When I was a little boy growing up in Massachusetts, I can remember now the excitement leading up to Christmas Day. Then, you could still sing Christmas Carols in public school assisted by colorful little booklets provide by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company of Boston. We always had a town Common Christmas Tree, like every other New England town. Political correctness was a phrase yet to be invented. Carolers from individual churches gathered each night on the Common during the week before Christmas to sing Carols and to heighten our collective anticipation of this most wondrous of seasons. The fact that their might be other religious life and traditions living in our town was drowned out by a Christian juggernaught of Herculean proportions.
The week leading up to Christmas also included a trip to Boston with parents to do last minute shopping and gaze at the handsomely decorated Christmas windows of Filenes and Jordan Marsh department stores, the then venerable flagships of Boston’s retail life. A concluding walk through the elaborately decorated Boston Common, its trees strung with hundreds of thousands of brightly colored Christmas lights signaled an end to our annual Christmas shopping pilgrimage to the Hub and a late night return home to await the mystery and beauty of Christmas Eve services at our parish church and the anticipation of the joy and celebration of Christmas Day, replete with presents, visiting relatives and a sumptuous Christmas dinner.
Every year our parish placed a small crèche outside the front entrance of the church. And every year as a youngster I stared intently at the figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, shepherds, sheep, wise men and camels, all usually framed by the snow of a recently departed Nor’easter. How distant and strange all the nativity characters seemed. ”Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” was a million miles away from my small, Massachusetts town where we had no sheep, shepherds or wise men, and where there were no crèches and only two working farms left. The Bethlehem story was really a part of an unknown world that we tried to emulate through children’s Nativity Pageants where shepherd wore bathrobes and their mother’s babushkas as head cover. And Mary was elegantly attired in blue from head to foot. The three Kings wore paper crowns with pasted on “sparklies” made during the previous week’s Sunday School classes.
Distance, space and time during my early years were defined by radio, and not television. There was no Internet, no PC’s, no “blogs” or “chat rooms,” no web sites and no broad band access. The phrase “Information Highway” meant that you could find whatever you were looking for in the pages of Life and Look magazines. Al Gore had not yet been born. There were no TREOS or Blackberries, no satellites or cell phones. When you used the phone you had a live human being on the other end of the line who actually talked to you, knew you and your family and connected the call for you. There were no CD’s or IPODS. There were no satellites or satellite communication. GPS were just letters of the alphabet. The moon and planets seemed so far away from my little town that I imagined they could never be touched by any technology. The only rockets I knew about were revealed by Tom Corbett and his Space Cadets and Captain Video. Our news came basically from radio and from the a morning and evening editions of the Boston Globe, the Herald Traveler, the Record American, and the Christian Science Monitor. The Wall Street Journal was only for rich people and tycoons.
In retrospect, it now almost seems as if Thornton Wilder wrote about my life and my community in his play “Our Town;” where everyone knew everyone else and where the big city was a long way off. And where the rest of the world was so distant that it was almost unimaginable and didn’t really matter all that much. In retrospect it paralleled the separation of my early years living in a small New England town with the event of Christ’s birth in far away Bethlehem, chronicled in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
In recent months I have flown half way around the world to visit our Diocese of Washington Mission partners in Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland. The proximity of these countries to Washington seem as close now as if they were the houses of my next door neighbors back in Massachusetts well over fifty years ago. Transportation and communications technology have drastically reduced the isolation that once separated us as a nation from the rest of the world.
In Mozambique last October I was overwhelmed by the visual impact of the ravages of malaria, a fully preventable illness that kills over one million people a year; 75% of those deaths occurring in African children. One out of every five childhood deaths worldwide due to malaria, occur in Africa.
In Swaziland the Church leads the struggle to fight against the rampant spread of AIDS where almost 50% of the adult population is now infected with the virus. And by the end of this decade it is estimated that there will be over 175,000 AIDS orphans out of a total country population of just over a million. In 2005 throughout the globe, 3.1 million people died of AIDS, over a half a million of those being children. 38.6 million persons are currently infected and 4.1 million were newly infected with the virus.
