THE 19th-century Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears had a high doctrine of peace. His hymn “It came upon the midnight clear” was praised by its original publisher in 1849: “I always feel that, however poor my Christmas sermon may be, the reading and singing of this hymn are enough to make up for all deficiencies” (told by Dr Morrison, editor of the Christian Register, to Alfred Putnam, editor of Singers and Songs of the Liberal Faith).
Sears maintains that the herald angels have continued to sing of the birth of Christ throughout the past “two thousand years of wrong”, unheard above the sounds of strife. He looks forward to the age of gold, “when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling”. Peace is a splendid thing, flung as a mantle to cover all the earth.
The peace in Syria, brokered by Turkey and Russia over the Christmas period, has little about it that appears splendid. The exclusion of certain groups from the ceasefire, accusations and counter-accusations of violations, the entrenchment of President Assad, and the legacy of the inhumanity of the past few months all combine to make this a peace that is unlikely to hold, were it not for the fact that many of the rebel groups have been battered into submission.
This peace is partial, grudging, more like defeat. For the civilians caught between the warring sides, any opportunity to escape from heavy bombardment will be welcome; but without a peace that embraces political change, the exiles in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and across Europe will not have the confidence to return to the homes they were forced to leave.
Civil war, of all conflicts, is the hardest to mend. The combatants cannot retreat over their respective borders; lifelong bonds between neighbours, once broken, cannot be easily repaired. And, when vast numbers of the population have been driven out of their homes, the idea that the restoration of the country can be effected by the leader whose brutality contributed to its break-up is ludicrous. Syrian Christians have often been Assad supporters, having benefited from his protection. But even they must recognise that what is on offer is, at best, a very small step towards the peace that their country needs.
The feast of the Epiphany celebrates, among other things, the moment when human erudition recognised its need for divine intervention. For a region that has been described as, if not the birthplace of Christianity, then its cradle, the failure of human initiatives, and the absence of wise men or women, all the evidence points in the same direction as it did 2000 years ago.