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I lived in northern New York State during the late 60s and early 70s. Good people died while the Vietnam Conflict burned on the other side of the world and the nation wrestled with how much war should be enough.

Despite the unrest, Christmas felt wholesome and festive during those years. People filled the stores and shopped shoulder-to-shoulder in the days before they could do it online. Plenty of gifts under the tree and a blanket of snow always completed the fantasy.

Each year the people in our church would squeeze into a table-filled side room and share the beloved Christmas banquet. Potlucks are a wondrous gift: affordable, flavourful, personal.

After the food was devoured someone would distribute preserved copies of a multi-page insert from the local Watertown Daily Times newspaper. The sheets of newsprint contained a collection of traditional Christmas writings, songs, and carols.   

There were always two compositions in the handout that stared back at me. One was the endearing response to a little girl’s inquiry about Santa (Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus) and the other was the heavy, roiling song, I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day.

The familiar carol was based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and it always jolted me back to reality. To Longfellow, the biblical proclamation of “Peace on earth” wasn’t easily apparent in the bloody horrors of the Civil War.

A hundred years later his words screamed back at me as a teenager. And now, a hundred and fifty years later, I’m still searching for a reason to believe the angels.

 

It’s as true as ever. Innocents die in the rubble of Gaza, the fight for Ukraine drags into another winter, fissures of hostility are opening here at home. All this continues as smug dictators and cowardly politicians fan the flames of hatred, stroking their own egos from high places of safety.

Kind, rational people still wonder where peace is. We are still horrified by the violence, we still feel powerless to respond, and in despair we bow our heads.

Peace on earth was clearly extolled at the birth of Jesus but the dilemma has always been that peace is hard to find, impossible to create. The christian explanations seem easy enough:

Peace is in our hearts’ they promise;

Peace is inside anyone who accepts Jesus as their Saviour’ they counsel.

Yes, it’s true: God can give us a peace in our hearts that the world can’t give, and a peace that can’t be taken away.

Yet, that only goes so far. You would think that people who are at peace would be, you know … full of peace. But often christians proclaim peace while they are involved in proliferating un-peace. The idea of internal peace quickly becomes selfish and tiresome to a world of unrest.

 There is no question the christian faith has peace at its core. As Jesus suggests in John 27, there is an inner peace and wellness that comes from being in healthy communion with the Spirit of God. This peace is more than a ‘sinner’s prayer’ – it is a total reorientation of how we learn, think, talk, and act.

 

I recently watched a video on Instagram several times to be sure I was seeing and hearing it correctly. In it, an internet prankster showed up at an anti-abortion rally attended by chanting, praying, sign-carrying evangelicals. Through his bullhorn the guy announced that he was joining them because he cared about the lives of babies too.

He argued that he cared about their lives after they were born, too! So he began chanting for universal healthcare, lunch programs for hungry kids, more affordable housing, and guaranteed family incomes.

Some of the protesters ignored him, some tried to remove him, most just grimaced. One church lady refused to listen to him and continued praying loudly, hands raised, eyes closed, oblivious to the irony.

Some did respond. They suggested that parents (not taxpayers) should feed and house their kids and the nation can’t afford luxuries like healthcare. When it was suggested that cutting the military budget could benefit babies after they were born, one woman responded that the number one priority of the nation should be military spending.

Yes, she basically said that the most important thing we can do for people is build more ways to kill people…

Life rally. Christian. So called. She was honest (and ignorant) enough to say out loud but what our actions around the world say every day.

 

Longfellow was right. There is no peace on earth and hatred mocks us when we try to speak of it. But the famous American poet didn’t see hate as inevitable either. Longfellow concluded that God would eventually see this thing through, and I agree. What he failed to clarify is that the plan is painfully slow because God has chosen to work through his people.

You. Me. Us.

I’m reminded of 1 John, “He (Jesus) came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” It feels like ‘his own’ don’t recognize the presence or the purpose of God. It feels like we are still learning that peace on earth begins inside us but also has to be shared and enforced by us.

What if christians – even a fraction of them – actually decided to follow Jesus? What if we lived a proactive, intentional peace instead of a passive, silent peace?

What if we lead the way and refuse to support war? What if we stop giving money where it’s wasted on anything but human need? What if we stop voting for politicians who fuel anger and hate? What if we refuse to support pastors and churches who are partisan and politicized?

What if we made peace the core of our politics, our values, our choices? What if we live peacefully at work, in our car, at church, at the dinner table?

Not peace at any cost, but peace that forms us.

I’ll tell you what will happen: the world will (slowly) become more and more peaceful.

 

The angels declaration of “Peace on earth” is more than a lofty promise, it is a confirmation of its importance. Peace is so central that the living God came to earth to help us accomplish it. God is not sleeping, he is inviting us into a fresh, new world turned upside down.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, please make peace the centrepiece of your thoughts and words and activities. Perhaps this portion of Maya Angelou’s Christmas Poem can begin the process.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

~ from Maya Angelou’s, Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem

 

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Photo by James Handley on Unsplash