“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” – G.K. Chesterton, Christian Author and Apologist, 1874-1936
I believe everyone is familiar with this Christmas saying, whether or not they know it has biblical origins: “ Peace on earth and good will towards men.” For many people this sums up the feeling of Christmas: a general warmth towards humanity, togetherness, family, thinking of others, etc. However, the saying is actually a biblical quote from the following passage:
“8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 ‘ Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'” – Luke 2:8-14 NIV
The King James Version of the Bible, one of the earliest translations, phrases the last part as “good will towards men.”, rather than the modern and more specific “to those on whom his favor rests.” The difference here is important, as it is always important to know what we mean when we say something, but this even more so because it aligns our thoughts with the truest and purest intentions of Christmas. The problem that I want to point out is not an issue of mistranslation, but that many of us have separated it from its origin and have unknowingly and unintentionally flipped the entire meaning of the passage.
The Devolution of Meaning
Even President Calvin Coolidge, a man I greatly admire, is oft misquoted, or perhaps short-quoted, in a similar way as the Angels and Shepherds passage:
“Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
And, for some reason — you be the judge as to why — his quote is often left at the above, though he continues on to reference the birth of Christ:
“If we think of these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.” – Calvin Coolidge, U.S. President, Christmas Message to the Nation, December 25th, 1927
There is a particular flaw that greatly reduces mankind’s ability to progress: so much of what we do devolves. Language becomes more figurative and less literal, liturgical practices become traditions and traditions become watered down and rote. In other words, what had specific meaning now has less meaning, and this will continue until either the meaning is restored, or it has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness and, not being useful, vanishes from society. Something new, then, with a more literal meaning, will come and fill the void.
As early as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol we see references to the Spirit of Christmas and Christmas Spirit, and certainly today Christmas is more of a feeling for many people than a religious holiday. The problem is that the feeling, or Spirit of Christmas, is fading as its foundation erodes. This leads us to seek the missing pieces which cause those feelings in many ways: shopping more, spending more, giving more, doing more, etc. We begin doing things to stir up the feelings of Christmas rather than doing good things out of the joy set within us. The result is a burden during the holiday and a relief when it is over. In short, it is tiresome and expensive work drumming up the feelings that can only come as a response to the miraculous.
The point I want to make here is a larger one and I am just using Christmas as an example. The Spirit of Christmas, while it markets well, can only exist with Christmas…otherwise there is no spirit. It would be the Spirit of _____. Yet, we try to nullify Christmas and retain the spirit!? This will not work. It will eventually go the way of the Greek gods; Santa joining the ranks of Zeus.
What We Should Mean by “Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men”
I mentioned in the beginning that we have unintentionally flipped the meaning of this passage, not, however, as a result of mistranslation but of missed meaning. When we say, “ Peace on earth and good will towards men.” what we are most often saying is that we wish this towards people not that it already exists. In other words, we want there to be peace on earth and good things for all mankind. While this is nice, it misses the point of Christmas and the message and blessings the angels were speaking of. They were actually saying, “ Because a savior is born to you, there is praise to God, and there shall be (definitively will be) peace in the hearts of those who know Christ.” The message we so often give is that we wish goodness towards mankind rather than saying goodness has come. We hope for peace on earth, that it may come about by the good-natured will of people, rather than saying “ Peace is already here, come and know Christ and you shall have it!”
As I was writing this article I recognized a good deal of cynicism leaking out, which is not my goal. I don’t want to come across as a Scrooge. I love Christmas and I certainly enjoy Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, and many of the other characters and traditions that go along with this time of year and add to the confusion of what the heck we are actually celebrating. Christmas movies that make no mention of Christ, like Elf for example, move me tremendously and I love to watch them. I can get caught up in the Christmas Spirit as much as anyone. However, as men, I believe it is our job to make sure we remind ourselves and others of the meaning behind Christmas and other holidays.
After all, you can water a Christmas tree for only so long before it browns. If you love it, keep it rooted.
— Merry Christmas