American Christmas cards and English Christmas carols will more often than not proclaim, “Peace on earth; good will toward men.”
The familiar phrase, of course, comes from the King James version of the Bible, the almost universal text of English speaking Protestants. This exact wording, “good will toward men,” derives from the one, ancient manuscript that the English scholars used in translating the Scriptures in the 17th century. This Codex Beza or Byzantine text, was, however, unique in this wording. The oldest European and Middle Eastern texts announce rather, “On earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” This has always been the favored Catholic rendering even when it read more succinctly, “Peace on earth to men of good will,” as the old Douay-Rheims and CCD editions of the Bible offered it. Now of course the traditional Catholic phraseology has been restored to the Gloria of the Mass. “Peace to his people on earth,” has been properly amplified and will now be sung, “Peace on earth to people of good will.”
Actually the King James wording, “good will toward men,” while less accurate, conveys the meaning of the angels’ song much better than the accurate but slightly misleading “to men of good will.” The good will in question here is not the collective good will of mankind toward God; rather it is the universal good will of God toward man. As the present New American Bible indicates, God’s peace is to be visited not on those who have sought favor with God but rather on those whom God has chosen to bestow his favor. Heavenly peace and good will begin with God. They are his gifts, his favors, his grace. Good will is not a pre-condition for God’s favor; rather good will is the result of God’s favor.
The announcement by the angels of God’s universal good will bestowed upon mankind, so joyously celebrated at this Christmas season, can be better appreciated if balanced by St. Luke’s narration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary of her special selection by God. “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” Gabriel spoke alarmingly, “The Lord is with you.” With all due respect, the Virgin Mary did nothing ahead of time to merit the fullness of grace that God bestowed upon her. God did not intervene in Mary’s life because he saw that she was full of grace. On the contrary, God first bestowed the fullness of grace upon Mary and then she cooperated with this unimaginable gift.
The annunciation to Mary was a celebration of God’s freely bestowed benevolence and largesse toward her. To be blunt, Mary did not deserve grace; rather God made Mary deserving of grace.
The indescribable munificence of God toward Mary was an anticipation of the kindness of God toward mankind. Certainly Mary’s graces were superior to the blessings God shares with the rest of the human family but nonetheless God still favors man with a mercy wider and deeper than any man or woman deserves. God truly does overwhelm mankind with good will. God reveals himself to mankind to be a Father, a Son and a Spirit. God shares with man his marvelous gifts of creation, redemption and sanctification. God selected a unique people, the Jews, and established a saving community, the church, and promises eternal happiness, the kingdom of heaven. God’s good will toward man is the very stuff of salvation history.
The humble shepherds from Bethlehem’s hills clearly had no appreciation of the scope of God’s bounty toward them. And probably the Blessed Virgin Mary had little notion of what God had in store for her either. But both the shepherds and the virgin mother wisely accepted Christ into their lives. For the shepherds, Christ was a saviour. For Mary, Christ was a son. And it would be from Christ that both shepherds and mother would learn the full significance and meaning of God’s generous interference in their lives. Christ would become their mentor, their model, their motivation in living out the meaning of what it means to enjoy God’s good will. Christmas is the pre-eminent season to rejoice in God’s gift of inward peace and to celebrate his many manifestations of good will.