My partner and I light a candle and read together from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
We take a walk to look at Christmas lights in our favorite neighborhood. The sidewalk is a river of families and children, and I find myself praying for their safety. I come home and turn on the Yo-Yo Ma holiday album, Songs of Joy and Peace, on which no fewer than five tracks are versions of “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I’m glad to have it repeating, filling my ears and my mind.
I’ve never felt such a desire for peace at Christmas, such an urgent hope for light. The events of the last few weeks have made the darkness seem so great. Not just the darkness of death, but also the darkness of not knowing why. With the shooters dead, there is no way we can really know what was going through their minds when they brought death and terror to so many. We analyze, hypothesize, call for change, and so we should, but deeper questions remain. Why does such darkness exist in our hearts? Why such a thirst for violence? What is wrong with this world?
It’s easy for people like me to forget that every Christmas comes to a dark world. Thousands of children die daily around the globe. Some are killed, while others die from hunger or disease, and few of us outside their communities or families notice or care. Jesus was born, too, into a world of senseless violence, especially against children. The Gospel of Matthew reports that, threatened by the birth of a baby King, Herod arranged a massacre of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. While scholars disagree on the historicity of this story, it doesn’t seem out of character for Herod, who famously killed his own sons.
Not a part of the Christmas story most of us think about.
So, yeah, it’s pretty much always been dark out there. It’s dark in here too, in my heart, behind my eyes. That’s harder for me to forget than the outer darkness, but I believe it’s all connected. I used to think I wasn’t a violent person. Little old five-foot-three, skinnybones, Prince-of-Peace-believing me? I’ve never laid a punch in my life, and I’m even gun-shy in video games. Yet when I sleep easy while nations war on my behalf, can I really say my hands are clean? And there are those who know me well enough to give a list of the damage I’ve done in a single moment of stupid rage. Mostly words are my weapon of choice, but who’s to say that in a different situation, I might not make a worse choice? Am I not capable of just as much as anyone else?
So I pray for light to flood the world and illuminate the shameful places in me. I pray for peace on earth, as audacious and crazy as that sometimes feels. But that’s the very beauty of Christmas, the way it calls us to believe six impossible things before breakfast, starting with the idea that a virgin can give birth. That this could be the birth of a person fully God and fully human, the unknowable Divine suddenly with fingerprints and a heartbeat. That God would stoop to sneak into our world one dark night, let himself be shoved into a stable for heaven’s sake, and take the shape of one more fragile little child. That he would grow up to teach enemy-love and the blessedness of peacemakers, then become the ultimate innocent victim of violence. That his horrific death would transform into abundant life for all the world. And that he himself would be Light for us.
Against all reason, even while I mourn the dark, I will cling to that Light this Christmas. Like so many before me, I will pray with all my heart:
Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Amen.
P.S. Here is another prayer I like for peace, a peace that starts with me.