One of the most common sentiments in the cards and carols of the Christmas season is peace. It is biblical—based in the stories around Jesus’ birth—but might also seem one of the most wishful and sometimes ironic.
Peace was a key theme in the celebratory song of the angels who announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem. You’ll often see their song on Christmas cards in the older English text on which many Christmas traditions are based:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV).
But given the political and social context in which He was born, the tumult and division that seemed part of His life and that of so many of His followers after His death, the litany of wars that have been attributed to religion in the 2000 years since, and the reputation of Israel and the wider Middle East for violence and conflict even today, the promise of peace can seem like misplaced sentimentality or even a tragic lie.
If the birth of Jesus was to bring a new age of peace, it has seemed a failure for much of our subsequent history. Yet this was not merely an over-exuberance on the part of the angels—and this was not a new theme in the story. In celebrating the unlikely birth of his new son, Zechariah the priest concluded his song of praise with the expectation that something even larger was about to happen, something that would lead to greater peace:
“Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace” (Luke 1:78,79).
But neither was this an original sentiment. Zechariah was drawing on the old and holy writings of his own tradition. In what has become one of the best known prophecies of the birth of Jesus from the Hebrew scriptures, and another one of those Christmas card verses, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV).
These are bold claims about a newborn baby, but as we have already considered, these claims are at the heart of the Bible’s story about Jesus and who He was—before, at and after His birth. Yet “Prince of Peace” is a new title and one that does not fit so well with much of our understanding of history.
Helpfully, Isaiah went further to develop this theme: “His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen!” (Isaiah 9:7). This verse highlights aspects of this promised peace that are important, if we are not to dismiss it either as merely a noble seasonal sentiment or failed wishful thinking.
True peace is not merely the absence of conflict. Those seeking superficial peace may be content to put an end to obvious fighting or unrest. And for those in war zones, situations of abuse or interpersonal tension, an end to the overt violence and hostilities is a good thing in itself. The guns falling silent must be an important and necessary first step. But a much deeper peace comes with justice and reconciliation, healing and restoration.
In some of the best moments of human history, the story and teachings of Jesus have been among the catalysts for this deeper kind of peace. People of faith and people of good will have worked for the fairness and justice that characterise the rule of this Child. Peace has been made in some corners of our world and its history by the influence of the Prince of Peace.
However, this is so obviously and tragically an incomplete project: “The world-transforming peace that the angel declared to the shepherds is only found in bits and fragments now. Its eternal fulfilment is to be found only in the future of God.”1 [pullquote]
The promise of the angels and of Isaiah and Zechariah before them is also yet to be realised. This is the far larger promise of peace found in the story of the birth of Jesus. It offers and invites reconciliation for the broken relationships between all people and between humanity and God: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us” (Ephesians 2:14). This is not the one-dimensional “silent night” of snowy Christmas cards and carols, on which the whole world supposedly paused in wonder to greet the newborn Baby, but the proclamation that something wholly different had come into the world and a new human reality had begun:
“Here is the forward thrust of Advent . . . the heralding announcement of the arriving God. The note that is struck is sounded from the future. We are not looking backward sentimentally to a baby; we are looking forward to the only One in whom the promise of peace will someday be fulfilled.”2
In His life and teaching, Jesus sometimes did not sound like a preacher of peace. He was blunt about the trouble, the polarisation and the persecution that would be experienced by those who would follow Him. His execution and that of almost every one of His disciples over the following decades bitterly demonstrated His point.
But He also taught peace, in response to those enemies, as an attitude of a faithful heart and mind, and as a tangible expectation for our world and its future. “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me,” Jesus told His followers. “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
It is not that those Christmas cards and carols are wrong. It is perhaps that they—and we—don’t take this promise of peace seriously enough. The birth of the Prince of Peace offers a deeper, more transformative and more forever kind of peace than we often allow ourselves to imagine or to work towards in the world today.
Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is available from Adventist bookstores in Australia and New Zealand for yourself or as a gift to share.