“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
One December morning in 1863, at home on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts – not very far from where we are tonight – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard the church bells ringing, and he wrote:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
But two years earlier, Henry’s wife, Fannie, had died due to injuries she suffered when her dress accidentally caught fire. Henry himself was injured while trying to put the fire out, and his face was badly burned.
Earlier that year, Henry’s eldest son, Charles, had left home to fight in the American Civil War. A few days before, Henry had just learned that Charles was seriously injured and in danger of becoming paralyzed.
And Henry wrote:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
It is dark outside, and it is not only because of the night. The darkness extends and envelopes the hearts of men and women all over the world. How can we say, “Peace on earth, good-will to men”?
It is dark outside, and if we are honest and brave enough to admit it, the darkness is inside us as well. How can we greet each other “Merry Christmas”?
It has been a strange Advent season for me. The past few weeks, I have been visiting quite frequently a lady friend of mine. Before you get any inappropriate ideas, she is an 80-year-old religious sister. Last summer, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The cancer has since spread. And she is dying.
Last week, I dropped by their convent for a short visit. One of the sisters there told me that she had a rough night. The pain was getting worse, and she did not get a wink of sleep. But out of habit, I still greeted her with “How are you?” Expectedly, she said, “Bad, bad. I’m getting weaker, and there is nothing we can do about it.” But strangely, she said this smiling.
And stranger still, because she knew that I was in the middle of final exams and writing papers, she asked, “So how are your papers coming?” Here was an 80-year-old dying nun asking me about my papers! Surely, her troubles were greater than mine. But she did not allow herself to get locked in her own problems. She still reached out to touch others.
Last Sunday, I celebrated the Eucharist for her in the convent living room, which had by then become a mini hospital. Everyone knew that it was going to be her last Mass. I thought that during the sign of peace, the family present and the sisters who lived with her could go to her and say goodbye. I thought that we could all try to give her peace one by one and say, “Be at peace. I know you are worried about us, but we will be fine. We will miss you, of course. But we will be okay. Be at peace. You can now let go.”
This was the plan. But before we could approach her, she summoned up whatever strength she had left and told us, “Peace. Peace be with all of you. I love you all dearly. But greater than this – and this is what should bring all of you peace – God loves all of you. God loves you!”
We had wanted to bring her peace, but in the end, this 80-year-old dying nun was the one who brought us peace.
It does not end in despair. It ends with care. It does not end with heads hung low and heavy hearts. It ends with peace. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow realized this, too. And so he wrote:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
The story-theologian John Shea is right. The best way to greet each other this season is not with “Have a merry Christmas” but with “Have a defiant Christmas!”
Have a defiant Christmas! Is there any other kind of Christmas? Isn’t Christmas defiance at its very core?
All our Christmas symbols tell us so. Outside, it is dark. And we hang these tiny twinkling lights all around us – not bright enough for us to see that far ahead, but bright enough for people of faith to be reminded that in the midst of darkness, there can still be light. And Light has conquered the world. Have a defiant Christmas!
Outside, the trees have lost their leaves, and everywhere, we see death. But the Christmas trees are still green. They are ever green! In the midst of death, their little leaves tell us there can still be life. Have a defiant Christmas!
And most defiant of all: We have the God-child in a manger, rejected by innkeepers, rejected by the world – that is why there is no place for him except a manger. But still he comes to give us his love. And he is wrapped not only with swaddling clothes but with the love of a mother who faced accusations of infidelity to bear him and the love of an adoptive father who must have at one point felt betrayed by her. But in the midst of rejection and distrust, there can still be love. Have a defiant Christmas!
And this year, we need a defiant faith to celebrate this defiant Christmas. We need to be able to defy our own darkness, our many deaths, and our distrust and say, “There is light. There is life. There is love.” Have a defiant Christmas!
We need to be able to ring with the bells more loud and deep and proclaim, “God is not dead nor does he sleep. The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth good-will to men!”
How can we be sure of this? I will let my 80-year-old friend have the final word: We can be sure because God loves us. God loves all of us.
Shortly after I shared this at Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Parish in Cambridge, I learned that my 80-year-old lady friend, Sr. Mary Mark Pizzotti, DM, passed away. And strangely, I stopped feeling sad for her, for me, and for everyone who knew her. She is now experiencing the fullness of Light, Life, and Love.