In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?
Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.
When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.
Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.
When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.
“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?
What happened to the promise of peace?
There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:
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!”
Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)
Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)
But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).
Killing all the children
What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?
Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.
Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from King of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.
It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.
In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.
First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.
But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.
In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:
This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.
We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.