by Alexei Laushkin
For Christians that follow a liturgical calendar within the Western tradition, Christmas marks the start of a 12-day celebration of the events around the birth of Jesus.
Christmas covers a series of commemorations as well. We get St. Stephen (from the book of Acts) the first martyr on the 26th, St. John the Apostle on the 27th, and the Killing of the Holy Innocents (by order of Herod) on the 28th.
Immediately after the birth of Christ we are meant to reflect on mission and outreach, which is fitting considering the season, than we get the Apostle of Love in St. John who reminds us of the good things of the Kingdom and its nature. On the 28th we are reminded of the injustices that occur right next to the joy and celebration.
The 12-days of Christmas really do help us enter into an extended reflection on the nature of peace. From the days that herald Christmas tidings “peace on Earth, good will to men” we have a natural break to consider these words.
Although the culture I am a part of does not intentionally setup time around the 12-days of Christmas, we do get an interesting natural break between Christmas and New Years Day which affords a bit of a pause.
The news cycle becomes less all encompassing and people naturally spend time with their family. It affords a cultural break which doesn’t exactly line-up with the 12-days but is a nice stopping point when considering the nature of the Christian life and the year ahead.
Talking about the 12-days of Christmas is one small way we can begin to reclaim that everlasting time set out in the church year and have it displace some of the temporal time that we daily inhabit within our various cultures.
So What Does Peace Look Like
Given that the 12-days help us think about witness, love, and injustice we have to think about the nature of peace. What does it look like and what does it mean?
We find these words of Jesus in the Gospel of John 14:27:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”
And we find the title used to describe Jesus as the Prince of Peace in Isaiah 9:6:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
Isaiah ties in his title with the concepts of rule and authority. Jesus ties in peace as the gift of the Holy Spirit, one that would be a guide and companion. A gift unlike that which the world gives, in other words a peace that is not dependent on the circumstances of our lives going terribly well. The peace that is being spoken of is the one that surpasses all understanding. It is heavenly in nature. Kingdom oriented in its disposition.
How Might We Orient To Peace
When we get into the granular details on peace, we have to think about the ways that we are fractured. As the gift of peace although it can be given in the moment, isn’t simply an occasional response to being in God’s presence although that is the same peace, instead it is a peace of soul, long lasting and persistent in its presence. Here’s how St. Paul describes this tendency in himself in Romans 7:15-17:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 1As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
We are fractured within ourselves. Along with St. Paul we have to contend with two persistent orientations. The one that wants to live into a life of grace and our own tendency to embrace that which is sinful and harmful. Two natures competing and a third, a false self, to protect from the judgment of others around our own brokenness and sinful tendencies.
We have to compete against these waring orientations. Although grace is by far the stronger, we often compromise ourselves through our persistent orientation to sin and our active decision to hide ourselves from God and others.
In other words we often repeat the sin of Adam and Eve. Lying to our neighbor and hiding form God. This is the opposite of openness and the corresponding discipline of repentance. We do not own our own tendencies before God and we hide our humanity from each other.
And so, we have no peace, because we have not collected ourselves within in order that we might offer our whole lives back to God in worship, service, and praise.
Bishop Kalistos Ware has an excellent concept that man is the only creature that can offer up his whole world back to God in praise. When we are fractured within we are deeply unable to collect ourselves within and thus we deprive ourselves of the peace freely given by God.
What Can Be Done?
An essential part of peace is looking at what is within without harsh judgment. But to own and come to grips with our own tendencies. This is not to call our sinful behavior non-sinful, but it is to look at our tendencies so that we might fully collect them and turn back towards God.
This is easier said than done, but there are a wide range of tools that can help us do this. One such tool is the Enneagram (though it is not the only tool). You might consider picking up this book by Ian Crone as a sort of helpful overview.
Depending on what you find within you also might consider a wide range of counseling services. Attending to your own well being is an essential part of being a Christian. There is no shame or embarrassment from seeking a full range of support.
The second suggestion is to find a spiritual director or guide who can help you with this process of understanding yourself with an eye towards spiritual formation. There are no specific formulas for the right mentor.
I would suggest prayer but also see how you feel when you are with the person. Having a relationship where you can be yourself and where trust is established is a general guide to working through who you might decide to partner with. Also remember these need not be life-long relationships, but essentially trusted partnerships for specific seasons of life, which while they can last for a long long time, need not be everything in order to do the principle thing, which is to be a catalyst for normative Christian maturity.
Peace With Others
Another major source of our lack of peace is in our relationships with others. Navigating relating with others can be complex especially where differing views or understandings cloud the closeness you might otherwise want.
Finding ways to peacefully relate to others without tuning them out can be a significant challenge. Knowing how to navigate your priorities and the priorities of others and their relative relationship with you is also a challenge.
We often find the most conflict with those where the bond of relating is closest. I think this is often where Love your Enemy takes on its sharpest resonance.
We are too often accustomed to think of our enemies or those who are in need as distant from us, but often the scriptures are more talking about those who are closest to us but for whom we refuse to acknowledge. Consider the gospel of Matthew 5:43-48:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 4And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We often find that we are out of love with those we have had a strong conflict with but who are otherwise close to us.
Consider the words of Jesus ‘If you love those that love you what good is that?’ Love those who persecute you. Who disregard you. Who have offended you. Or another paraphrase on this teaching ‘If you love in hopes that your love will cause the one you are in conflict with to give you attention what good is that.’ Love clearly and without expectation. Clean the inside of your heart even when there is strong hurt or mistrust between you and the other.
The idea is not to get lost in abusive relationships, instead it is to clean the inside of the heart so that as far as it depends on you, you can live at peace with all. There are certainly times and seasons where it is healthier to place boundaries and to move forward. Here too a spiritual director or mentor can be helpful.
Peace and Hope for the New Year
This Christmas reflection started out looking at the big trends of the season and than we went very personal. So why is that?
The reason we look for peace within and peace with our neighbors and friends is out of the belief that what ails the world actually takes place within every heart.
The Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner’ is the surest cure to the injustices we see in the world and ones that we on smaller and sometimes larger levels can inadvertently help perpetuate.
We have to be aware and in touch with the times that we live in and be open to the criticism of others, especially as it relates to actual harms done by us or in our name or within our influence, so that we can take time apart to renew ourselves before God and neighbor.
This gift, hope, and promise of peace only comes through an ever deepening relationship with Christ. It is a gift of his to the believer, if we have the hearts and minds to receive him still, the dear Christ will enter in.