It's advent - the season of year when Christians await the coming of Jesus anew in our hearts, in remembrance of his birth over 2,000 years ago. To celebrate, we light a candle each Sunday - one for hope, one for peace, one for joy, and one for love. This Sunday, my church asked me to light the candle of peace. As someone called to be a peacemaker, I was grateful for the chance to share some of the stories and journies of peace I have made over the years. Let me share the highlights with you.
Last year, my heart pulled me to Israel and Palestine to see how I might be able to contribute to building peace there, but I found a land without peace.
In Bethlehem, in the shadow of the security wall, I bought a Nativity scene. It’s made from olive wood from the region, it’s hand carved, and it has a feature that I’ve never seen in any other nativity before – a security wall.
Do you know that if Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, as Israelis, they would not be allowed to cross the checkpoint?
The wall locks them out, and the Palestinians in. I crossed the checkpoint several times, on foot and by car, and even as a foreign visitor, I was scared. One afternoon, after the kids got out from school (and probably started throwing stones), I heard 30 tear gas explosions in two hours. There is no peace in Palestine today.
But Jesus came to bring peace, and calls us to be peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers," he said, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
How can we build peace when our world is at war?
To find the answer for myself, I went on another peace quest this fall. My first stop was a tiny monastery in Rome. An even tinier nun opened the door. Let me introduce you to Sister Leopoldina.
When Sister Leopoldina discovered I was on a peace quest, and especially that my next stop was Assisi, the birth place of Saint Francis, who wrote the beautiful poem, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace," she was very excited. At length, she shared what she had learned about peace in her decades of serving God, and humanity. The most important thing she shared was that peace is the gift of God. To receive the gift, we simply must open our hearts.
That’s exactly what Jesus said to the disciples just before he was betrayed, in the occupied territory of Palestine, replete with soldiers, politics and insurrections - very similar to the situation there today. Before he was betrayed and killed by the religious and political leaders, who feared his message of an alternative kingdom - one of forgiveness, love, and abundant life, Jesus told his disciples, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27)
Jesus gave us a very special Christmas gift. But to open it, we don’t need to untie bows, or wrapping paper, or boxes - we must open our hearts.
Somehow, as we get older, go through trials, and the weight of the world weighs heavier on our shoulders, this seems more difficult. I think we can learn a lot about opening our hearts from observing children, especially at Christmas. Look how excited they are! Look how eager they are to open their gifts. Would they ever receive a gift and not open it, and quickly?
God has given us a gift – his peace. And he doesn’t give it as the world gives; he gives it kind of backwards. Because to receive his gift, we don't have to open the gift; we have to open our hearts. It takes intention. It takes prayer. It takes choosing to open it. But it is a choice we can make in the moment – in fact, in this moment, right now – and again in every moment that busyness, worry, weariness, or discouragement threaten to overwhelm the joy and peace of Christmas.
There’s one more place I want to take you on my peace quest. It’s where I found a profound breakthrough in prayer. It's the religious community of Taizé, in a tiny rural village in France. Life at Taizé is blessedly simple. It centres around three times of community prayer a day. The prayers are simply choruses, sung in many languages (primarily Latin), interspersed with extended periods of silence. On my second night, after entering the rhythm of the community, I had a very powerful experience of entering the presence of God.
The Bible shares that when Jesus died, the veil in front of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Jewish temple was torn in two. We are invited to walk into the Father’s presence, day and night. I do not have to beg for a visitation from God. God is ever present; the veil is always open. The barrier between God and people is now open; it was supernaturally opened 2,000 years ago.
In prayer at Taizé, I imagined walking through the torn veil into the very presence of God. The sensation of God's presence was like electricity throughout my whole body. Whenever I envision walking through it in prayer, I experience a strong sense of the presence of God anew.
In the busyness of advent, in either quick prayers, or lingering prayers, remember to open your heart. God has given you the gift of peace, and he can’t wait for you to open it.
- Read more of Sister Leopoldina's advice on finding peace
- See photos of the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square in Bethlehem
- See photos of the separation wall