Searching for signs of hope


I was waiting at an intersection without lights to try to get on to Dunedin's one-way system. Traffic was unusually heavy, everybody seemed focused on getting forward and I, as an onlooker, was badly missing out. Many will know the feeling.

Then one car in the line stopped. Its driver waved me into the traffic stream. Somebody who had no idea who I was, nor any expectation of getting something back from me, had just changed my anxious morning. It felt like Christmas, a gift of peace.

''Peace on Earth and goodwill among people everywhere'', is one of the most well known of Christmas blessings, even among many who would not otherwise sign up to Christian faith. It seems also to be one of the least practiced or pursued. Indeed, although the greeting appears in lights everywhere at this time of year, Christmas is frequently a time for feeling a heightened tension between visions of peace and our world's experiences of violence and conflict.

It is easy for the cynic to suggest that the Christmas vision of peace and goodwill is nothing more than an opiate, something to allow us a few days' escape, like sinking into a hot bath or getting drunk at the barbie.

Is that perhaps why New Zealand has such a national problem with alcohol abuse? We're trying to dull the pain of something, but we don't know what.

The real world is the one of grinding poverty, a ravaged Earth, or casual resort to violence by both the drunk on the street and the president launching missiles from drones.

Faced with such a grim account, it is valuable to draw a distinction between optimism and hope.

Optimism fails to face the seriousness of its situation, always believing that things are about to come right. And when they don't, optimism frequently gives way to violence or despair. But hope is grounded in the truth. It knows the full seriousness of its situation but is able also to identify signs of other possibilities.

This, in the Christmas story, is the significance of Bethlehem. One of the least of the villages of Judah, insignificant, on the edge, outside of the circles of power, it was nevertheless the place from which would come one who would bring peace.

So, too, for the Jewish people under Roman military occupation, for Mary and Joseph, and Jesus himself. All of them insignificant in the world of realpolitik, but from these places on the edge the inspiring visions arise.

This is the nature of the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed.

It is small like a seed, vulnerable like a young plant, but it holds the promise of life. The ultimate hope in the biblical story for the healing of all Creation is prefigured in proximate hopes, little signs that serve as reminders.

They are present in the determination of Jesus to reject violence but to love his enemies and thereby model a renewed humanity.

I see them also in the Fair Trade movement, in the Powershift Youth Conference, a community garden, a struggling congregation that still wants to be a blessing in its community, in community conservation initiatives - each ministering its small act of healing to the Earth.

They are present in the person reading in a school, or an old folks' home, tending the night-shelter, volunteering at a refuge or making a space on the one-way system.

Such little signs may not arise from explicitly Christian commitments and they may not change the world, but they are like candles in the darkness, reminders of other ways, signs that the world is not completely abandoned.

Herein lies the power of the Christmas blessings.

The world may not yet fully display them, but we can have the courage to follow Jesus in believing that it is still God's world and so identify ourselves with the signs of hope.

 - The Rev Dr Yeoman is the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church's Southern Presbytery (Otago and Southland).


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