By Tom Beutel
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:13-14 (NIV)
As peacemakers perhaps we tend to see everything from the standpoint of peace. Whether the issue is war or violence, hunger or poverty, sweatshops or slavery, or some other pressing issue of the day, we tend to see it in the light of peace and justice. This is particularly true if we view peace through a lens of shalom, things as they ought to be, and justice as receiving what is needed rather than what is deserved.
I first encountered this rich way of viewing peace and justice in Perry Yoder’s book Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, & Peace. Yoder describes peace using the Old Testament Hebrew word shalom. Shalom denotes physical or material well-being; right relationships with God, self, others and creation; and moral rightness – in brief, things as they ought to be.
Christmas, as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is a focal point of God’s loving action to restore peace to the creation. The incarnation of God as a babe born of human parents is a dramatic reaching out by God to restore right relationship between himself and humankind. While it may be difficult to relate to a God who is spirit, it seems somehow easier to relate to Jesus as a man who lived, worked, had family and friends, knew temptation, cried, and who modeled how to love God and others.
Advent, the season leading up to Christmas, provides an opportunity for us to renew a right relationship with God and with ourselves. It is a time of preparation, not only for the actual celebrations of Christmas Day, but also spiritually as we relive the first coming of Christ into our world. It is, ideally, a time of quiet reflection, of renewal and re-dedication, bringing peace to our inmost selves.
Besides the most obvious association of Christmas with the birth of Christ, probably the next most common association is that of Christmas being a time of gift-giving, of reaching out to those in need, of general goodwill toward others. It is a time for family and friends to gather, set aside differences and celebrate a joyful time together. It is a time to restore relationships with others. Even those who do not celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday do celebrate it as a time of giving and good will.
We do not often think much about the meaning of Christmas as it relates to the rest of creation, but inherently we include creation in the celebration. The nativity scene includes sheep, cows, and donkeys; we decorate with evergreens and holly; and Christmas animal stories retell the events of the first Christmas through the eyes of other members of God’s creation. Paul says in Romans 8:21, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” as he explains the impact of God’s salvation for the world.
As Christians and peacemakers, we can intentionally seek shalom this Christmas promoting right relationships with God, self others and creation in real ways.
God has “made the first move” so to speak by coming to us as the person Jesus. Our part is to respond, perhaps by committing or recommitting ourselves to know and follow Jesus, to understand his teachings, to allow God’s Holy Spirit to guide and empower us in living out the ways that he taught – feeding the hungry, loving neighbors and enemies, and above all, loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Re-establishing or reaffirming our right relationship with God is personal, but critical. It is a major reason why Jesus became human and suffered all that he did in his humanity.
But, God did not come merely for my sake or yours, but for all persons. Christmas is the ideal time to share the good news of the gospel with family, friends, and others, leading them to renew a right relationship with God. Christmas is not just a cosy story about a baby in a stable, surrounded by sheep, and gifts received from kings. It is the story of God becoming human, making the first step to re-establish a right relationship with all people.
We can nurture a right relationship with ourselves in the context of Christmas and of re-commitment to our faith in Jesus Christ by slowing down during the busy season, by taking time to ponder the importance the first coming of Jesus. The traditional time of Advent which corresponds roughly to the four weeks before Christmas provides an opportunity to do this. Taking devotional time each day focusing on the upcoming celebration of Jesus’ birth and on his return can nurture our spirits and work to place the preparations and celebration of Christmas itself into perspective.
As peacemakers there are many ways in which we can nurture right relationships with others during Christmas. We can participate in food drives, give to thrift shops, buy fair trade gifts as presents, share a meal, go caroling or engage in other activities of specific outreach to others. For many, Christmas may be a painful reminder of their need for simple material needs. The two portly gentlemen in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol tell Scrooge, “At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge…it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.”
Finally, our celebration can be one of right relationship with the rest of creation, the creation which in Genesis 2:15 God placed humans to “till it and keep it.” (NRSV) We can give natural, homemade gifts, use live Christmas trees or replant a tree for one harvested, use low energy lights such a LED lights, or serve local, organic food. A festive, joyous celebration does not need to be one of waste and extravagance. We can honor Christ’s entry into this world by celebrating in ways that conserve the richness and beauty of creation.
As you consider how to celebrate the shalom of Christmas here are a few resources:
- Advent and Lenten Devotions: Goshen College
- Equal Exchange: Fair Trade coffee, chocolate and other products
- Fair Trade USA: Fair Trade Certified Holidays
- LED Christmas Lights: available in most local stores including Lowes, Home Depot.
Have a joyful Christmas, filled with peace.