Christmas Day, Boxing Day, over for another year, we remind ourselves that our task now is to recommit ourselves to living the message of Christmas in our own lives.
As Howard Thurman’s words on the ever-popular Pax Christi Christmas card remind us:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace amongst people,
To make music in the heart.Howard Thurman
For Epiphany: A Reflection by Paul McGowan
The ‘Christmas Story’ that floats round in our heads is a bewildering composite of Matthew, Luke, other traditions and endless reflections on them all. For me, this flotsam has included, since I was ten years old, the rendition of excerpts from A Christmas Carol given to us in primary school by Mr Sharkey, God bless him! His version remains for me the gold standard. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi joined later.
(All this was a long time ago)
Some wise men arrived in Jerusalem from the east.
We were on the road for two years.
(The ways deep and the weather sharp. And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
and the villages dirty and charging high prices.)
They didn’t want us. Nobody wanted us. Nobody was interested. Just in our money.
Where is the infant king of the Jews?
This was not a very wise thing for wise men to say to the local dictator.
Do not annoy the authorities.
But we didn’t know where we were or what things meant in wherever we were.
We were out of our depth. In a foreign land. Innocents abroad.
(pieces of silver, three trees on the low sky, empty wineskins)
Couldn’t make any sense of it at all. Not great for a collection of wise men.
And going into the house, they saw the child with his mother.
(It was (you may say) satisfactory.)
Well, it was a house, at least. But not, you know, very big.
They offered him gifts.
Yes, we had a few things with us, just in case.
And it’s what you do for a new baby. It was only polite.
And that was that.
(With the voices ringing in our ears that this was all folly.)
But they were warned in a dream.
(If these things be not changed by the future, the child will die.)
We all had the same dream. Nobody was sleeping well by this time.
Get out of here. For your own sake. Save yourselves.
Go home. Go straight home. It said.
We put it down to experience.
For the Feast of the Holy Innocents by Paul McGowan
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked us for mirth,
saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
How they said ‘Tear it down, tear it down, down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
‘Elizabeth’ reflects on the Psalm.
My husband, Zechariah, was a few years older than me. That must have made him very old! They didn’t talk about him, though. They only talked about me. They blamed me, never him. Elizabeth – she’s barren, you know. Nobody said it to my face, of course, but the sly jibes and the unfavourable comparisons were never far away. Barren land. Desert. Infertile place.
‘By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept’, it says. I sat for years surrounded by the rivers of fertility flowing from my friends and neighbours. But all they saw was how pious and observant I was, and Zechariah too. No one could fault us; in private, though, we wept. More than that, we fought, we blamed each other, we threw insults across the table. Every month we tried, but still the blood came. We were our own ‘captors’, our own ‘tormentors’. But ‘we remembered Zion’, we kept the faith. Even when we didn’t feel much like singing ‘we set Jerusalem above our highest joy’, as it says.
There are, in the end, worse things than unwanted childlessness.
Our ancestors wrote the words of this Psalm in the midst of greater torment. They were forced to walk hundreds of miles across the desert to Babylon. Do they still call it ‘Babylon’, I wonder. And how many of them died on the way? How many of the old, the very young? Better to have been childless in those days; better not to have to watch your child die of thirst or hunger or exhaustion, or worse…. Oh yes – there is worse, let me tell you.
A fertile place indeed, Babylon. They say there are two great rivers there. They say this is where our father Abraham came from. He was childless, too, for a long time, until the Lord intervened. Lovely trees by the water, date palms, wheat, food and drink for the animals. Paradise, almost. No wonder so many of our ancestors decided to stay there, even when they were freed and allowed to return home. They say some of our people still live there. I wonder if they have found their singing voices by now and taken down the harps from the willows?
‘If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither’, it says. Not much risk of us forgetting. We are only a day’s journey from the city and Zechariah had his priestly duties to perform there, in the Temple.
Even so, one day his tongue did ‘cleave to the roof of his mouth’. He was unable to speak for months. It was a great sign from the Almighty, everybody said. The news went all round the region, but nobody could work it out.
I stayed in the house for five months.
Why did I do that? Why did I not want to be seen by everyone? Why did I not want them to see my pregnancy?
