Peace on earth and goodwill to all men


THIS is the season of greetings and don’t we know it. In the past, messages used to come in just one form, the good old Christmas and New Year cards. Then, the post office had the monopoly of the means of message transmission. It would smugly declare that it could not guarantee delivery of any card posted less than two weeks before Christmas.

Now, with the advent of the Internet and the mobile phones, the season’s greetings are transmitted through the ether. Some come complete with colourful animated figures and tuneful jingles.

New Year and Christmas cards are going the way of the Dodo bird. A friend of mine, who is into the distribution of festive cards, almost went out of business. His enterprise is kept alive by the few dinosaurs who are still clinging to the tradition of sending cards. And with the speed of the present means of communication, one can leave it to the last moment to assure long neglected friends that at least once in a year they are remembered.

Copywriters and greeting cards designers are very creative in formulating new greetings and words like ‘merry’, ‘happy’ and ‘joyful’ feature prominently. However, the ardent wish of everyone is ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’.

However, looking at the world today, ‘peace’ is not the first word that springs to mind. A look at the international page of any newspaper would dishearten even the most starry-eyed optimist. On top of the general mayhem perpetrated by desperate, misguided or just plain evil men, it is just killings and more killings, bombs and more bombs.

Apart from the transgressions towards their own kind, humans have also wreaked damage on their only home, Mother Earth. How forlorn is the cry for ‘peace and goodwill’, for both are rather thin on the ground.

Nearly 150 years ago on Christmas Day a poet tried to capture the joys of the season in verse. Drawing inspiration from the Bible which read: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14), the poet wrote:

I heard the bells on Christmas day.
Their old familiar carols play, And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

When he came to the fourth line he stopped. Like we now, he would have thought “where is the peace and where is the good will?” His new nation, the United States of America, was in the midst of a civil war, which pitched brothers against brothers and fathers against sons.

And so, he went on and wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!’

The year was 1864 and the poet was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s most popular wordsmiths. However, Longfellow’s spirit was unbowed and his faith in God undimmed. So he continued:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.

Some years later a musician, J Baptiste Calkin, put the poem to music and so was born a favourite carol, ‘I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day’.

It is has been said that the work of God is done through men. If that is indeed so, what is the task facing men which will contribute to the fulfilment of ‘peace on earth’? Someone once wrote: “What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future.”

Perhaps that’s what it is, tenderness for the past — to have the generosity to forgive past wrongs and the humility to ask for forgiveness. There is much which men have to ask forgiveness for. The pain and hurt inflicted by men on each other have been vividly painted in blood. It demands great courage to slay the demon of hate and hurt so that we can have the gentleness of the soul to forgive. Unfortunately for some, whether by design or by weakness, they chose not to forgive.

Recently, a number of politicians in Malaysia have demonstrated their intransigence when they vehemently opposed a request by a former (and vanquished) adversary to be allowed to come home to pay a last respect to his mother. They loudly proclaimed that much blood had been spilled during the difficult early days of our nation and they cannot forget and forgive. I don’t know if their posture was aimed at gaining them political mileage or that they just don’t have the gentleness of the souls.

Whatever it was they certainly don’t have the magnanimity of gracious victors. Going by that score it is no wonder that the violence of the world today remains unabated. For every drop of blood shed by one side, the other side can show equal or more blood had been spilled. As one quip goes, if we were to follow through with the ‘an eye for an eye’ attitude, there will not be many sighted people in the world.

There is a war memorial in Canberra, Australia which symbolises the meaning of forgiveness. The Anzac War Memorial was set up in 1985 by the Australian and Turkish Governments to commemorate the Gallipoli Campaign.

The Gallipoli Campaign took place at Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey from April 1915 to January 1916, during the First World War. A joint British Empire and French operation was mounted to capture the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, and secure a sea route to Russia by forcing open the Straits of Dardenelles. The majority of the British Empire forces was made of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac). Facing the might of the allied invaders was the Ottoman regiment led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was later to become the first president of the Republic of Turkey.

The attempt failed and the Anzac casualties is estimated at 265,000 men.

Inscribed on the memorial are these words:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives..
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets
to us where they lie side by side
now here in this country of ours

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway
countries wipe away your tears;
your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land.
They have become our sons as well.

These were the words of tribute (spoken in 1934) by Kemal Ataturk to those Anzac soldiers who died in Gallipoli. Soldiers who came from afar to invade the Turkish homeland.

These were the words of a leader who saw nearly a quarter of a million of his compatriots die in the defence of their homeland. This gesture certainly carries the spirit of ‘tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future’. It is with such a spirit that we can hope for ‘peace on earth and good will to all men’.

Maybe to think of the whole earth and all men is just too much for us as individuals. Perhaps we can just start at a personal level and for this Christmas endeavour to live this prayer: ‘… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])