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A Christmas dialogue between war and peace

By December 23, 2011 One Comment

I picked up my son at the airport last night, welcoming him home for Christmas break. A mom and a daughter were waiting too, with a hand-made sign which they held up and waved at the first sight of the soldier, dressed in camo, coming down the gangway.

The scene, and the real possibility that this was one of the many troops released from duty in Iraq in time for the holidays, drove home the stark coincidence served up this season for people who care to notice: the “Christmas spirit” has been rising just as a long and sorry war whimpers to its close. America’s adventure in Iraq war has ended, on ratings lower than a TV sitcom three years past its prime. Perhaps we can seize this as a rare moment, before the next war gets ginned up, to appreciate another stark opposition, the one laid out in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “A Christmas Carol.”

The first three stanzas of the poem spell out the standard Christmas vignette from the shepherds’ point of view. The last three give Mary’s answer to the words of the war-mongers; they occupy the two stanzas in between. Their pitch is still familiar—from the History shelves of a bookstore near you, to videogame releases old and new (check out “The Most Anticipated Game of All Time!”—Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to the rhetoric of chicken-hawk neo-cons and their minions in media, industry, and the hallowed halls of Congress. That the two middle stanzas echo all the headlines, and Mary’s response all our hope, shows the challenge and the possibilities of the Christian gospel.

Coleridge wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1799, the year after he and William Wordsworth published their epochal Lyrical Ballads which opened the Romantic era in English literature.

“A Christmas Carol,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1799)

The shepherds went their hasty way,
And found the lowly stable-shed
Where the Virgin-Mother lay:
And now they checked their eager tread,
For to the Babe, that at her bosom clung,
A Mother’s song the Virgin-Mother sung.

They told her how a glorious light,
Streaming from a heavenly throng,
Around them shone, suspending night!
While sweeter than a mother’s song,
Blest Angels heralded the Saviour’s birth,
Glory to God on high! and Peace on Earth.

She listened to the tale divine,
And closer still the Babe she pressed;
And while she cried, the Babe is mine!
The milk rushed faster to her breast:
Joy rose within her, like a summer’s morn;
Peace, Peace on Earth! the Prince of Peace is born.

Thou Mother of the Prince of Peace,
Poor, simple, and of low estate!
That strife should vanish, battle cease,
O why should this thy soul elate?
Sweet Music’s loudest note, the Poet’s story, —
Didst thou ne’er love to hear of fame and glory?

And is not War a youthful king,
A stately Hero clad in mail?
Beneath his footsteps laurels spring;
Him Earth’s majestic monarchs hail
Their friend, their playmate! and his bold bright eye
Compels the maiden’s love-confessing sigh.

“Tell this in some more courtly scene,
To maids and youths in robes of state!
I am a woman poor and mean,
And therefore is my soul elate.
War is a ruffian, all with guilt defiled,
That from the agéd father tears his child!

A murderous fiend, by fiends adored,
He kills the sire and starves the son;
The husband kills, and from her board
Steals all his widow’s toil had won;
Plunders God’s world of beauty; rends away
All safety from the night, all comfort from the day.

Then wisely is my soul elate,
That strife should vanish, battle cease:
I’m poor and of a low estate,
The Mother of the Prince of Peace.
Joy rises in me, like a summer’s morn:
Peace, Peace on Earth! the Prince of Peace is born.”



James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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