I’ll tell you why – because I did not want to give them something else to gossip about! The ‘elderly’ mother, a freak of nature all over again. I’d been one of those for years. It took Mary’s visit to get me over it. She gave me the courage to be what I was – the Lord’s chosen one, at last, like Sarah! Then I knew I was part of something bigger, and the gossips would be silenced.
This is not how the Psalm ends, though.
I have struggled with these lines since I first heard them when I was a little girl. Is this what we really want from the Lord? ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us’, it says. Is this a prayer to the same Lord who shepherds us towards the restful waters and the green pastures? Is our God a God of vengeance? But later I understood what savage treatment one tribe will hand out to another. Our ancestors wrote about what they saw. ‘Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock’, it says. When things are far enough in the past they lose their reality. But think about it: their children picked up by the ankles and swung against the nearest wall, or tree, or rock. Kids will only slow down the march, and they need feeding. It also warns off the adults: don’t bother breeding, there’s no future in it. Who would not want revenge?
I had thought this was all a thing of the past, the sort of thing people used to do, before they knew better. Then Herod came looking for our own children. Herod, the Jewish king of Palestine, killing his own people. Because he was afraid of a child who would take away his power. And I heard the same stories of butchery all over again. Children like my John smashed to bits, chopped to pieces, sliced open, trodden underfoot. Mary told me later she had gone into the Egyptian desert to escape the slaughter. I took John – oh yes, John too was threatened, you know. We were probably too far from Jerusalem to need to worry, but I was taking no chances. I had waited forty years for this child. So we, too, went to the desert, but in the opposite direction, to the east.
Strange thing, he seemed to like it there, even though he was only a toddler. Afterwards, he kept asking to go back there, to the desert, and when he was old enough that’s what he did. That’s where he went. It’s the desert, but there are people who live there. They look after him, from what I hear. But I see less and less of him.
Advent – a time for preparation, for prayer, for reflection…
These reflections and poems by Pax Christ members offer useful prompts: in his reflection on the Psalms, Paul advocates ‘getting real, facing facts’; Kate expresses Advent longing, asking ‘When will the fruit on the fig tree ripen?’. In the words of Annie O’Connor, to hear God’s voice, we need to ‘slow down and listen’.
Further Reflections for Advent 2021 by Paul McGowan
The Fourth Sunday: Psalm 79
Where’s Lockheed Martin when you need them? Only a large-scale military operation will get us out of this mess. That’s how bad it is. ‘God of hosts, bring us back.’
We used to rule the world. Looking back, you can sum it all up in just a few words, as the Psalm does. Our roots and branches were everywhere. We even ruled the waves. Now it’s trashed. All gone. Get us out of this mess!
Some people think those were the good times. If only they would come back everything would be fine again. Please, God. Pretty please. We’ll be good, we promise – ‘we shall never forsake you again’. Just give us another chance. Another chance to invade and exploit! How does this square with all those other fine sentiments we profess? All that justice and love and mercy.
It’s all boloney, of course. One more chance isn’t going to do it. And they know it. Everybody knows it. We can’t even pray straight. Look: we can’t stop thinking in our old ways, even while we speak to God. ‘Give us life’, we say. Meaning: ‘give us the tools of death and destruction, give us an army to fight for us’. An aircraft-carrirer. Or two. That would do it. Well, it would be a start. We could send them round the world, like in the old days. Ruling the waves.
Have they forgotten? ‘You have made us the taunt of our neighbours, our enemies laugh us to scorn’. You have made us look foolish. Now, teach us why you have done this to us. Remind us, again, what it means to be ‘saved’.
The Third Sunday: Isaiah, chapter 12
Time for the heavies. You need an Isaiah from time to time, like when you’re knee-deep in wars, power games, deportations and refugee crises. He’ll sort it.
What do you want me to tell you? You want me to tell you what I see? I am a ‘seer’, after all. What do I see? I’ll tell you what I see. Nothing to worry about. Look: a young woman has just given birth. Look: an old tree stump is starting to grow again. Look: it was dark and now it’s light. Look: your children play happily. Look: the exiles are back. Things to make a song about. It’s all in the book. The one you call the Book of Immanuel.
