“Peace on earth! Good will towards men!” is a common greeting to be found on cards during this season of the Nativity. These are, of course, the words sung by the angels the night Christ was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:14). It is also a phrase which admits of several interpretations.
The possibility of various meanings is very likely the reason for its popularity on greeting cards. Who could be opposed to peace on earth and good will towards men (especially if the “men” is translated in a more “gender-friendly” way)? The difficulty with Christmas, for many, is that it introduces what is characteristically known as the “scandal of particularity.” The scandal, or “stumbling-block,” is the specific claim made by Christians that the child born in Bethlehem is the incarnate Son of God, the One through whom salvation alone may be found. Everyone likes peace. Most people like Jesus. Not everyone likes Christ, the Son of the Eternal God, the God made flesh.
And so the feast of Christmas becomes the great Gnostic Temptation for modern culture. Modernity wants to admit that Jesus was an important figure in history but does not want to grant that He is the Lord of history. Modernity wants to advance the cause of peace but does not want to admit that Christ alone is the Prince of Peace.
The Christian faith rightly and properly rejects gnosticism as a heresy. It is not peace and good will nor even love that Christianity properly confesses. These words, when stated without a context, have no meaning whatsoever. They become symbols of the banal and empty quality of modern life. Peace as the absence of conflict has no positive content. Good will without a reference becomes nothing more than a smile. Love without the brutal sacrifice of self-emptying is nothing more than sentiment.
Sentimentality is the content of modern idolatry. We worship feelings and those things which produce the feelings we worship. It is for this reason that entertainment and its purveyors are the “icons” of the modern world. Those whom the world holds in esteem are pictures without content – feelings without reason. And so the indiscretions of our icons (whether golf legends or the idols of our matinees) face the unrelenting judgment of the media whenever they stray from the pre-defined content of their image. Our sentiments must not be offended.
Sentimentality requires generality. Those things which we perceive in a “general” manner, lack content. Things in general have no specificity nor particularity. Their general character allows us to project our own wishes and dreams upon them without contradiction. Modernity prefers a general God for the same reason. A general God has little or nt content – little or nothing than can offer contradiction or offense to the culture god of sentimentality.
The incarnate Son of God is full of contradiction and offense. The claim to be the Incarnation of the only true God stands as a stumbling-block for the demands of sentimentality. Peace on earth and good-will towards men receive a very specific content in the incarnation of Christ. The angels sing because Christ is born. Without His birth, there is no peace nor good-will. His birth proclaims the beginnings of God’s peace on earth, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. His birth proclaims good-will – God’s good will towards men (the only good-will that matters).
The contradictions inherent between Christ the God-Man and the empty sentiments of peace on earth, good will towards men, form the content of modern culture wars between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” A Christmas which does not offend is not a Christmas that can save. My sin is offended by the love of God. Without such offense there can never be repentance. My sin is an offense against Christmas itself – though the true Christmas has taken my offense into itself and forgiven me everything: a forgiveness that can only have meaning if the child of Bethlehem is none other than God.
Better than “Merry Christmas” is the traditional Orthodox greeting: Christ is born! Glorify Him!