Each year my family gets excited when it’s time for Christmas music. The constant playlist coming from our living room speakers is called “Christmas Hits.” Me, less excited. I do love Christmas hymns– singing them at church or attending the beautiful annual concert here at Wheaton College. But apologies to Pentatonix, each year I grit my teeth through the “Christmas Hits.” Actually, no apologies.

My kids groan in the car when I play what they call “Sad Old Man Rock” music. (More sincere apologies to Radiohead.) This genre carries over into the Christmas music I choose. My wife joined with my kids to ban me from playing Sufjan Steven’s great Christmas album, my primary December music since 2006.

A few weeks ago, I went to a small theater in Chicago to see Over the Rhine on their Christmas tour. A melancholy Christmas concert. My heart sang! I’ve been replaying one song. In part, it’s made me reflect on what we're doing in The Better Samaritan—trying to do good better, the needs and risks involved, the sadness that can feel heavier this time of year, and the need for God’s grace to guide the way.

The song is called “Another Christmas”:

Another Christmas is drifting in softly

Like the ghost of my innocence lost

And the tree in the corner burns brightly

I turned all the other lights off

I think back on my life in this stillness

I consider the days of my youth

And the moments I find myself willing

To surrender and just tell the truth

I love how gently we’re welcomed into the beauty of the lights on the tree, right alongside the sadness of realizing what has been lost. Story of a person. Story of humanity.

'Cause I've committed every sin

And each one leaves a different scar

It's just the world I'm livin' in

And I could use a guiding star

Now it's not so gentle. But I’m here for it. A path to Christmas joy that isn’t superficial. What a poetically piercing line about sin and scar. Then a great line about longing for the guiding star. Whatever joy we get to is going to be real.

I hope that I can still believe

The Christ child holds a gift for me

Am I able to receive

Peace on earth this Christmas

A couple of weeks ago we talked with Dallas Jenkins, who created The Chosen, a creative telling of the story of Jesus that is now one of the most popular shows in the world. We had lots of conversations about how they tell the healing stories. We think about healing in the humanitarian and disaster fields—and the lack of healing, and the slowness of healing. This stanza takes me to the father in Mark (chapter 9) who was desperate for Jesus to heal his son: “Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

This old world so sweet and so bitter

Seeds of violence we humans have sown

And these weapons we still love to handle

May our children have strength to let go

When we look at the stars after midnight

Sparkling rumors of redemption at play

Can we still hear the echoes of angels

Who were singing that first Christmas day

Now from personal to broader context. In the concert and in the car and right now: devastating to think of the violence. Children in a school in Michigan were buried just days ago. An absurd military budget, more than the Commander in Chief even asked for, just passed in Congress. Not willing to lay down the “weapons we still love to handle”—and willing to sacrifice innocent children for the right to keep handling them. A military budget like this, but not enough money to get vaccines to the world or for paid family leave to care for our nation’s newborn children. From melancholy now all the way to tears.

'Cause we've committed every sin

And each one leaves a different scar

It's just the world we're living in

And we could use a guiding star

I hope that we can still believe

The Christ child holds a gift for us

Are we able to receive

Peace on earth this Christmas

From personal sin to the community, the systemic. The scars that keep being left and reopened by racism, sexism, by many sins. It’s the world we’re living in. But not giving hope—we could use a guiding star indeed. “The Christ child holds a gift for us” – yes, can we receive this peace? A hope indeed, a hope that can shine through the loss and the tears. And an invitation to participate in the peace, in the grace, of this slow kingdom coming.

Hark the herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn king

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled

Joyful all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With angelic hosts proclaim

Peace on earth this Christmas

The modern, melancholy folk song transitions seamlessly into concluding with the melody and lyrics of the beautiful Christmas hymn that Charles Wesley wrote in the 18th century. The husband and wife now harmonizing. Their harmony, as I wrote that sentence, takes me to Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure of Troy” and his well-known lines: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave... / But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, /And hope and history rhyme.”

This Christmas may your scars (as mine) keep finding healing. May our collective scars find repentance and grace. In all the topics we’ve covered in our first year of The Better Samaritan, where together with you we’re often stepping into the results of trauma and displacement, of poverty and conflict and disaster, we’re grateful for the chance to seek along with you to receive that “The Christ child holds a gift for us.”

Peace on earth this Christmas: not as a superficial seasonal jingle, but as our deepest mourning, our deepest hope, and our deepest commitment.


You can listen to the Over the Rhine song here.

Kent Annan co-directs the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, the first faith-based academic research center in the nation. Learn more and support the work of disaster preparedness today.