Peace to All People of Good Will

Homily for The Solemnity of the Nativity, 2018 at St Philip Evans 

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

One hundred years ago, for the first time in five brutal years, Cardiff woke up to a Christmas at peace.

For us today, herald angels singing and refrains of “Gloria in excelsis!” are part of the magic and music that give us that “Christmas feeling”. It’s easy to ignore the little line, “peace to people of goodwill”, as one of the familiar phrases we expect to hear in this season.

But imagine those who gathered to celebrate Christmas in 1918, just weeks after the armistice which ended the First World War. Around every dinner table, families would have remembered absent members, and friends, who had laid down their lives. Their great relief that much of the world was at peace would have been mixed with deep questions – “was it worth the cost?” And around many tables, those who faced mortal peril, both those who fought and those whose homelands were invaded, would have been most profoundly aware that they were no longer at war. Peace had returned. This Christmas in Indonesia, many families will have similar mixed emotions as they think of survivors and victims of last week’s tsunami. And yet the rhythm of the year echoes what happened on that unique day when angels spoke into human history:

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

But what did the angels mean in their song? That God was pleased with the human race in its entirety, and therefore sent us Jesus? Or did they mean that God was sending a gift of peace to be received by those of us who are people of goodwill, while the rest of the world faces God’s anger?

The Bible contains beautiful words. Jesus himself said that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And that’s the key. When we ask whether God is punishing us or protecting us, we should look not only at this life we live on earth, but eternal life – the life the angels are already living. God sent Baby Jesus so, as a man dying on the Cross, he would open the door to heaven for anyone willing to follow him through it. Jesus didn’t encourage us to think of disasters, natural or man-made, as signs of God’s punishment; rather, he spoke of God’s anger coming on souls in the afterlife who had harmed children, ignored people in need, or refused to forgive their enemies.

So I say again: “Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

In these Christmas words, we hear ourselves being challenged. Are we truly people of good will?

God’s rewards and wrath are reserved for us in heaven; here on Earth, God has left the responsibility for war and peace with us. He sent Christ, the Prince of Peace, to encourage us to live at peace with one another, and to pour his gift of peace into the heart of anyone who asks. And we can ask! We can pray for God to give us the good will to make peace with all people.

Christmas is a time of year which offers us special opportunities. Family members who might not be together for the rest of the year will be gathered together around one table. Perhaps this means that you will be forced to spend time with a relative or friend you don’t get on with – perhaps even someone who has broken a promise to you, publicly embarrassed you, or harmed you in some other way. This may feel like a threat, but it’s actually an opportunity. As human beings, our natural reaction is to ask “Who started it?” and seek an apology. But that’s not God’s way. No, the question God asks is “Who is willing to end it?” The will to make peace is a good will.

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

Are you looking in the manger for a God who stops earthquakes, tsunamis, and man’s inhumanity to man? You will seek in vain.

But are you looking for a God who is as vulnerable as a baby in a manger, who offers us the strength to be meek? You are looking in the right place.

The Prince of Peace came not to spare us from disasters, but to lead us through them on the royal road of forgiveness and generosity.

If you are looking for peace in your life, come to the silence of this Church; come and kneel before this crib. Ask God to fill your heart with the power to will what is good for others. It is through the goodwill in your heart that Cardiff can wake up to a Christmas at peace.

I have in my prayer-book a little card from the peacemaking organisation called Pax Christi, and I’d like to leave you with the prayer which is written on it – it’s by the late leader of the Taizé community in France, Brother Roger. It says this:

O Risen Christ,Icon of Jacob and Esau embracing and other Bible scenes of peacemaking
You breathe your Holy Spirit on us
and you tell us: ‘Peace be yours’.
Opening ourselves to your peace –
letting it penetrate the harsh and
rocky ground of our hearts –
means preparing ourselves to be
bearers of reconciliation
wherever you may place us.
But you know that at times
we are at a loss.
So come and lead us
to wait in silence,
to let a ray of hope shine forth
in our world.

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

And may the blessing of the Prince of Peace fill your hearts with joy. A Blessed Christmas to you all.

The phrasing of “on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill” is from Christopher Walker’s New Celtic Liturgy, which is the Mass setting being used at my Christmas Masses.