Peace Amid Chaos
December 23, 2012
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Christmas story is one of peace amid chaos. But sometimes we are caught up in the frenzy of buying and shopping. We fight our way through crowds, traffic, and parking lots. In all the hubbub, we can lose sight of why we are doing all this. We can lose touch with the peace at the heart of the Christmas message.
Not too long ago, I was driving on 97th Street. I had two malls to get to in just one hour. So there I was, panicking, wanting traffic to move faster, hoping that I could find what I was looking before the malls closed. As I was driving, I was listening to Earl Klugh, a great jazz guitar player. A beautiful, serene song came on. It was such a peaceful, pretty song that I wondered about Mr. Klugh himself. I wondered what kind of spirituality he was in touch with that such a blessed piece of music could flow through his soul into his practiced fingers. As I listened, my tension dissipated. For a few minutes, amid my frantic shopping spree, I found peace as I listened to that serene song, driving down 97th Street on my mission to get to two malls in an hour.
This experience led me to ponder further the Christmas story. I thought about how the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was a moment of peace amid utter chaos. I imagine that the pushing and shoving of Christmas shopping is nothing compared to what was happening in Palestine back in the time of Jesus’ birth. The Bible offers some interesting historical details about that time. Luke tells us that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for the whole known world to be enrolled—what we would call a census. (Our history books tell us that Augustus was the first emperor of Rome.) And Luke provides another historical fact: he adds that this was when Quirinius was governor over Syria. Caesar took this census for one reason: he wanted a roll of all his subjects so that he could tax them.
Everyone had to go to the city of his family’s origins. Joseph went to Bethlehem because he was a descendant of King David, and David had been born in Bethlehem. Imagine the mob scene that must have occurred in Bethlehem at this time. We are told that the Holy Family had to sleep in a barn because all the inns were occupied. Can you imagine what was going on in the hotels in Bethlehem? Can you imagine the pushing and shoving that must have gone on as people crowded the hotels in search of the last rooms to be had for the night? How many hotels did Mary and Joseph go to before they resigned themselves to the fact that all the inns were full? Perhaps they counted themselves lucky that they found that barn to sleep in. And they did all this while Mary was heavily pregnant and ready to deliver.
In the midst of this mob scene, Jesus was born. The Prince of Peace entered the world amid all of this chaos! I can imagine that the presence of that little baby brought calm and serenity to the Holy Family as they gazed upon His tender, tiny features. I can imagine the holy awe that God’s infant form evoked, and the sphere of innocence and love radiating from this one sacred baby.
With the birth of Jesus, Luke’s narrative immediately takes us to the quiet of the Judean night, where shepherds are watching their flocks under a starlit sky. An angel appears to them, announcing the joyful news of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. A choir of angels praises God and sings about peace and goodwill among humanity. In all the crowding and worldly interest concerning taxes and the census, a sacred moment transpired, in which peace and goodwill among humans broke forth from heaven.
This same story plays out in our lives today. We can become overwhelmed with life in this material world. We can become overcome with despondency over the bills we have to pay, with an income that barely stretches from paycheck to paycheck. We can become fixated on the material toys we want to acquire: nice cars, a big-screen TV, designer clothes, computers with massive memories and lightning speed, and other goods. We can become lost in the things of this world, which is only a temporary home for us. We can lose sight of what is truly lasting. We can lose sight of the eternal blessings that are always available to us when we turn to them.
The Christmas season reminds us of some of those eternal blessings. We gather around those we love and celebrate the joy of family and friends. We are filled with the spirit of giving. The interchange of receiving and giving gifts is a symbol of the way love works—the way love flows out from us to others and back to us to complete the circle. These are some of the eternal blessings that make life really matter. These are the blessings we should pause to remember, however we find ourselves materially.
The Christmas story also plays out in our lives in a still more profound way. At times, sorrow and turmoil dominate our lives. We may lose a job. We may experience the heartbreak of the loss of a loved one. Sometimes the life we have constructed for ourselves and settled into becomes disrupted, and everything we thought we could depend on comes crashing down all around us. In a single sentence, the poet Robert Frost captures how vulnerable we are to the forces of chaos. In the poem called “Home Burial,” Frost writes, “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.” The life we build for ourselves is subject to many, many forces beyond our control; it is as a fence that can be rotted by three foggy mornings and one rainy day. The good things in our lives are so tenuous that Martha Nussbaum wrote a book about the subject titled The Fragility of Goodness.
But one source of stability will hold us up in the midst of any chaos the world can threaten us with. That one source of peace and comfort is the baby born in the midst of the Judean crowds. No matter what we experience in life, Jesus is with us. When we celebrate joy, Jesus redoubles our joy. When we are troubled, Jesus comforts us. When we feel abandoned, Jesus is our friend. Having come into this world, Jesus walks with us in this world. In whatever way we are walking, we never walk alone. In whatever we face, we face Jesus. Jesus tells us that life in this material world may not be quiet and comfortable all the time. In John 16:33, He says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In Jesus, we have peace. In Jesus, we have love. In Jesus, we have life. In all the rushing around of the season, let us be mindful of why we celebrate. As we sit down for Christmas dinner, let us be mindful of the love of our families and friends who gather together for the season. As we exchange gifts, let us remember the circle of love that surrounds us even after Christmas—the giving and the receiving. In our celebrating and in our trials, let us remember that one night in the Judean countryside when peace came to this troubled world. And let us ask that peace into our lives—tonight, throughout the season, and in our lives forever.
We bless you, Lord, that we were made to love, as the stars were made to shine. Grant that such love may never die within us, but being daily rekindled in our soul, may burn in our hearts and forever renew our whole being. This we ask through Christ our Lord.
- Florence Allshorne (1887-1950)
Today a Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all being,
And the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory, and Magi journey with a star,
For to us there has been born a little Child, God before the ages.
- Romanus the Singer (mid-sixth century)
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete