When the first of November rolls around each year, my spirits begin to rise in anticipation of the holiday season to come. The period that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with Epiphany – Three Kings Day for some - on January 6th is my favorite time of the year. I’ve been pushing the envelope in my household for years on when I start to play Christmas music – regrettably, there is not a lot of Thanksgiving music out there! – and while I usually wait until Thanksgiving Day, this year I started a little bit early to try and usher in the season as soon as I could.
You see, I’ve always appreciated the peace that seems to invade the world this time of year. As a youngster and later a young man, it seemed to me that people were much more gracious toward and tolerant of one another during the holiday season. I can remember as an indications and warning officer in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in what was then West Germany and monitoring the Warsaw Pact nations for signs of military activity, how quiet watch duty would be around Christmastime, almost as if the Cold War had paused for just a moment.
One of my favorite movies, Joyeux Noel, tells the story of the unofficial and unsanctioned Christmas truce on the Western Front during World War I, and it is poignant and powerful to see these combatants lay down their arms just briefly to embrace their common humanity and celebrate the birth of a child who the prophet Isaiah called the Prince of Peace.
I’ve spent most of my life associating this time of the year with peace, albeit a brief respite from the cares and strife in the world. A modern rendition of the old Christmas song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, by Casting Crowns is one of my seasonal favorites, and it speaks to the peace of Christmas:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day,
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet, the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
The lyrics are built around the theme of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”, a phrase derived from Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
That verse in the King James Version is the one with which most of us are familiar, but subsequent translations read, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests (emphasis mine)." That is an important distinction for reasons I will reveal later.
Like the composer of the song, I find myself lamenting the lack of peace in our society today:
And in despair I bowed my head,
“There is no peace on earth”, I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Speaking only for myself, I was hoping against hope that the end of 597 days of campaigning for the office of President of the United States on November 8th would bring some peace, but even as I wished for it, I knew in my heart that wouldn’t be the case. Not even the decision of the Electoral College on December 19th will bring peace, as people on both sides of the political divide have publicly declared their intention to resist the other no matter what.
Our nation seems unable or unwilling to find common ground on practically anything of substance, and we freely and without hesitation use the word “hate” to characterize our passions toward one another. We are essentially in a “cold civil war”, a family squabble just short of actual warfare that shows no signs of abating.
On the other side of the world, a truck is used as a weapon as innocent people enjoying the Christkindlmarkt in Berlin are run over by a terrorist who leaves 12 people dead and 48 injured before being killed himself yesterday in a shootout with police in Milan, Italy. The outdoor Christmas markets in Germany are a delight of the holiday season, and my wife and I have fond memories of them from when we were stationed overseas, so it was jarring to think of the Christmas revelers, especially the children, as their celebration turned to horror in an instant.
Disruptions to peace don’t necessarily have to make the news. I know this time of the year is difficult for countless numbers of people who have suffered pain and loss. Some of us are experiencing our first Christmas without a loved one who has passed away, or we are alone after a breakup or divorce. Some have lost their jobs, or lost a friendship that they thought transcended strife. Some people, or someone close to them, are facing a medical diagnosis too substantial to bear. Some are estranged from their families and the chasm seems too wide to bridge. Some are physically separated from their families and long for their touch this Christmas.
Whether it’s public or private strife, I’ve observed the impact on people, and it’s heartbreaking. It is especially troublesome, however, to see my brothers and sisters in Christ express fear, anxiety and anger at the events of the world around them.
When the angels proclaimed Christ’s arrival into our sphere of existence, they declared from the heavens “peace to those on whom His favor rests.”
Fellow Christian, does God’s favor not rest on those of us who have repented of their sins and accepted His Son, Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior? In Christ, we were given the gift of peace, yet far too many of us won’t open it.
When the angels proclaimed Jesus' birth with the praise, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests", they were not promising us a world without strife. Jesus Himself gave us a guarantee: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). We don't need a lot of convincing on that score.
Yet that same verse speaks of peace. Just before He guarantees us a life of trial and struggle, He says, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace." Right after he guarantees us that life will never be without distress or pain, He exhorts us: "But take heart! I have overcome the world."
The peace that passes all understanding comes to us not because God will make all the bad things go away, but because He's a God who is there, who is always working, and who promises "peace to those on whom His favor rests." He will win:
Then rang the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.
Peace in God's dictionary is not the absence of conflict but the assurance of His presence, His goodness and His dominion over all things. With His peace firmly ensconced in our hearts, we can go about our daily lives not as fearful, anxious and angry people, cowering in a corner and shaking our fists at the evil around us, but as men and women of purpose, shining our light into the world and driving away the darkness. We can be peacemakers, not peacekeepers.
The difference between the two is profound. Peacekeepers try to paper over the strife with a veneer of propriety, wearing masks and avoiding tension at all costs. When the veneer is stripped away and our pain exposed, we are unprepared for it and we easily fall apart.
Peacemakers face strife with authenticity, humility, and grace, proceeding with purpose while giving the situation over fully to the Prince of Peace and letting His power “overcome the world.” We don't fall apart, but we fall into His arms, confident that He will catch us.
I know this kind of peace personally, and it has changed my life. I wrote about it a few years ago, but it bears repeating:
So as I lay there in the quiet of the guest bedroom, I said to God, “Okay, I surrender. There’s too much here for me, and you say to cast all my cares upon you. So I’m going to trust you completely. I know you love me and you mean only the best for me, so I’m not going to worry about anything anymore. It’s all yours.”
At that moment, I felt a peace and contentment unlike any I’d known before. I had turned a corner in my relationship with the Lord, and if I stayed true to my promise to trust him without reservation, I knew that this peace I was feeling could stay with me for the rest of my life.
I have been in a constant state of serenity and gratitude since that night in the fall of 2013. It’s a daily discipline to hold onto it – you must be intentional each day about surrendering yourself fully to the Lord – but so far I’ve found the peace that eluded me for much of my life. It’s a quiet faith that assures me that, although the storms will come, the One who commands the wind and the waves to be still is with me and loves me, and therefore, it is well with my soul.
I pray that you and yours have a peaceful and blessed Christmas.