This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:
Unfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.
Do we really believe in peace?
I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.
So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?
What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?
Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.
The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.
Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.
Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.
And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.
And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.
But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.
People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.
They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.
A space where the divine can live and act.
And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.
Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.
Inner peace is about accepting yourself.
But how do people discover acceptance?
Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.
And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.
Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.
Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.
If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.
And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.
Tillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.
In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:
…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”
But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.
It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.
It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.
For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.
We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.
But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.
And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.
 The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).