Two years ago this Christmas message was published by Vision and Viewpoint, an e-newsletter. Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is prioress of The Benedictine Sisters in Erie, PA.
Now and here bells everywhere are ringing again. The gift boxes are heaping up. Everybody’s saying it: “Christmas Blessings… God bless you at Christmas time… Christmas Peace to you and yours… Merry Christmas.” But is there any truth at all to any of this manufactured joy? Or is this, at best, nothing more than an exercise in auto-suggestion: Say it often enough and you’ll think it’s true, whatever the facts to the contrary.
Christians, after all, at least from one perspective, live a very schizophrenic life. As Paul puts it in one of his letters to the fragile communities of the early church, “Your standards should be different than those around you.” But at Christmas time, those standards can get terribly confusing. The Christian standard says that Christ, our Peace, has been born. But look around you. The other standard, the real public norm, the front page of our daily newspapers, says that there is no such thing as peace anywhere.
So, are we simply kidding ourselves when we put up manger scenes in our parks, and weigh our churches down with bark-covered, life-size crèches, and decorate the crib sets under our Christmas trees? Will the world ever really come to peace? In fact, is there really any such thing as peace? And, most of all, what do we have to do with it? What are we singing about? (It depends, I believe, on what you think “peace” means.)
One kind of peace is a state of life that is free from chaos and turbulence, from violence and institutionally legitimated death. That kind of peace happens often enough in history to show us that such a thing is possible. But don’t be fooled: that kind of peace can be achieved as easily through force as well as through justice. In the latter, little is gained by it.
But there is another kind of peace. This kind of peace does not come either from the denial of evil or the acceptance of oppression. This kind comes from the center of us and flows through us like a conduit to the world around us.
This kind of peace is the peace of those who know truth and proclaim it, who recognize oppression and refuse to accept it, who understand God’s will for the world and pursue it. This kind of peace comes with the realization that it is our obligation to birth it for the rest of the world so that what the mangers and crèches and crib sets of the world point to can become real in us—and because of us—in our own time.
The award-winning foreign film “Joyeux Noël” reminds us of another Christmas Eve. This one in Europe during the bloodiest period in WWI. Knee deep in wet snow and ice that jammed their weapons and froze their souls, two armies—one French and Scottish, one German—faced one another across a barbed-wired field. Hundreds of fallen soldiers had already died on both sides of the rough and blood-soaked land. Then suddenly, the Christmas truce began. The men put down their weapons, ceased for awhile to be soldiers, and bowed their heads while they listened to the other side sing Christmas carols.
That is the kind of peace—disarmed, foreign to hate, and receiving of the other—that was born in the manger we remember at Christmas time. That is the kind of Christmas peace we must ourselves seek to be. Then “Merry Christmas” will really mean something.