Would that Christmas were the time of peace we hope for, long for, but rarely see.
When we say that, we’re speaking of our modern society and the world at large. Many of you who read this, God willing, will experience tomorrow, Tuesday and all the “12 days of Christmas” as times of warmth, reunion and joy in your homes and among your families.
Historically speaking, however, each passing Christmas features sadly fresh proofs of Jesus’ warning in Luke 12:51: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Think about the “Christmas Truce” of 1914, on the Western Front of the Great War, when groups of British and German troops temporarily abandoned their trenches to jointly celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace — the one whose “Good News” would be obscured by pointless slaughter the next day and for nearly four years afterward.
Or America’s Christmases of World War II, when the madness of Adolf Hitler and the reckless ambition of imperial Japan forced millions of U.S. and Allied service members to spend Dec. 25 far away from home.
Except for our briefest conflicts, every American shooting war from the Revolution to the War on Terror has required our military members, on one or more Christmases, to confront the bloody gap between eloquent words of peace from human mouths and the darkness that springs from human hearts.
We also might remember our own strife over Christmas itself — which dates to the first years of white settlement in the New World.
The Pilgrims and Puritans of New England may have invented Thanksgiving, but they forbade the celebration of Christmas. They deemed it too debauched and, above all, too “Catholic.”
Thus the divisive spirit of the Protestant Reformation rendered Christmas just another day, at least in public matters, in much of the North until after the Civil War. Ebenezer Scrooge, at least before the three Christmas spirits visited him, would have approved.
When Congress declared Christmas a District of Columbia holiday in 1870, the bill was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious Union general-in-chief. A devout Methodist, he hoped a Christmas holiday would further reunite North and South.
When Grant died in 1885 (the year Christmas finally became a full federal holiday), his tombstone bore four simple words with which he had accepted his 1868 nomination as president: “Let us have peace.”
His words and those of his Lord — who also promised his disciples, “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27) — should rebuke us still.
Increasing numbers of Americans believe we’re more divided than at any time since Grant and Robert E. Lee made peace at Appomattox Court House. Yet we have far less reason for this than our forebears who fought and killed each other over the evil of African-American slavery and the very meaning of Union and human freedom.
No matter which party or philosophical level we choose to wear, Americans must beware those at home or abroad who sow division and exploit its fruits to gather power or make a buck. If we keep letting the worse angels among us hold sway, then as St. Paul said in another context in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “we are the most pitiable people of all.”
But we still believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that “the better angels of our nature” will prevail. We still see those angels in North Platte and west central Nebraska, no matter how much we disagree among ourselves.
And we can never forget how they inspired our community and region, beginning on Christmas Day 1941, to bestow compassion and comfort upon 6 million U.S. and Allied soldiers and refugees for 51 consecutive months through North Platte’s World War II Canteen.
May the Lord in whom those thousands of tireless volunteers believed, the Babe of Bethlehem whose birth we recall once again, grant us His peace this Christmas of 2018.