Christians regard Jesus as the "prince of peace," and the dream of a world at peace is woven into the story and meaning of the holiday celebrating his birth.
As an angel shared good tidings of great joy with the shepherds abiding in the field, the Gospel of Luke recounts, the heavenly host sang of "glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Two millennia later, what could be more familiar than Christmas cards sharing a wish for peace on earth, or the tender carol "Silent Night," with its image of a mother and her newborn sleeping "in heavenly peace"?
Our world has never been a paradise of tranquility and benevolence, yet the yearning for such a utopia is deeply rooted. It can feel especially compelling at this time of year. One of history's most astonishing illustrations of Christmas goodwill occurred 99 years ago this week, during the early months of World War I, when tens of thousands of British and German soldiers took a break from slaughtering each other along the bloody Western Front. In a remarkable series of unofficial truces, troops on both sides silenced their machine guns and emerged instead into the No Man's Land between their trenches to exchange Christmas greetings with the enemy, sharing souvenirs, exchanging cigarettes and liquor, singing carols, and in some cases even playing soccer.
We take it for granted that the world would be a better place if only such interludes of peace and brotherhood were the norm — if only the butchery and cruelty of warfare could be banished forever. "On earth peace, good will toward men," the angel says in Luke. Nearly eight centuries earlier, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had expressed the ideal of peace with arresting eloquence:
"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Those words are carved on a wall facing the headquarters of the United Nations, an organization created, in the opening words of its charter, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."