By Dan Clendenin

At Christmas we talk about “peace on earth,” but peace seems awfully elusive these days.

Syria has become what the former Secretary of State Warren Christopher once called “a problem from hell.” Assad’s government now controls only about 16% of the country’s territory. 250,000 Syrians have died, 7.6 million have been internally displaced, and another 5 million have fled the country — over half of Syria’s population. The people left behind face shortages of food, water, shelter, and sanitation, in an environment of war, crime, and disease. A dozen countries now fight a proxy war in Syria, along with twice that many insurgent militias.

About 60 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

This week I read that in this year alone, 3,329 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe — more than the number who died in the four attacks on 9/11. Many have drowned in sight of the islands of Lesbos (Greece) and Lampedusa (Italy). A dozen have died in or around the Channel Tunnel. In Austria, horrified officials found 71 migrants dead in an abandoned meat truck. Many more in this river of 4.1 million refugees have died from exposure.

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4th-century sarcophagus, Milan; one of the earliest Nativity images.

I’m not on Twitter or Facebook, but after the terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Sharm el-Sheikh, Beirut, Paris, Ankara, and Bamako, I saw the perfectly sardonic post: “it’s too bad that we don’t have a narrative about Middle Eastern refugees spurned by society to help us think about these tragedies.”

For those of us who wish that our foreign policy was informed by our faith, we could begin with the Hebrew word ger (alien, immigrant), which occurs 92 times in the Jewish Scriptures, and similar words like toshav (migrant), zar (stranger or outsider), and nocri (foreigner). Don’t oppress the stranger, have mercy on them, for you too were once aliens!

And then there’s the Christmas story.

The last few weeks I’ve been meditating on five Christmas poems by GK Chesterton (1874–1936). I’ve been struck how Chesterton combined a gritty realism about our “wild and weary world” with a paradoxical faith in the “Child in a foul stable.”

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Chesterton lived through the horrors of World War 1. He experienced first hand what one of these poems calls “the terrible tongues uncurled” and the “mad gods of violence.” He distrusted the “stern and cunning kings” and the “black dogmas that crush us and mar.” He lamented the “bleak reasoners [who] scorn.”

He nonetheless avoided two perennial challenges: sentimentality about the gospel — the dreaded Hallmark effect, and despair about the world. His poems exemplify what Christian Wiman calls “speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet equal to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.”

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6th-century icon of Mary, Jesus, saints and angels from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, maybe the earliest iconic image of the subject extant.

I especially like Chesterton’s poem “The House at Christmas” about the homeless Mary and Jesus in the “crazy stable.” It helps me to think about the 60 million forcibly displaced people in the world who are looking for a safe place.

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost — how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Joseph and Mary were literally homeless when they were turned away by the inn keepers. Others of us are figuratively homeless, “homesick in our homes,” as Chesterton puts it. The baby Jesus was homeless “in a foul stable / where the beasts feed and foam,” and thirty years later the peripatetic Son of Man still “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

In this “place where God was homeless,” says Chesterton, “all men are at home.”

Home is a place of safety, comfort, and provision. A place where we experience unconditional acceptance. In his poem “The Wise Men,” Chesterton described it this way:

“The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.”

This is the story of the prodigal son, who’s shocked to find his father waiting to welcome him back home.

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Mosaic of the magi presenting their gifts, c. 526, Ravenna.

Matthew’s nativity narrative is pitched to a Jewish audience, and full of political ironies. The holy family fled to pagan Egypt for protection — Israel’s symbolic enemy that had oppressed the Hebrews for 430 years. The place where Pharaoh had unleashed his own infanticide against the firstborn Israelite children became a refuge for the baby Jesus.

Luke announces the good news to all humanity. Some people would limit the divine love and the father’s welcome home, but not Chesterton. In his poem “The Truce at Christmas,” he draws a stark contrast. In a refrain that he repeats three times, he contrasts those who are “for all people” with those who hate and divide us.

“For we are for all men under the sun,
And they are against us every one;
And the men that hate herd all together,
To pride and gold, and the great white feather
And the thing is graven in star and stone
That the men who love are all alone.”

Indeed, the haters hate us, says Chesterton, precisely “because we love them all.”

For the weekly Eucharist at my church, we leave our pews and gather around the altar. We then begin by giving pride of place to our children, literally and liturgically, by inviting them to join us at the innermost center of our circle. We then sing a short chorus that’s a marvelous summary of the Christmas message: “God welcomes all, / strangers and friends. / His love is strong, / And it never ends.”

It’s a simple message: God welcomes us all. “So very simple is the road,” says Chesterton, “That we may stray from it.” It’s “much too plain to say” for those who prefer something subtle or sophisticated.

Christmas means that in the place where God was homeless, all people are welcomed home.

(For Chesterton’s five Christmas poems, see our Advent Poetry Page).

For further reflection:

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“Let There Be Peace on Earth” by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller, written in 1955, and performed by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City on September 25, 2015 at the close of the Interfaith Prayer Service and Remembrance that was presided over by Pope Francis at Ground Zero.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers [sic] all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.

Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org; (2) Wikipedia.org; (3) Wikipedia.org; (4) Wikipedia.org; and (5) Wikipedia.org.

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