Professor Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:
The word ‘peace’ resonates in Advent and Christmas in spite of its absence today, most notably amidst brutality, violence and oppression in the land made Holy by the birth of the Prince of Peace. Our invocation of peace in Christian liturgy is not only for a ceasefire there or the cessation of cruelty in every sense, but the invocation of the reign of God where charity and love prevail as per Jesus’ instruction: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13.34–35).
These days we are more than likely to hear the Prophet Isaiah: ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’ (9.6). If you are like me, you are someone who cannot read those words without hearing Handel’s Messiah echoing in the background and appropriately connecting them to the Christ child. Our forebears in the faith were aware, as we are, that the immediate context of Isaiah’s prophecy was the political situation in the Kingdom of Judah in the eighth-century BC; and that that context occasioned a prophecy looking beyond its tumultuous times, though without ignoring them, to a different sort of kingdom, namely, the Kingdom of God, wrought in Jesus, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace.
The Hebrew for ‘prince of peace’ is sar shālōm: sar means ‘prince’; shālōm means ‘peace’. The semantic range of ‘shalom’ and its Greek equivalent (eirēnē) is very wide. It is used 115 times in the Pentateuch alone to denote anything from wellbeing (e.g. Gen. 29.6) to a treaty (Num. 25.12). For the most part, we interpret the use of shalom, as per the Aaronic blessing, to mean a peace that bespeaks the presence of God: ‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace’ (Num. 6.24–26).
We get perhaps the most palpable sense of that peace each year at Christmas. St Matthew took Isaiah to have prophesied Jesus’ Virgin Birth: ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us’ (Matt. 1.23; Isa. 7.14). Likewise, the earliest Christians were quick to see that Jesus is, indeed, ‘Wonderful, Counseller, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’. Thus, St Luke recounts the multitude of the heavenly host saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (2.14).
Jesus tells us that his peace is different to the world’s (Jn 14.27). St Paul reminds us that such peace is beyond our understanding until the Second coming of Christ Jesus (Phil. 4.7); but in the meantime, Jesus himself is our peace, the peace which breaks down walls and hostility among us (Eph. 2.14). The observance of Advent and Christmas to mark the coming of the Prince of Peace and inauguration of the Kingdom of God cannot abide brutality, violence and oppression. As we await the glorious return of the Christ, we rightly prepare for it with attention to the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves. At this writing, more than 18,000 have been killed in the Holy Land in the recent wave of terror. The vast majority are women and children. When I hear Handel these days, I cannot smile as I used to because my eyes flood with tears. I am ashamed.
In this column in October and November, I suggested we storm the heavens with prayers. I suggested we donate generously to charities like Abraham’s Children in Crisis and the Al Ahli Hospital Appeal to help those babies and mothers who tragically continue to be displaced and butchered. I suggested we lobby the movers and shakers, and raise our voices. I am going to redouble my own efforts on all three fronts. Why? Because I am afraid. Our broken political systems may be unable to stop the carnage; but why, literally, in God’s name, would I rely on worldly princes and powers to do the right thing? No, I must obey the Prince of Peace who commands me to love, and that love must extend from the British Isles to the Holy Land—spiritually, materially and politically from me—if anyone is to think of me as a disciple of Jesus. If I do little or nothing now, what peace will I find at Christmas?
The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He became Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute in the Summer of 2023 after eight years as its Director of Studies.