Isaiah 35 : 1 – 10
Luke 1 : 47 – 55
Today”s Gospel selection is called "Magnificat". If indeed Mary had anything to do with its creation, it is an incredible piece of literature . Consider the circumstances. She must have been only in her mid- teens, unmarried, and was just informed that she was pregnant with the child who was going to inherit the throne of David, the messiah the whole nation was waiting for. And she was no royalty. She was only the fiancé of a poor carpenter. A scandal! The punishment could have been death by stoning. But she believed in the message. And she went even further. She thought, if a lowly girl like her was to be a mother of the most high, the rich and powerful could be humiliated, and hungry and poor would be exalted. There would be justice. In fact, it would be a new world. Mary”s child would bring peace, a special kind of peace. Peace based on justice and love, not by power. What a dream! Is this only a silly fantasy of a crazy teenage unmarried mother?
This notion of the new regime of which Mary dreamt is expressed today in one word in three different languages, Salaam in Arabic, Shalom in Hebrew, and Khotso in African Sesotho. They all have the same meaning, somewhat inadequately translated into English as "peace". All of them are used still today as the most common form of greeting. It means "Hello and good-bye." – for meeting and parting. When they meet, they wish each other peace. And likewise they bid each other peace as they go their separate ways. I believe that this expression is the world”s most profound way of greeting. Harvey Cox, a theology professor at Harvard Theological School once told a touching story about the use of this word. When a Jewish mother was separated from her child before she was shipped off to a Nazi extermination camp during the second world war, she hugged the child and said, "Shalom." Miraculously both the mother and the child survived the death camps and ran into each other at the port of Haifa in Palestine five years later. When they hugged each other, in tears they only said "Shalom." That was enough.
It was enough because the word contains all the important ingredients of the perfect world under the reign of God. God will bring justice to the world. And when that happens people beat their swords into ploughshares and will hear of war no more. There is justice hence there is peace. In the language I learned to preach in Africa, the same notion of peace is expressed in the word – Khotso. It also has all the important ingredients of the better world, just like the Hebrew word – shalom.
In Lesotho, when you finish a dinner, for example, the host will ask you, "Uena ka Khotso?" – Are you at peace? It means, "Have you had enough? Are you satisfied, happy? Are you at peace with yourself?" They believe that when you are physically well, you are spiritually content also. They firmly believe that there is no peace without justice, and there is no want with justice.
When one lacks inner peace and is frustrated and insecure, one tends to be violent. Secondly, one is driven to anger and unhappiness, when one is treated unjustly. Humans have known this for tens of centuries. But we have not taken the idea seriously and have made the same mistakes over and over again.
We can learn a lot from those nomadic traditions about peace and about justice. Our idea of peace has long been dominated by a notion of "Pax Romana" – Roman peace. It comes from the idea that there is peace when a powerful nation dominates others by force, just as the Roman Empire did dominating others absolutely by force for six hundred years. We still believe in that peace can be achieved when one overpowers others by force. But the idea never worked because importance of peace of mind based on justice was completely ignored.
No empire has ever achieved enduring peace. The longest lasting empire we have known was the Roman Empire. But the millennium that followed was a history of bloody conflicts. The British one lasted not even two hundred years. Domination by the Americans and the Russians has not even lasted one century and is already slipping. And whenever the empires fall, violence and blood-shed follow. Many of the regional conflicts today are rooted in the histories of empires. It shows no sign that the peace enforced by those empires has any lasting effect. Hatred that has been festering while being ruled by force demands settling of scores. Look at Northern Ireland. Look at former Yugoslavia. The whole of Balkan is suffering from the memories of three fallen empires. They still remember the atrocities committed to each other and by those empires. And they fiercely hate each other. Has the British victory at the Plain of Abraham produced an enduring peace in Canada? Apparently it didn”t, judging from the never ending threat of separation .
When do we ever learn? Haven”t we ever learnt that there can never be enduring peace unless there is justice? Haven”t we ever learned that there can never be justice unless there is love? Where there is no love there is no peace of mind. Where there is no love, there is greed and self-centredness. And greed and self-centredness are the causes of injustice. A vicious circle goes around and around.
We are waiting for the arrival of the gift from God. We are waiting for the era of peace that began with the birth of Jesus. We are going to celebrate the birthday of the one who declared the new regime. Let us wait actively for the coming of peace – real peace of shalom, salaam, and khotso, with excitement, joy, and determination, not just in this season of Advent but also in our daily life at all times. Our waiting may seem hopeless, just as the magnificat sounded crazy. But why not? The dream of one unmarried teenage mother-to-be came true with the birth of Christ 2000 years ago.