The theme of my last sermon was war. So, I thought by way of contrast that as we are in the fourth Sunday in Advent, looking towards the imminent birth of Christ, I would preach on the theme of peace.
I found it more challenging to reflect upon peace than to reflect upon war. This may be because war, however dreadful its consequences may be, is dramatic and dynamic whereas peace is harder to define. I will though make the attempt and in so doing put Christ center stage.
If we look at the life of Christ, there is a pattern of peace in the silent night, holy night of his birth, then a gradual buildup of conflict ending in his death on the Cross and then peace returns via the Resurrection and Ascension narratives as he then takes his place in heaven at the right hand of God. From this pattern we could say that the life of Christ represents a triumph of peace over conflict. This peace, that passes all understanding, is a gift to us from God through his son Jesus and as we say in our worship it is there to ‘keep our hearts and minds in the love of God’.
If we look at today’s Gospel reading, the Annunciation, we learn that the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the most High will overshadow her as the child to be born will be holy. Mary is initially perplexed but then peace reigns once she states her obedience to God’s Word.
When contemplating the Annunciation I looked at the depiction by artists past and present of this narrative, and noticed their use of light to depict holiness and I believe that this light is also the light of peace. I think here, for example, of the Annunciation painted by Bartolomé Murillo, the seventeenth century artist who places the dove of the Holy Spirit in a pool of light positioned above-center between the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. I give another example in the painting by the nineteenth century artist Alexander Ivanov who paints Mary standing in front of a huge circle of light. Moving on from the Annunciation to the birth of Christ, the light of God which is brought to us in that birth is beautifully expressed at the beginning of John’s Gospel when he writes that when the Word became flesh what came into being in him was life and the life was ‘the light of all people’. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’. The light, then, represents peace.
Staying with a contemplation of the effect of light, I recently, I read an article in an Art magazine written by Antonia Harrison, curator of an exhibition that investigates the story of glass into the present day. She said that if you observe the light coming through stained glass it has the power to connect you to it. When I have observed the light coming through the stained glass at St Mark’s I feel that it connects me to the Divine. I believe also that when we light a candle for people in distress or in their memory we are looking for them to be at peace.
Then there is the association of peace with stillness versus the turmoil of war. Advent is the invitation to us to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus and it is also a time of waiting. How often were you told in childhood to sit still when waiting in excitement for something to happen. It is not easy but over the years you get to the point of understanding the value of stillness as it is then that you can be ‘still and know that he is God’. You can listen to the ‘still small voice of calm’ which is offering you peace.
Silence, whilst having an association with fear, can also be associated with peace. As one Commentary on Luke expresses it; ‘in our troubled times we need to share the silence and faithfulness of Mary’. I would add that giving space in silence for time to put down the guns of war and to consider the possibility of peace is something which can only be beneficial.
Peace then can be expressed in light, in stillness and in silence. It need not be dull though. Advent, in its preparation of the heart for the coming of Jesus, is a time of joyous expectation of his birth. You can be full of life while at the same time experiencing inner peace. Joy can be found in the Annunciation in the wonderful sentence given to Mary by the Angel Gabriel which reads: ‘nothing is impossible with God’.
Let us hold on to that sentence as we near the end of a very troubled year in the world and look forward in hope to a better situation in the new year.