Each morning as the Eternal City is waking up, the carillon of St. Paul’s Within the Walls sounds, ringing its varied tunes far and wide. The bells join forces to sing a song that blankets the busy thoroughfare of Via Nazionale with seasonal blessings, covering the hurried and huddled alike. A kind young Italian man named Giacomo, who has a passion for carillons, comes each season to register new tunes that will sound at 9 am, noon, and 6 pm each day. During this season of Advent, the tunes of expectation and hope that make up our Advent repertoire have gripped me with greater force.
Each morning I witness a flood of refugees pouring into the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, a day center for asylum seekers which serves as St. Paul’s primary outreach ministry, and I hear the bells ring out. They are Afghan, Malian, Pakistani, Eritrean–young men who have endured harrowing journeys to arrive on Europe’s shores; and who are often met with more rejection, suspicion, and violence upon arrival. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe, many attributed to rogue refugees benefitting from permissive policies for resettlement in Germany, Belgium, and France, hard-line anti-immigrant voices grow bolder and isolationist stances gain momentum in the polls. As those carillon bells toll “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I see the captivity of an entire generation begging for ransom, begging for an end to an unchosen exile in a foreign land. What do songs of hope offer to refugees in this current climate? What difference does the birth and refugee flight of a Jewish child two millennia past make in this world of surging darkness, division, and fear?
I find it important to lash my hopes to the heart of the story, and to hold on to it for dear life while the winds and rain batter, buffeting the bow and threatening to sink the fragile ship of faith. In simple terms, the heart of Christian faith is this: God created and infused all creation with goodness and was in the midst of us. We humans forgot that God was with us and through a series of decisions over generations, we became ever more blind to God’s presence among us and to the goodness inherent in each other. That forgetting and our manufactured separation—what we have named sin—continued through the years, as did our collective amnesia, even though prophets begged the populace to wake up and remember the truth.
Finally, God gracefully determined to wake up the world from the inside, choosing the most inauspicious medium to come into being: an unmarried poor Jewish teenager and her skeptical but supportive fiancé. An unorthodox couple on the margins–fleeing into Egypt to escape the terror of a maniacal ruler–they cared for their vulnerable child of promise until he grew strong. Jesus, the Incarnation of Emmanuel, this God-among-us, never forgot God’s everlasting presence in all creation nor separated from his foundation in the divine, and outcast by outcast, meal by meal, miracle by miracle, revealed the truth to others, until finally he was publicly punished because of the threat he posed to the powerful. Death could not contain God’s love, nor the truth that all creation and its creatures are bound together inextricably and organically in the new resurrected life that destroys death.
From then on, all who wish to remain alive and awake to the truth do so through a new community in which love, respect, mercy and servanthood, rather than brute domination, deception, and self-interest, became the keys to unlocking the eternal realm of God in the present moment. The church of God–the Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop refers to it–and its Episcopal branch succeeds or fails based on how closely we express and incarnate the qualities and motivations of Emmanuel in whose mystical resurrected Body we live.
When the bells ring out across Rome, they are ringing as a reminder to the salvation we know in this foundational story. When a volunteer serves breakfast to a hungry guest who has slept in the streets, or a fellow refugee guides a newly arrived guest through the bureaucratic process of asylum seeking, or when a compassionate citizen chooses to recognize the shared humanity of one from a foreign shore, the bells of the realm of God ring out once more. These are not the noisy gongs or clanging symbols of our forgetfulness, but the clear tones of the connected life of Christ that even death cannot destroy. They are signs of eternity’s realm in the midst of the fluctuations of earthly kingdoms; they are the peal of love’s enduring reign.
That is where hope lies, and why the story still shines within the darkness today.
May you add your unique ring to the chorus of bells that ring out across the world once more and announce the birth of Jesus. May you live in a way that reminds you of the shared heritage we have in God, and inspires others to add their lives and voices to the tune. And though the world’s forgetting may seem at its zenith in these dark days, and the need for powerful, vigilant prophecy still required, may love resonate in your heart and reverberate throughout Rome, throughout the world, and through all creation…as it did in Bethlehem so long ago.
Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow
-Bob Dylan “Ring Them Bells”
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen “Anthem”