We sing of peace and pray for peace at Christmas because peace is a sign of God's presence. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and peace is a sign of his presence. For most of recorded history, however, the world has known little peace. Each generation of Americans has fought a war, on this continent or somewhere else in the world. War is a constant in human affairs, not only among nations but also, too often, in families and in our hearts.
The constant longing for peace, despite the violence of human history, challenges each generation to try anew at peacemaking. Pope Benedict XVI suggests in his message for the World Day of Peace, which takes place Jan. 1, that we start our peacemaking by looking again at our family life.
We are always part of a family. Even if its members are angry with one another or estranged from one another, a family remains a network of relationships. The family is where we first learn what it means to love. In the family we learn to forgive.
Each new family, first constituted by the love of husband and wife, is a cradle of life and love that grows and develops with the birth of children. The family is a divine institution, part of the order of creation and the basis of human society.
If humanity is ever to live in peace, it will be possible because men and women have learned to live in peace in their families. In his message the pope writes: "everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life, everything that obstructs its right to be primarily responsible for the education of its children, constitutes an objective obstacle on the road to peace."
Especially at Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the savior of the human race, we should grasp more profoundly our membership in the one human family. The human race is a family rather than a collection of individuals because we are responsible for one another before God, who is the source of our existence.
Part of this responsibility involves care of our family home, the planet earth. The pope, in his yearly message, links peacemaking with ecological concern. Concern for the earth cannot allow physical nature to be imagined as if it were divorced from humanity's basic needs – a museum piece to be preserved or an aesthetic object valuable only for the pleasure it gives us.
Concern for the environment means taking into account the needs of future members of the human family and attending now to the needs of the poor. It means creating models of sustainable development that respect the earth and natural balances that distribute more fairly the wealth produced from nature's riches.
Catholic social teaching presents the common good as the goal of all human activity and planning. Now, the common good is planetary in scope.
Attaining this universal common good would be impossible if there were not also a common natural moral norm to inform particular legal and economic systems. Natural moral law is a field as contested as that of ecological science, as imperfectly thought out as the global economic system, as fraught with conflict as the international political order.
Yet conflict over universal moral norms can only invite to dialogue, lest we allow our human family, the human race, to degenerate into lawlessness. A dialogue that Pope Benedict asks be resumed quickly is the negotiation over the dismantling of all nuclear weapons. We cannot speak of peacemaking without returning to this basic moral issue soon.
Toward the end of his message, the pope issues an invitation: "I invite every man and woman to have a more lively sense of belonging to the one human family, and to strive to make human coexistence increasingly reflect this conviction, which is essential for the establishment of true and lasting peace."
This Christmas, let us consider again how we can help to foster peace in our particular families and in our human family.
Beyond our efforts, however, there is a peace that is pure gift. This is the peace that has mountains breaking out with joy and the lamb and the lion sharing a den. This is the peace that restores sight to the blind, raises the dead to life and tells the poor that the kingdom of heaven is theirs. This is the peace proclaimed by the angels at Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judah. This is the peace that comes not from negotiations but from the hand of God and in his way and time.
God can restore both physical nature and ourselves to the perfect balance he desires. With the prophets of Israel, we can only imagine this condition and pray for it, but our vision of it and our prayers for it also give us courage to pursue less perfect but still necessary goals in our time.
May Christmas be a time of peace for each of us and our families and our country. May it bring the promise of a universal peace that remains always the object of our desires and our hope. May it bring a renewed sense of God's presence and action in our lives and in human history. To all of you, a blessed and peace-filled Christmas.