Israel made me nervous. In all my international travels, I had never been anywhere that I felt so unsafe. Before entering any of the shops in downtown Jerusalem, we had to have our bags searched for weapons, and it seemed every shopkeeper had a story to tell about a bombing that his or her business had managed to survive. One of my friends said that she felt protected because everywhere we went, there were teenage Israeli soldiers with guns. Their presence made me feel just the opposite. And yet every day, we heard “Peace.” Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace,” is the common greeting there, and it was in our ears and on our lips at each stop along our journey. Shalom. Peace.
We also heard on the news one morning that the fragile “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to our southwest had fractured once again. Hostilities were intensifying, violence escalating. As we made our way into the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, entering through the razor-wired gate of a thick wall at least 15 feet high, we saw more young soldiers with automatic weapons. And written across the wall, like some cruel joke, were the words, “Jerusalem-Bethlechem – Love and Peace.”
The very idea of peace in this place seemed laughable. Peace here is impossible, I remember thinking. There’s too much violence, too much hatred, too much fear. Then we got off the bus, and made our way down into the remains of a cave, now the Church of the Nativity, and stood in the likely place where Christians believe Jesus was born in the flesh. Even though it was May, we couldn’t help singing Christmas carols. Our voices echoed in the small room, the low ceiling sending back our song: Sleep in heavenly peace . . .
From there, we walked to the Church of the Shepherds’ Field, another cave, this one filled with murals depicting the angels’ visit to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born. It was in this place, or somewhere nearby, that an angel had appeared saying, “Fear not!” The messenger announced the birth of a Savior, and then was joined by a heavenly chorus proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace . . .” In that place, we sang too, and “Angels We Have Heard on High” seemed most appropriate: Gloria in excelsis Deo.
“Peace on Earth” looks great on Christmas cards, but it can seem as empty and cruelly ironic in our daily lives as it does written on a razor-wired wall. Even for those of us who don’t live in a war zone, the realities of family dysfunction, financial troubles, stress at work and at home, and so many other things try to rob us of peace. And the same could be said of the time when the angels first spoke those words. On the surface, little changed. A baby was born to a poor couple in a stable, and the world went on much as it had for a long time. Violence and injustice were still the rule of the day. Jesus’s people were still trampled underfoot by those in power, throughout his lifetime and beyond. Human beings still hurt each other and themselves, and got sick, and felt pain, and suffered, and died.
But according to John’s gospel, after Jesus’s resurrection, one of the last times he spoke to his disciples, he promised them, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus spoke of a peace — his peace — unlike anything the world has to give. This is the peace I pray for, the peace I strive to understand, a peace that can’t be shaken by storms or enemies or crisis or pain or even death. That is the peace I hope for when singing Christmas carols, whether in Israel or at our church in Charleston, where this morning we sang: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.