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19 December 2013

Peace at Christmas

Peace at Christmas

Talking of peace at Christmas is both a delightful and dangerous thing.

For the last few months Dr Richard Haass and his team have been consulting with the Northern Irish public about legacy issues from the Troubles such as parades, flags and the past. They received over six hundred responses, including our submission and many others from the Christian community here.

Northern Ireland is now almost twenty years post the 1994 ceasefires and fifteen years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And yet the 'why' behind these talks is still peace. While we may no longer be described as a society at war, we are still not a society at peace. There is general agreement that the focus must now move beyond managing division to actively seeking shalom; the peace, prosperity and wellbeing of all in our society.

For the last few weeks Dr Haass and his team have been meeting with representatives from the political parties forming the Northern Ireland Executive. As the talks and negotiations continue, emotions have been running high, the First Minister described himself as having 'steam coming out of his ears' and of 'paint being lifted off walls' if changes were not made. Whether this is political posturing and pantomime to help deliver particular constituencies remains to be seen. What we do know is that the final proposals from Dr Haass and his team are due today with the possibility of a small extension until Christmas.

Talking of peace at Christmas is both a delightful and dangerous thing.

At this time of year it's acceptable to talk about peace. In many ways there's no better time. Even the Miss World stock answer of 'World Peace' seems less fanciful at Christmas. The story is well told of Christmas 1914 when a truce broke out on Christmas day between the British and German Soldiers in the French trenches. No-man's land played host to this most unusual yule-tide celebration of carols and even football. Back in Northern Ireland, and during the troubles, paramilitaries often also called cease-fires over Christmas.

Peace is what Christmas is all about - the hope of peace with God and on earth among humanity. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. He who will one day reign in a kingdom without war, sin and injustice, without end.

Talking of peace at Christmas is both a delightful and dangerous thing.

It's delightful because we get to share this Jesus-peace into real and bloody situations of war and death. We get to speak from a hope-filled eternal perspective of the reality of justice and peace. We get to be the bearers of good news and truth. Peace between God and man for everyone and anyone who will accept it and let it transform them.

It is also a dangerous thing though. In both instances described above, the trenches and the streets of Northern Ireland, after the clock struck midnight the bombs and bullets began again. There's a real danger that talking about peace at Christmas is just that, talk. Peace becomes an ethereal aspiration, something we sing about at Christmas and ignore the rest of the year. But the pursuit of peace is central to our calling as Christians. Syria needs Christians committed to peace throughout the year ahead, not just this Christmas. Peace is not just talked about, it is wrought from sacrifice, pain, death and war. Jesus called peacemakers 'blessed' and 'sons of God' (Matthew 5:9). We're called to peace with God and peace with man while ironically fighting a daily battle against self, evil and sin.

Practically, now as we wait for the Haass proposals, whether good or bad, accepted or rejected, we encourage the Church in Northern Ireland to pursue their delightful and dangerous calling to peace beyond Christmas and throughout 2014.