"And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
"And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of good will."
Here the argument begins. Is it biblical to say, "Peace on earth and good will to men," which is inclusive but inexact? Or does that dilute and distort the meaning of "Peace on earth to men of good will," which is restrictive?
The former, while ecumenical, seems pacifist. Do we wish good will today to al-Qaida? And is not the chorus singing out peace on earth "to men of good will" at the first Christmas a "heavenly army"?
And is not the purpose of an army to destroy enemies -- in the case of the heavenly army, the army of the Devil?
"Peace on earth to men of good will" seems more consistent with the Sermon on the Mount, where the Lord says, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
Surely, Christ was not here calling down blessings on the legions that had brought a Roman peace to the known world by conquering all tribes and nations through the power of the sword.
Yet, Christ did not exclude Romans soldiers from the company of men of good will. Of the centurion who implored him to heal his servant from afar, as "I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof," Christ said: "Amen, I say to you. I have not found such great faith in Israel."
The centurion's words have become immortal, as for centuries they have been repeated three times by the faithful before receiving communion at every Latin mass said on earth.
What the Bible seems to teach is that there are just causes worth fighting for and just men who fight in them, and "peace on earth" is not merely the absence of war, as "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar," but the presence of peace with justice.
To his credit, President Obama reintroduced, in his address at Oslo on accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, the Christian concept of a just war.
"(O)ver time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a 'just war' emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence."
Obama is saying that not only must the cause be just, but the means employed. He went on to ask if, even in the "Good War" against Nazism, we always observed the Christian laws of war.
"(F)or most of history, this concept of 'just war' was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations -- total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.
"In the span of 30 years, such carnage would twice engulf this continent. And while it's hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished."
Though World War II was a just war, Obama was implying, it was not always conducted justly. Indiscriminate bombing of defenseless cities of defeated nations -- Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- is difficult to reconcile with a Christian concept of jus in bello.
And today's wars? Certainly, after Sep. 11, Afghanistan was a just war, justly fought. But as it has become Obama's war, with his having doubled U.S. forces in combat, what is it we are fighting for?
Comes the answer: to prevent a return of the Taliban, which could lead to a return of al-Qaida and a new base camp for terrorists preparing another Sept. 11. And if the Taliban return, Afghanistan will become a sanctuary for war on Pakistan, and the capture of its nuclear weapons by Islamic fanatics who would use them.
We are hence no longer fighting a war of necessity to root out terrorists so they cannot replicate an act of mass murder. We are fighting a preventive war -- to prevent their return, from Pakistan, to Afghanistan.
Is this a just, necessary and wise war? From his own hesitancy in sending more troops and his ruminations at Oslo, Obama himself seems conflicted. And understandably so.
Merry Christmas, and peace on earth to men of good will.