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Salaam for All

Songs in Waiting: 
Spiritual Reflections on Christ's Birth

Chapter Three
By Paul-Gordon Chandler
Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing.

After praising God’s glory the angels go on to sing of peace on earth, emphasizing that God's desire for all people is peace. The heart of God, demonstrated in the giving of Christ, is that we all experience God’s peace, what is called in Hebrew shalom and in Arabic salaam. Shalom does not primarily mean the cessation of conflict, but rather the experience of “complete wholeness.” 

It is a word that tells us that God’s deepest desire, embodying the heart of God, is to look after our total welfare. Throughout the Arab world the standard first greeting is Salaam aleikuum, a beautiful phrase that simply means “God’s peace be upon you,” but is widely understood as bestowing on the other God’s blessing.

The angel’s pronouncement of peace to all stands in contrast to the peace offered at that time by the Roman emperor, a peace referred to as the Pax Romana. The Roman peace was imposed and kept by harsh military rule and required the submission of conquered peoples; here, the shepherds were being offered the peace of God.

The nature of God’s peace can also be seen in Johann Sebastian Bach’s well-known sacred cantata titled Gloria in Excelsis, which was composed during the five-month mourning period following the death of his dear wife, Maria Barbara Bach, in 1720. Obviously, God met him in an intimate and extraordinary  way during his time of pain and grief. 

We live in a world that is made up of hurting people, and God is in the business of healing, forgiving, restoring, giving new beginnings: making people whole. I recall the words of Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Indian Sikh follower of Christ, when Europeans asked him about the evolutionary notion of the survival of the fittest: “The fit will survive of themselves,” he responded. “But in my experience, what I have seen is the survival of the unfit. And that is where God’s glory comes in.”

During the twenty centuries since the Christ Child was born, countless people have been transformed by their relationship with him, seeing in him the power of God to bring light into our darkness, and to give us a new kind of life. I am reminded of a wonderful line by George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet, in his poem An Offering: “In Christ
two natures met to be thy cure.”

The angel’s message to the shepherds was that “A Savior has been born”; a very special deliverer had come to them.We needed to be rescued from another dimension. So at Christmas we are reminded that God enters our world to bring salvation and wholeness.

Or, as Simone Weil, the late French Jewish writer, expressed it so well, “God is longing to come down to those in affliction.” And further, the angels tell us this good news of peace, this promised wholeness, this goodwill of God toward us, is “for all the people.”

The message of the angels is that God’s love, demonstrated by the sending of the Christ Child, was for all people, not just for the Jews or the “religious,” as it was so often believed then. Luke continues throughout his gospel to emphasize that God’s love is for all equally, putting great emphasis on Jesus’ loving treatment of the poor, of women, the gentiles (non-Jews), and those considered “dishonorable” or “disreputable” in that society.

In Luke’s nativity story this all-encompassing love is symbolized by the fact that the Christ Child’s first visitors weren’t of high status; they weren’t powerful, religious, or wealthy. They were common laborers, shepherds to whom God had spoken in the middle of the night. At that time, shepherds were considered spiritually and religiously unclean, as they weren’t able to keep all the religious ceremonial laws due to their occupation, so they were despised and not even
allowed into the temple. 

Yet they are the first to be told of Christ’s birth. It is a wonderful paradox, reflective of God’s love for all. I love Queen Lucy’s magnificent line in The Last Battle of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

As a result of the birth of the Christ Child, we understand that any and every dimension of life can become an arena of God’s extraordinary saving activity. This is why Christians celebrate Christmas as the single greatest moment in all of human history, as a character in C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra says, “What had happened on Earth when [God] was born a man at Bethlehem had altered the universe forever.”

Not only did God come to us in Jesus to deliver us, God also came to share our lives, and all that life brings to us, the good and the bad, in a way that simply staggers the human imagination. When Matthew, in writing his account of Christ’s birth, searched for a way to distill the essence of that first Christmas, he reached back seven hundred years to borrow a single verse from the book of Isaiah, and captured its truth in a single Hebrew word.

Matthew first quotes from Isaiah: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—a Hebrew word which Matthew then translates for his readers, saying, “which means, ‘God with us.’” By quoting this verse from Isaiah in his nativity story,Matthew thus tells us that “God with us” is not just a translation of a Hebrew word, but a translation of the display of the loving heart of God. In the birth of this Child we see that God does not abandon us, Matthew affirms, but instead is Immanuel—one with us, so that we may experience God’s heart for us fully.

