They were wholly preposterous words.
“On earth peace, good will toward men,”(1) sang angels hovering over a land heaving with political and racial tension, ruled by a degenerate despot, choked by Roman oppression, crowded in on all sides by competing foreign powers — a land, which in just one generation would collapse under revolt, its temple razed to the ground.
Yet it is precisely into the heart of such a conflict-rife setting that the shimmering, pulsating words “peace” and “good will” spilled down the conduit from God’s presence. Like pure water, they gushed into this murky sphere, sending bright, ever-expanding ripples across the thick Judean night. Peace, proclaimed the angels. Peace on this harsh, hostile earth.
The word “peace” makes us pause, shake our heads. Can reasonable people really believe in, let alone strive for peace? Can we, knowing what we do of human nature and of mankind’s history of soaking this earth’s crust in fratricidal blood — can we hope for peace?
Let us proclaim without reservation that not only can we hope for peace, but we must. At Christmastime especially, when we kneel before the Prince of Peace, we renew our covenant to hope for peace, to claim and proclaim peace, and to proliferate His peace.
One can hope for His peace only because it is independent of outward circumstances. His peace begins internally, in a heart aligning itself to truth and light, and once cultivated in that heart, extends ever outward to touch and embrace all of mankind.
Such was the LDS General Presidency holiday message to the church in 1936, where members were urged to “manifest brotherly love, first toward one another, then toward all mankind; to seek unity, harmony and peace … within the Church, and then, by precept and example, extend these virtues throughout the world.”(2)
Like the original angelic annunciation, that plea for peace came at a time of escalating global tumult. The Great Depression was still ravaging the USA; the Spanish Civil War was surging; Stalin was executing his own; Mussolini was forging an “axis” alliance with Hitler; and the latter was promoting a devilish political agenda, which became official when he proclaimed himself the head of the German armed forces. This timing means that, five short years following that December Christmas message, untold numbers who had heard that call to peace would be called to the front lines of the bloodiest and longest conflict of history. On the beaches of Normandy, in the rice paddies of Okinawa, and in the rural jungles of the Philippines, perhaps those soldiers remembered that, despite the weight of the rifles strapped on their backs and the sodden camouflage uniforms stained in mud and blood, their covenant was then as always to manifest brotherly love and seek for peace.
Modern conflict both global and intimate — whether originating in Pearl Harbor, Korea, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Libya, or Washington D.C.; whether due to joblessness, chronic or terminal illness, abuse, abandonment, addiction, the death of our beloved, the death of our faith — “mocks the song of peace on earth, good will toward men.”(3) Yet our gentle God rejoins all of this sharpness with a soft call to partake of His peace.
It is this kind of peace that both opened and closed his mortal mission. The peaceful greeting angels sang at his birth He repeated in the hours prior to his death. Before the Roman guards would barter for his last bit of clothing, press thorns into his flesh, and hammer iron spikes through his hands and feet, He taught His followers that “peace on earth” would not mean peace in this world, but peace above and beyond it. “Peace I leave with you,” He said, “my peace I give you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(4) In the face of all that He knew would surely come of torture, betrayal and blood (His own and His disciples’), “peace” surely seems a wholly preposterous word.
Or a holy, preposterous word. A blessing.
When those angels blessed the quaking shepherds with a portion of holy peace, those same shepherds in turn took that testimony to what might well have been a quaking Joseph and Mary, who themselves perhaps needed reassurance that God’s peace, in their tiny Child, had indeed come to earth. Simple shepherds were among the first witnesses who heard and carried the blessing to others, thus revealing one of the secrets of God’s peace: it is always to be shared.
It must also be dared, wrote anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment… Battles are won not with weapons, but with God.”(5) Internal battles, Bonhoeffer seems to be saying, are won, and peace claimed when we do “the works of righteousness” receiving the reward of “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”(6)
From a modern-day prophet comes wise counsel:
“No man is at peace with himself or his God who is untrue to his better self, who transgresses the law of what is right either in dealing with himself by indulging in passion, in appetite, yielding to temptations against his accusing conscience, or in dealing with his fellowmen, being untrue to their trust. Peace does not come to the transgressor of law; peace comes by obedience to law, and it is that message which Jesus would have us proclaim among men.”(7)
This season, will mine be the soul into which His sweet serenity enters? Into whose unsuspecting life will I dare to carry His gentle greeting? With which family members, friends or even strangers will I share His gift of peace that “passeth all understanding”?(8) And when this Christmas has passed, will we each have experienced something new about His peace? Will we have believed, received, and gifted to another that holy, wholly preposterous peace?
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.(9)
1 Luke 2:14
2 Greetings from the First Presidency,” Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, 22 Dec.
1936, p. 315
3 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Henry W. Longfellow
4 John 14:27
5 Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Eric Metaxas, pp. 81
6 D&C 59:23
7 David O. McKay, Conference Report, Oct. 1938, p. 133.
8 Philippians 4:7
9 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–1876)