THE Christmas cards are flowing in and, as always, they offer brave messages of peace. Doves flutter with olive branches in their beaks. Lambs lie down with lions. World maps and globes are cast to project harmony among nations. The difference this year is that there is more reality than mere hope to the Christmas message.
It would be naive to overlook the misery and conflict that continue to exist in the world. But the dramatic fact is that there is, upon this Christmas of 1988, a lot more peace, and pending peace, than there has been in many a year.
Afghanistan, the scene of a Soviet invasion that has achieved nothing but cost so many lives, is groping toward a postwar period of reconstruction.
The war between Iran and Iraq, another mindless conflict that wiped out a generation of young men on both sides, is stilled.
The Vietnamese have pledged to end their war against Cambodia's diverse factions and have set a timetable for withdrawal.
Angola, Cuba, and South Africa have signed an agreement that should bring the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, independence for Namibia, and an end to the nasty little war in that part of Africa. (US Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker should get a medal for fortitude for his years of peacemaking on this one.)
Not without continuing problems, South Korea and the Philippines have nevertheless put the worst of their violent upheavals behind them.
On the superpower scene, the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union has clearly waned.
Now, even in the Middle East, there is a chance that negotiations between the US and the Palestine Liberation Organization may nudge the peace process forward a little.
Why is all this happening?
Perhaps history affords a few lessons. The worst war of the century was World War II, sweeping across capitals, countries, and continents. In its early days, when Britain and France stood lonely against the threatening Nazi war machine, it could easily have been lost and the history at least of Europe would have been drastically different.
One terrible miscalculation was that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who sought to appease Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Fortunately Mr. Chamberlain was succeeded by Winston Churchill, a leader with no illusions about the Nazis. Mr. Churchill's formidable resolve turned around the British military machine, which had been left in neglect and disrepair, in time to hold the Germans off.
Another turning point was what even the encyclopedias now refer to as the ``miracle of Dunkirk.'' In June of 1940, British, French, and Belgian troops, retreating in the face of the German advance, were surrounded at the French coastal town of Dunkirk. Britain's King George VI went on national radio and appealed to the British people for prayer. The nation prayed.
The miraculous happened; a mist came down upon the beaches laden with wounded and exhausted troops, and under its cover a makeshift armada of British naval vessels, tugs, cabin cruisers - anything that would float - sailed across the English Channel, recovered most of the troops, and brought them to safety in England. There the battered Army regrouped over time and, with American entry into the war, eventually liberated Europe.
Thus two factors - Churchill's insistence on military preparedness to thwart any aggressor, plus the invocation of fervent prayer - may have laid the groundwork for successful prosecution of the war and for the establishment of peace that followed.
Preparedness. Prayer. Perhaps useful lessons from the past for the pursuit of peace in the future.