Christmas is now a commercial frenzy, a profusion of overplayed songs and overwrought sentiment, mixed with pleading to remember “the reason for the season” and to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But there’s something else that’s being lost and perhaps was never emphasized enough to begin with, something I think we need now more than ever- Christmas as a holiday devoted to peace on Earth, and goodwill towards all.
The longing for peace runs throughout the religious celebration of the holiday. On the first Sunday in Advent, the liturgical season leading up to Christmas, the Catholic Church reads from its pulpits the words of Isaiah, looking forward to the day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” The words are so familiar as to be cliched, but this call is truly a radical call, a call for not mere disarmament but the abolition of militaries and the abolition of war. As a child I remember lisping along to Psalm 46, which celebrates the coming of a time when God would “make the wars cease,” when we would see God “break the bow and shatter the spear” and “burn the shields with fire.” Just the other day we again watched the classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and heard Linus tell of the coming of an age of “peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men.” These words are the “sigh of the oppressed,” the longing of a people much abused in the power politics of the ancient Near East, but they still speak to us today. The spirit of Christmas should be a spirit of peace.
Today, though, we are nowhere near that ideal. Just recently, the president of the United States ordered the murder of an entire wedding party in Yemen and then passed off his vicious act as an innocent mistake. (Obama, a self-professed Christian, would do well to remember the words of Psalm 110, which promises that God will “crush the rulers of the Earth” for their vile deeds.) Today Bethlehem, according to the Gospels the site of the birth Christmas celebrates, is in the midst of a prolonged and brutal sectarian war, and wars still rage the world over, destroying the lives of both the participants and the passive victims caught in the middle. Today our brothers and sisters in Pakistan are hunted by drones, our friends in Syria are beset by the government they have and others who want to become their government, and in the Congo a brutal war that has destroyed the lives of millions of our fellow human beings rages still. This is Christmas, and we have no peace, and we can have no peace so long as we bow down before the “princes of this world” and forget that our struggle is always “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.”
I am not trying to salvage the religious content of Christmas or to convert you to the Catholicism of my youth. Indeed much of the traditional meaning of Christmas involves passively waiting for the coming of some savior to bring us peace. I reject that, and say instead with Tolstoy that the Kingdom of God is within you, that we must work ourselves, today, to bring about peace on Earth. We cannot wait for a savior to come. We must be the angels singing of the coming of an era of peace, and we must be the salvation of our people.