of the purchases are for family and friends, not for themselves. But when Jesus said, “It is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), he did not mean name-brand items. Rather, he meant being mindful of the poor, who could not repay the kindness (Luke 14:12-14).

Peace through slavery?

The peace of the slave has been all too common in history. When those on the bottom stayed in line, knew their place, did not complain and, above all, did not rebel, those on the top smiled and said, “Everything is peaceful.” But the Exodus from Egypt tells us that slavery is not the last word in human history. God wants his people to be free. Old China was not the only country where feudal superstition kept people oppressed. Even today all too many people are trapped in one form of slavery or another.

Peace through violence?

If slaves rebelled, they often got only the peace of the grave. Vatican II said, “Peace is more than the absence of war: it cannot be reduced to the maintenance of a balance of power between opposing forces, nor does it arise out of despotic dominion, but it is appropriately called, ‘the effect of righteousness’” (Gaudium et Spes, 78, quoting Is. 32:17).

A priest once went to anoint a dying dictator. First the priest asked him, “Have you forgiven all your enemies?” The dictator replied, “I don’t have to.” The priest asked in surprise, “Why not?” Irritated at such a dumb question, the dictator answered, “Because I’ve already had them all shot.” That dictator was close to the peace of the grave, but apparently far from the peace of the saved. Numerous executions do not make a nation peaceful.

Peace through courage

The peace of the brave requires effort. Problems do not go away by themselves, but will persist year after year, generation after generation, until people do something to overcome them.

Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Being a passive victim is not the same thing as being a peacemaker. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Time is not neutral.” There is no such thing as automatic progress while we sit back and watch. Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Naming evil and acting on behalf of justice by nonviolent means are not jobs for cowards. A more harmonious society and a more just world will appear only after hard work, sacrifice, and even martyrdom.

The Vatican often speaks about Integral Evangelisation, one point of which is to work together for the common good. Catholics and Protestants in China provide an increasing number of social welfare services and now even operate several officially recognised non-government organisations.

These serve not only fellow believers, but also anyone in need, and provide shelter for abandoned babies, eye care, special education, assisted living for the elderly and hospice. Good news seldom attracts much media attention, but these projects are good news.

Peace through salvation

As to the peace of the saved, saved from what and for what? Everyone wants to be saved from strife and anarchy. In China 2,500 years ago, the old social harmony had been lost. Looking to restore order, Confucius (孔子) looked to the past. He knew that some features of the ceremonies had changed over the centuries, such as whether to wear a linen cap or a silk cap, or whether to bow before or after ascending the steps in the hall (Analects IX.3).

Were people back then arguing those points with as much passion as some Catholics today argue for Mass in Latin or in the vernacular?

Confucius was serious about the importance of ceremony, but he did not get lost in the details of the rituals. Instead he taught his disciples the bigger picture of proper interpersonal relationships for a cultured, humane life.

His successors later added cosmic and metaphysical themes to his moral and political language, giving east Asian civilisation a vision of people in harmony with heaven and earth as well as with one another. One of the big stories from China during this decade has been the official promotion of Confucianism.

The accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are unlike anything found in traditional China. God personally bridges the distance between heaven and earth by sending his Son to us. Emmanuel means “God with us.”

When missionaries arrived in the late Ming Dynasty, educated Chinese were perplexed, even scandalised, to hear that God’s son had been born in a stable, since there was no room for him in the inn and grew up in poverty. That part of the gospel required some careful explaining.

Ephesians 1:3-14 summarises God’s plan of salvation and concludes that Jesus’ mission was “for the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14). We are saved from sin and saved for the glory of God.

Many people find this account threatening. What’s the problem? They mistakenly see God and humanity in a win-lose or lose-win situation. They think that if God is glorified, then people lose their dignity. If people are to become free, then they must cast off any restraints from God. This fear of restriction arises from a false dichotomy.

The Bible presents us with a win-win situation: we are most free when we belong to God. As we are progressively saved from sin and addiction, we become more and more free to relate harmoniously to other people, to the natural environment and to God. And what does God gain from this? In the second century, St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Quotes on Christmas

St. Leo the Great, pope from 440-461, expressed the joy of Christmas in a homily. “Dearly beloved, today our saviour is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness… When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvellous work of God’s goodness, what should it not bring to the lowly hearts of people?” On another December 25, he stated: “The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace, as Paul says, ‘He is our peace’” (Ephesians 2: 14).

Several hundred Christmases later, St. Bernard said: “Notice that peace is not promised, but sent to us; it is no longer deferred, it is given; peace is not prophesied but achieved.”

After reading so many words about Christmas, and singing so many songs about peace on earth, there comes a time to close our eyes and to pray in silence for “that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand,” which will “guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus” (cf. Philippians 4:7). Merry Christmas!