on earth, peace; on people, kindness

The fullness of time brought with it the fullness of divinity. God’s Son came in the flesh so that mortals could see and recognize God’s kindness. [Bernard of Clairvaux]

There’s one word that got my attention this year as we were preparing for Christmas––“kindness.” And I don’t mean simply that emotional glow that we feel around the holidays, though there is something to be said for that too. It’s just that, as real as it may be, it’s only a pale imitation, a faint echo of something even greater, which is the kindness of God. I’m not sure why we don’t use that word more often about God––kindness, that God is kind. It’s certainly in the psalms––The Lord is kind and merciful; The Lord’s kindness is everlasting for those who fear him. Maybe it’s too soft for us. We might associate “kind” with being “nice,” and somehow it doesn’t feel like it’s enough to say that about God. But I keep running into it over and over again, especially in reference to God at Christmas, that Christmas as an expression of God’s kindness, that the birth of Jesus is an act of God’s kindness.

I don’t want to pick on the new translation of the Missal, but there is one little thing that got my attention. The liturgical translators wanted to be more faithful to the Latin texts for the Mass, and so they translated the first line of the Gloria––…et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis––as “…and on earth peace to people of good will,” which is a perfect translation of the Latin. But I wish they had done some real ressourcement instead and gone all the way back to New Testament Greek in the Gospel of Luke which we hear at Midnight Mass and from which this great liturgical canticle is drawn. The word used in the Gospel of Luke is eudokias, and the line could be translated either as “and peace on the earth to the people He [meaning “God”] loves,” or else, very simply, “on earth, peace; to people, kindness.” I like to put the words “love” and “kindness” together in the compound word that’s used often in the Buddhist tradition, but that we don’t use very much in English: “loving-kindness,” which means something like “tender benevolent affection.” As Jesus tells us about his Abba in John 3:16, God so loves the world… God has such tender benevolent affection for the world. “On earth peace; and to people, loving-kindness.” In the Word-become-flesh, God’s intention is to pour out on the earth peace; and to pour out on human beings loving-kindness. And a later verse in the reading from the letter to Titus that we also hear at Midnight Mass reads …when the kindness and love of God our savior appeared, he saved us.[1] And I keep thinking too of the Canticle of Zechariah, which refers to the “loving kindness” or the “tender compassion of God”: In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high breaks upon us.

The thing is, kindness, even loving-kindness, is not flashy; it’s not gaudy. It breaks forth slowly, gently, like the dawn, growing in strength, increasing in brightness, changing colors and painting everything around it. Evil is loud and brash, excess is gaudy and flashy. I’m a bit of an aesthetical snob I know as I say this, but my artistic sensibility has been honed such as to think of things that are flashy and grandiose as being in bad taste, and that bad taste is always very quickly in danger of being morally corrupt. (I get that right from Plato, by the way.) Shopping malls and television commercials––commercialism in general, especially around Christmas time––are garish, showy and lurid. The inane music that pumps over the radio waves and little tiny speakers in stores tends to be shallow and cheap. (Everybody complains about it, but no one does anything about it.) But it’s almost as if the louder things get the softer the echo it has of the real thing; and the flashier and gaudier things get the paler the reflection of the original, like a reverse echo––instead of getting softer it gets louder. We are so fortunate to be spared so much of that, and to prepare in such silence. I had the feeling this year more than ever that Advent itself tends to get quieter as it goes on, from the thunderous apocalyptic readings that we hear in the first weeks, through John the Baptist in the Jordan yelling at the brood of vipers and laying the axe to the root of the tree, until we arrive at Joseph getting a message in a dream and Mary meeting the angel; and then the couple silently tramping the country roads for 95 miles (if my geography is correct) to arrive at Bethlehem, and still the Gospels put them in quiet places, away from the crowded inns and bustling market places to a barn. There’s something very quiet about the Christmas scene, and that’s as it should be because, as John of the Cross wrote, “The Father spoke one word, which was his Son, and that Word he speaks in eternal silence, and in silence it must be heard by the soul.”

