This is the final installment in Advent All Around, a Think Christian series that sees reflections of Advent in the culture at large. Previous pieces appeared on the first, second and third Sundays of Advent.
We light the fourth Advent candle today for the angels and their pronouncement of peace on earth.
Peace on earth. Sounds great, but isn’t peace on earth the impossible dream? The evidence of our fallen nature overwhelms us every day as we read the endless bad news from hot spots around the globe. Where will tragedy happen this week? Syria? Afghanistan? Your own neighborhood? Peace on earth is for starry-eyed dreamers out of touch with reality, right?
Maybe not. Consider the opinion put forth by Harvard professor Steven Pinker in his recent book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." In over 800 pages of carefully researched and fully documented arguments, Pinker declares we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Violence is on the decrease, not increase, in our world.
Could that be true? Dare we believe things are getting better? Pinker says that we are moving towards peace because we realize peaceable societies tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of women and more likely to engage in trade. There is a lot that can be accomplished by people who don’t constantly fear they are going to be abducted, raped or killed.
We are so conditioned to anticipate and accept bad news that this good news is hard to believe. Pinker has his gloomy critics, but I’m not one of them. Yes, I am fully aware of sin and the reality of evil, but that doesn’t keep me from being optimistic about peace breaking out all over.
I like the term “better angels.” It comes from the last line of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Knowing the Civil War was imminent, Lincoln ended his address with a few peace-making remarks, reminding both sides that they were not enemies but friends, and hoping the better angels of our nature might bring reconciliation to a fractured nation.
We light the fourth Advent candle because reconciliation has happened, though not in the way Lincoln imagined it might. Reconciliation has happened through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event makes real peace possible. As Luke tells the story, after one angel appeared to the shepherds, a great multitude of the heavenly host appeared praising God and proclaiming peace. Perhaps it’s actually those angels who have been patiently nudging us along over the centuries, helping end war after war, helping humanity move toward peace.
When I lived in the Netherlands, I used to walk my dog up on a dike just outside of our housing development. The land belonged to a farmer and I enjoyed being able to walk for five minutes and be surrounded by sheep instead of people. An old Nazi bunker stood in the middle of the farmer’s field, an ugly testament to the darkest time in recent Dutch history. The farmer used it for a barn. Occasionally I’d see the farmer pulling a bale of hay out of the bunker to put out for the sheep and I’d smile at how he had beaten that sword into a plowshare. Who is to say a smiling angel wasn’t hovering over that bunker?
We light the fourth Advent candle today for the angels and their pronouncement of peace on earth. Four candles blaze, proclaiming the good news that the Prince of Peace is coming into the world. Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Nazi bunkers will be built and even Jesus himself will be crucified. But remember, on the night before His death, He gathered His disciples together andsaid, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
May it be so.
(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)