Peace on Earth
A Christmas Doctrinal Class by the Rev. Dr. Andrew M.T. Dibb
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
There are many stories about shepherds in the Word. Joseph's brothers were shepherds, and mighty king David himself was a shepherd in his youth. The life these men led was a very responsible one, for they had to look after their sheep. This meant many things. In one story we read of how shepherds had to draw water to give their flocks a drink (Genesis 29:3). When David was a young shepherd, a bear and a lion came to attack his sheep, and he had to defend them (1_Samuel 17:34-36). If a sheep went wandering off, the shepherd had to go and search for it, until the sheep was found - and that was a time of great rejoicing for the shepherd. The Lord once told a story about a man who had a hundred sheep, but when he found that one had gone astray, he left ninety nine of them, and searched and searched until he found the lost sheep. Then he came back full of joy because he had found his sheep (Luke 15:4, Luke 15:5).
We can imagine then, that shepherds knew a lot about sheep - they lived with them out in the fields. This means that shepherds were not city people. They didn't have polished manners, or lots of money. They probably weren't very educated, except about sheep. We know they must have been very brave, because they had to fight off wild animals, and perhaps even people who tried to steal their sheep. They must also have been gentle, because one has to be gentle with sheep, especially with little lambs.
These were the kinds of men the Lord sent the angel Gabriel to on the night He was born in Bethlehem. As we saw last week, an angel is a messenger of the Lord. In the Word angels came to bring wisdom and comfort, hope and the good news, the "euangellion" or Gospel, to those to whom the Lord wanted His presence revealed. This Gospel is the teaching that the Lord Jesus Christ was born into this world, that He made it possible for all people to be saved and brought into His kingdom. The angel Gabriel came in excitement to Mary to inform her that she was the Lord’s choice as His natural mother, and once the Lord was born, he spread the news to those willing to hear.
The angel came to simple shepherds, watching over their flock at night. When they first saw the angel, they were very afraid, but the angel's words were very comforting. "Behold," he said, "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
What wonderful words these are. Then, there appeared with the angel "a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"." When the shepherds saw this heavenly host, they saw the entire society of angels who took the form of the angel Gabriel. The shepherds knew what they must do - they left their sheep, and went to see the Lord in Bethlehem.
What was it that made the shepherds so eager to leave their sheep in the middle of the night when they knew that there might be wild animals around, or robbers, or the possibility of the sheep wandering off? The answer is in the words of the heavenly host to them.
"Glory to God in the highest," they said, "and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men." Like us the shepherds lived in a dangerous times. Palestine was under Roman occupation, any signs of revolt, either by individuals or communities against the Romans were brutally subdued by being brutally killed or enslaved. People lived in fear and human life held very little value.
The idea of peace and goodwill contradicted every experience human experience. So it is in our own times. Wars, famine, disease continue to rampage across the face of the earth. Corruption, greed and the quest for power continue to pollute our societies, and immorality, injustice and an array of prejudices tear at the fabric of our communities. It is little wonder that many people have lost their faith in the Lord altogether—the ancient Jews looked for God in external observance of the Mosaic law as a refuge from the world, and modern people turn to naturalism for their answers. The Lord is not to be found in either.
There seems to be little 'peace on earth', and precious little 'goodwill toward men.' So what were the angels talking about. Was Gabriel making empty promises to the Shepherd when he said "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord." And the heavenly host proclaimed, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
The Lord came in the darkest spiritual state, and Gabriel’s words are words of genuine hope. The Lord is present with His love and wisdom in each and every angel of heaven. The things they think and say comes to them from the Lord Himself. This means that their words to the shepherds are truly words of hope. There will be 'peace on earth', and 'goodwill toward men'. The only obstacles to these things come from people themselves, who, like Herod, rejected the Lord and chose lives of selfishness and greed instead.
The full message of the Lord's promise of peace comes when we think of all the words of the angels in this story.
Firstly, Gabriel told the shepherds that a Saviour had been born in the city of David. The shepherds probably knew the ancient prophecies that the Lord would be born in Bethlehem. Like many people at that time, they would have been watching and waiting for a Saviour to come.
