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When the whole world was at peace.

This Christmas Eve, in the stillness of a darkened church, while a choir stands poised to sing "Silent Night" and the creche figures are in place, a voice will herald the Christmas message of Christ's birth. "The twenty-fifth day of December," a lector will intone and then read the stately Roman martyrology, which majestically recounts the moment when Jesus entered the chronicles of human history. Jesus was born, we will be told, 5,199 years after the world's creation, 1,510 years from the Exodus, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Roman emperor Octavian Augustus.

But for all the quiet force of this regal proclamation, every year one phrase never fails to strike me. God became a squirming baby in Bethlehem, the account teaches, "when the whole world was at peace." How could that have been?

When Jesus was born, the Romans were still fighting enemies in Europe, the East was caught up in dynastic wars, and tribes and clans jostled for power in Africa, Asia, and across the Atlantic. If Christ comes during peacetime, how can he ground himself in Christians today, when ethnic groups wipe each other out in Eastern Europe, neo-Nazis spread hate throughout Germany, racism splits communities in our own country, and even the soil of the Holy Land continues to be polluted by blood?

No, the whole world is never at peace. But listen carefully to the Christmas proclamation. The words do not say that there was a lasting peace in Bethlehem, just that there was peace. Perhaps, in fact, there was just a moment of peace, and that is all that God needed to take the step that would save the world. Maybe, just maybe, for one split second, every warrior had empathy for his enemy, every husband and wife--for but a fraction of a breath--did not fight, every child stopped crying. And in that moment, the world was changed.

If that happened once, why not again? This year let us look for that one moment when God reenters our lives and renews the Incarnation. Let us prepare ourselves so that God may be reborn within our hearts. Let us pray that we will be able to receive the insightful epiphany, which will allow us to recognize and appreciate--and then live this precious, intimate, personal gift of grace.

Grace and faith, in fact, are the same Christmas presents God offers each year, but we must be ready to receive them. The masters of prayer tell us that we can prepare for grace and faith, but we cannot create them ourselves. We can expect grace and faith, even search for them, but God decides when to grant these blessings. That is why Advent is so special: the season's readings guide us in getting ourselves ready for the great event for which we hope and pray. We can participate with God in the divine plan of salvation and vocation simply by preparing ourselves to be God's vessels. Sometimes that takes place in peace, when all we do in prayer is stop to listen quietly.

As with many things, Mary is our guide. Like Mary did, we should let God talk even if silence is the form of that communication. Instead of cluttering up our minds with a laundry list of problems and wishes, let us be still as Mary was and enjoy what God has to say, even if all God gives is the comfort of stillness. Following Mary's example, we must be willing to wait for God to take action but be ready to go when God sends us our message. The faithful Christian knows God will come through, so we must be prepared because anything might happen--anything can.

Mary is not the only member of the Christmas story who has a lesson for us. Joseph, a man who loved his wife and God, probably didn't understand any of what was happening, but he endured his neighbors' scorn because God told him everything was fine. Watchfulness is what the shepherds and the Wise Men demonstrate for us. They waited, not knowing exactly what to anticipate but knowing--intuitively, in their hearts even more than in their minds--that something wonderful was going to happen, which would change the world forever--first by affecting them one at a time.

Mary and Joseph, along with both the simple shepherds and the learned Wise Men, show us that communication with the Lord needs two partners: God sends a message, but we must be willing to receive the news. The watchful shepherds, for instance, were ready to receive the angels' happy announcement even though they didn't even know it was coming. The Wise Men were searching the skies for a sign, but they must have known that the lessons that came from their books were like kindergarten games compared to what the Lord would show them. The angels found the shepherds and the Christmas star found the Wise Men, but they were looking for something special, too. They were ready to receive a gift.

The moment of peace, then, can occur when we decide to watch for God and cooperate with God's plans. This happens when we empty ourselves of our own aspirations and push aside the pull of the material world. A great mystic once described this state as a vacuum into which God will pour the gifts of faith and grace. According to this mystical writer, we just need to be still and we will know that God is present, that God was always there in the first place. We just have to decide to acknowledge this.

If we allow the Christ child to take root within us this Christmas and every Christmas, how can we ever be frightened or go astray? Undeniably the clutter of our lives will weigh us down again soon after Christmas Day. Family gatherings are not always blissful, tuition and mortgage payments will not stop, cars will break down, and personal relationships might grow rocky. When the peace of the creche turns restless, the calm core of the baby Jesus' sleep will help us endure.

I remember the day my niece, Juliana, was born. Her birth slammed into our busy days, forcing us to stop and run to the hospital, everyone converging to see the baby! We felt that we were in on something at the start. Her miracle of life broke us out of our daily reveries and shook us. She made us realize that there are more important things than ringing telephones and deadlines. She was so at peace in the nursery, her tiny fingers in a ball and a mini-stocking cap covering her head, while happy chaos surrounded her. We all slept more soundly that night as we thought about the days and years that would follow, imagining our roles in her world. Somehow her mere presence made us feel safer. We didn't even have to think about it. She granted us peace.

This Christmas season, let us work hard to be still, be silent, and put our world at peace so that the Lord may lead us the rest of the year. All it takes is a moment for Jesus to take root in our hearts. And if we doubt that we can accomplish anything with God, all we have to do is remember what happened the last time the whole world was at peace.

By Christopher M. Bellitto, teaching fellow and doctoral candidate in history at Fordham University.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bellitto, Christopher
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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