And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among people of good will.” (Luke 2:13-14)
The angelic proclamation on the day of Christ’s birth stirs in our hearts hope for the world: peace on earth! It is something we Orthodox pray for at each Divine Liturgy, Vespers or Matins. We constantly petition God to fulfill the hope which the angels heralded as possible with the nativity of the Messiah.
Despite our God-given hope and despite our prayers, we witnessed a great deal of violence in 2017 in the world. Church communities were not spared from this scourge of terrorism during the year. This reminds us to pay attention to the entire story of Christ’s birth – part of the Gospel Christmas story is Herod murdering the innocent children! We like to ignore that part of the nativity narrative as it doesn’t fit our image of a sentimental season: a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The birth of Jesus caused Rachel to weep inconsolably over the loss of her children (Matthew 2:17-18)! Rather than choosing to ignore part of the Gospel, we can appreciate the truthfulness of the narrative because we live in that same world where we know such grief.
We need only look at the Church calendar in the days after the Nativity to be reminded of Christian suffering:
December 27 St. Stephen the First Christian martyr
December 28 – The Massacre of the Christians celebrating Christmas at Nicomedia in 302AD
December 29- The Massacre of the Holy Innocent Children by King Herod
Jesus Himself was quite realistic about this when He taught:
“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Hope springs eternal. Christ Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14). God came into the world because God loves us. God too has suffered the violence of the very world He created for us; the world which God so loves. He has not abandoned us to the violence of the world, but is here with us even in our darkest moments. God wishes for us abundant life in this world, but many in the world still reject God. Christmas makes sense not because the world is a utopian paradise, but exactly because there are serious and violent problems in this fallen world. The sentimental American Christmas preference only makes sense if we ignore the world as it really is. Orthodoxy takes history seriously and thus values the entire Gospel of the Nativity. We need God’s love and we need hope to bring light to the darkness. We need Christ to be with us through all the trials and tribulations the world throws at us.
And every year we are summoned to that humble birth – in a manger, in a cave, where we still can find God’s peace. God’s peace is not like the world’s peace, and is not dependent on it. As our Lord said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). The world is much the same as it was 2000 years ago when Mary gave birth to God’s Son. The Gospel lesson of Christmas is proclaimed every year to renew in us faith, hope and love so that we are not overcome by the world’s sorrows, but rather we overcome the world through Jesus Christ our Lord. From that cave, light dawned to the world. We live in the light of Christmas. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).