So then, what is the meaning of the song of the angels on that first Christmas? What did they mean by the words “Peace on Earth; Goodwill toward men”? Looking back at World War I, the president of the United States was sure that his League of Nations (which was rejected by his own country) would be the answer to all of the world’s problems of war. He even went as far as to say that he, President Wilson, would succeed where Christ failed- since peace among nations had not been established by the ministry and life of Jesus. That is not only a tragic commentary on the weakness of idealism, but also on the foolishness of bad theology. The answer to President Woodrow Wilson’s pathetic statement is two fold: 1) Christ did not come to establish some political worldly peace among nations, and 2) it is a blasphemy to say that Christ failed at anything. He did establish the peace that was his mission; the angels were right. For the real war that afflicts the human race is the war between man and God.
Remember the story of Noah. So often when Noah is depicted emerging from the Ark, including the movie when he was portrayed by John Huston, we see the rainbow and think of God’s promise not to destroy mankind. But, in fact, the symbol of God hanging up His bow (the rainbow) in the heavens to show that he would not aim His arrows at the world, and the promise not to destroy the human race, did not come as soon as Noah and his family left the Ark. In the story, in Genesis, this comes after Noah offers a sacrifice on an altar. After the animal is slain, and the smell of the burnt offering goes up, God makes this promise that mankind will be spared destruction. And, like everything in the Old Testament, it is meant to be an incomplete picture needing fulfillment, a shadow of the true figure, a type pointing to the reality. The baby, in whose birth we rejoice this day, lying in a manger, is the sacrifice. The shadow of the cross on a hill just outside of Jerusalem falls across the stable in Bethlehem.
“Nails, spear shall pierce Him through
A cross be borne for me for you,
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe the Son of Mary.”
Only in light of His coming death years later, could the angels speak that night of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” They did not say “goodwill among men.” They said “goodwill toward men.” The picture of Noah’s sacrifice bringing a promise of survival for humanity now takes on the beginning of fulfillment. This peace is with God, an end to the warfare caused by sin and death; the goodwill comes from above to undeserving, fallen mankind. On Christmas “the babe, the world’s Redeemer first revealed His sacred face.” We feel joy at seeing this great love whereby God the Son, the creator of all life, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is revealed in human flesh in great humility as an infant of a poor family, so poor that a manger is his bed. Yet, in the midst of this joy we know that He came to bear the cross. And, by bearing the cross He would be the true sacrifice for the sins of the world, the sacrifice to which Noah’s offering, and the later offerings of the Old Testament priesthood on the altars of the Temple, bore witness as mere types and shadows of the reality. The night in which the angels sang their praise to God and spoke of peace is answered by another night- “the night in which He was betrayed.”
On that night he would establish the Church’s Eucharistic sacrifice that speaks even louder and cleared than the Old Testament types and shadows on blood stained altars; for the Church’s altar, on which nothing is slain, is mystically joined to the cross upon which our Savior died, and therefore joined to “his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”
The Peace of which the angels spoke is best understood with words by Saint Paul, in his epistle to the Church at Rome: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1,2).” The coming of Christ into the world brought this peace- peace with God; his second coming will establish the fullness of a peace that lasts forever, because there will be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, for the former things are passed away. Of His government and peace will be no end on the throne of David. His government as the eternal King will bring peace because sin and death will be no more. For now, however, we are offered the gift of being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Our hope for eternal life is directly bound up in how we respond to this gift, made available to us only by means of His death and resurrection.
So, this simple phrase from the angels’ song speaks volumes- that is, it speaks all of the truth from all of the books of sacred scripture. The mystery of the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh, tells of a love that responds to our greatest need, namely, to have peace with God, to be reconciled with the one who made us and gave us life as the first of His gifts.
The humility of God is a staggering fact that leaps off the pages of the Gospels. For we see the Son, equal with God, deem to be made human for the sake of a race of rebels; to take upon Himself our very nature, to be found in fashion as a man, to take upon Him the form of a servant, to be obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, as spoken of in Saint Paul’s famous passage to the Philippians. This obedience and service would be quite remarkable from someone who is a creature; but the Son is not a creature; He is begotten not made. He is equal with God, eternally one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. What great kindness shown to us, the race of rebels, that we see His sacred face the holy night of His birth. Into the eternity of His Divine Person He took time; into His Godhead eternally begotten not created, He took our created nature; into His omnipotence he took the weakness of a newborn infant; into His omnipresence He took the location of a human body; into His omniscience He took the mind of a man. Into His Divine life as the maker of created life, He took our mortal nature, indeed death itself and so swallowed up mortality in eternal life.
In all of this we see that God does not deal with us as our sins deserve. If we must cast aside our hope in the best idealism that fallen man can muster, it is for a greater hope, a love that exceeds the story of every romance ever written. It is the love of God for the undeserving children of Adam, benevolence extended where wrath is deserved, immortality where death is justly due, the joy of God’s kingdom where Hell was earned. This hope for all who will believe and repent, purchased by our Redeemer’s shed blood, sealed by His resurrection and trampling of death, is peace with God. This is the song of the angels: This is “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”