By Brian Lowery
Ours is a violent Christmas.
As we pull on gaudy holiday sweaters, some are putting on fatigues. As we decorate trees in our homes, the cedars of Lebanon tremble from war. As we happily sing songs in church buildings, others barely have the strength to hum a dirge. I do not mean to be a Grinch, but these are the realities of our world.
Of course, the first Christmas was violent too.
When the holy event at Bethlehem unfolded, there were no sugar plums dancing in the heads of God’s people. They thought only of Caesar, national tragedy, oppression, and the dreadful idea that perhaps their God had abandoned them. This was no “silent night.” It was a period of anger and violence that actually worsened when Christ was born.
Consider the birth narrative that Matthew 1 and 2 offers. His is the only Gospel account to expose the horrors surrounding the birth of the world’s Messiah. Here is the tale of Herod, an upstart leader within the ranks of Rome and the father of all Scrooges. His story is marked by a rabid effort toward snuffing out the life of “the Child” at any cost. The reader is given profoundly troubling images of Roman soldiers running like mad men throughout Bethlehem, raising their swords and striking down small children while mothers helplessly watch and wail.
But for all the violence, still, “Unto us a child is born . . . and he will be called . . . Prince of Peace.” So speaks the old prophet (Isaiah 9:6) to the world of the Old Testament, to the world of the New Testament, and even to ours today.
The “peace” offered by way of the Prince is to be beautiful. It is shalom–the promise of a world without wounds. It is the joy of all things being put wholly back together–politically, economically, and most importantly, spiritually. It is the reality that even while “a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18), greater sounds prevail. As we read we imagine angels’ joyful songs filling the heavens, wise men breathing softly and bowing low, and the baby crying safely on a midnight escape to Egypt, the sound of life for all of humanity.
If Christmas tells us anything, it is this: Even as the world is seemingly falling apart, the God of peace, by way of a Prince, has begun the process of putting it all back together.
A World Unhinged
Israel’s world seemed unhinged. Rome was still “king of the hill.” Israel still felt like a people unable to do much of anything without permission. Her people were still divided and at war with one another. Her holy city will take yet another mighty fall (ad 70). But still, shalom was settling in.
Even today, the world appears unhinged. We still have war about us. We still have terrorism. We still have war on terrorism. Major elections loom and battle lines are drawn between brothers. Divorce, crime, abortion, battery, suicide, and drug-use—all acts of violence in their own right—rage on.
But still, shalom is settling in.
Christ never promised a “once-for-all” elimination of anger and violence with his arrival. It appears such a marvelous thing is reserved for his second arrival. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel indicates, if anything, Christ promised more anger and violence. From the moment he begins his public ministry, he points to spiritual warfare (by way of his own example in 4:1-11), persecution (5:10-12), rejection (10:1-42), familial discord (12:46-50), and even stones thrown from the religious right (26:1-5). It goes without saying that violence will not go down without a fight.
But for all the ongoing violence of yesterday and today, still, “unto us a child is born . . . and he will be called . . . Prince of Peace.”
Shalom is settling in.
We see it throughout the Gospel of Matthew in the victory of Christ over temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), in the response of a few fishermen (4:18-22), in the call to a new community of life (5–7), in the faith of a Roman centurion (8:5-13), in countless healings peppering the narrative, and of course, in the cross and the empty tomb (26–28).
And we see it still today when an iron curtain is torn in two, when politics briefly play second fiddle to what is important, when a husband and wife opt for the difficult task of reconciliation, when a young girl chooses life for the baby in her belly, when racial tension is eased, and of course, when some sweet soul makes a confession of Christ and wades into the waters of baptism, embracing a new kind of life.
Anger and violence are still battling it out among us, but shalom is gaining ground. Still unto us . . . a child is born . . . the Prince of Peace.
Still Unto Us
For reasons I cannot quite remember (perhaps the guidebooks or the guide himself told us it wasn’t much to get worked up about), I wasn’t excited to visit the birthplace of Christ. I recall wishing we could spend our time in Jerusalem, but I didn’t have a choice. If the group was going to Bethlehem, I was, too.
We walked through the dusty streets of the town and soon came to the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. We stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding our way downward into a series of caves (though we often have nativity sets of barns and stables, Christ was actually born in a cave).
Once there, I was hushed by the holiness of it all. There were candles lit here, there, and everywhere. Hundreds were on their knees in prayer, scattered about on the cold, damp floor. We made our way to the traditional cave of the birth where we read Matthew’s story once again. Soon we were singing. “O Holy Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Silent Night.”
Right there in a church building that has been ravaged by war and terrorism and today is owned by four different religious groups, we prayed for peace. We offered a continued invitation for shalom. It was one of the more sacred moments of my life.
As we left, I passed by all the pilgrims yet again. Some were from Germany, Poland, or Italy and others from England, Spain, or China. They, too, sang and prayed. Anger and violence wrestled about in all our worlds, but in that moment we had all come together in Bethlehem to worship and celebrate the Prince of Peace who, if anything, was working shalom into the folds of our lives as he will until the day he returns to work it into all things, once-for-all.
Still “Unto us a child is born . . . and he will be called . . . Prince of Peace.”
Brian Lowery is a freelance writer and speaker living in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife, Sarah.