The “good news of great joy” of which the angels sang is that God is not aloof or remote. In that single word, Immanuel, resides the essence of what Christians believe happened at the birth of Jesus. In a divine descent, God entered our world to embrace and show us pure love. Therefore, regardless of whether we feel God’s presence or not, God is near. We don’t climb our way to heaven or to God, but rather God comes down to us, moving among and within us, making our ordinary lives extraordinary by his presence.

My own favorite Christmas verse, filled with depth of imagery and beautiful cadence, comes from
the deuterocanonical book The Wisdom of Solomon: “When all things lay in peace and silence, and night was in the midst of her swift course, God’s Almighty Word leapt down from Heaven, out of His Royal Throne” (18:14–15, KJV).

Today it is commonly rumored that a popular king in one of the Arab countries often “disappears” and walks incognito among his people. Asked by his security detail and members of his parliament not to do so, out of concern for his safety, he responds, “How do you expect me to properly assist my people unless I know how they live?”

A friend working in the challenging circumstances of Baghdad sent me a few heart-wrenching poems he had written during a period of great disillusionment. He was experiencing great internal turmoil due to the tragic loss of life there. One of his poems was titled “Oh F**K.” In the poem he says that what he means by that expletive is “Oh God, help us!” A few weeks later he sent me another poem. This time he titled his poem, “Jesus is in Baghdad,” as he had begun to see God as present and at work there in the midst of the chaos and tragedy.

There are in other faiths moving foreshadowings of the Incarnation, perhaps most clearly in Buddhism. Their ancient “pre-New Testament era” stories tell of great Buddhist figures whose love for others made them decide to postpone indefinitely their entrance into Nirvana in order to return again and again into the world of suffering until the last person was “enlightened.” Surely in these stories we hear echoes of our own belief in a God who sent his only Son into a
suffering world in order to save it.

The Christmas story is about God’s commitment to us. Christmas is not our show, it is God’s. Christmas is a divine initiative, when God establishes a tangible relationship of love which Jesus represents. The secret to understanding the angels’ song, and therefore really the secret of Christmas, is that it isn’t about giving to God, but rather it is about receiving God most fully into our lives. The only one giving in this story is God. We have only to receive this holy miracle that breaks into the night, even in the darkest nights of our lives. God is the central character of this Christmas story, and therefore in all our stories.

Luke’s account of this angelic utterance ends with the reaction of the shepherds. At first, they probably stood in amazement, asking themselves, “What next?” Jim Bishop’s best-selling book The Day Christ Was Born has a humorous section where the shepherds, after the angels left, are discussing what they should do. After they decide to go to Bethlehem to see this Christ Child whom they had just been told about, one of them asks, “You are sure that this is not
the work of some evil Egyptian magician who would steal our flocks [while we are away]?”

Yet they did choose to take the short journey to the stable, and after seeing the Child in the manger just as they had been promised, and spreading the word to all who would listen, they return to their fields praising and glorifying God, probably singing the same Gloria they had just heard from the angels. The shepherds’ impulse to sing emerged from the realization that God was completely for them, in the deepest dimension.

All of this echoes what Martin Luther, the great church reformer, preached in a sermon on the birth of Jesus, almost five hundred years ago: “Of what benefit would it be to me if Jesus
would have been born a thousand times and it would have been sung daily in my ears that Jesus Christ was born, but that I was never to hear that Jesus Christ was born for me?”

When I was working in Russia in the early 1990s, on a project that involved visiting orphanages, I remember hearing about an experience of two Americans at the time who were working with the Russian Department of Education and teaching in a large orphanage. During the Christmas season they shared with the children at the orphanage the story of Christ’s birth: about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem but finding no room in the inn, and having to go to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger.

After completing the story, they gave each child three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude
manger, and a small paper square. Following the instructions, the children tore their papers and carefully laid strips in their manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown, were used for the baby’s blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt the Americans had brought from the United States.

The American teachers walked among the children, who were busy assembling their mangers, to see if they needed any help. All went well until they got to one table where little Misha sat. He was about six years old and had finished his project. Looking at the little boy’s manger, they were surprised to see not one, but two babies in the manger. Calling the translator over, they asked the little boy why there were two babies in the manger. Looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously, relating the happenings quite accurately, until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger. 

Then Misha started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending to the story, as he said, “And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I
told him I have no mother and I have no father, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?’ And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’ So I got into the manger. . . . ”

As we prepare during Advent for our response to God this Christmas, perhaps “keeping Jesus warm,” in our own lives and hearts, is what it is really all about.

Songs in Waiting by Paul-Gordon Chandler
From Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ's Birth by Paul-Gordon Chandler. Copyright ©  2009 by Paul-Gordon Chandler. Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc. 

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