Since I was a little girl, I've had a dream to visit Paris at Christmas, a dream of ancient streets wrapped in snowy silence and midnight mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dam, a dream of a truly "Joyeux Noel". I don't know quite when or how this vision crept into my heart, but it's only grown with the years. And this year it finally became a possibility. With a friend's wedding in the U.K. only two days after New Years, I realized spending Christmas in Europe was only a matter of working out details. I recruited a more-than-willing friend, and our plans were set.
It seemed merely days later that tragedy struck. I watched the news as the city of my wintry vision was wrapped instead in horror-struck grief. With the November 13, 2015 terror attacks on Paris, the whole world joined in mourning, iconic symbols of different nations shone bright with the light of solidarity.
In the days that followed, as we ached not just for Paris, but for Beirut, and Syria, my news-feed filled with additions to the "List of Terror" -- the collected tallies of a world in pain and suffering the tumult of war. I read both fear-mongering, and victimizing, saw courageous acts of love, and travesties enabled by hatred. But could I blame those who felt afraid and vulnerable, when I felt the same?
During this time, one verse of the old Christmas carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" seems to echo my own heart:
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, good-will to men!"
These words were penned Christmas, 1864, during the last dark haze of the American Civil War, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A 57-year-old widower, Longfellow had just heard his oldest son was near-paralyzed, and close to death, because of a battle-wound. His country lay in tatters, victim to a virtual genocide against itself. As he listened to the Christmas bells ring out that morning he grappled with the gospel of "peace on earth" (Luke 2:14) in the light of the bitter reality that surrounded him.
For me, as I'm sure for many, a similar gloom hangs over this Christmas season. For hate is strong, and mocks the song . . . Who can sing when through the international news we hear the distant blare of sirens and the beat of battle drums day and night? Who can dream of Christmas when the peace on earth the angels heralded that first Joyeux Noel is nowhere to be found?
Our hearts might be tempted to think the promises of Isaiah are empty:
"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His Name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end" (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The prophet wrote these words and then God went silent on the subject. Four-hundred years later, while Israel awaited the conquering king that could toss Caesar and all of Rome over his shoulder, a baby was born to a peasant family so poor that a trough for cattle feed had to serve for a crib. Before that baby ever had a home, his family became refugees from a cruel government, which organised the killing of thousands of infants. They lived off the charity of others, fleeing for their lives more than once. It sounds a bit like our world these days, doesn't it?
The daughter of friends of mine was in Paris the night of the attacks. Her and her friends were planning to be at the exact place one of the attacks was carried out, but they got on the train just a few minutes late, and the train never stopped at that station. Instead they watched police swarming outside as they continued on by. She wrote home:
"We have peace. Peace that surpasses all understanding. Peace that is urging us to be prayer warriors in the middle of this evil and urging you as well. This must stop. Pray for Paris. Pray for the victims, for the families and more importantly, pray for the attackers. God, be here."
The beauty of the incarnation is simply that: God is here. Immanuel means God with us. Once we have seen God as a baby in a barn there is no place we should not expect Him. God has shown Himself in the darkness of Paris streets as people opened their homes to strangers. God has shown Himself on the coast of Greece as volunteers daily rescue refugees from overcrowded, sometime sinking, ships. And He shows Himself to us every time we allow peace to increase in our hearts, because God is love and perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:8, 18).
Christmas turns everything on its head. We no longer have to feel vulnerable. Instead, through the incarnation, God makes Himself vulnerable to us. Though He loved us enough to deny Himself for us, He gives us the choice to deny Him. By coming as a baby instead of a conquering king, He gives us the right to refuse Him. By coming to us now as the hungry and the naked and the homeless -- that we do not have to feed, or clothe, or shelter -- He gives us the opportunity daily to reject and scorn Him. And by coming to us as the enemy that we have no earthly reason to love, He allows us to turn away from the One who loved us, even when we had made ourselves His enemies.
Fear would tell us to go inside and lock the door. Fear would tell us to hide our light. Fear would tell us that hatred protects us. But there is no fear in love. So if we let love increase in our hearts, fear doesn't stand a chance. As the often-quoted Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1957 sermon on loving your enemies,
"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
The final verse of Longfellow's song is a rallying call:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
So I leave for Paris with a new song in my heart. God is not dead, nor does he sleep. Isaiah wrote his prophecy to "those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone" (9:2). To the poorest of the poor, shepherds out in the night, the angels sang of peace on earth. Into a world very much like ours, Jesus was born. Hate could not keep love away.
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