Summary: Christmas is often thought of as a time of peace. But what sort of peace does Jesus really bring?
One of the favourite sayings on mass-produced Christmas cards is “peace on earth and goodwill toward men”. Christmas is the season of peace and goodwill, it is said. It is the time of year to put aside our conflicts and disagreements and to – well to be nice to each other temporarily.
A famous incident from WWI illustrates the nature of the Christmas season very well. It was December 1914, the first Christmas of the war. Already the stalemate along the western front in France had begun to set in. British, French and German troops faced each other in their lines of trenches. If you know anything about trench warfare then you’ll know it’s a nasty business. Hastily dugs holes in the ground about two metres deep topped with barbed wire. Special periscopes were fixed at intervals along the front line trenches because to stick your head above ground even for a second could easily be a fatal mistake. Artillery bombardment could come at any time, day or night, and the soldiers were in constant mortal danger not only from enemy fire but also from the cold and disease that by the end of the war had caused more casualties than the enemy. In between the trenches was no man’s land. It was littered with craters from artillery fire providing a momentary safe haven for attacking troops and, later in the war, a place where the poison gas could pool and stagnate. It would be liberally strewn with barbed wire and bodies in various states of decay. If an attack was ordered soldiers would have to go over the top through this quagmire. Many were cut down within metres of their own trenches by machine guns. That was trench warfare in the Great War.
But on Christmas Eve 1914 something strange happened. No orders were given by the commanding officers (in fact the British High Command hated the whole thing), but in Ypres in Belgium German troops began placing candles decorating the few trees that still remained around their trenches. They sung Christmas carols, including Silent Night which was originally written in German. The English soldiers responded with their own carols. The two sides continued shouting greetings to one another until there were invitations for visits across no man’s land. Small gifts were exchanged – whiskey, jam, chocolates. A joint funeral service was held in the middle of the battlefield where Psalm 23 was read in English and German. In one spot a soccer game was played – won 3-2 by the Germans, incidentally. In some isolated pockets on the lines the truce lasted all the way through to New Year. But in most places it ended on Boxing Day. In one spot a British captain climbed up on his parapet and fired three shots into the air. The German officer he had shared a beer with the previous day also rose from his trench, bowed his head to his counterpart and also fired three shots into the air. And, as the officer wrote at the time, the war was on again.
“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men”. That’s the Christmas spirit, isn’t it? But where does that idea really come from? Is it a quote from the Bible?
Many people think so. In fact, it’s most probably a distortion of Luke 2:14 when the host of angels appears to the Shepherds heralding the birth of the saviour. They chorus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”
It’s a bit different, isn’t it? Not just the words, but the meaning as well!
On one hand we have the world’s view of Christmas. Even if we avoid being altogether cynical by saying Christmas is now about consumerism, family stress and personal greed – even if we’re a little more positive then what we come up with is a grandiose and repeatedly unfulfilled statement about world peace and personal peace.
But the Bible’s version of the peace that Christmas brings is not the sort of peace that is palatable in our anything goes western world of the 21st century. The message of the angels focuses on God not on us. They talk about giving glory to God, not us. And rather than being of peace on earth and goodwill to all, the angels are uncomfortably specific and exclusive: “peace to men on whom God’s favour rests”.
And the reason why the angels say this, and the reason why a lot of people wouldn’t like it if they really looked closely at Luke 2:14, is that they have in a mind a very different peace than what most of us have in mind. They have in mind an eternal peace that isn’t broken when the next war starts or when the next truce ends or when the next insult is thrown across the classroom. They have in mind peace with God.