"The reason why the Lord was born there and not elsewhere, is that He alone was born a spiritual celestial man, but all others natural, with the capacity or ability to become either celestial or spiritual by regeneration from the Lord. The reason why the Lord was born a spiritual celestial man was that He might make His Human Divine, and this according to order from the lowest degree to the highest, and might thus dispose into order all things in the heavens and in the hells. For the spiritual celestial is intermediate between the natural or external man and the rational or internal man (see above, n. Arcana Coelestia 4585, Arcana Coelestia 4592), thus below it was the natural or external, and above it was the rational or internal." (Arcana Coelestia 4594)
We are told in many places in the Doctrine, that the essential quality of the celestial is love to the Lord, and so all good, while the quality of the spiritual is love to the neighbour, which we accomplish by putting truth into action. At birth the celestial and spiritual qualities in us exist only in potential, and become real through the process of repentance. Yet at birth the Lord had these qualities existing in Him. His love for the Divine Itself, His Father, is portrayed in His constant willingness to obey the Father, epitomized by His words in the Garden of Gethesemane: "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42). The Lord’s willingness is His celestial quality, and it took the form of the spiritual. The spiritual is loving the neighbour, for the Lord acted at all times from His love for God towards the neighbour, whom He had come to rescue. His spiritual, therefore, is the fact that He is the Word, "made flesh" and dwelling among us.
Seen from this perspective, the Lord is a spiritual celestial being, incorporating these two essentials as a core part of His being, even though they were written and formed in the human from Mary through the process of glorification. Ordinary human beings are not born this way. We are born purely natural, and have to learn truths through the intellect, and then have them form a new will through a willingness to follow the Lord and through the process of regeneration.
"Bethlehem" represents these spiritual celestial qualities in the Lord by which He could save the human race, and for that reason, He was born there. The shepherds would not have known this, but they would have recognized the significance of Bethlehem from the ancient prophecies, and also a savior from the house of David. Like David, the Savior would be a great king.
They expected this saviour to be a mighty prince, or king, who would make the children of Israel into a great and powerful nation again. When the angel spoke to them, he said, "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Gabriel’s message to the shepherds, that the Child born in Bethlehem was be "Christ the Lord" is different from the message given to Mary when he announced that she would conceive. "Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus" (Luke 1:30-31).
Very deep arcana lie concealed within the internal sense, which up to now have not come to anyone's knowledge. … It becomes absolutely clear from the internal sense of our Lord's two names JESUS CHRIST. When these are mentioned few have any other notion than that they are proper names which are little different from, though more sacred than, the names of any other human being. Better educated people know, it is true, that Jesus means Saviour, and Christ the Anointed, from which they conceive some more interior notion. But this is not the same as the things which the angels in heaven perceive from those names. They perceive things more Divine still, that is to say, when Jesus is mentioned by someone reading the Word they perceive Divine Good, and when Christ is mentioned, Divine Truth. And when both are mentioned together they perceive the Divine marriage of good to truth, and of truth to good. Thus they perceive everything Divine within the heavenly marriage, which is heaven. (Arcana Coelestia 3004)
Technically the name 'Christ' means one who has been anointed with oil, and thus who would be a king. When David was made king, Samuel the priest poured oil over his head as a sign that he was now the king. So when the angel said that 'Christ the Lord' was born, they understood that their king had come. The Writings tell us, however, that the name "Christ" refers specifically to the divine truth, which, in the Lord was His Humanity—thus to that child born in Bethlehem whose human would eventually be glorified and united to the Divine.
The Christ means the Lord's Divine humanity because the Christ is the Messiah, and the Messiah is the Son of God whose coming into the world was awaited by the Jews. (Apocalypse Revealed 520)
Salvation would come through the purifying of the human taken on from Mary, and its glorification, that is, it’s conjunction with the Divine. Christ the Lord is the Savior because by taking on this humanity, the Lord is now able to be present in the natural degree of our lives, and so lead us along the same route He followed in His glorification.
