Father Joseph had known war for almost his entire life. More than three hundred thousand of his fellow countrymen died fighting in wars started by leaders far from the front lines.
Now June in Austria, the young priest stood and watched snow fall from the sky. A volcanic eruption the year before had changed the weather so dramatically, there was no “summer” in 1816. Crops failed. Those not killed by war were now starving to death.
It must have felt like the end of the world.
Later that year, Father Joseph sat down and wrote the words many of us cling to at Christmas:
“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.”
Mary packed as much as they could reasonably carry, sacks stuffed full of things grabbed quickly in the dark—food, clothes, and things she’d need to care for the baby.
Her husband woke from a dream knowing they were in danger, needing to flee. It was one of those kinds of dreams, the kind that make your stomach clench, the kind that compels action—the kind of dream you can’t ignore.
As soon as they crossed the border into Egypt, this little family became political refugees trying to make it in a land of strangers.
News of home reached Mary soon enough. All of her son’s playmates, all of the boys in the whole region who were just like him, who had moms just like her, were slaughtered by order of the most powerful leader in the land—a leader afraid of those with no political power whatsoever.
Becoming a refugee saved Jesus’ life, but the rest of his generation was wiped out. Their parents would find no justice—the system wasn’t for them.
For Mary, holding her boy in a faraway land, it must have felt like the end of the world.
Sameer made a good life for himself in Aleppo. He met a beautiful woman and got married. They created a nice home together and had children. “The situation was great before the war.”
But now, watching his children shiver, Sameer carries the gnawing guilt of every father who loves his children but can’t provide. “My children need more clothes, especially since it is winter. Sometimes we know they are still hungry, but there is nothing we can do.”
Sameer talks about the way his children hide their hunger from him. For Sameer, in unexpected moments every day, it feels like the end of the world.
For so many Syrians—for those who fled and those who died trying, for those who stayed and those who died trying, for those whose lives changed forever with the start of this brutal civil war—it feels like the end of the world today.
This Christmas, like the five before, they are desperate for that same silent, holy, calm, and bright night Father Joseph longed for two hundred years ago—the kind that comes with peace.
Aleppo and Bethlehem—they remind us that multiple truths exist at the same time. Jesus’ birth two thousand years ago was a tender family moment, and at the same time it was an event set into a much wider political reality. Governments, then and now, lash out in violence at those who might threaten their power. Yet at the same time, many with no power to lose have chosen to love anyway, to lean into “love’s pure light”, as Father Joseph put it.
Today as many of us celebrate Christmas, many Americans wonder or even fear what will happen next month, when the most powerful leader in the country moves from New York City to Washington, DC. There will be a new political reality in the country.
Yet at the same time, there will be some who choose to love anyway, who choose to lean into “love’s pure light,” who choose to change their world.
Photo: Father and child at the emergency center where we're feeding displaced families today
(Image courtesy Partners Relief & Development)