This past Sunday at church we sang the familiar hymn, “Angels, from the Realms of Glory” by Henry Thomas Smart (1867). The words of Verse 3 led me to write this article.
“Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great desire of nations;
Ye have seen His natal star;
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King!”
I stopped cold at “seek the great desire of nations,” because as of this writing 1,297 Americans will not be celebrating the culmination of Advent–Christmas–this year. After making the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, they won’t be returning from their tour of duty in Iraq.
Webster’s dictionary describes “Advent” as a Middle English word originating from Medieval Latin “adventus,” as well as from the Latin word “advenire” meaning arrival. The modern definition is “coming into being or use.” So I couldn’t help wondering, how badly do we as a nation want the Prince of Peace to “come into being” for us today? How badly do we want his example to be useful to us today?
This Christmas those of us who call ourselves Christians will once again joyfully and with deep wonder contemplate the miracle of our Lord Jesus’ miraculous birth. His name, Emmanuel, means “God is with us.” So the advent we are talking about describes how he has come into being and is with us.
But how do we, in following his holy example, reconcile the fact that our nation is at war? Jesus is the one who would not fight, even though Peter wanted him to. Is our nation being Christ-like to Iraq? Many Americans believe they made a Christian-based decision when they voted to affirm the present administration–one which first told us that the war would only last a few months, but then announced last year that the “mission was accomplished” as the soldiers kept fighting. Currently, well, the attitude is more like “the war will be over when it’s over.”
Is deciding to go to war a Christ-like action? Put another way, what would Jesus do? Would he command us to go to war? Would he really ask our sons, brothers, fathers, daughters and mothers to kill others? And to use a familiar Southern Baptist phrase, how does this make a good witness to the rest of the world so that they too would want to follow him? Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus tell us to go to war or to kill others. In fact, he has much to say about the opposite.
If we want peace to come into being, we are going about it the wrong way. We are indeed “missing the mark.” We aren’t really doing what Jesus did, and we are not really following his example. He didn’t command his community–one greatly oppressed, brutalized and mistreated–to go to war. He didn’t order his disciples to take up arms but reminded them that if they lived by the sword, they would die by the sword. He didn’t tell families to send their beloved ones off to battle. His birth, his shocking death and his astonishing and amazing resurrection were an example so surprising because a new way came into being–one that was profoundly hopeful for us, when we put it into use.
Our nation has been brought into its present state of war based on tragic and complex circumstances. As we think of loved ones that are now stationed far away from home, and who are so bravely carrying out the commands put upon them, we pray for their safe advent.
But we also know that Christians, both individuals and in groups, and both leaders and followers, have been first commanded to love their enemies, not bomb them. Christians have been first commanded to reconcile with their enemies before even giving charity.
What would Jesus ask us to do as we contemplate the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died, and of their families? Where do they fit in our hearts? Or do we get to ignore this uncomfortable part? These are the ways we show “our” light to the world. Individually, and as a nation, we really need Advent. The Light that is coming into being, but has also, and always, been with us. And can still be useful for us, even today.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.