So, here’s my song out of all this – God is Great, he does Great Things. (You just have to know how to spot them.)
No – I mean, YOU have to know how to spot them! Can you spot the Lord’s mighty deeds, the glorious deeds? And when you do, you can make your own Psalm. I can make mine, this one you read today. But only mine. And only you can make yours, if there’s one with your name on it. What have you got to sing about?
Some people put it like this: we drink from our own wells, meaning our own experiences. That’s where we have to go for our own water. Draw it up, taste it, use it for whatever we need it for, do what we can with it. What we have hung on to is what will save us. We knew where to dig to find water. We drink from the wells we made, the reserves we always had.
And it saves because it is always changing, always fresh. That’s what you should expect. Tomorrow’s will be different. That is, if you’re still alive it will be.
See below for Reflections for Advent 1 & 2
Advent’s Empty Journeying To Joy
by Rob Esdaile
Perhaps no one ever told you but these Advent days were not devised to be a costly, fractious time of burden and fatigue. Once their purpose wasn't that of filling up the freezer fit to burst, preloading us with Christmas cheer and emptying our bank accounts to boot. The point was patient, hope-filled waiting, an emptying, a making space, the building of a nest, a stable place where love could be renewed. A time to hear the angel's words anew: "You've found God's favour, child;" to wonder how, then, this could be and feel the Spirit's shadow coming near. A time to journey first into Judaean hills to share another's joy, to help and to be held, to sing Magnificats wherever heralds of true Gospel hope are born. A time at last to wend our way to Bethlehem, to find there is no place for Christ among the gaudy palaces of plenty or the noisy taverns of excess. But in a dark cave dug beneath the House of Bread, in the unexpected caverns of our story, too, there we head and there we wait in prayer to hear the infant's cry and angel's song and find our world reborn.
© Rob Esdaile, 2021
Reflections for Advent 2021 by Paul McGowan
The First Sunday: Psalm 24
Not yet done with November and now Advent is upon us. Still pondering the death of loved ones, the aftermath of COP 26, the collapse of sporting values and the greed of politicians. We have to drag all this with us into the new liturgical year.
‘I trust you; let me not be disappointed’. I’m counting on you, so you’d better not let me down. This is how the conversation begins in the Psalm, and also how it ends. Disappointment is a terrible outcome. Radical disappointment, that is. When something cannot be restored. The possibility of disappointment in the Lord is an unusual and shocking thought, but Psalm 24 is much more than the dutiful piety the Lectionary excerpts suggest. The Psalm as a whole is different. It is not a list of things to do which will keep you safe. The speaker is a real person, someone old enough to look back on a life reasonably, but not particularly, well lived: ‘Do notremember the sins of my youth … forgive my guilt, for it is great’. An ordinary sort of life, with its difficulties, foolishnesses, nastinesses, anxieties and dangers. Someone still in search of a way, even after all this, or maybe because of all this. Still feeling like a novice, an ignoramus. Still looking for the way out, the way forward, the way back, the way through. Still falling for the traps: ‘he rescues my feet from the snare’.
It’s the song of the not very bad and the not very good. The one always looking over their shoulder and sometimes seeing the bigger picture: ‘Redeem Israel, O God, from all its distress’. In fact, it’s a good way to start. By getting real, facing facts. No doubt about it, we are where are and ‘the way’ we are looking for can’t be anywhere else.
The Second Sunday: Psalm 125
Another Psalm. Another person’s head. What a dream it was! I mean, now it’s a memory, just in the head. Then, it was a hope, something to believe in, to look forward to.
How do we keep on singing? Where do the songs go when we can’t sing them? We couldn’t do it in captivity. You only sing when you’re winning, as the football fans taunt.
To get to the starting-point for the meaning of Psalm 125 we have to pick it up in the middle, not at the beginning. The key to it all is not the ancient triumph but the ongoing predicament, the current ‘bondage’, the thing which continues to enslave: ‘Deliver us, Lord, from our bondage’. The comparison is with one of the great moments of triumph. Everybody saw the big event, of course. Even the heathens. The whole world noticed it! We still sing about it.
