Addresses and Statements


03 Jan 2023


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.”[1] So asks the heroine in Shakespeare’s romance-tragedy. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet could be Jack and Jill Smith for all she cared, as long as they were the same people, and they should resist the attempts of families and culture to pigeonhole them. Yet as romantic and postmodern as this might sound, it raises all sorts of metaphysical, linguistic and historical questions. Are people really just play-dough, to be formed and reformed at will, unconstrained by genealogy, tradition, circumstance and culture, even vocation from God? Are names really irrelevant to who we are?

At Christmas we hear many names for the Babe. In our carols tonight we’ve sung His praises as Light of Light and Lord of Might, Jesse Rod and David Key, as Little Lamb of God and Holy Child, King of angels and Word made flesh, as Great Mystery and Wondrous Sacrament… In our readings He was identified as long awaited Messiah, Son of God and of David, Homeless God our Home. Above all He is Emmanuel—God with us, Jesus—God saves us and Son of Man—God one of us. Each name conveying something of His nature, family and mission.

From George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, we heard Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa 9:6) of a “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. The last of these titles, “Prince of Peace” was echoed by Zechariah tonight promising a king who would “break the battle bow and command peace to the nations” (Zech 9:9-10). From Luke’s angels, Bach’s B Minor Mass and our carols we heard: “Glory to God on high and peace to people here below” (Lk 2:14). Yet after a year of flood in this state and of war in Ukraine and elsewhere, how can we sing of peace on earth? How do we speak of reconciliation and hope to those who’ve lost their relatives, homes and livelihoods in Mariupol or Eugowra? Can the celebration of Christmas really make a difference, or will it only rub salt into the wounds?

From Murder in the Cathedral we heard T.S. Eliot’s take on a Christmas homily. (If only Archbishop Anthony’s sermons were so short—I can hear you thinking!) But Elliot’s Thomas a’Becket warns that what this world counts “peace” is not what the Prince of Peace has in mind. “Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children?” No, the soon-to-be-martyred bishop says, Christ promised His friends a peace very different to that this world gives (Jn 14:27). As Paul just told us, it might well involve peril or persecution, hunger or sword (Rom 8:28-39).

While Jesus loved the Semitic greeting “Shalom, Peace be with you”, He only used it after His Passion (Lk 24:46; Jn 20:19-23, 26). His unworldly peace is no Roman pax imposed by brute force, no British peace of comfortable concord, but something harder gained, by enduring evil rather than ever perpetrating it, by the grace of crib and cross. It is not something we can generate by diplomacy and resolutions, important as these are. No, this kind of peace comes as pure gift from above, from Christ’s sacrifice, and it converts character, relationships and behaviour till it exudes from Christian pores. It means compassion, mercy and joy, even amidst hatred and suffering, and it eschews violence and division. It is a peace proclaimed by Christian word and witness.

In ancient times theophanies were always accompanied by thunder and lightning, fearful voice and stupefying vision.[2] Peace was the last thing they associated with God’s appearing, except in the sense of bloody victory over enemies. The Christmas story upends such fear and revenge by placing trust in the strangest of places: in the cry of a baby. Not the noise and drama of a traditional epiphany, of a conquering power, or of nature’s own dramas. Not as tuneful as the angelic choir singing the Gloria that night, or our own angelic choir tonight. Yet that baby’s cry was the most beautiful sound ever heard. In place of worldly power and natural fear, love comes wrapped in vulnerability.

At Christmas we can choose to join the inn-keeper with closed heart saying “not welcome here” to the victims of flood or war, join Herod and his soldiers using violence and lies on the killing fields of Bethlehem or of Bakhmut, join Caesar’s officials indifferent to what it means to order a heavily pregnant couple to travel for a census. Alternatively, we can join the shepherds wondering at the angels, the magi following nature and the wisdom of ages, the young couple responding to God’s call wherever it takes them. Christmas shows us human beings at their best under grace, even amidst man and nature at their worst. This year the 7,000 Orthodox churches in the Ukraine, that normally celebrate Christmas on 7th January, will join the Catholics in celebrating on 25th December, in a sign that hatred from one direction is driving new friendships in another; and, incredibly, Churchmen and politicians, soldiers and people are talking of Christmas truces and ways of indicating good will.

Christmas speaks to that side of the human heart infused by divine grace that refuses to give in to the darkness but sees a great light; that hears the music of angels, shepherd boys and even in a baby’s cry; that has faith and hope that love will yet break out again on a silent, holy night. Our celebration tonight will conclude with a prayer for “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” and a last carol begging “peace of earth and mercy mild”. May the “heaven-born Prince of Peace” be with you and your loved ones always.

[1] Romeo and Juliet (1597) Act II, scene ii, vv. 33-49.

[2] e.g. Ex 3:1-6; 13:21-22; ch. 19; Jud 5:2-31; Job 4:13-16; Isa 6:1; Ezek chs 1,8,10,20; Dan 7:1-10.