Christmas is probably the time at which the theme of peace and goodwill seems to be most deeply embedded into society’s collective consciousness. For Christians, who celebrate it as a religious holiday, Christmas is a reminder of the biblical promise of peace found in the Old Testament.
For the many others who merely celebrate it as a cultural holiday, the story of the birth of Jesus as found in the gospels and depicted in the ubiquitous Christmas artwork captures the imagination and imbues many with a determination to practice charity and generosity.
The gospels tell the tale of the shepherds who were watching over their flocks out in the countryside, when an angel appeared to them bearing the good news of the birth of the Promised One.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone roundabout them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2: 8-14, The Holy Bible
Beyond this beautiful and enchanting narrative of peace and goodwill, however, comes the stark reality of what we see in our world.
Last week, as news of the Newtown shootings came in at just at the height of the festive season, I found myself thinking of Simon & Garfunkel’s rendition of the Christmas classic, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”. The track consists of an overdubbing of two recordings: a simple arrangement of the well-known carol “Silent Night”, and a simulated “7 O’Clock News” bulletin based entirely on the actual events of 3 August 1966.
The juxtaposition of the beautiful and familiar Christmas melody and its words which invoke images of a peace and serenity, alongside the news report which, in stark contrast, highlight the troubles that afflicted the world in that day and age, create an effect which one musician called “positively chilling”.
As I read the headlines that flooded my inbox over the week, I was reminded of the violence that still permeates our society. The elementary school massacre might have been a senseless tragedy, but it is just another reminder of how vulnerable we remain to acts of violence and aggression. Violence still exists on a global scale with states perpetrating aggression against each other, and even against their own citizens in many parts of the world.
Even in conflict-free zones, violence still exists in the hearts and minds of people, in the form of prejudice, apathy and enmity. As I reflected on all of this, I couldn’t help but think, somewhat despondently, that Simon & Garfunkel could probably – just as easily – have performed a new version “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” today, in 2012.
Not a very hopeful or inspiring thought, particularly not during the festive season.
What then, do we make of the promise of peace? For those who celebrate Christmas as more than just a cultural holiday, what do we make of the biblical promise of One who would usher in an era of peace?
Although Baha’is don’t celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus – one of God’s Manifestations – is of great significance. Baha’u'llah spoke eloquently of the station of Jesus:
Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent Spirit.
We testify that when He came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the soul of the sinner sanctified… We bear witness that through the power of the Word of God every leper was cleansed, every sickness was healed, every human infirmity was banished. He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u'llah
The birth of Jesus and His Revelation – which, like the other Manifestations, he brought to the world at great personal cost – brought humanity closer towards God, and towards each other. His life and ministry transformed the lives of individuals – both in His lifetime and for centuries after – as well as humanity as a whole. His love and sacrifice infused the world with a new spirit.
Peace, however, is a work in progress and something that we, as humanity, have to strive towards. Jesus brought a message of peace and love, teaching us to “love our neighbour” as we love ourselves – thus laying the foundations, as did the other Manifestations, for the establishment of peace. Baha’u'llah’s revelation, similarly, brought a similar message of peace, but this time in the context of a global unity.
The revelation of Baha’u'llah explicity talks about this peace and unity. Humanity has reached the point of its maturity where it is able to attain this peace and unity. Bah’a'ullah says:
Great indeed is this Day! The allusions made to it in all the sacred Scriptures as the Day of God attest its greatness. The soul of every Prophet of God, of every Divine Messenger, hath thirsted for this wondrous Day. All the divers kindreds of the earth have, likewise, yearned to attain it. No sooner, however, had the Day Star of His Revelation manifested itself in the heaven of God’s Will, than all, except those whom the Almighty was pleased to guide, were found dumbfounded and heedless.
O thou that hast remembered Me! The most grievous veil hath shut out the peoples of the earth from His glory, and hindered them from hearkening to His call. God grant that the light of unity may envelop the whole earth, and that the seal, “the Kingdom is God’s”, may be stamped upon the brow of all its peoples. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u'llah
If we look at our world, we see how unity is now possible in a way that it wasn’t before. Whereas before, it was only possible to strive for unity between two individuals, or within a family, humanity is now at a stage in which it can lay the foundations for an international society that reflects its essential oneness. ‘Abdu’l- Baha says:
In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were well nigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one…. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century — the century of light — has been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day. Eventually it will be seen how bright its candles will burn in the assemblage of man. Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha
What is even more heartening, is that the Writings state that peace is not just possible, but inevitable – a certainty written into human destiny. The journey to this goal, however, lies entirely in our hands. The Universal House of Justice has stated:
Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth. At this critical juncture when the intractable problems confronting nations have been fused into one common concern for the whole world, failure to stem the tide of conflict and disorder would be unconscionably irresponsible. The Promise of World Peace
How are we meant to work towards this peace?
In 1985, the Universal House of Justice prepared a statement addressing this very topic titled “The Promise of World Peace“. While this statement addresses many of the issues relevant to this grand question, it stresses that that attainment of peace can only ever be based on a genuine consciousness of the oneness of mankind which “calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world–a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.”
The Revelation of Baha’u'llah which, through its countless teachings on the elimination of prejudice and disunity in all its forms – from war, violence and discrimination, to the seemingly insignificant like backbiting and divisiveness – acts as a blueprint for humanity as we learn what it means to truly establish the spiritual principle of the oneness of humanity as the foundation of a new world order.