Despite the ongoing and pointless controversy over “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays,” the air is filled with the noise of Christians giving voice to the joy and excitement of the Christian season.
With one notable exception. One of the central themes of Christmas is often omitted in our various greetings. Stop and think about it for a moment. When was the last time you heard someone say to you during the Christmas season “Peace be with you.”
And why wouldn’t we say something like that? The idea of peace is a solid biblical idea. Peace on earth is what angels promised poor shepherds. And it was the Prince of Peace whose birth they were announcing. Jesus grew up believing that peacemakers are blessed, and on more than one occasion he told his friends, go in peace.
One of the very last things he said was “Peace I give you, but not as the world gives peace.”
He was certainly right about that. If the world tries to give you peace, make sure you are standing near a bunker. The world gives peace by waging wars to end wars, fighting fires with fire, exacting an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We even used to have a missile named “the peacemaker.” God help us.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that there is a lot of war in the Old Testament. In fact, one of the frequent references to God is “Lord of Hosts,” which basically means “God of the Army.”
But I wonder if over time God has grown weary of war. Jesus, who is supposed to have known the mind of God intimately, preached and practiced a disciplined form of non-violence. He told those living under the cruel tyranny of the Roman Empire to “turn the other cheek,” and “bless those who curse you,” and “love your enemy.”
It would seem that the Prince of Peace was also a promoter of peace.
Of course, the word “peace” as it is used in the Bible means more than just the absence of conflict. The word peace describes a life that is whole and complete. Peace also points to the prospect of healing. We hear this in words spoken by the prophet Jeremiah. “They treat the wound of my people carelessly,” he said, “when they cry, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
So maybe that’s it—there is a wound in us that makes it too painful to say “Peace be with you.” We are still bruised from terrorist attacks on New York and Washington four years ago and bruised even more by a brutal war in Iraq. In our present moment, saying peace be with you just doesn’t make much sense. We settle for “merry” and “happy,” because it hurts too much to speak of peace when there is no peace.
But how can we really get in touch with the meaning of the season if we do not speak of peace? Peace would mean the safety and comfort of home for thousands of men and women serving in the military. Peace would mean they could renew their interrupted lives and dreams. And peace, real peace, peace not as the world gives peace, would also mean healing from the fractures that divide us and destroy us as human beings.
Peace on earth. That is what the angels promised, and that, more than ever, is what we need.
Peace be with you.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.