Christmas Eve: “Pax Christi”

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.

In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the first reading for the Missa in nocte is the passage just cited, taken from the prophet Isaiah (chapter 9). In many churches around the world, the Kalenda, the ancient Christmas proclamation precedes, the same Mass. After enumerating the various events of sacred and secular history leading to the Incarnation, the Kalenda, like Isaiah, makes a reference to the peace which accompanied the birth of the Savior.

…ab Urbe condita anno septingentesimo quinquagesimo secundo; anno imperii Caesaris Octaviani Augusti quadragesimo secundo, toto orbe in pace composito

Toto Orbe in pace composito: yes, Christ entered the world at a time of a great peace seemingly prepared for him. He was born at the beginning the so-called Pax Romana in which the Roman Empire reached the zenith of its expansion, attaining hitherto unparalleled prosperity and security. The Jewish people, although subjects of the Empire, remained free to worship the One God of Israel and were exempt from offering sacrifices to the gods of Rome—a privilege denied to all other conquered peoples. The Israelites once more had a king—although he was a puppet—and the elite of Jewish society even held full rights as Roman citizens. The tumultuous trials of previous generations seemed surpassed. Against this historical backdrop, in that little town of Bethlehem, while the world lay asleep “in heavenly peace”, the Christ child is born of the Virgin Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. Shepherds and angels alike come to adore him, while wise kings from far-off lands bring him precious gifts and do him homage. Of that momentous occasion, in that silent and holy night, we can say vere toto Orbe in pace composito— truly the whole world was at peace.

But what of our Christmas, here and now? Year after year, the historical birth of Christ recedes further back in time; what relevance has it for us? As we commemorate this solemn feast, the bitterness of conflict casts a gloomy shadow over our joy: in the past year, we have seen the massacre of Pakistani children, genocide in Iraq and Syria, tumult in Ukraine, conflict in Chechnya, terrorism in Nigeria, and hostages in Australia. Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Mexico: all these lands burn with the red-hot fire of man’s range.

Where is the eternal reign of the Prince of Peace? Can we, at this Christmas, fittingly echo those ancient words toto Orbe in pace composito?

Perhaps the world has forgotten what the true source of peace is. Far too often, men, societies, and nations have tried to win peace by subjugating their foes, to become princes in their own right, and to impose their respective wills as law. At times, this method succeeds, for tyranny quells all other forms of violence; this success, however, is always temporary. Despots and dynasties pass; zealots and revolutionaries arise to throw off their shackles and promise new beginnings. But neither can these promises last, and the cycle of despotism and aggression begins anew. The source of true and lasting peace is not in the hands of men, but in the hands of Him who, from eternity, gave himself into the hands of men.

Even in the Church we have forgotten what peace is. In the older form of the Roman Rite, the Kiss of Peace (the Pax or “sign of peace”) at Pontifical High Mass perfectly expresses the true nature of peace. After the celebrating bishop says Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum and receives the people’s response, he says a silent prayer and once more lowers his head to kiss the altar– precisely, on the corporal, the cloth on which the Eucharist is consecrated. He then turns to the deacon, and exchanges with him the Kiss of Peace. The deacon then turns to the subdeacon and exchanges similarly. The Pax is continually passed, from higher minister to lower minister, until the lowest acolyte receives it, who then passes the same greeting to the congregation. Peace begins with Christ Himself and his peace passes into the world through the Church. The live commentary for the Coronation Mass of Pope St. John XXIII in 1958 elegantly explained the significance of the Pax in this way:

Questo abbraccio, questo saluto si trasmette dal Pontefice a tutti, quasi come una catena d’amore che ha come suo origine l’Eucharistia, che questa pace possa arrivare dovunque, che ogni uomo possa sentirsela augurare da un vicino, raggiungendosi ai confini del mondo…

This greeting, this embrace transmits itself from the Pontiff to everyone as a chain of love which has the Eucharist as its origin, so that this peace might arrive anywhere, and so that any man can feel its greeting from his neighbor, until it reaches the ends of the earth…

The beautiful reverence toward the altar before the Pax is gone in the Novus Ordo, and so is the ordered method of sending the Kiss of Peace from one person to the next. That “chain of love which has the Eucharist”– Christ Himself– “as its origin” is broken.  In our modern Sign of Peace, do we not all too often break from the solemnity of Mass? Do we not cease our pure focus on Him who has just become present in the humble form of food? Do we not, like so many nations who have risen and fallen, turn too easily toward ourselves, greeting each other in an everyday manner, as if we were the lasting source of peace?

The great empires of history made this same mistake, for they fancied themselves masters of the world, relying on the strength of their people to crush others into submission and thereby win peace. The names differ, but the fallen mindset remains through the ages. In every era, the prophets of power have said that that the ascent of Octavian should yield an eternal Pax Augusta, that the exploits of conquistadors should yield a Pax Hispanica, that the Royal Navy’s dominance on the seas should yield a Pax Brittanica, that the end of the Cold War should yield a Pax Americana. And yet, no war, no meeting of diplomats, no conference of dignitaries has ever yielded a lasting “peace in our time”. None but the Pax Christi will abolish the cycle of sin and turmoil which marks our mortal condition.

Shall we be like the inhabitants of Jerusalem, caught up in the hustle and bustle of Caesar’s census, too distracted to witness the arrival of the true King? Shall we be like Herod and his scholars, enthralled with the glamour of political favor and blind to the Light of the World? Shall we be like the innkeepers, too preoccupied with business to recognize the Holy Family? Shall we merely concern ourselves with matters of the world, looking toward ourselves for fulfillment, when our restless hearts truly seek eternal rest in God?

Conversi ad Dominum: turn to the Lord! Let us, like the magi, like the shepherds, like the hosts of heaven, and like the priests of bygone days, bow low to adore the Prince of Peace, and in doing so, glimpse the Pax Christi. Nations and empires will continue to rise and fall, conquest will follow decline, and poverty will follow prosperity, but we must ever be mindful of the words he pronounced before embarking on the Passion: “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” (John 14:27). His peace, not the peace of the world, has outlived every nation since he walked among us, and it will continue to last until he comes again. Not by turning to each other but by turning to Christ do we understand the true peace that comes from on high.

In the midst of our uncertain times, the messenger of the Lord tells us tonight as he told the shepherds of Bethlehem: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy… today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” Therefore, we reawaken the great hymn of the angels, dormant since the beginning of our Advent pilgrimage; and in concert with the celestial choirs, we acclaim as they did two thousand years ago, saying:

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Amen.

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