This Christmas season, our nation is still recovering from a divisive national election for President of the United States. The thoughts of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men may be far removed from the minds of those whose candidate lost the election. Instead, they may harbor ill will towards the supporters of the victorious candidate. Families and friends divided by the election may exchange insults instead of holiday greetings, allowing the bitter acid of anger and resentment because of the election to corrode things more important and potentially lasting a lifetime: family ties and the bonds of friendship.
Yet, this is not the first time that political division has tried to drown out the Christmas message. A good example of this can be found in the life of James Montgomery (1771-1854) and, from his example, America may find a solution to help heal our land. James Montgomery, though Scottish born, was sent by his Irish parents to a Moravian community in Ireland while they were on the mission field in the West Indies. He was later sent to school in England where, at age twelve, he learned that his parents died in the West Indies. Failing to complete seminary, he turned to writing and worked for a local newspaper. He strongly opposed slavery and the English treatment of the Irish in his editorials, being twice jailed for his political writings by the English government. Yet he still found time to study the Holy Bible, which, had a lifelong, life changing impact on Montgomery.
In the December 24, 1816 issue of his newspaper, those used to reading his fiery rhetoric against the Crown over the issue of Ireland found something quite different. A poem entitled “Nativity”, an attempt to bring together the English and the Irish. Ironically, it was an Englishman, Henry Smart, who put Montgomery’s verse to music in a hymn “Angels from the Realms of Glory”. Montgomery grew further distant from Irish revolutionary politics as he grew deeper in the Word of God. He eventually composed over four hundred hymns before his death in 1854.
The Chaplains might remind us of the words of the angels who announced the news of Jesus Christ’s birth to the shepherds in Luke 2:10: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people”. That verse may have convinced Montgomery that the angel’s message was that God’s salvation indeed was for all peoples, not just for the Irish, but the English, too. Our Chaplains would agree with this idea by recounting the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In contemporary America, the words the angel spoke in Luke 2:10 still apply. The birth of Jesus Christ, the good tidings of great joy, is for ALL people. The words spoken by the angel in the Judean sky were just as valid then, regardless of who was or would become the Emperor of Rome as they are today, regardless of who is inaugurated President of the United States in January 2017 or in some future January inauguration.
Perhaps reminders such as Montgomery’s story will help America heal her political divisions- by fixing our collective eyes on something bigger that politics. Consider this: Montgomery’s parents reached a limited number of people as missionaries, yet his words, not about English or Irish politics but about the love of God, spanned the globe. Merely writing editorials supporting Irish independence may have made Montgomery a footnote in someone’s thesis or dissertation about Irish or English history. Instead, by seeking first the Kingdom of God, his name lives on because of the hymns he wrote. This reminds me of the unnamed woman in Bethany who anointed Jesus with oil in Matthew 26:6-13 and His words about her “Assuredly I say to you wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” As this verse is a memorial to the woman at Bethany, so too is the hymn “Angels from the Realms of Glory a memorial to Montgomery. This reminds me of something my maternal grandmother, Mary Casto, used to say “Only one life will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last”.
This Christmas season, may our nation put aside politics and remember not only the true reason for the season, but also may there be thoughts of gratitude to our active duty military personnel, some far from home, keeping us safe from Islamic terrorists and other foreign enemies; our veterans, who spent their Christmas of yesteryear abroad in the service of our country. Our law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical service workers, who open Christmas Day on duty, instead of at home with their families, so as to preserve domestic tranquility.
Remember also this Christmas season those Christians and Jews persecuted for their faith on this planet as well as the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the aged, the infirmed, those incarcerated or institutionalized, the heartbroken, those in mourning, the widow, widower and orphan, the lonely, the addict and the victims of human trafficking. May God bless them so that their station in life is improved well before this time next year.
On behalf of the Chaplains, I wish each and every member of the Rio Family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! To the Jewish members of the Rio Family I also wish a Happy Hanukah!
William E. Plants