Annunciation to the Shepherds/ Master of the Houghton Miniatures (Flemish, act. ca. 1480-ca. 1485). The Annunciation to the Shepherds, late 1470s-early 1480s, from the Emerson-White Hours. Ghent (?). Tempera colors and gold paint on parchment. 12.5 x 9 cm. 95.ML.53 recto. J. Paul Getty Museum. Public Domain

Annunciation to the Shepherds/ Master of the Houghton Miniatures (Flemish, act. ca. 1480-ca. 1485). The Annunciation to the Shepherds, late 1470s-early 1480s, from the Emerson-White Hours. Ghent (?). Tempera colors and gold paint on parchment. 12.5 x 9 cm. 95.ML.53 recto. J. Paul Getty Museum. Public Domain

That familiar Christmas song!  We are all aware of its parodies. Here are eight that claim being best. Like many medieval carols, its origins are obscure. We might like to think of the verses as subversive protests camouflaged as exuberant romantic sentiments about extravagant gifts, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is so.

Extravagant gifts abound, however. We can contemplate first the Pax in Terra, that popular three worded political slogan that the Roman Empire used to convince its subjects and vassal states that, under the rule of Caesar, peace and prosperity would be maintained.

Somewhat wary of such soundbites, we might ask “Where is the gift?” We have to sit with shepherds on a dark hillside and hear “Pax in Terra” from a different source and different voices. No three word slogan here; it has context.

We have to sit with shepherds on a dark hillside and hear “Pax in Terra” from a different source and different voices. No three word slogan here; it has context:

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Pax in Terra has now been taken from Empire and relocated in a birth to a humble peasant family in a remote corner of that same Empire. It becomes the first extravagant gift of Christmas – the arrival of a peace more fully described in the Hebrew word “shalom”, describing, not absence of conflict, but fullness of relationship within ourselves, with each other, with our world and our Creator.

On the first day of Christmas, our Saviour gave the world: pax in terra – shalom!

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