BY ARCHBISHOP EAMON MARTIN: A few weeks ago Austrian scouts took a light from one of the oil lamps which burns at the very spot in Manger Square, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. They passed it along from country to country, from scout troop to scout troop, until last Sunday the Armagh scouts carried the Bethlehem ‘peace light’ here into St Patrick’s Cathedral.
For almost thirty years now, scouts have been networking around the world to bring the ‘Bethlehem light’ to as many people as possible. It is a powerful symbol of the gift of peace and goodwill that Christ came to bring on the first Christmas night. Their pilgrimage of hope is all the more poignant because the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ is itself a troubled place today. A huge 30 foot high wall of grey, concrete slabs divides the town; Bethlehem’s ‘dark streets shineth’ with the beam of high-powered security lights.
Long ago the prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah: ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who lived in the land of deep shadow a light has shone; you have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase’. ‘A son has been born for us’, Isaiah continued, saying that one of the names the child shall be given is: ‘Prince of Peace’.
The message of peace is at the very heart of the Christmas story. Christ is our light. Christ is the Prince of Peace. And in the darkest days of the year, in an often troubled world, we gather to celebrate that our Saviour is born – the Word is made flesh. He is the Light that darkness cannot overpower; he is Heavenly Peace itself.
I pray this Christmas night that the light of Christ will enlighten the homes and streets of Ireland with peace, love, joy and hope. In recent weeks the news has been full of darkness and sadness – we’ve seen the horrific slaughter of innocent children in Pakistan, killings in Australia, the spread of Ebola in Africa, and the on-going conflicts and refugee crisis in the Middle East. Nearer home we’ve heard of burglaries, poverty and homelessness on our streets.
All the more reason to bring the light and joy of Jesus into our world this Christmas Day. Like the scouts, we can be all be bearers of the light and peace of Christ to others- a simple act of kindness, a charitable gift, a visit or a word of gentle encouragement to someone who is sick or lonely; these are ways we can pass on the light of Christ. In all our lives there can be moments of tension and disagreement. Sometimes there is bitterness and separation in families, and this can appear particularly raw or painful at Christmas time. Of course Christmas cannot ‘magic’ away the problems and difficulties of the year. But it can remind us that, even in the darkest days, the light of hope and peace still shines and that, with the help of God’s grace, a brighter future is possible.
The angel said to the shepherds: ‘Do not be afraid, I bring you news of great joy. Today is born for you in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.
This Christmas I am heartened by the news from Stormont that our politicians have made progress in removing some of the stumbling blocks obstructing the path to lasting peace. It is good to see ‘Heads of Agreement’ rather than ‘Headlines of Disagreement’ emerging from the talks. We know there is still much work to be done, but I thank all who have been working hard to achieve and underpin these new steps towards a better future for us all.
It is important to hope and to believe that peace is possible. We all have a part to play in supporting and affirming peace. We must work to ensure that cynicism or negativity do not cause the strands of agreement to unravel. So tonight I thank God for the progress that our politicians have made and I pray that in the New Year they will continue to show courage, leadership and commitment in bringing us further forward.
In the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, I pray that we will all have the courage to be missionaries of peace and play our part in spreading the light and peace of Christ from heart to heart, from person to person in our homes, communities and world this Christmas.
The Bethlehem Peace Light Prayer
Light of Bethlehem: burn brightly in our hearts this Christmas;
Light of Peace: heal the bitter wounds in our community; show us the path of forgiveness and love;
Light of Joy: fill our homes with happiness – cast out the darkness of conflict or worry;
Light of Comfort: strengthen the sick, the needy, prisoners and all those who cannot be at home on Christmas Day;
Light of Hope: guide our way forward as we begin a New Year;
Light of the World: teach us to love you more and more each day;
Light of Bethlehem: shine in our lives this Christmas and always.
Happy Christmas, and may God bless you all. Amen.