It’s one of the most fundamental human yearnings.
It is a yearning that is fulfilled in the Gospel story. In Luke 2, the announcement of the Incarnation is accompanied by this angelic chant:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (verse 14).
Peace, in an everyday sense, tends to mean an absence of disorder, war, and violence. In a more positive sense it means a “state of tranquility or quiet” or “harmony in personal relations,” as Merriam-Webster defines it. Often in modern society, peace has come to refer to our internal dispositions: those who struggle with anxiety, depression, the effects of abuse and suffering, and addiction are said to not be at peace.
When the angels burst upon the shepherds at night, their presence was most certainly unexpected. But their message did not come out of nowhere: peace had long been associated with the Old Testament prophecies of a savior.
The prophecy of peace
In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom (pronounced as shaw-lome). While there is some superficial affinity in meaning with the definition of peace in our dictionary, it is a rich concept that means much more than just an absence of war or a surface harmony among formerly hostile parties. At its core, shalom refers to peace in the sense of being whole, intact, being in a state of health or having a prosperous friendship.
We must keep the full orbit of meanings in mind when we hear Old Testament prophecies of the coming Savior, such as this one in Isaiah 9:6-7,
For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace. His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace (Douay-Rheims).
In the earlier verses, the prophet foresees the violent overthrow of the oppressor. So peace would seem to naturally ensue. But looking back from the vantage point of the New Testament we know that the kingdom that Christ brought was not a worldly one. He did not march on Rome.
This suggests that we must seek for a deeper understanding of what is being prophesied. For Christ certainly did not fail to fulfill Isaiah 9. One clue is the meaning of the Hebrew word for peace itself as wholeness, health, and harmonious relationships with others that are fruitful. Isaiah 9 implies that peace has been lost. So, we must ask ourselves, when did humanity lose its sense of wholeness, his ability to live in harmony with others?
The Old Testament gives us one definitive answer: in the Fall.
The loss of peace
Consider: in the Fall, by letting the bodily senses, rather than his intellect guide him, the first man enslaved his soul to body, creating disorder within himself. It was in his intellect, his soul, the Church Fathers teach us, that man most profoundly reflected the image of God. In diminishing his higher nature, then, the first man strained his relationship with God. With the fundamental order of things disrupted, other relationships deteriorated as well: with our fellow man and with creation at large.
There were thus three disorders that arose from the Fall: the disorder within ourselves as our passions drag us away from God, the resulting disorder between ourselves and God, and the disorder between individual men and women. Each of these disorders ended in a complete breakdown of relationship. Because of his sin, man was separated from the presence of God in God and condemned to death, which is the separation of body and soul, which necessarily also entails a separation from our fellow man.
The first man and woman exited Eden as broken people, lacking wholeness within themselves, in how they related to each other, and in their relationship with God.
Peace, in its profoundness sense, means a restoration of this wholeness.
This is why the announcement of the angels in Luke 2 is significant.
Jesus brought peace in His ministry
In Luke, we witness this richer, notion in Christ’s ministry. One instance is in Luke 7, when Jesus forgives the woman who anointed his feet with oil, bathed them in her tears, and kissed them. Notice His parting words: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (verse 50; NABRE).
A similar exchange occurs in the next chapter. Jesus offers similar words of comfort to the hemorrhaging woman after she has healed from the touch of His cloak in verse 48: “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Another translation, the King James Bible, has this telling turn of phrase: “Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace.” Some other translations read well instead of whole. Here we see strong hints of the Hebrew notion of peace as wholeness.
For those who might be wondering, the underlying Greek word in both verses is, sózó, which means both salvation in a generic sense but also in the specific one of saving someone who is suffering from disease.
It is most fitting then, that after completing His climactic word of redemption on the Cross, Jesus offers these words to the disciples when He first appears to them after the resurrection: “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). For the resurrection truly brought peace: wholeness to men and women suffering the disorder of sin in their souls and bodies and concord and communion between heaven and earth.
‘My peace I give to you’
This peace is something that Christ invites us to personally share in. In John 14:27, he tells His disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” As Charles Ellicott, a nineteenth century Anglican commentator puts it:
He will leave them as a legacy the gift of ‘peace.’ And this peace is more than a meaningless sound or even than a true wish. He repeats it with the emphatic ‘My,’ and speaks of it as an actual possession which He imparts to them. ‘Peace on earth’ was the angels’ message when they announced His birth; ‘peace to you’ was His own greeting when He returned victorious from the grave.
Thanks to Christ, peace is no longer a wish, a platitude, or some universal ideal that is always sought yet never quite realized. It is something real that we can grab onto—my peace I give to you—not as a private possession to be hoarded but as a personal participation in the peace of Christ.