Peace and Joy: A Christmas reflection
EDante - 25 December 2013
Recently, I found myself constantly pondering about the word “peace”. Expressions like “unspeakable joy”, “immortal gladness” and "eternal happiness" we heard as we busied ourselves singing carols during the cool nights of December also made me wondered what these words meant for the soul. Does peace bring about joy?
The Christmas story of a multitude of angels descending to the cold and lowly Bethlehem during the birth of Christ tells of the glorious song “peace on earth to men of good will”. It was a song of worship to the baby who is to be called the “prince of peace”. Many hundred years before that, prophets of old believed that the “Emmanuel” would come when the whole world is at peace. But many Jewish religious authorities argued that there was no peace when the angels came. The entire Palestine was under the imposing military rule of the Roman Empire. They were persecuted and heavily taxed. Jewish insurrections against the Romans were common and were easily crushed by the mighty power of Rome.
In the midst of that, God appointed that time for the birth of His Son. In the mind of God, without peace, it was not possible for the mighty Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome, to declare a general census throughout the entire Roman occupation. Without peace, it was not possible for Mary and Joseph to travel from their home village in Nazareth down south of Bethlehem. Without peace, it was not possible for the Jews to practise their religion and worship in the temple in Jerusalem. In this case, peace was seen as the absence of war.
There is also another kind of peace. Have you ever seen the peaceful, rolling stream of a river? Have you gazed recently at a vast valley and wondered at the beauty of nature? Have you recalled how you felt when resting in a beautiful garden? Modern studies show that being out in nature actually has a positive impact on your physical and emotional health. In other words, one can find peace by being out in the nature. In Isaiah 66:12, the Lord says, “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.”
The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, lived in a garden called “Eden” where nature served as their original habitat. Along with that, peace reigned in the hearts of our first parents. But when sin was consumed, they were evicted out of the garden to live in a harsh environment. It was no longer the lush and abundant Garden of Eden. Extreme climate and poor ground conditions made it difficult for plants to thrive. God declared the punishment: “Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield, all the days of your life! Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you as you eat of the plants” (Gen 3:17-19).
This month, my work in the United Nations brought me to Yangon, Myanmar. About two years since it began a major political and economic reform, the city has turned into a beautiful garden with landscaped boulevards, century-old trees lining the streets, and serene lakes turned into green parks. Yangon no longer resembled the city I visited in 2009 just after it was ravaged by Cyclone Nargis. “You know Yangon is known as the Garden city of Asia”: our local host proudly said. If I heard that before, I would have doubted. But that time, Yangon was indeed a beautiful garden. City streets were well landscaped, multitude of plants decorated the side streets, and well trimmed ornaments covered the city parks. Our unimpressed UN partner argued it was because of the South-East Asian games that the nation was hosting for the first time.
Yet, there is a greater kind of peace. “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). Divine peace is a gift. God gives it when we do acts of real love and charity. So today at Christmas day, I felt divine peace. For almost a decade, my family, together with a small group of friends from the AIT Catholic Community, has spent Christmas day in the slums of Klong Toey together with orphaned children under the care of Father Joe Maier through the Mercy Center. Joyful Christmas songs led by the largely Filipino choir were sung after the solemn Thai mass. It was amazing to see Thai children singing along confidently in English the Jingle Bells and the Santa songs. As I gazed at Father Joe while he was saying mass, I reflected on the great things this person has done in life. He has devoted his entire adult life to help the poor and abandoned children and gave them not only a place to stay but also love. How much peace must he have received?
Long ago, exactly on 10 June 2006, I was in the small village named Tharae, some 800 km northeast of Bangkok. While resting in a small park by a lake, I started to scribble: “All laborers deserve a rest. After a long night trip from Bangkok to this far away village, after a day of speaking with Thai people in English with translation, after taking a spicy Thai lunch mixed with some Lao food, I am here by the beautiful lake of Tharae. In this small yet lovely garden park, sitting with both my feet fully stretched out, gazing as far as the other side of the lake, and savoring the natural serenity and beauty of the place, I felt so much peace both outside and inside me. There was peace that the world cannot give but can only come through clear conscience and service to God. Let me dwell in this peace forever; evermore let this peace continue to grow until it reaches the pinnacle of peace that is found in heaven.”
Peace is indeed one of the greatest things in life. And you can’t buy it. No amount of modern entertainment can acquire it. People try to take drugs to get it, relationships to mimic it, and transcendent religions to acquire it, but the only thing that brings true peace is to do what is good and right. All good deeds come from God and are willed by God.
A story was told of a man who traversed land and sea to check for himself a master with an extraordinary fame. “What miracles have your master worked?” he asked one of the disciples. “Well, there are miracles and miracles. In your land, it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country, it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God.” Indeed, the miracle we witnessed at the Mercy Center today was about God’s will being done.