Occupy the manger #8: A season of peace?

Yesterday, I had to do the devotional for our church staff meeting so I chose Isaiah 9:2-7 which is the Old Testament reading for this final week before Christmas. This is the passage that describes Jesus as the “prince of peace.” We pondered together what it means to understand peace as the agenda for Christmas. Peace in Hebrew is shalom, which means more than just an absence of physical violence or conflict. Sometimes people describe shalom as “peace with justice.” But I think that even this definition is too limiting, because it’s not just a world in which everyone is appropriately punished for their wrongdoing. In such a world, everyone would be in prison. Shalom is “completeness.” It means that everything is in its right place and everyone feels safe and loved. There is neither nervous chatter nor awkward silence, because there is no anxiety boiling under the surface. People who suffer or have needs aren’t pushed dismissively aside because their neediness would ruin the spirit of the party.

If the goal of Christmas is to create peace, then how do we address the anxious un-peace that the holiday season tends to produce? My tendency is to be very cynical and condemn the frenzy of Christmas decoration and shopping as being shallow and plastic. I like to remind people over and over again about how dirty and smelly the original Christmas was in the manger with all the animals around. But my colleague raised a challenging question. What about people who genuinely love beauty and enjoy making their houses beautiful with Christmas lights and other decorations? What’s wrong with throwing Jesus a big party and making His birthday an occasion for extravagant celebration?

I suppose I could say: how can you party self-indulgently when other people are living in abject poverty? But immediately I remember how Jesus rebuked the disciples who scolded the woman that dumped perfume all over His head for wasting money that could have been given to the poor. He said, “The poor will always be with you,” which doesn’t mean don’t help poor people, but does mean don’t judge other people for throwing a big old holiday party.

On the other hand, the merriment of the holiday season really can create an environment that’s emotionally oppressive to people who feel like they have to slap on a smile and engage in cheery banter. So I feel like it’s within the spirit of shalom to tell people it’s okay not to be jolly during a festive time, but you need to somehow do that without denigrating those whose festivity is coming from a place of genuine delight and interest in spreading shalom rather than anxiety.

I’ve been to several holiday parties so far this season. I’ve had a great time that was filled with real, genuine conversations. I haven’t really encountered the shallow banter that I sometimes think is supposed to occur at parties like that. I have been touched by all the attention to detail that the hosts gave to decorations and all the different hoers d’oerves they cooked. It clearly must have taken hours to get ready. The hospitality that I have received has definitely blessed me with a spirit of shalom this Christmas season. God has been teaching me a lot.

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