I was eight or nine years old when I first visited New York City. It was probably 1984. My mom had just moved to the East Coast and was eager to introduce me to the big city. I was visiting for Christmas.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about that trip, but I do remember it being bitter cold and snowy, and that my throat had become raw from a hacking cough. My mom wasn’t yet fluent with city navigation, but we were trying to get to Broadway on a bus to see a meteoric new musical called Cats. After becoming hopelessly turned around, we reluctantly approached a woman at a bus stop to ask for help. This was NYC in the 80s. It was a very different place then. The woman was unexpectedly kind and helpful. She directed us to the exact stop and gave us all the details we’d need to get to our destination. The MTA bus soon arrived, and we boarded.
Entering the warmth of the crowded bus, we heard a small child crying in the back. My mom leaned over to me and said something like, “You know, people always talk about how New Yorkers are so rude, but most of them are really nice…”
As the words departed her mouth, a woman in the back of the bus shrieked at the crying child, “Shut the hell up you stupid little brat!”
The entire bus fell into an uneasy silence. You know the type. And we rumbled tensely down a snowy New York City street together. You cannot transit long through this world without being jarred from illusions of peace; jarred awake into the very normativeness of its absence. Pax in absentia.
Of course we could resign ourselves to this. Recalibrate our expectations and feel justified in doing so. But then Advent comes along and ruins all of that! We find ourselves singing songs under our breath about peace on earth. If we don’t watch out, we get ourselves suckered in.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the pangs of Advent and how it inconsiderately commands attention to all our most elusive longings. Advent is so troublesome.
For instance, two thousand years ago some shepherds were just minding their own business, when an incommodious choir of angels showed up singing,
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
Of course, they could have said “not interested”—the way you rebuff a flyer on the streets—but, against their better judgement, they said, “let’s go see.” And they did.
So here we are, two millennia later, still trying to make heads or tails of what they saw. The fractures of our world finger out into every relationship, every arena, every crawlspace of our souls. It’s just everywhere.
The Jewish idea of peace is far more textured than that of a placid mental state or even a lack of clashing. It is shalom; wholeness, rightness, things as they ought to be. If you asked some Jews today about their purpose in life, they may quote the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam: “repair the world.” That is another way of admitting that our world is in such need of repair. What a tall order! Of course Jesus gave that his own spin, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Children of God are, it would follow, to bring shalom to this forlorn world or die trying—being, more often than not, the latter, whether by full or fractional degrees.
Being a peace-welcomer, let alone peacemaker, resembles Charlie Brown’s hapless placekicking career. Somehow Lucy always convinces him she’s not going to yank the ball away sending Charlie thudding onto his back. But she always does. Do we dare lift up our hearts to peace? Aren’t we bound to go thudding onto our backs in a world like ours; a world where St. Nick himself could end up in a physical altercation over doctrinal disagreements? If St. Nick can’t stay off the naughty list…
And what did those shepherds find in Bethlehem? A crying baby. Not unlike our short-fused friend on the bus. Then they went around telling people he was their only hope. (Ah, hope. I’m coming for you next.) I would wager their own expectations of this child were woefully misshapen. But what did they know?
A few days later, Mary and Joseph presented him at the temple. An aged man named Simeon approached them. He too began to sing:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.
It had a good ring . . . until he offered some parting remarks (no longer in song):
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Simeon, you should have stopped while you were ahead! Who knew Advent was such a yo-yo? It always has been. We’ve all harbored questions about that piercing sensation. No real sword pierced Mary’s soul. Only anguish and grief and dismay at what this world was capable of. Simeon understood how piercing these things are.
So did Jesus. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he said. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus wasn’t referring to an actual sword either, but to strife and enmity. “A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Ironically, he does seem to sing this part, but I can only imagine it in minor keys.) What a weird concert this becomes.
We recall an earlier verse, delivered by the weeping prophet Jeremiah: “The prophets and priests alike both practice deceit,” he laments,
They have dressed the wound of my people lightly, Saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
The peculiar peace of Advent is no light dressing of wounds. In fact, the peace of Advent is an indictment of such superficialities. Advent peace must plunge painfully deep, and we can feel it. It plunges like a sword. The sword becomes a scalpel. How else can we explain the fact that we’ve never seen stanzas like this, from the beloved and familiar hymn “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”?
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
We’re hesitant to sing such lines. It feels like bad manners. But they were penned by pastor, author, abolitionist, and activist Edmund Sears during a period of great turmoil in his life.
The year was 1849, and he was coping with a painful ministry failure and the grief of engulfing social injustice . After 7 difficult years pastoring a large congregation in Lancaster, MA, he underwent a nervous breakdown. More than that, his society was roiled by the evils of slavery which pained him excruciatingly. The controversy in those days was over the Fugitive Slave Act. By 1850, it would become required of authorities in non-slave states to capture escaped slaves and return them to their bondage. Awful days. Sears was forced into a time of retreat, and sought refuge as a part-time pastor in a previously-held pulpit of Wayland, MA. One can read his travail in the lyric,
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow
The hymn was Sears’ own way of bringing Advent peace to bear upon the sad cacophony of his world; a poetic balm upon his own deep wounds, as he convalesced from personal collapse. Sears didn’t just need Advent, he really needed it. So do we, but the peace of Advent plunges deeper than most strife-sick patients will readily consent. It plunges deeper than any would ever ask.
So Jesus would weep over Jerusalem:
If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
… you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.
The Mishnaic context of tikkun olam is actually quite severe: “to remove detestable idolatry from the land, and utterly cut off false gods—to repair the world in God’s kingdom.” The peace of Advent comes to those who have worked their way through all the gods they can think of in a futile search for peace. In this way, Advent first tears away all light dressings.
And the peace of Advent can be received or, as is typically the case, not. Those who receive it receive with it an intermingling of mirth and mourning. “Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!”
Later, in a book marvelously titled Foregleams and Foreshadows of Immortality, Sears would write,
Descend into your heart, and you will find there a deep and unquenchable instinct—one which belongs to the spiritual nature…
It is the instinct for home.
Let the instinct of home be destroyed, and man would be utterly demoralized, or hopelessly insane. His life becomes aimless, and he wanters in spiritual vagabondism, he knows not whither or for what.
The peace of Advent is a promissory note. It occurs to me that any meaning of the word note my be apt. At the same time it serves a s stinging reminder that here there is no enduring peace; no true home.
One of the most provocative things our Savior ever said about peace was just before the part about the sword. “As you enter a house, greet it.And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.” What can that mean?
Children of God enter habitations of the world offering everlasting peace; an Advent peace, meant (I’ll admit, the shepherds had it right) to be shared. It is the peace of God’s homecoming within us. As we walk in his very footsteps, we are consoled by his company. As we walk in his very footsteps, we rejoice and mourn together at peace welcomed or spurned. If we must receive back our peace, it is never without sorrow. “If you had only known on this day what would bring peace…”
Surely we understand. Jesus understood. So many grow jaded. Even those believers of the Advent message can be numbered among them. Advent is a desperate cry to come out from our jadedness—like the cry of a child on a city bus, or a baby in a manger. It is a cry in the wilderness—in our wilderness—to sojourn alongside the Prince of Peace.
It may not always sound like a song, but it is. Maybe you’ve been singing it under your breath? Advent could be for you a permission slip to stop and listen and long for home.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!