The shepherds were simple men. They thought, as many would later on, that this king would be king instead of King Herod - whom they didn't like. A message like this would have been wonderful enough, and the shepherds must have been very happy that they lived when the King had come down to earth. They couldn't have understood that the Lord did not come as an earthly king, He did not come to take over from Herod, or overthrow the Romans. "My kingdom," He said, "is not of this world." He came to bring us peace and show us how to build goodwill toward all men in our hearts.
As we celebrate Christmas, we are fortunate to know that the Lord didn't come as a king to overthrow the Romans, or take over from Herod. We know that He came to fight against the power of hell, and that He overcame it. He fought and He won, and in so doing, He has made it possible for us to do the same thing. His kingdom doesn't belong in this world, it is the kingdom of heaven, which we know lives within us as a constant source of love and kindness.
As the shepherds listened to Gabriel speaking, they were surprised when suddenly they saw with the angel Gabriel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" This was enough to convince the shepherds. They left their flocks and went quickly to Bethlehem, where they saw the Child, wrapped in Swaddling Cloths, lying in a manger.
But if the Lord’s human was His truth, how can a person pick out the real truth from the rest of the things we learn. Let’s assume for a moment that more than one baby was born in Bethlehem on that night. How would the shepherds identify which of the babies born was the Christ? How do we know that the truths that will rescue and regenerate us are the real ones, amid a world full of competing truths?
The shepherds would know by the sign given to them. The Child would be wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. With this information, they would know not to look for the Lord in a palace or wealthy home, or any place where the animals were separated from people. A stall, or stable, would be the most likely place.
Familiar as we are with the Christmas tableau of the stall, we know that we will not find the Lord in the riches of worldly knowledge, or contemporary wisdom (regardless of the age we live in), nor in conventional thought and practice. To find the Lord we need to look for that manger. In the spiritual sense,
"A manger" means the doctrine of truth from the Word, because "horses" signify the understanding of the Word; and thus a manger, as a feeding place for horses, signifies the doctrine of truth from the Word. (Apocalypse Explained 706)
"The doctrine of truth from the Word" is nothing other than the true teachings from the Word—clear, plain teachings that are self-evident to the reason of a person who is looking for truth. For example, when a person considers the qualities of God, that He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, divine, these can only exist in one God. There cannot be a plural of omnipotent God. Reason does not allow for that. The teaching of the Word that God is One God, is eminently reasonable and believable. It is the same with many other teachings, for example, the Ten Commandments. It doesn’t take a genius to see that lying, stealing, murdering or committing adultery are harmful to both individuals and society.
These are the teachings of the Word that appeal to the understanding, the horses which each from the manger, and this is where we will find our salvation. The Lord was the Word, He is the truth come down and dwells among us. And the only place we find Him is lying in that manger of teaching.
It is not stretch of the imagination that the shepherds were looking for this manger, but as there were probably several new-born babies in Bethlehem, so there were probably many mangers in stables around the town. In our quest for understanding, there are many competing ideas laid before us. How do we know which is the right one?
The answer lies in the angel Gabriel’s description, "This will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger."
He is also said to have been "wrapped in swaddling clothes," because "swaddling clothes" signify first truths, which are truths of innocence, and which are also truths of the Divine love; for "nakedness," in reference to a babe, signifies deprivation of truth. From this it is clear why it was said by the angels, "This is a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger." (Apocalypse Explained 706)
The "first truths" a person has are the sensual and factual knowledge from which they are able to think, reason, and so to believe and do. The "first truths" introduce a person to the church, and make it possible for them to develop the spiritual understanding that will later guide their lives.
… the first truths there being sensory ones, the second truths being factual, and interior truths matters of doctrine. The latter are based on factual truths inasmuch as a person can have and retain no idea, notion, or concept of them except from factual truths. But the foundations on which factual truths are based are sensory truths, for without sensory truths nobody is able to possess factual ones. (Arcana Coelestia 3310)
The first truths a person learns are from the sense of the letter of the Word, for these become the containant of deeper truths:
First truths are also ultimate truths, such as are in the sense of the letter of the Word, for through these entrance is effected, for these are first learned, and in them are all interior things which constitute the internal sense of the Word. (Apocalypse Explained 395)
These first truths from the foundation for the later truths:
But because exterior truths are the first truths which a person learns, the Lord has provided that by means of them he can be introduced into interior truths. (Arcana Coelestia 3857)
These are the "swaddling cloths" wrapping the baby. When the shepherds found a manger with this baby in it, they would know that they have found the Lord.