I was thinking too, of all things, of the Tao te Ching, that poetic work of Chinese spirituality. At least one translation of the Bible into Chinese translated the prologue of the Gospel of John, which we hear at the Christmas Mass during the Day, In the beginning was the Word…, as In the beginning was the TaoAnd the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God. Many people have written convincingly that the Chinese concept of the Tao is very much what the Greek concept of Logos–the Word is trying to convey, the Tao or the Logos as that subtle intelligent principle of the universe, its intelligent design you might say, that which we believe of course was made flesh in Jesus. This little boy-child is the embodiment of the plan for the universe. As one book title goes, Christ is the Eternal Tao. So we hear in Paul’s Colossians canticle: In him all things were made, he holds all creation together in himself. But this intelligent principle, this Logos or Tao is not a big flashy thing. It’s not a monstrosity of a structure or a great super-imposing force. As the Tao te Ching chapter 8 says of the Tao, so the Word, the logos, is like water: nurturing the ten thousand things without competing, flowing into places people scorn, like this baby, flowing into places people scorn, soft as water.

We keep trying to add all kinds of things on to this birth of the Christ child to make it bigger and brighter than it was, like a golden warrior or a god thundering from heaven, but it wasn’t. Maybe even Matthew and Luke added a bit of gilding to the story like the Franciscans did to the image of la Guadalupana. It was a little baby. There is something so right about that, like the still small voice in Elijah’s cave. That’s how God comes into our hearts too, into our lives; if I may quote that other mystic, Paul Simon, God “slips into my pocket with my car keys.” We have to be very attentive, very watchful; that’s why we had the long period of Advent, to listen, to watch, to be attentive. That’s how God comes in, not flashy, not sexy, in the still of the night. “The Father speaks in eternal silence, and in silence it must be heard by the soul.”

And our kindness ought to be like that too, our loving-kindness. It’s not big or flashy. There’s a Buddhist text that I was thinking of too that I ran into some years ago from a Pali text called the Ituvitaka. It’s about the virtue of “loving-kindness.” What I really like about this text is that instead of talking about the dawn from on high shining on us, it talks about the light of loving-kindness dawning within us––first it glows, then it shines, then it blazes up. That’s it though: at the birth of Jesus, the dawn from on high breaks upon us. And now, that loving kindness of God is supposed to dawn within us. I thought as a Christian how poignant these images were about when the Christ is born in us, when the loving-kindness of God becomes incarnate and manifests through us: “As when the moon begins a-glowing, slowly absorbing all the stars, / as after the rain the sun shines into a clear and cloudless sky, / as when the morning star is rising, chasing the shadows from the dark, / so loving kindness, when it’s rising, will bring its freedom to the heart. / It glows, it shines, its blazes up!”

This kindness is one of those salient features of who Saint Paul thinks Christians should be, the mark of a Christian, one of the features of Christic love––it’s not a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal: love is patient, love is kind. It’s not so much tossing a handful of change into the Salvation Army bucket; it’s someone who has dedicated their entire life to feeding the poor in a soup kitchen or a halfway house––like yeast in the dough, working quietly and raising the whole batch. It’s not signing an online petition from the safe distance of a computer once in a while as much as it is a whole life dedicated to quietly living justice, compassion and fairness. That’s incarnation. The Word is still not incarnate in us and we have not yet incarnated the gospel in the world, in our society, so that every boot that tramped in battle and very uniform rolled in blood is burned as fuel for fire… All our battles, petty and grand, reveal that God’s loving-kindness is not yet manifest as tender benevolent affection for the world and all its creatures. We haven’t done that yet. But it’s not too late to start. That’s why we celebrate Christmas each year, to remind us and re-inspire us to incarnate the Word.

In the letter to the Galatians Saint Paul lists the nine fruits of the Spirit––love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and self-control. These are proofs that the Spirit of God is involved. In a sense, at Christmas we could narrow it down to two things: peace and loving-kindness as the fruits of the Incarnation. “On the earth, peace; to people, kindness.” In our hearts, peace; in our bearing and being in the world––loving-kindness. This is the pledge and the promise of Christmas, what all the echoes and imitations are aiming at, and our pledge and our promise as followers of Jesus. We will know that the Word has been born in us when we feel peace in our hearts, rising like the morning star chasing the shadows from the dark; and the world will know that the Word has been born in us when we act with loving-kindness, when we spread the tender compassion of our God. Then Christ will truly be born again in our world, the Word will truly be incarnate in us and in our world.

cyprian, christmas, 2013


[1] Ti 3:4

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