In this season of Christmas, we will hear the word “peace” a lot—“Peace on the earth, good will to men,” “Glory be to God on high, peace on earth the angels cry,” etc. And now, only a few days away from this joyful feast, our peace has again been taken away by the news of an unspeakable tragedy at an elementary school in Connecticut. I have a son in kindergarten. This morning, we played with his stuffed animals, we ate breakfast, he brushed his teeth, gave me a hug good-bye and headed off to school. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to get a phone call that one’s child is not going to be coming home from school. As a priest, I am saddened. As a father to my beautiful son, I am angry. I am angry that going to school is not as safe as it used to be. I am angry that it is even being suggested that kindergarten teachers should carry guns to protect their students! That is not a political statement, but a pathetic statement, that my child’s sweet and awesome teacher should carry a weapon in her purse for the day she might have to use it in her classroom, to protect my child and her other students. I am angry that I can’t go to the mall anymore without thinking of the violent massacre in Oregon a few days ago. Last weekend we took our son to Sea World and sat in a darkened theater watching an inspiring musical performance about Christmas, and I looked around, wondering what I would do if someone opened fire on the auditorium, like what happened in Aurora, Colorado this past summer.
Who is to blame for this? Some will blame the politicians, others will blame the media, and others will blame Hollywood. Somewhere along the line, violence has become the “new normal.” We are an angry people—I confess, I am angry today. The number one emotion in our society is not even anger, it is rage. Listen to the music, watch the movies, sit in traffic—anger is everywhere around us. It’s even closer to home—how many households are filled with anger. How many children do not love their parents, and how many parents do not love their children? How many spouses do not love each other? How many lament their state in the world—life didn’t turn out the way they hoped, or they don’t have enough money to “keep up with the Joneses”? We breed anger right in our own homes.
I am a Greek Orthodox priest—and even in my church, there is anger. People are angry about things that happened years ago. There are families that won’t talk to each other. They are angry that their special group doesn’t always get its way. Some are angry because we use too much Greek and others are angry because we don’t use enough.
We’re so used to being angry that the person who extols the virtues of peace, or who turns the other cheek is somehow seen as the “fanatic”. The one who never gets angry is seen as abnormal. The one who holds Christ as his peace is someone who is criticized, rather than commended.
But anger is a wasted emotion—After I got home today, not only saddened by the news from Connecticut, but wrung out from my ride home in rush hour, I thought to myself “I had a CD of Christmas music in my car stereo—why didn’t I opt for that instead of the news show?” Why did I get angry at rush hour traffic tonight, instead of using the extra time to pray? Not only did I lose a few minutes off of my day in traffic, but I probably took off minutes or hours of my life being angry about being in traffic.
I remember years ago, I was driving somewhere on a narrow two-lane road. The road came to an intersection with a much larger road, and so the small road I was one only got a brief green light to cross the large road. When the light turned green, I was approaching the intersection intending to turn left. The person in the car approaching me going the opposite way was also intending to turn left. Except he had his turn signal on, and I did not, so he thought I was going straight. I turned left without using my signal, and because of this, as the light turned yellow, this man didn’t get to make his turn. As I sped up the street away from the intersection, I realized that my carelessness in not turning on my signal cost this man the light, and probably 5 minutes of his life. I don’t know who the man was or how his day turned out—perhaps he was late for his job, or late for an appointment, or late to pick up his child, or see his wife. My carelessness might have cost him a job, made his wife angry, or made his child scared that daddy wasn’t coming to get him. I always remember this (and I always turn on my signal now) because for a few minutes, I was a peace-taker, instead of a peace-maker. I stole a man’s sense of peace with my carelessness.
The problem in our world is that we thrive on peace-taking and not peace-making. We will make our own peace even if we have to steal peace from someone else. We thrive on hate rather than love. We’d rather protest than concede. We’d rather sue than forgive. We’d rather dominate that reconcile. And this has got to change. We need to drop the “new normal” and get back to the old normal—when kids played basketball on the driveway after school instead of playing violent video games, when kids talked instead of wearing the ear-buds filled with hateful music; when adults forgave and forget; when spouses worked it out; and when church was your support group and not just your club.
The saddest thing about today’s tragedy is of course the children who will never get to grow up, and the parents who have lost their precious angels. And thoughts and prayers rightfully start there, remembering those whose lives have been forever scarred. But sad in its own way will be how fast this story will drop out of the news and out of our consciousness—sure, it will dominate the news for the next week, but it won’t stop the malls from being packed up until Christmas; it won’t stop sales of violent video games; it won’t make children and parents get along any better; it won’t change the politics of Washington, it won’t reverse the moral decline of society, or change the “new normal”. And sadly, it won’t bring God back into the public. Because we are still too angry and too selfish to start making peace and stop taking it.
The decision to be a peace-maker instead of a peace-taker is a personal one. And it is based in large part to how one approached God, who is our peace. The person of God works for peace, and for the good of the other even if it is not his or her own good.
So please give that some thought to peace-making versus peace-taking as you decide whether to come to church on time, or late, or not at all. Please think about that as you reflect on the state of your marriage or your relationship with your children. Think about it as you sit in traffic or as you try to find a parking space at the mall this weekend. Please think about that as you decide about whether to play a violent video game, or consume alcohol before driving, or use profanity.
When I get up tomorrow, I’m going to thank God that He has allowed me to see the light of another day. And I won’t ask Him for anything material. I’ll ask that He guide and protect me and my family, not only from the destructive actions of others but from our own destructive actions. When I get in the car tomorrow, I’ll put the Christmas CD on. And if traffic is heavy or the lines at the mall are long, I’ll use the extra time to pray, and I remember that there are parents in Connecticut who would LOVE to be stuck in line at the mall, rather than picking out their child’s casket.
Most people mistranslate the Gospel passage “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace good will to men.” The more accurate translation is “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace to men of good will.” See, the peace of God is not a gift granted to everyone (sorry, God is not politically correct). The peace of God is granted to those of good will. God’s peace is a gift, not a birthright. And it is a blessing—something for which we should strive, and something for which we should be grateful.
Peace on earth begins with peace with yourself and those around you. And it begins with your choice to be a peace-maker and not a peace-taker. As we get ready to celebrate Christmas, the Christmas carol we need in our heads is not “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock,” but “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
But at this moment in time, it’s not even my “rant” that is important. It is holding in prayer and in thought the lives of 26 adults and children who perished today—may they know the joy of everlasting life. And for their parents, who sent their little angels off to school today, never to see them again, may God surround them with His Angels, to bring “the peace which surpasses all understanding.”
May their memories be eternal! And may we learn something from today.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
Let there be peace on earth, let this be the moment NOW!