Paz, pax, paix, pace, friede, salam, dohiyi, or eirene. It doesn’t really matter what language you use to say it, the concept of “peace” is at the heart of the Advent season. The carols we sing reflect it well: “Silent night, holy night…Sleep in heavenly peace,” “It came upon a midnight clear…Peace on the earth, good will to men,” “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace,” the list could go on and on.
You don’t have to be Christian, however, to appreciate this sentiment or to dream of peace during this time of year. I remember Stevie Wonder singing, “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for / When we have found what life’s really worth / There’ll be peace on earth.” It’s a beautiful picture and a beautiful dream. In fact, I have a vague recollection of including something like this in a letter to Santa one year.
The assigned Advent readings from the Hebrew Bible further fuel the imagination with visions of peace. The Prophet Isaiah proclaims that in the last days, “[the nations] will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah goes on to describe a day when “the lion will lay down with the lamb; and a little child will lead them.” Let’s just be honest here: this sounds too good to be true.
At the heart of this vision is the Hebrew concept of shalom. Usually translated as “peace,” shalom is familiar to many as a traditional Jewish greeting. It is a multifaceted word, however, meaning much more than just peace. It refers to wholeness, completeness, prosperity, or welfare. Where shalom is present, the world is ordered in the way God intended it – there is no one harming, taking advantage of, or oppressing one another. Where shalom is present, abundance rules out over scarcity and there is always enough to go around.
In his book, Whole, Steve Wiens poetically describes shalom this way: “It’s a wedding ring, a perfect circle, even if it’s scarred and scuffed. It’s the long passage of the sun across the sky as our earth spins on its axis, giving us lush sunrises and expansive sunsets. It’s the reconciliation that is forged after a long conflict, when there is genuine repentance and authentic forgiveness. Shalom is the sense of well-being that comes when the brokenness is made whole again.”
Too often we speak of peace and dream of peace, wishing that it could be established by merely snapping our fingers, clicking our heels together, or waving a magic wand. If only Santa might place it under the Christmas tree, wrapped up nice and neat with a pretty bow on top. Real peace never happens that way. Real peace is found at the end of a long road of restoration, hard work, and often painful reconciliation.
Real peace is forged in the fires of forgiveness. I don’t mean the dramatic videos of family members offering forgiveness to those who have taken the life of someone they loved. I’m talking about the little acts of forgiveness that tend to pile up each day.
I’m talking about the spouse that forgets to put the cap on the toothpaste for the 1,983rd time. It’s the mouthy teenager that wants to complain about the one shirt that didn’t get washed while ignoring the piles of folded laundry they forgot to put away. It’s the rushed driver that cut you off during the morning commute. It’s the hurried cashier that overcharged you for your groceries. It’s the coworker that didn’t clean out the microwave at lunch. It’s the friend that forgot about your birthday. It’s about bandaging and healing all those little emotional paper cuts before they become festering wounds in our soul.
Real peace also comes when we recognize that we can only clean up our side of the street. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul instructs us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” There is a good reminder in that passage that it doesn’t all depend on us and too often we forfeit the peace that God wants for us because we take responsibility for things that don’t belong to us.
Real peace is found in the abiding presence of God in the midst of our varied circumstances. When young children run from their rooms to the tree on Christmas morning, we find God’s face reflected in their joy and laughter. When all we have of loved ones is framed pictures on the wall and memories in our heart, we recognize God’s face indelibly imprinted in the ink and paper. When illness takes center stage because of a threatening diagnosis, we often find the face of God shining through care givers, doctors, and nurses. When we struggle to recognize our own face in the mirror underneath the wrinkles that mark our journey, we might even catch a glimpse of the God in whose image we were created if we look close enough.
At the end of the day, real peace is not an achievement, but a gift from God. Peace cannot be externally forced upon anyone, but must emanate from within. Peace is the recognition that God is present and God is enough. Real peace comes when we allow the Prince of Peace to be born in us once again this day.
Rev. Steven Norris