Reprinted with permission of The Lutheran magazine. Lance Kittleson is an ELCA Army chaplain serving in Iraq.

Then the star appeared again, the same star [the Magi] had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! (Matthew 2:9-10).
I've seen more of the stars this last year than ever--in the night skies of Kuwait and Iraq. One can't help but see them here in the desert. In this grand display, one star stands out. We know it isn't really a star but the planet Mars. It's as close to Earth, they say, as it will be for another 63,000 years or so.

One wouldn't normally connect Mars and the star of Bethlehem. After all, Mars is the ancient god of war from which comes such words as "martial." War and the quiet humility of the birth of the Prince of Peace seem 63,000 light years apart. A poor comprehension of astronomy comes in handy for soldiers at Christmas. With a little imagination, we can easily imagine that bright red star in the sky as the star of Bethlehem with its polar opposite message of redemption and peace for all. Soldiers and their families have seen the "star of war" far too closely, and they desire, like the Magi, to see and follow the star to the Child who alone brings peace and hope. This Christmas in our imaginations there will not be just Magi and shepherds kneeling in adoration at the newborn's manger. Soldiers will be there as well, kneeling in a new earnestness before the Child of Peace, for they know and bear the cost of battle. Mortars, bombings and ambushes are daily realities here in Iraq. Peace is no quaint pie-in-the-sky notion. That longing is even stronger since our extension to a full year of combat duty.
Rarely do we hear of fear in the Christmas story. On a closer look, it appears quite often, just as it does in the Easter story. Almost every time it appears, God's messengers tell humanity: "Fear not. Don't be afraid. God is doing something so wonderful, so amazing, that you will hardly believe it." And most of the time they didn't. But that didn't stop God's star from pointing the way to Jesus. Soldiers in this unstable country at Christmas aren't in constant fear. But danger is ever present, making everyone more aware of life's precariousness and preciousness. During the initial days of the war, a young soldier said to me: "Chaplain, I just got back from combat in Iraq and I'm returning tomorrow. Tell me, please ... what is Christianity all about? I want to know before I go back to the fighting." "It's the story of God's stubborn, amazing love," I quietly said, "that he wants us back in his family so desperately that he came as a child in Bethlehem, lived among us, died for us and rose from the dead so forgiveness could be ours and we will never again be afraid of life without our loving Savior. And it is all a gift for us from Jesus Christ." He thanked me and said he'd return the next day if his unit had not moved out. He wanted to tell me what he had decided about receiving this gift from God. I never saw him again. Neither did I see his name on any casualty lists. Yet Christ's love was so near in those precious moments that I'm confident this Christmas in some tent, in a small dusty chapel, on midnight Christmas Eve patrol or on perimeter tower duty somewhere in war-torn Iraq, that young soldier will have followed "the star" to kneel before the Prince of Peace. And he is experiencing the peace of God that passes all understanding.
And as he kneels with his weapon slung over his shoulder in humble adoration, along with countless other troops spread over this ancient biblical nation - even as they combat not just the enemy but their loneliness and longing for home and family - it won't matter much that the brightest star in the night sky is the "god of war." For the star that matters most - the star of Bethlehem - shines on bodies and souls in desert camouflage covered by flak vests, Kevlar helmets and grace. So this Christmas Eve while traveling to beautiful sanctuaries in peaceful lands for candlelight services, don't forget to look at the brightest star you can see, even if it is the red planet. Then ask your pastor to recall plainly, simply "what this Christianity is all about" so together with brothers and sisters in Iraq and Kuwait we may all kneel before the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, and know his peace amid all the fears, ambushes and uncertainties of this broken world.

Then wherever we may be, we know that God's star of peace in Christ Jesus will always be in the right place and at the right time just as the Magi discovered - from kneeling, worshiping soldiers in war to all who would kneel in his peaceful, redeeming love.

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