In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“It came upon the midnight clear” -- you know the hymn? I like it – I think it has an good melody and a good message – but from seminary on I’ve read passionate arguments that it’s not a “suitable” hymn at Christmas (or any other time) because it mentions “sin and strife, suffering, wrong, war, life’s crushing load, toil, pain” – not “nice” thoughts at Christmas, certainly not in a “feel-good” church.
Well, we’ll sing it here today anyway, but first I want to consider what we might call the “anti-midnight-clear” mindset. You know that I don’t take my opinions from The Washington Post, but I’ll take illustrations from wherever I find them and last Thursday’s op-ed page provided an antithetical-but-matched pair. Side-by-side on page A-15 were articles by Colman McCarthy on “Why ROTC shouldn’t be on campus” and by Carl Gershman entitled “No holiday from tyrants.”
Mr. McCarthy is a Roman Catholic pacifist of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker school who “teaches non-violence at four area universities and two high schools.” He believes that no Christian should study “a way to kill civilians in the name of Jesus” and that “ROTC and its warrior ethic taint the intellectual purity of a school, if by purity we mean trying to rise above the idea that nations can kill and destroy their way to peace.”
Side-by-side next to Mr. McCarthy’s opinions Mr. Gershman cites facts that tyrannical regimes often wait to perform enormities until Christmastide when Western government and media members are on holiday, the airwaves are full of seasonal specials and music, and few people are paying attention to international events: it was Christmastide in 1979 that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; in 2009 China sentenced Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison; and just this year Russia postponed sentencing Mikhail Khodorkovsky from December 15 until the 27th; this week Belarus cracked down very hard on anyone protesting its palpably stolen presidential election; and in Venezuela Hugo Chavez praised Belarus’s police-state tactics while presenting himself with “decree powers” for the next 18 months and ordering strict media controls.
Democratic and dictatorial governments seem to have different ways of observing Jesus’ Nativity, we by taking time off and they by working harder than ever. I’m not clear how Mr. McCarthy proposes to deal with the sort of actions his page-mate Mr. Gershman enumerates. I realize that many people agree with whoever edited The Diary of Anne Frank that “I believe that everyone is good at heart,” making the Rodney King plea, “Can’t we all just get along?” But, as Chamberlain found after Munich and well-meaning diplomats continually re-discover to their astonishment, there are situations in which ‘further discussions’ won’t bring peace – the idea that everything can we worked out between people of good will, depends on the inaccurate presumption that everyone is “of good will.” As with Hitler, sometimes only raw force, military force, can defeat Evil, because Evil knows only power and therefore will not and can-not respond except to power. Diplomacy can be effective only if it’s complemented by willingness to take action if prevention fails.
Why do we Christians need to know that Evil exists? Because until we do, we can’t recognize it as qualitatively different from ‘bad behavior’ and until we do that we can’t deal with it effectively and accept our need for God to help us.
What’s this got to do with Christmas? Quite a bit, as the Gospel we just heard spells out in Matthew 2 verses 12-23. On Christmas God’s power comes into this world as the weakest of humans, an infant baby – and God’s Power is immediately discerned as a threat to the power of worldly Evil epitomized in King Herod – correctly perceived as a threat, because the good of God is a threat to all that is evil.
Now, I’ve just used abstract words like “good” and “evil” because we’ve learnt many of our thinking habits and vocabulary from pagan Greek philosophers who (being teachers) thought that teaching was the answer, taught that better education would solve all humanity’s problems – concerning which I accept Bill Raspberry’s dictum, that “Education is the answer only to the extent that ignorance is the problem.” The Bible, however, is not a philosophical treatise but history and holy revelation – the Bible is concrete, not abstract. The Bible knows nothing of our ‘intellectual’ questions as to the ‘origin’ of Evil – from first to last, from the serpent in the Garden of Eden right through to the false prophet and the AntiChrist and the beast from the sea at the end of the Book of the Revelation to Saint John, the Bible deals with the fact of Evil without theorizing about the “Why?” of it, much less our modern debates on “Whether it exists?” The Bible is existential in the best sense, fact-based: Evil exists, period, and we know it in practice even if we deny it in theory.
Evil at Christmastime? Certainly. The historic Church knows much more than the church-of-what’s-happening-now: evidence? From ancient times the Church kalendar has bracketed Christmas with doubt, distress, and death – just before Christmas the 25th comes the 21st and Doubting Thomas – the 26th, the day immediately after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day remembers the first martyr to die for being a Christian – two days later, on the 28th, King Herod’s butchery of every male in Bethlehem under two years old trying to kill the infant Jesus – precipitating the Flight into Egypt, Joseph and Mary homeless refugees, displaced persons, spiriting Jesus to safety, saving the Saviour of this world from the duly-constituted authorities carrying out the Evil of this world. The very word ‘saviour’ means that there’s something from which to be saved – right?
Evil at Christmastime? You bet – any time – read the Book! Authentic Christianity teaches, not that there is no such thing as objective Evil with which we can make peace, but that despite and in the midst of the reality of Evil, God is going to win. The glory of Christian Faith is that despite the very real existence of Evil, and the very worst it can do, the good of God will triumph – and you and I, flawed as we are, can follow in His train, can serve His purposes. Remember that as we sing It came upon the midnight clear, facing the facts,
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.