I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”
There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.
Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.
What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?
Religion In a Time of Despair
I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.
This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.
The True Meaning of Christmas
There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.
Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,
- Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
- Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
- Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
- Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
- Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.
Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”
Below: the original artist, no lyrics
WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.
But What Can I Do?
Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.
- Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
- Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
- Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
- Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
- Talk and/or post about it
- If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
- If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home
Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.
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