Peace. I alluded to it in my previous post, but never really described what it means to me. There was a mention of a peaceful moment. There was mention of hope. But the song spoke of angels telling the shepherds of peace on earth. Luke quoted the angelic host singing of peace that would come to "those on whom his favor rests." I honestly don't think we as westerners really understand what is meant by peace, especially Biblical peace.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines peace as "a state of tranquility or quiet, freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions, harmony in personal relations, a state in which there is no war or fighting." It's a passive picture. It's a state of the absence of something. But the biblical word seems to be more active, though there is a passive or static sense to it as well. In Hebrew, the word is salom or shalom. It translates more as "whole" or "complete". It is used to describe health, life, and relationship and was used as a greeting and a farewell (see Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of the Bible).
Particularly, I want to focus on the "whole or complete" relationship. In ancient times, covenants were used to establish a right relationship, a "peaceful" one, between people, parties, and even nations. These covenants were renewed with peace offerings. In a sense, peace occurred when two parties agreed to actively relate to each other in a civil way or in the best interest of the other. This was peace.
So why is this important? And how does it connect with Christmas?
I believe that God created the earth and all that is in it in order to pour out His love. In the book of Genesis, God created everything and saw that it was good (Genesis 1). Then he created mankind in His own image, with the ability to feel, to reason, to make decisions, to have a free will, to love...and this was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The Bible tells us that those first 2 human beings, Adam and Eve, had a relationship with God.
But with being created with the abilities with which they were created, came the ability to choose to do something that would be in direct violation of their Creator. When Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, they were given the ability to discern good from evil (there's an entire theological discussion right there!) and were disobedient to God's command to them to not do that very thing. Because of this, the relationship between God and mankind was forever broken (also a huge theological discussion that I may address in a later musing). Suffice it to say, the relationship between God and man was not "shalom" or one of peace. It was broken.
That's were the story of Christ and Christmas come in. Because God made mankind to have a relationship with Him, and because mankind messed up, and because God’s very nature does not allow sin to exist with Him, something had to be done to repair the relationship. Every action, decision, has an associated consequence. In this case, an offering had to be made to pay for mankind’s mess up. In the Old Testament of the Bible, God created a list of laws (found in the first 5 books of the Bible) and associated consequences and payments for breaking those laws. Those payments were typically paid in the form of a sacrifice of an unblemished animal.
Skip ahead a few thousand years. If we read all of the laws, and try and follow them, we’ll fail. So God sent Jesus to live a perfect life and ultimately pay the price for all of mankind’s sins with his death and resurrection. This peace offering was God’s way of signing His side of the covenant with mankind. Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection are the objects that complete the relationship between God and mankind, restoring our ability to relate with God…restoring peace!
So as the angels sang out “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth to those on whom His favor rests” they were literally announcing that Jesus had come, and with him, peace, a restoration of the relationship between God and man for eternity.
In the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote about the despair he felt when hearing bells on Christmas Day in 1863. His despair was due to the recent events of his son getting severely wounded in the Civil War and his wife dying. As many of us do, Longfellow hoped of a day of peace on Christmas. To him, much like those angels singing at the birth of Christ, bells symbolized peace. Yet, his country was in the midst of a Civil War. His son was wounded, and his wife deceased. And to add icing to the cake, the bells were apparently drowned out by the sound of the cannons of war. The cannons reminded him of his pain.
In despair he “bowed his head. ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to mean!”
I will admit to many times of allowing the darkness of the world to drown out the message of hope – that peace has come. I’m sure we all can empathize with the poet. Life is tough. Some of us have experienced things that we wouldn’t even wish on our worst enemy. As we look around the world today we see that hate is still strong. Dischord mocks us. Peace flits around like a butterfly just out of our reach.
But does it?
Longfellow continues: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.’"
God is not dead. All along, God had a plan. All along, God intended to show us his never-ending, never-changing, forever and ever love. Throughout Israel’s history Jesus’s coming was whispered about. In that field outside of Bethlehem, an entire angelic choir sang about it. “Peace on earth, goodwill to men”.
The relationship between God and mankind has been permanently completed, made whole. Peace exists.
As you listen to the bells this Christmas season, whether from a nearby church, in a bell choir, on the radio, or even from the Salvation Army Bell Ringers at the entry to your local grocery store, let the sound of the bells remind you that peace has come and is coming.
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!”