These words are being written during the count-down of the international ultimatum to Iraq over the crisis in the Persian Gulf. Apparently we will once again be celebrating the Birth of the Prince of Peace amidst threats and rumors of war.
An independent nation has been invaded and occupied by a belligerent neighbor. That makes it very easy to figure out who the "bad guy" is. But it does not take all that much radical thinking to realize that this is not the only instance of such international bullying, that other nations are also being occupied or otherwise oppressed by aggressive neighbors. In this instance other factors surely play a critical role, and sinful minds can easily contrive hosts of monstrous motives.
We might wonder about who drew the international boundaries in that part of the world, who elected or established the governments that rule there, and how does all this relate to the people who live there? We might inquire about how the various governments and rulers involved treat their Christian minorities.
It is exasperating, however, to ponder such questions. We not only feel our burning foreheads up against that impenetrably thick stone wall of our own insignificance. We also know that all the while other human beings, with the same flesh and blood, feelings and longings as we have, are suffering the bitterest hardships. And why is it that they are shivering in the jaws of the most extreme injustice and agony while we wring our hands and wrinkle our brows amid such comfort?
But lest we think such matters are up to us to determine apart from God, let us recall a vision from the Revelation of St. John: And there went out another horse that was red; and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword (Rev. 6:4).
In the midst of all this how are we to understand the angelic hymn which is repeated so frequently during these days: Glory to God in the highest; peace on earth; good will towards men?
First, it is an angelic, a heavenly message. It requires a special sense of hearing in order to be heard. This message was proclaimed neither by the then ruler of the "civilized world", the guardian of world peace and international welfare, Caesar Augustus, nor by any other man, however wise, stupid, rich or poor. The angelic hymn was heard by poor peasant · shepherds out in the fields on a winter night in that same troubled Near East. And it was causing world leaders just as many head-aches then as it is now.
Peasant visions of angels are not the kind of stuff world history consists of---or is it? The shepherds ran to Bethlehem, to a stable in a cave where a Child had been born and lay in a manger. There was no international relief team on the scene to provide better facilities amid the crowded conditions created in Bethlehem by the imperial edict that all the world should be enrolled---a census for taxation purposes. The Child was born into the harsh realities that still prevail throughout the world.
Second, this hymn is seldom treated as a whole. We are all too often treated to one portion or another without the rest, without the angelic vision. Pretext has been found here for an incongruous variety of preaching--from accusing Christianity of failing to deliver the peace it promised to calling all men of good will to join together in peace to the glory of God.
Yet the level of good will and peace in the world is such as to call into question the glory being rendered to God on high. Turning the angelic hymn into seemly slogans has left us bereft of what the angels were extolling.
The Peace of
The angels were extolling the Birth of the Prince of Peace. Christ was to tell His disciples: Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).
These words were spoken in the Upper Room as our Saviour prepared to go out to His betrayal and Passion. He saw so clearly how the disciples, now so intent on grasping His words to them, would soon be scattered in confusion and dismay. These words were spoken only shortly before the agony in Gethsemane, on the eve of the Crucifixion. Does this tell us something about the peace of Christ?
Note that He tells us not to let our heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Troubled and fearful hearts--not international power politics. Yet Christ tells those who listen to His Holy Gospel that the evils that defile a man come from the heart.
On another occasion Christ told His disciples that He did not come to bring peace, but a sword. And if we let His words enlighten our hearts, we see there much that is un-reconcilable. Choices must be made. What and Whom do we want to rule in our hearts? These words of the Apostle Paul present the choice quite clearly: For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
The reconciliation of man in Christ comes about through repentance, the changing or "reprogramming"--if you will---of our mind from the carnal world to the spiritual, This involves entirely different sets of values. Our life is no longer confined to this world and body but is extended into eternity. Our concerns turn to what defiles a man rather than to what causes pain, to what brings peace rather than pleasure.
This all means engaging in a fierce and relentless struggle, the waging of spiritual warfare to become master of our own self, or better to say, to let the Kingdom of God reign within us. This is a struggle to resolve the conflicts we find without ourselves, to overcome the anger, greed, lust, vengefulness, selfishness, insensitivity--all that which constantly vies for control over our lives. This straggle for peace of mind, for peace in our heart, is resolved in Christ, in His Church, by partaking of His Life as members of His mystical Body.
As Christ prepared to enter into His glory on the Cross (a traditional crucifix bears the inscription: "The King of Glory"), as He prepared His disciples for their apostolic labors and martyrdom, filled with the awareness of the Passion and the Cross, He granted His Peace to His disciples.
It is in the full awareness of this our own personal Golgotha, denying ourselves in order to take up the Cross, that we must hear the concluding words of our Lord's intimate discourse with His disciples as they prepared to leave the Upper Room on the night on which He was betrayed. These things 1 have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
These words are not "other-worldly". They are spoken directly to us living in this present world. Here we have our share of tribulations, yet in this world, in this life of ours, we also find confirmation of the victory of Christ over this world.
How can our celebration of our Lord's Nativity this year serve as such a confirmation for others as well as for ourselves?
Christ told us that we are the salt of the world. Salt was used in former times not only for adding flavor to food but also, and more frequently, as a preservative. A significant amount of salt was needed to preserve fish or meat from spoiling.
Salt is good, the Saviour tells us. But if the salt have lost his salltness wherewith will ye season it? (Mark 9-.50). If our Christianity is insipid, what will give us any savor? What will keep us from spoiling ourselves?
Therefore the Saviour tells us: Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another. Here Christ has joined the message of peace to the quality or "saltiness" of our life in Christ. The two are bound up together.
After His Resurrection from the dead, Christ's first words to His disciples, when He appeared to them once again in the Upper Room on Mount Zion were: Peace be unto you. This same greeting and blessing of peace is constantly repeated in the Church, as the gifts of Christ to His followers are imparted to us when we are gathered together in Hisname.
The apostles were filled with the vision of the true glory of Christ Our God; they were afire with the goodwill of God towards man; they were established in the peace of Christ: They became genuine "peacemakers", bringing men to peace with God, with their conscience. As such they became "sons of God" and Christ called them His friends and His brothers.
And what do the apostles teach us about the peace of Christ? How can we
find it? Where and by what means are we to seek it? The Apostle Paul writes:
The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in
every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be
made known unto God. And the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall
keep you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7)
The Blessing of
The reply is quite clear: the peace of Christ is to be found in Christ Himself. When we are aware of His presence (The Lord is at hand); when we are not preoccupied with other worries and concerns (Be careful about nothing); when we are standing in the presence of our Lord prayerfully and thankfully, then, says the Apostle, The peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).
In the midst of the crisis and tribulations which Providence has allowed to come down upon us, here is the ever-flowing fountain of consolation and healing for suffering mankind. Here is the power that transforms the Cross from torment into glory.
The humble cave in Bethlehem is now richly enshrined in the altar of an ancient basilica. Here more than one king and pauper fell to his knees in reverent awe before the King of kings.
And the cave of our own heart? The Prince of Peace stands knocking there. Is there room for Him inside? Shall we invite Him in to dwell there, to resolve the conflicts there? He alone gives us His peace in a world where we find no peace.
For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all
people--yes, even to us scattered to the very ends of the earth at this
farthest extreme of time. For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.