During the season celebrating the Birth of Christ, also called Christmas, a line from the scriptures is frequently quoted. It is actually from the Gospel of St. Luke (2:14): “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace ....” Some may notice I truncated the scriptural verse and some may have filled in the rest of the verse based on their memory of how they have heard or read the verse in the past.
There are two alternatives with two very different meanings: “peace on earth good will toward men” or “peace on earth to men of good will”(or “with whom God is pleased”). By temperament I am disinclined to quibble over something that may be considered a trivial lexical issue. But it is not trivial. There is an enormous theological and psychological difference between the two alternative renderings of this scriptural passage. What makes the issue so important is that this passage is so often quoted to capture ‘the real spirit of the Christmas season.’
Translations of the Scriptures into the English language which are based on the earliest ancient manuscripts (e.g., The Jerusalem Bible, 1971; The New American Standard Bible, 1960) support the second translation: “peace on earth to men of good will” (or “to those whom God favors,” or “with whom He is pleased.”). I rejoice in this. The first wording paints a picture of God giving out favors despite what good or bad people may or may not have done. That is to say, what good or bad will they may have. It portrays God as not holding us responsible for our own actions. If there is any message in the history of God’s interaction with mankind it is that He does in fact hold us responsible. The Book of Genesis (6:8) records the account of Noah and is the first of many references to “favor” in the Old Testament: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” This is aptly summarized by King David: “For thou dost bless the righteous, O Lord; thou dost cover him with favor as with a shield.” (Ps 5:12). Note it is the righteous whom God favors.
Let us apply this lesson to ourselves during this Christmas season. It may make nice sentiment to say peace on earth good will toward men, but this is hardly the way God has been shown to dispense His favor. Our gift to both God and mankind this Christmas season, and all seasons would be to make ourselves “men of good will” by applying ourselves to do the work of God. As the Eastern Church spiritual father St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II) tells us: “[God] gives Himself more fully to those who have performed great acts of righteousness, and in smaller measure to those who have not achieved so much.” St. Maximus goes on: “The actualization and proof of perfect love for God is a genuine and willing attitude of goodwill toward one’s neighbor.” To be “men of good will” means becoming benevolent, cheerful, compassionate, kindly, friendly, open to reconciliation, willing to help one another, especially those most in need, and taking responsibility for our own actions. This will be the seed of peace on earth; this will bring God’s favor. This would define the spirit of Christmas. This will make this Christmas season, and all seasons, meaningful.
New American Standard Version (1960). La Habra , CA : The Lockman Foundation.
Palmer, G.E.H; Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (trans.) (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: London : Faber and Faber.
The Jerusalem Bible (1971). Garden City NY : Doubleday