Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
14,000-15,000 civilians are massacred in Transylvania during the Hungarian Revolution. 96 inmates of an overcrowded workhouse in Ireland die from famine-related conditions, a record high for the Great Famine. The republican government of Sicily is crushed. As part of the ongoing repression of Christianity, Ranavalona I of Madagascar orders four Christians be burnt alive and fourteen others executed.
In the US, still in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, the seeds of discontent are being sewn for what will become the American Civil War. Against this backdrop of strife and violence and suffering, a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts finds melancholy as his muse and writes a poem (we now know as ‘It came upon a midnight clear‘) which is almost a plea to humankind: ‘hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.’
The UN has warned that the world is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with up to 20 million people at risk of starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria.
A terrorist attack targets children at a pop concert in Manchester, killing 22 and injuring over 100. Hurricanes devastate Puerto Rico, causing many deaths and billions of dollars of damage. 58 people are killed and 546 injured in a gun massacre in Las Vegas.
In the space of 24 hours, more than 4.7 million people use #metoo about sexual harassment and assault. A magnitude 7.3 earthquake in Iraq and Iran leaves 530 dead and over 70,000 homeless. An attack at a mosque in Sinai kills 305 and leaves hundreds more wounded.
The world has, indeed, ‘suffered long’. The joyful waiting we endure in Advent for God with us is held in tension that in the birth of Jesus, as soon as the Word is made flesh, the countdown to his death begins. It feels macabre to even contemplate death alongside birth, especially the birth of a baby, and yet we are forced to.
As Mary and Joseph, and the haphazard group of worshippers, celebrate the birth of Jesus, ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ (Jer 31: 15)
Maíno’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ is an enormous piece of work; it’s physically imposing. At its display in the National Gallery last year, if you sat on the bench in the middle of the room to look at it, you came eye level with a lamb, its feet bound, its final living expression one of anguish. A grieving shepherd holds the lamb’s, his eyes are shut tight, as a final barrier against tears.
It’s an obvious foreshadowing of Christ’s passion. But there is even more meaning to be found in the shepherd and his sheep in the dark beneath the Christ-child with his parents, lit resplendently. But there is also a predominantly hopeful and joyful meaning to that image.
For just as Christ is the lamb upon the throne, so is he also our shepherd. We are wounded sheep, we are at war with each other, two thousand years of wrong treatment of our fellow human beings, and in our pain and in our despair, our good shepherd sees us and holds us to himself. In quieting us with his love, we can again hear the love-song which the angels bring.
God incarnate means we can come as we are: human, fallible, wounded by people and wounding people, comforted by Christ through others and comforting others through Christ in you. We can recognise the pain in the world and know that it is not God’s plan, but we can do something.
For everyone at Viva, from the staff in head office to the networks around the world, the two thousand years of wrong against children are not ignored or dismissed – but we can do something.
We can be that voice or that presence which comforts people, which does not flinch in the face of unrelenting anguish, but holds on. We can stop the cycle of man at war with man, in the myriad contexts that war can be.
So this Advent, hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.
This is the second of four reflections from Viva for Advent 2017 in a series entitled, ‘Hear the angels sing’. Click here to read the first in the series and look out for more published on the next two Advent Sundays.