The Glory of Peace
“Gloria in excelsis Deo…” The words will ring out in countless church gatherings in the coming days. I sang them just two days ago in a packed Presbyterian Church here in Pasadena. They are drawn, of course, from the song of the angels, described in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and initially performed for an ad hoc audience of gobsmacked shepherds. Glory to God in the highest. No ambiguity there. This is a declaration of praise that even the most unschooled peasant can get his head around.
Odd, then, that these unambiguous words are followed by one of the most enigmatic phrases in the whole of the New Testament: the mystery, as yet unsolved, at the very heart of Christmas. “Et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis”, reads the traditional Latin, and on earth peace to men of goodwill. We love the words. We sing them with a sentimental glow rising in us. They seem somehow to fulfil the promise this same choir, through its spokesangel, has just made — “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” And yet we struggle to pin down their meaning. I confess to having sung them a thousand times, and never to have resolved their mystery.
The puzzle can be expressed in its bluntest form as a question — just who are these “men of goodwill” to whom God, in Christ, is making the offer of peace? Is their goodwill intrinsic to them — an aspect of their character — or is it the good will of God towards them? Most English Bibles lean towards the latter option and translate the phrase with some version of “those on whom God’s favour rests” or “those with whom God is pleased”. This may be a reasonable translation, but it still begs the question, if Christ is who we believe him to be and came to do what we believe he came to do, just who these people are on whom God’s favour rests at the moment of the birth of Jesus? The short answer, of course, is ‘all of us’, which is why I find this tiny phrase so intriguing and so exciting. Jesus comes in peace to embrace the humanity he and his father so love. His very birth is an act of love. He comes declaring peace, not war, on humanity. Reconciliation, shalom, is the very centre of the incarnation.
Why does this matter?
Because it plays havoc with overblown ideas of special election that have Jesus coming only for certain people (unofficially but inevitably defined, by those doing the defining, as ‘people like us’).
Because it drives a cart and horses through the notion of humanity’s ‘total depravity’ and the picture of a creation at war with its maker and subject to his wrath.
Because it declares the very birth of Christ, and not just the death that was to come three decades later, as a reconciling event — the incarnation itself as Act 1 of God’s atoning initiative.
Because it places Christmas at the very centre of our faith, and makes of it a story of the most profound hope.
There is an intriguing parallel in Luke’s own account of the life of Jesus that might help us to understand the angels’ song. In Luke 10, in his clearest strategic outline of how mission might work, Jesus instructs his followers: “Whenever you enter someone’s home, first say, May God’s peace be on this house.” He then assures them that this act of peacemaking will produce its own response. “If those who live there are peaceful,” he says, “the blessing will stand; if they are not, the blessing will return to you.” The followers of Jesus are told, very simply, to offer peace before it is asked of them and to stick with those who offer peace in return. This becomes the blueprint for mission throughout the New Testament period, and can be traced, as a pattern, in the journeys of Paul and his team. Mission is this: Go somewhere new. Offer peace. If it is received, stay. A far cry from the combative, conflict-based approach we so often take to our own culture.
Arguably the ‘men of goodwill’ of Luke 2 and the ‘people of peace’ of Luke 10 are the same. These are the people who recognise peace when they see it; who receive an offer of reconciliation with joy and offer hospitality in return. They are the 7000 who, unknown to Elijah, have never bowed the knee to Baal. They are the people of Nineveh who are more ready to receive the words of the prophet Jonah than the prophet Jonah is to deliver them. They are the crowds who are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. They are a prodigal humanity, and their father is running towards them.
The ambiguity of the angels’ song resists forensic readings precisely because God will not be tied to such machinations. The birth of Jesus is not an act of contract but of covenant: a faithful God holding out the hand of peace to his creatures. It is we who make the Gospel smaller; a restricted and less generous story. It is we who come with conflict and judgement in our hearts, all too eager to pronounce God’s disapproval. This is not the way that Jesus chooses. He comes in peace to be reconciled to the Adam and Even he has never stopped loving and longing for. He triggers peace in our world by taking the first step. He is unarmed. Unguarded. Unangry. He does for us exactly what he later asks us to do for others. The hidden message of the angels’ song is here. You will never know who the people of peace around you are until you approach them in peace.
We love Christmas — I love Christmas — because it is an opportunity to set aside forensic, judgemental and miserly readings of the Gospel story and to believe, in company with my neighbours, that God might just have good news for us. My question is, why leave it at that? Why reserve your generosity for the few weeks of the year when you sing carols? Why not be a Christmas Christian all year round?