Christmas in a Time of War

Published December 20, 2023

Syndicated Column

Composed in the wake of 9/11, “The Dream Isaiah Saw” quickly became a contemporary Christmas classic. The hymn’s powerful evocation of the peaceable kingdom on God’s holy mountain, described by the greatest of Hebrew prophets in Isaiah 11:6–9, is, in some respects, wrenchingly difficult to hear at Christmas 2023. For once again, after Hamas’s attack on Israel, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not” (Jer. 31:15)—the Old Testament text used by Matthew to weave Herod’s slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem into the master narrative of salvation history.  

Playing on the similarity between “son” (hyiós) and “pig” (hys) in Greek, the emperor Augustus once said of the brutal vassal who had murdered three of his own sons that “it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” What the terrorist brutalitarians of Hamas did on October 7—swooping in on a music festival on paragliders, beheading infants, indiscriminately slaughtering children and grandmothers, raping and then killing the victims—and what Hamas has done since, using toddlers as hostages behind which to hide and scurrying into tunnels whose entrances are concealed beneath babies’ cribs, is the twenty-first-century, high-tech version of Herodian ruthlessness. 

With one important difference, however. Herod the Great’s lethal actions were not the result of religious conviction but of a mania for absolute power within his Roman satrapy. Hamas’s barbarism, by contrast, is motivated by religious conviction—warped religious conviction, to be sure; false religious conviction, undoubtedly; but religious conviction, nonetheless. Yes, Hamas has a political program, and its slogan, “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” is as despicable a euphemism for exterminationist anti-Semitism as was the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to Die Judenfrage (the “Jewish Question”). But what turns people into deranged Hamas murderers and “martyrs,” who by all accounts enjoyed killing 1,400 innocents on 10/7, is the vile belief that what they were doing was the will of God.

It was not; it could not be. Only a fundamentally distorted understanding of “God” could lead to such a wicked conclusion. The God of the Bible cannot command the murder he forbade in the Ten Commandments, because the God of the Bible is a God of reason, and reason cannot contradict itself. The God of the Qur’an, however, is a God of will, who can command whatever he chooses and demand submission to that command as the ticket to salvation. Taken to extremes, that false idea of God as Absolute Willfulness is what makes Hamas, Hezbollah, and their exterminationist anti-Semitism possible, and what gives these hopeless political movements their staying power.

What shall we make of the burning Holy Land, during a Christmastide when we celebrate the angelic announcement of a messianic birth that marks the inbreaking of the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11:6–9? 

Because there is no Christianity without Judaism, we should first stand in solidarity with those who, as Vatican II taught, were the first to receive God’s promises: promises of which God has never repented. The past two months have been deeply traumatic for Jews all over the world. Thus Christians should read with special care this year the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel; there, amidst those tedious “begats” (now flattened out as “. . . was the father of . . .”), the evangelist drives home the point that Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the incarnate Son of God, is also, and eternally in his resurrected and ascended life, the Son of David, the king who presages the messianic king and his kingdom.

And with sobered but faithful hearts, we should hold fast to our hope for the realization of the vision so beautifully expressed in “The Dream Isaiah Saw”—the final triumph of the kingdom of righteousness and peace, whose coming was inaugurated by the birth of the child in the manger, whom we confess as Lord:

Lions and oxen will sleep in the hay,
Leopards will join with the lambs as they play,
Wolves will be pastured with cows in the glade,
Blood will not darken the Earth that God made.

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw . . . 

Nature reordered to match God’s intent,
Nations obeying the call to repent,
All of creation completely restored,
Filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.  

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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