O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill all the world with heaven’s peace. —O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, 8th century, trans. John Mason Neal, 1851
Why do we only sing this hymn during Advent? Certainly not because Christ’s birth rid all envy, strife, and quarrels from our midst once and for all. Not in the least. Not between nations. Not between individuals.
Indeed, as another hymn proclaims, Bethlehem’s dark streets shineth the everlasting light. But King Herod simmereth with envy nonetheless, and would soon be in pursuit of the hope of all ages. The holy family, and in some sense the human family, has been on the run ever since, refugees in a foreign land.
Let’s be honest, during these centuries since the advent of the Word made flesh, the Church as Christ’s body has not only seen terrible violence and division, it’s been a source of it. Envy plays a part in that.
When Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, he wastes no time addressing this: “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry” (Phil 1:15). Across any town, one church is attracting the membership of another church. The reasons cited include “better music, better preaching, better hours, better youth program, better this, better that.” In another church, deacons and elders divide over the pastor. Quarrels ensue in flower committees. Singers resent not getting the solo.
As long as there is envy and selfish ambition, James reminds us, wickedness and disorder lurk nearby—like Herod’s secret service agents—with ill intent.
How much of my energy for God’s work do I divert to competitiveness or envy toward other people or programs in my church?
Come, God of Peace, be our true desire. Bind us together to work in unity for your kingdom of light and love. Amen.