In Dukathole, an informal settlement just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, I wandered the narrow alleys that acted as open sewers and that also separated a thousand shacks and shanties. Visiting the sick and dying in this environment of filth and poverty, the stench of which made me sick to my stomach will remain unforgettable as a major crime against humanity. Children had no other place to play but in those same alleys. One week after I returned to Washington over 1000 children were left homeless when a fire ravaged the community and burned down over 400 shanties and shacks. There will be no Christmas for the children of Dukathole this year.
And the current situation in the Holy Land reminds me that I no longer can live in a world that was once remotely distant and unknown to me. There can no longer be an offered excuse of living in isolation, once the norm of my life and my generation because of the limits of technology and communications. I must face into the reality of a global community that is now as proximate to me as my next door neighbors in Massachusetts were some fifty years ago.
Bethlehem, that quaint town that we so sentimentally sing about each year in the Christmas Carol, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” is a community, a next door neighbor to us now painfully divided by the construction of a Wall that if not stopped will reconfigure the birthplace of Christ to only seven square miles; an open air prison with access to it by only three gates; two for people and one for commercial traffic. If unchecked the Wall’s continued construction will ghettoize the Christian population in the city of Christ’s birth. The Wall dividing Israel and Palestine now exists as an emerging symbol of human failure and the braking of sacred trusts given to both Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims by the one God that all claim to worship in common. Israel has the right to exist as a free State as do the Palestinians. And Israel must be able to exist, untouched by the horrors of suicide bombers and random acts of violence. Too many Palestinians and Israelis have died already. Tonight, over 2000 years after the birth of Christ, the violent world that Mary and Joseph knew as they celebrated the birth of their first born in the Holy Land has changed very little. The Christmas Story charges each and every one of us to work to end the apartheid in the Holy Land; an apartheid that is destroying the very souls of Palestinians and Israeli’s alike.
Two weeks ago, I was in Iran with a small delegation of Episcopalians. Our purpose was to engage in further inter-faith dialogue; dialogue that has been ongoing in this country and Iran for some time now. I came away from my time there with the realization that we are two deeply religious countries that may be able to advance the prospects of peace by coming to appreciate the holy books and sacred traditions of the three monotheistic faiths that grew from the soil of the Middle East. Along with this appreciation comes a particular emphasis on how the collective wisdom of these traditions can help us create a more peaceful and secure world.
I work as do my inter-faith colleagues with the common understanding that we all worship the same God but that our experiences of knowing that God through our traditions are very different and often contradictory; yet we all spring from the same source of life, Father Abraham. Jews know and experience God through Moses, the Prophets and the Law. Christians know and experience God through the great miracle of the Incarnation that we celebrate tonight through the birth of Jesus. For Muslims God is known and experienced through the Koran and the teachings of the great Prophet Mohammed.
As I sat in the airport in Tehran, waiting to catch my plane back to the United States, it seemed so strange that someone who grew up so long ago in isolation in such a small New England town, at a time when the Middle East existed only in the imagination of childhood nativity pageants and parish outdoor crèches-that I was now there, in the thick of it.
The mission of engaging in interfaith dialogue that must continue in order to establish a level of trust and relationships that search for peace in a horribly violent and broken world is a search that only religious dialogue and conversation can accomplish. It can no longer occur through diplomatic or foreign policy channels alone. I realized at that moment in Tehran that as a Christian, I have the responsibility as a child of Abraham, along with my Jewish and Muslim counterparts to overcome the temptation to view religion either as a call to arms or an invitation to a world apart. For religion must be understood as the arena in which ordinary Jews, Christians and Muslims can pursue mutual understanding and build the necessary foundations for peace.
Tonight’s celebration of Christ’s birth is a reminder that we are not only to follow the one born and known as the Prince of Peace but that as Christians we are called by Jesus to engage the world in his name, remembering His mission as prophesied by the Prophet Isaiah who said; ”Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his law.”
I wish you all a merry Christmas and ask you to join with me in the active search for the greatest gift the world could ever receive at this time of its existence, the gift of peace, as it has been given to each of us by the Prince of Peace. Will you now come and be a part of this great work of the Church remembering on this holiest of nights that Jesus doesn’t ask us to worship him; he begs us to follow Him!