When Gabriel had made this announcement to the astonished shepherds, "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
What wonderful words of praise, and words we still sing today. When the angels praised God, their song was a sign that they believed in God, not only in His existence, but also in all the things He has taught in His Word. From the prophecies of the Word they saw ahead into His life, and saw the great battles He would fight for each one of us. They saw His victories over the power of hell, as He made it subject to Himself.
They also saw that as He conquered hell. He made it possible for peace and goodwill to reign on all the earth - possible because if people followed His teachings, and walked the path He shows us, the primary human evils of selfishness and greed could be overcome, and, without them, there would be peace.
For many people the fact that there are still wars, disease and poverty two thousand years after the Lord's birth is a major stumbling block. Many people ask how these things can continue in the face of the Lord's birth, His life, death and resurrection. Yet the Lord did not come to change the natural world, He came to change our spiritual world - to change the way we think and feel about things, and from that to change how we act. Changing the world alone would not have a lasting effect. True change must come from within us, and genuine spiritual change can only come when we submit ourselves to the Lord as our God and Saviour.
The Lord's main message is, of course, that we must turn aside from evil and do good. We need to do this inside our hearts where no one can see what we really think and feel, and also in our actions, which everyone can see. If we believe that the Lord is our God and Saviour, then it is not so difficult to turn aside from these things, for we do them for the Lord. Our belief in Him, then, won't just be something we say, but it will be intertwined with all the things we do. It will be written on our hearts. So the angel hosts began by saying "Glory to God in the highest," for when we hold the Lord in glory and think of Him first in all the things we feel, think, say and do, then the Lord will be at the centre of our lives.
The angels next words show us what happens to us when we put the Lord high up in our lives. They said, "and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men." The word 'earth' here is a symbol of our minds - we often speak of a person as having a fertile mind, or as ideas as seeds. It is not too difficult, then, to see that the earth means more than just the world around us, it also means our minds.
Our minds become peaceful when the Lord governs it. The Psalmist says, "The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before it" which reminds us that our minds come from and belong to the Lord. Our silence is the stilling of the voices of promoting contrary things to what the Lord gives us. When we use our minds properly as a bridge between true spiritual love and our actions in this world, then the Lord is present there, and when our minds are filled with the Lord, there is a silence, partly a silence of awe and partly a silence because the constant irritations of selfishness and greed are quietened by His presence.
This, then, is true peace. It is not contingent on natural things, on whether we are young or old, rich or poor, thin or fat, black or white. Rather it comes from within, from the presence of the Lord in our minds, and from His presence there He guides and directs our thoughts and our feelings, our speech and our actions.
This presence bubbles out of us as love - the angels call it 'Goodwill toward men'. A love that it untainted by selfishness makes it possible for us to reach out to others and embrace their lives with ours. It means that people will think before they act or speak. That they will hold back the hurtful word, or the painful action. It means that they will rise above self concern and learn to give of themselves.
If all six billion of us on this planet today could learn to think like this, then earthly peace would be with us all. There would be no more wars - differences between individuals and countries could be sorted out amicably with regard to the deeper issues at stake. Diseases and famine may still be with us, but people would see in them an opportunity to help one another.
It sounds utopian, and very simple. Yet those were the words the angels used when they spoke to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men."
The shepherds were so moved by these words - although they could only understand them in a very simple way, that they left their sheep, and went at once and in haste to Bethlehem. There, in that stable they saw, for the first time ever, the face of the Lord - a tiny child with the work of redemption stretched out before Him, a work that He did once during His life time, and over and over again in the hearts and minds of those who hear Him calling, and turn and follow Him.
Arcana Coelestia 92
Arcana Coelestia 223
Arcana Coelestia 925