Starting this year, we will gradually see introduced into our parishes the new translation of the Roman Missal in English. One of the changes is that from now on, instead of singing “And peace to his people on earth” in the Gloria, we will sing (in those parishes that actually DO sing it, of course) “and on earth peace to people of good will”. The new version doesn’t bop along like the old one did, and will give composers a bit more of a challenge to set it to music, but it is at least a translation of what St Jerome put in his Vulgate and what we have in the Roman Missal.
But what exactly does the Greek New Testament say? Back when I was on the Lutheran Church of Australia’s Department of Liturgy, when the ICEL texts came up, we had quite a discussion on this point. For ease of comparison, you might want to look at this page, which has Luke 2:14 in many different translations, including the King James, Douay Rheims and Luther’s German Bible (“und Friede auf Erden, den Menschen ein Wohlgefallen”). There are some variations in the Greek that don’t make the task of translating this passage any easier.
The first part is easy: literally “and upon earth peace”. Then comes an “en” with the dative “anthropois”, which might mean “among men” or “to men”. But the real difficulty is in the meaning of the genitive “eudokias”. Literally, it means “of goodwill”, but genitives are really tricky in the New Testament, especially when a theological point lies behind them. A good example is in Romans 5:5, where Paul says that “the love of God” has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Does he mean God’s love for us? Or our love for God? Also, genitives sometimes are used as adjectives, such as when Jesus calls James and John “sons of thunder”, meaning “thundery blokes”.
In Luke 2:14, then, the genitive could mean either “men who have good will”, or “men towards whom God has goodwill”. Most commentators and English translations today take the latter as the force of the Greek, although St Jerome’s Latin genitive is usually taken as to have the force of the former.
How very interesting, then, that we get a bit of a commentary on this from our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Christmas Homily for 2010. And note how he gets around the theological conundrum of the genitive “eudokias”, by the characteristic Catholic “both/and”. Doubly note, however, his warning against a certain kind of moralism and his emphasis on the priority of God’s grace. Triply note how he will not allow grace and freedom to be separated into two “independent entities”:
But the angels’ message on that holy night also spoke of men: “Peace among men with whom he is pleased”. The Latin translation of the angels’ song that we use in the liturgy, taken from Saint Jerome, is slightly different: “peace to men of good will”. The expression “men of good will” has become an important part of the Church’s vocabulary in recent decades.
But which is the correct translation? We must read both texts together; only in this way do we truly understand the angels’ song.
It would be a false interpretation to see this exclusively as the action of God, as if he had not called man to a free response of love. But it would be equally mistaken to adopt a moralizing interpretation as if man were so to speak able to redeem himself by his good will.
Both elements belong together: grace and freedom, God’s prior love for us, without which we could not love him, and the response that he awaits from us, the response that he asks for so palpably through the birth of his son. We cannot divide up into independent entities the interplay of grace and freedom, or the interplay of call and response. The two are inseparably woven together.
So this part of the angels’ message is both promise and call at the same time. God has anticipated us with the gift of his Son. God anticipates us again and again in unexpected ways. He does not cease to search for us, to raise us up as often as we might need. He does not abandon the lost sheep in the wilderness into which it had strayed. God does not allow himself to be confounded by our sin. Again and again he begins afresh with us. But he is still waiting for us to join him in love. He loves us, so that we too may become people who love, so that there may be peace on earth.