"And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
-- From "I Heard the Bells
on Christmas Day,"
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Had I the skill of a poet, I might have written the above sentiments myself. For I, too, have often wondered: if Jesus is the "Prince of Peace," then why are there more conflicts in the world today than there were when he came to earth 2,000 years ago? Why have scores of once-heralded military victories and peace-treaty signings been all but forgotten? Just when is this peace the angels promised and the prophets foretold supposed to arrive?
I have no statistics to back up my claim but I'm guessing that, after love, peace is the most sought after commodity on earth. Nations desire it, politicians promise it, churches preach it, families struggle for it, and individuals spend much of their lives without it. References to peace cover more than a page in my Bible concordance, and thesauruses run out of space before they run out of synonyms to describe it -- hush, harmony, love, unity and "the storm blown over," among them. Yet, amid the galas of another Christmas season, we'll sing again of "peace on earth, good will to men" because "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
But we've sung these songs before, re-enacted the story before, hoped peace would come in our lifetime before, and despaired that it would never come in anyone's lifetime before. Maybe we should forget the carols, forego our hopes, give in to a marketplace-only holiday and protect ourselves from disappointment again.
When the first Advent (the coming of Christ to earth) was over and the baby had become a man, Jesus startled his followers one day with these words: "My peace I give to you, not as the world gives..." (John 14:27). Later the Apostle Paul called this new kind of peace, "that which passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
So if the peace on earth we sing about is neither what the world provides nor something we can understand, where do we find it and how will we recognize it when we do?
Bible commentator Dr. C. I. Scofield helps me understand the annual paradox this way: "The peace of God is inward peace, the state of a person who ... has committed all his anxieties to God."
I've known about this "inner peace" since I was a child, but like most people who share my Christian upbringing, I might commit today's anxieties to God, but gather up new ones to replace them tomorrow. When I have personal struggles, or hear of peace treaties breaking down again, it's hard to remember that God's peace is internal and individual, or that any kind of peace is possible while wars rage on outside.
Still, I think that's why we celebrate the birth of Jesus, read the familiar story, and sing the same, old carols again and again, year after year. We need frequent reminding that the peace that was both promised and fulfilled in the Christ Child is far more than the absence of war. Individuals at peace with God and themselves are less likely to be at war with anyone else.
As the poet concludes, that's the only way the peace of God may one day become the absence of war:
"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, good will to men."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.