He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. (Isaiah 9.6-7)
Isn’t it a tad late for this? Maybe not. This year, the warm glow enveloping the manger didn’t typically fade into the austere silver of workaday winter. It felt more like somebody threw a master switch to show us the Nativity scene we’ve hauled out for years has got more than a little musty and worse for wear. Bathed in candlelight and sentimentality, the crust in its crevices and cracks in its veneer aren’t visible. But they’re there, all right, exposed by an abrupt onslaught of strife, violence, and disaster within a fortnight of “joy to the world” and “sleep in heavenly peace.” The child in us would rather not subject Christmas to reality’s glare. A part of us wants to isolate it from the actual world and rest of the year to protect its magic, as if it God designed and ordained it for our entertainment, as no more than an ingenious fairy tale flocked with exquisite trimmings—mystical star-shine and awestruck shepherds, friendly animals and posh Magi (whence “magic,” by the way). If that’s all we want of Christmas, we can get by masking its weathered state with low light, and this post has no point. Yet clinging to its fantasy at the expense of its focus sets it with dozens of similarly fantastic fables. It’s only a matter of time before Christmas turns into an old wives’ tale.
Widespread disruption on the heels of “peace on Earth, good will to all” reminds me of an opportunity I had to attend a Disney employee event, “Secrets of the Magic Kingdom.” For one night, Disneyland was closed so staff, family, and friends could see how the park really operated. They turned off the projectors and sound effects, and we rode the rides under bright work lamps. It was—pardon the pun—an illuminating evening. Space Mountain, the futuristic coaster that whips riders through galaxies at high speeds, was a masterpiece of illusion. Demystified, it ran at safe speeds on a track scaled to fit the modest barn that housed it. Discovering how something so ordinary became extraordinary by creating an aura around it made the experience miraculous. For Space Mountain to succeed, the magic is necessary. Maintaining its pristine condition is vital. Yet Disney insiders understand magic is the means. Mechanics are the mainstay. The aura is created so the attractions work. Seeing Christmas through the filter of recent events has a similar effect. Not only is its aura in need of refurbishment. In our preoccupation with how it looks and feels, we’ve lost sight of how it works.
Unleash the Promise
We treat Isaiah’s hope in a coming Prince of Peace like a glittering birth announcement. “He’s here! He’s here!” we rejoice. And once the festivities end, we close the prophecy and return it to the shelf until next year. But Isaiah 9.6-7 is much more than “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It’s the promise of a New Order: “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Stripped of its holiday aura, the mechanics of Christmas reveal why it’s truly miraculous. Its modest, barn-sized construction is meant to change the world. Prophecy of the Prince of Peace’s birth also promises a Princely agenda. The Prince will establish policies and define procedures for peace, which His subjects will carry out. Christmas transcends “O come let us adore Him” when we see Isaiah’s promise is far from realized in Bethlehem. It’s the start of something vastly bigger. It replaces the magic with a mandate. The Princely agenda transfers Christmas’s meaning from Christ’s birth to our potential. It falls to each of us, as the Prince’s subjects, to unleash the promise of peace.
We’re appointed to this function on authority of the Prince’s government. And we’re back in a fairy tale, aren’t we? The Prince of Peace ruling over a peaceable kingdom of sleepy villages where peace-loving people get along—it’s a Disney fantasy that stretches the imagination more than a virgin giving birth to God, stars appearing in the sky, and angels popping up at every turn. Suppose we put that storybook away and forget where we stashed it? Unleashing the promise of peace is too fantastic an aspiration in a world where one group invariably works to ensure the other will never live happily ever after. And isn’t that what Isaiah promises, the fantasy of happily ever after? Isn’t that why we’re untroubled by rejoicing at the Peace Prince’s birth one week and cringing at real-world turmoil the next? Can’t we just love the magic and not bother with the mechanics—embrace the aura and ignore the oracle? We can. But if that’s our choice, can’t we be honest with our God, our neighbors, and ourselves and confess our unfaithfulness as subjects and our misgivings about the agenda? We might as well.
When I was in middle school, the civics teacher invited us to enter a national essay competition on “What is freedom?” Looking for a unique angle, I visited a Lithuanian neighbor who’d fled Stalinist Russia. I hoped she’d lavish me with high-flown rhapsodies of freedom and heart-wrenching tales of tyranny. Her mundane response surprised—and confused—me. She handed me the morning newspaper. “Here is freedom.” Seeing my disappointment, she turned on her radio. “Here is freedom.” She opened her window and increased the volume. “Here is freedom.” And then she said, “Freedom isn’t in the sky. It’s in the street.” I understood, but it wasn’t the kind of idealistic answer that wins essay contests. I skipped the competition. Yet Mrs. Duda comes to mind as I try to wrap my thoughts around the Princely agenda. If peace hovers above our reach, it’s because we’ve inflated it as a lofty ideal, not a way of life.
Peace should come as readily to us as opening the newspaper or turning on the radio. When Jesus lays out the Princely agenda, He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Matthew 5.9) Makers. Where we find discord, we make peace, starting with our own turmoil. If voluntary forgiveness makes peace, we forgive unasked. If sacrificing pride makes peace, we embrace humility. If abandoning ambitions makes peace, we practice contentment. The Prince of Peace will reign in our world only when the Princely agenda governs our hearts. Then, only then, will Christmas surpass its magical mystery to mark the anniversary of the global revolution God intended it to be.
Peace isn’t a lofty ideal hovering out of reach. When the Princely agenda governs our hearts, we hold the power to make peace in our hands.