This cloud has hung over my head all my life. My grandparents suffered the cruel uncertainty of living daily, not knowing when a representative from the American Red Cross might drive up to their door with an announcement thousands of families received that a loved one was killed, captured, or "missing-inaction"—their location and condition unknown.
In fact, my father served in the Pacific campaign under General MacArthur and returned home physically unharmed. My uncle, however, was not so lucky. He had been captured in the battle of the Bulge during the last days of the war in Germany. In fact, this major battle was the last major offensive on the Western Front during WWII. For weeks he was listed by the US Army and the Red Cross as "missing-in-action." The good news is that he survived to return home; the bad news, however, was the ongoing PTSD he suffered most of his life until he died in his 60's.
This tragedy, and many like it in families across the United States and other countries as well, scarred a generation. Sons and daughters had been drafted to serve in a war considered to be honorable, a war fought agains a tyrannical enemy, a war to save civilization. It was also thought by many to be a war to end wars.
But it did not. Again, in my lifetime, I have experienced: the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the ethno-nationalist conflict in northern Ireland, the Iraq war, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the war between Hamas and Israel. And, in full disclosure, as many of you who know me are aware, in my lifetime I, too, have taken up arms and served as an artillery officer in Korea.
In the magisterial fiction of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, he concludes the monumental task of describing the European and Pacific campaigns of WWII by saying this:
These two novels tend to one conclusion: that war is an old habit of
thought, an old frame of mind, an old political technique, that must
now pass as human sacrifice and human slavery have passed. I have
faith that the human spirit will prove equal to the heavy task of
ending war. Against the pessimistic mood of our time, I think that
the human spirit—for all its dark side I here portray—is in essence
Also, dear Wouk, with admiration and gratitude for your remarkable romance, war continues as does the pessimistic mood of our time. And yet, like you, I do agree that the human spirit is in essence heroic. However, I also add another dimension to this fictional dialogue you and I are having. This "dimension," if this is what we may call it, is the unconscious. In your novels, I do not recall you mentioning that word ever, nor did you tell what any of your characters dreamed. Yet, dreams are the most universal experience of each of us, as well as our dogs and cats. We all dream, and in our dreams we face the dangers with which our heroism is tested. This is the heroism of our total being: body, mind, thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
How ironical it is that many people say they do not dream, and in some cases refuse to face their dreams because the dreams scare them. Like all of us, they want to rest at night, to sleep undisturbed, to have a "peaceful" night. These night-time disturbances begin in childhood. We wake up, crying, running into our parents' bedroom, clutching our safe objects, dolls, teddy bears, blankets. My point is that at our youngest age, we run from our fears and rest under the protective shelter of whatever makes peace possible.
In some cases, the fears that disturb us are played out on the world's stage, as with Wouk's story of the European and Pacific wars. Sometimes our fears are rooted in the personal dynamics of families, couples, and children's playgrounds. Whatever the source or situations that prompt these fears, we must understand two things: First, it is a good thing that we are hard-wired so that we can experience fear because some encounters are wisely to be feared. The bullying person, the catastrophic illness, our accidents, the uncertainty of life's end, and so on. In these cases, fear helps us to respond and perhaps arise at some send of peace.
Then, there is the second case where fear is good. This is the deeper fear of our unconscious humanity. What I mean by this is our experience of the prevalence of uncertainty in the world. After all, each of us lives with a growing awareness that comes to each child eventually. "No, you are not the center of the universe. No, your mom and dad and friends will not always be here. No, in fact our solar system itself is not the center of the universe. No, you cannot be assured that all the individuals and circumstances you encounter will have your best interests at heart."
Given all of that, then how are we to live our lives with a sense of peace? How are we to hear the liturgies of Advent and Christmas in which the angels sing of peace on earth and goodwill to others? Actually this question occupies the center of most major religions. And the answer, simply put, is that we are to deepen our experience of life in a spiritual consciousness of peace.
This spiritual consciousness of peace arose within the New Testament account of Jesus and takes place in the ancient land of Palestine, consisting of three regions: Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judea in the south. The political figures were the Roman emperor, Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus; Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and sometimes referred to as King Herod or by the title of tetrarch ("ruler of a quarter") and called "that fox" by Jesus; Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judah where Jerusalem was located as well as where Jesus was arrested.
As for the social conditions in Palestine, the majority of people would be called a peasant class made up of tenant farmers and laborers as well as fishermen. Beneath them was another class carrying the name of "the poor." This class included the sick, crippled, mentally ill. Finally, there were the outcasts: sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. The sinners were those who lived immoral lives, in some cases identifying with Gentile lifestyles, in other cases excommunicated and cast out of the synagogue. Among this group also were the non-religious travelers who passed through Galilee.
In other words, it is something of a motley crew in a remote part of the world where warring armies marched through, and political power was carried on the shoulders of these Galileans, Samaritans, and Judeans at the will of the Roman emperor with his subordinate governors such as Herod and Pontius Pilate. To those people, that place, and that historical moment came the bold chorus of voices declaring,
PEACE ON EARTH
AND GOODWILL TOWARD ALL
(See the footnote for Luke 2:14, in THE NEW JERUSALEM BIBLE)
And there we have to leave it for this Advent and Christmas season. In our troubled time with the prospects of war bubbling throughout the world, where men, women, and children die brutally, where daily we turn away from the news too painful to bear—I leave you with the wish and prayer that you may know, express, and extend peace on earth and goodwill to all.