But now what! Are we any more free than we were then! No. We’re back in bondage. Where did it all go, that freedom? And what are we left with? The daily toil, battling with the elements, hoping for the best, a decent harvest if we’re lucky.
And that’s the future we have to look forward to. Planting, reaping. Planting, reaping. Back then, they really were slaves, real slaves, but with a vision of something better. Now, we’re free, but stuck. Looking back, we can see something was coming for them. From where we are now, we can’t see an end to it for ourselves.
Educational Resources for Advent
To explore Pax Christi’s Education Resources for Advent & Christmas look here for
A Bethlehem Story – a PowerPoint reflection for children giving a sense of Bethlehem as a living place today.
Holy Family Prayer booklet – outlining a prayer time using a Holy Family crib set, and information on Bethlehem.
Advent Activities and Reflections – a collection of activities and reflections on peace during Advent.
Advent and Christmas in Bethlehem 2021
Christmas celebrations will take place in a very difficult climate in the Holy Land but many individuals and groups refuse to give up hope and are searching for non-violent ways to work for human rights and a just and peaceful future.
Please try some of these ideas:
- include prayers for justice, peace and security for Palestine and Israel in your Advent and Christmas services. Light a candle for peace in Palestine and Israel each day of Advent;
- look for ways in which your Advent Services and Christmas crib can show how the people of Bethlehem are living now – perhaps build a wall around or through the crib and discuss who would be inside or outside. Israeli citizens are denied access to Bethlehem. So if Mary and Joseph were travelling today they would not get in – the crib would be empty!
- See Kairos Palestine Christmas Alert 2021 A resource full of reflections, prayers, and actions for each of the four Sundays of Advent and for Christmas Day. https://www.kairospalestine.ps/index.php/resources/alerts/kairos-christmas-alert-2021
- send a peace message to our sisters and brothers in Palestine email@example.com
- reflect on Palestinians today attempting to make journeys in Palestine. The checkpoints throughout Palestine and the 30’ separation wall prevent Palestinians from travelling freely so Christians and Moslems who live in Bethlehem, totally surrounded by the wall, are separated from their family and friends and cannot leave without a special permit. They are imprisoned by the wall. Christians living outside Bethlehem are usually denied permits to worship there at Christmas;
- write to your MP explaining the denial of freedom of movement and ask that they work for freedom of movement for all people in Palestine and Israel. www.writetothem.com
- adapt Christmas carols to reflect the situation in Bethlehem now.
- give Christmas gifts that come from Palestinian, for olive wood carvings and craft goods from L’Arche in Bethlehem available from the shop
POEM: The Waiting by Katherine Halstrom
When will the phone bring the news I’m awaiting?
When will the date of our holiday come?
When will our child done her first school uniform?
When will my loved one at last marry me?
The waiting is long till asylum is granted,
Painful and harsh for the men behind bars,
Dreary and sad for the sick and the sleepless,
Lonely and anxious when waiting to die.
When will the fruit on the fig tree ripen?
When will the sweet-scented rose bud bloom?
When will the rainbow conquer the rain clouds,
And when will a fresh sunrise lift up our heads?
Come! longed-for freedom, bring peace to the stricken;
Come, Lord Messiah – deliver us all.
A young mother’s womb is stirring…it’s Advent…
O Mary, give birth to the Christ-Child we love.
Copyright ©️ 2021 Katherine Holstrom Prayers for Pax Christi – a collection of 25 poems is available for £5.00 from the shop
Reflection Sheets from Anne O’Connor
Pax Christi member and author, Anne O’Connor, has written Advent Reflection sheets for the four weeks of Advent. Week One: Getting Ready invites us to ‘slow down and listen’ and begins with a quotation from Anne’s daughter, Annie who died suddenly from natural causes in June 2020.
‘God speaks to us in all sorts of ways – through scripture, through nature, through other people. However, unless we slow down and listen, we miss his prompting and his voice.’Annie O’Connor, The Camino: Finding Stillness and Presence
(for Catholic Charismatic Renewal) 2019
Advent Service 2021
Unfortunately, Pax Christi is unable to hold its Advent Service this year. It’s disappointing, but we hope we can all get together again next year.
The Advent Service from 2021 can be seen here
Further Advent materials available here