Christmas Eve


Christmas Eve traditionally is a hushed time of deep winter quiet, “peace on earth,” and anticipation of the excitement of Christmas Day. I try to hold on to that sentiment this evening, but a cacophony of distractions competes for the reflective time I imagine. For example, although I didn’t watch it, there was a Seahawks professional football game here this Christmas Eve in Seattle with its competitive violence and ear-splitting “12th Man" (sic) vocal fan support (and more professional games scheduled across the land for Christmas Day - Christmas day football? - what a metaphor for contemporary competing claims for what constitutes a "holy-day.”) And a mere couple of impulsive tweets send rumors of international economic destabilization and conflict escalation, and it seems that the whole world reverberates with anxiety and the sound of war or the threat of war. But this night in my home, it is a quiet place of Christmas eve solace, and I am deeply grateful.

Fifty years ago this year during this Christmas season I was teaching in northern India. Being far from home for the first time was challenge enough. But I also found myself trying to make sense of my own nation's war in Southeast Asia, and, in addition, I was also in a country at active war with its neighbor, Pakistan, and threatened by its other neighbor, China. Our campus was on war alert with windows blackened, rumors of infiltrators, and anxiety about the possibility of some level of attack at a strategic bridge nearby. As I tried to celebrate Christmas by singing Christmas carols to myself, one carol stood out that year, and I have been thinking about it a great deal again this year: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the Civil War (please excuse the gender language of the original text):

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And 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!"

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."

Longfellow captured the bitter-sweetness of holding both the reality of a confusing time of war (his oldest son had just been critically wounded in the Civil War) and a seasonal sentiment of tender traditional music with its deep hopefulness. And today there is so much to be hopeful about, and there really is so much good will on this earth; people across the world are essentially good, caring, peace-loving folk, often in spite of the injustices and hardships they face, and the yearning for peace runs deep in our collective souls. But the level of structural violence and of perpetual war, often stirred by those who have not actually endured deep hardship nor war, also weighs on our collective souls that easily leads to the discouragement and despair Longfellow recorded. And we hold as best we can for assurance that “The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail” based on some level of our past survival, our intrinsic hope, and for many of us, a faith in a God that is not dead but a God of life and love.

I keep coming back to the essential message of this solstice season with its welcome return of the Light, and the backdrop of the Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year celebrations of a renewed promise and the beginning of a new calendar year. In this time of darkness and confusion we seek to capture an assurance of renewed promises, perhaps new commitments. It is a season for our souls to seek assurance and renewal of hope, even amidst the violent cacophony that competes with our yearning for peace and good will. 

The experience of the exposure to war in India has left a strong impression on me although it was not as traumatic as it might have been if there had been armed conflict around me. It makes me hate war, even the prospects of war, and it helps me remember how precious it is to also have the experience of living abroad and learning about the common fate and common humanity of people throughout the world who also seek and practice the same peace and good will as I do. 

I want to close with this poem of uplift by Howard Thurman sent to me via my friend at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
—Howard Thurman

Peace and good will to all on this Christmas day,