If you’re looking to find peace in the Christmas story, you might be tempted to just head straight to the manger. The one represented in so many creches, paintings and stories, is a beautiful pastoral scene where everyone has gathered with the baby Jesus, quietly enjoying the starry night sky. Beautifully backlit, somehow, the shepherds are there resting in awe, the animals are there quietly sleeping, and “the little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” It’s truly just like the carol “Away in a manger.” It’s a lovely sight.
And there’s a place for that. It invites us to wonder and reflect on each of the characters and how they made their way there. It invites us to rest with them a moment - just a moment - from our own busy journeys. It’s “the solemn stillness” of “It came upon the midnight clear.” Is that the peace we’re looking for?
The reality might have been very different. Birth’s aren’t quiet and peaceful. New born baby in a rough blanket, lying in straw? There’s going to be some crying. If there were animals about, they sure wouldn’t be quiet about having company. And the visiting shepherds and magi would have had questions, surely, and I hear there was even a kid playing a drum. Or did we add that? Anyway, it might not have been quite so peaceful. But is that the peace we’re looking for?
You might step back a bit and look at the shepherds “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock.” That seems quiet and peaceful. Assuming the shepherds weren’t fighting off any animals or thieves. And then there’s that “multitude of the heavenly host.” If you’re looking for the word “peace” it’s right there in their song. But, a field in the middle of nowhere or angels singing about it, is that the peace we’re looking for?
Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem might have been quiet, even uneventful, but was it peaceful? Not a comfortable trip for a pregnant woman under any circumstances, and they were poor. And they were not yet married. It’s complicated.
And what about that story of the angel’s visit? Mary was scared and she was “much perplexed” by the angel’s words. “Don’t be afraid,” says the angel as they explain, a phrase we’ll later hear Jesus use often. When Jesus said it, he didn’t mean flick a switch and stop being scared. He meant to acknowledge the fear and remember: it’s okay to be scared, just know that God is with you and will be with you whatever comes next.
Mary certainly seems to have heard that because, by the end of her encounter with the angel, she says “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In that, I hear more than acknowledgement and acceptance, I hear her embracing God’s presence in her life. Later, Luke says she sings of her joy in God, in what God is doing through her and through the world. She knows. God is with her.
Is this the peace we’re looking for? Not just wonder and awe, not just quiet pastoral beauty, not just an easy time of it or the absence of conflict in relationships or in our world, not just relief from fear, anxiety or trouble, but something more central. Something that’s at the heart of those things, connects those things, empowers us to engage those things and embrace those things.
It’s love. God is love, and that’s already in you. The child we come to find in that manger will show that love to the world, show us how to find it in ourselves and how to live it, too. Don’t be afraid. True peace begins with you.