THE words ``peace on Earth, goodwill to men'' linger on from the Christmas season to the new year and beyond. A few days ago, my wife and I held our annual holiday get-together at our home in North Belfast, where all kinds of friends (Protestants, Roman Catholics, and others) sang carols and donated money to charity. The simple meal - soup, bread, coffee or tea, and biscuits - comes each year at the end of a day's fasting, and the money we would have spent on food is donated to a charity that serves the third world. It is an exercise that is good for the body and the soul.
Usually we share readings that are a meditation on Christmas, with emphasis on the fun and family sharing of this special season. This year, however, the meditation was on peace, a subject close to the hearts of everyone in Northern Ireland at this time.
A few days before our gathering, the British and Irish governments had issued a communique that, in the eyes of many commentators, provides the best hope for peace in Ireland in 25 years. So as we came together with friends from across the political and religious divides, there was a special poignancy about our meditation on peace. Not far from our house, in the past few years, a number of hotels, restaurants, and homes have been bombed; people have been shot and killed; and others have been abducted and killed because of their religion.
Of course, there have been truces in Northern Ireland before now. There was a truce in the early 1970s when Irish Republican Army leaders parleyed with the British government, but to no avail, and the violence resumed. Each Christmas, for the past few years, the IRA has called a 72-hour Christmas truce, but recommenced their violent activities once the deadline ran out. It has always seemed odd to me, indeed bizarre and appalling, that men and women of violence could sit down to their Christmas dinner of turkey and ham, in the midst of the season of peace, and yet return to the bomb and bullet only a few hours later. It would seem that the season only touched them lightly, if at all.
But there have been other celebrated truces in history. One of the most famous was the unofficial Christmas truce in 1914 in no man's land between the British and German trenches during World War I. A soccer match took place between soldiers of the opposing armies, with the Germans beating the British by three goals to two. It is said that the Germans exchanged barrels of beer for British plum puddings.
One of the British officers, Captain R. J. Armes, wrote a letter to his wife soon afterward, describing the extraordinary scene. ``I was in my dugout reading a paper, and the mail was being dished out. It was reported that the Germans had lighted their trenches up all along our front. We had been calling to one another for some time, Christmas wishes and other things. I went out, and they shouted `no shooting,' and then somehow the scene was a peaceful one.
``All our men got out of the trenches and sat on the parapet, the Germans did the same, and they talked to one another in English and broken English. I got on the top of the trench and talked in German and asked them to sing a German folk song, which they did, then our men sang quite well, and each side clapped and cheered the other. I asked a German who sang a solo to sing one of Schumann's songs, so he sang `the Two Grenadiers' splendidly. Our men were a good audience and really enjoyed the singing.''
Sadly, after that Christmas-Day truce on the Western Front, the war restarted with the utmost ferocity. Yet the story of that voluntary cease-fire by German and British soldiers in no man's land continues to haunt the memory. Despite the horrors of war, the dream of peace refused to go away, and later that dream became a reality - after many months of fighting and hundreds of thousands dead. The possibility of peace continues to appear like an illusive rainbow over Ireland, but a suitably hardheaded definition of peace is contained in the UNESCO constitution: ``Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defence of peace must be constructed.''
No one knows yet if peace will come to Northern Ireland this time, as we await the verdict of the gunmen on both sides to accept the chance to make peace or to go on making war. As I write, a news bulletin carries speculation about moves toward peace and also a report of parents and children injured by debris from a bomb blast. And yet after 25 years of violence, my mind refuses to give up on the prospect for peace. Like Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream.
I have a dream about a country at peace, a beautiful province that will attract hundreds of thousands of tourists, bringing much-needed revenue and providing jobs. I have a vision of a society where we don't have to look ahead for roadblocks and barricades, where we don't have to wince at the news of the latest killing, or suppress a deep anger at the latest obscene paramilitary excuse for taking life.
I dream about a country where Protestants and Roman Catholics can work together for the good of all; where we can start looking toward the 21st century and stop looking backward to the wars and wounds of the past; where our children (who have never know a day's peace) can learn from each other and take pride in being Ulster people; where there will be no more widows because of the violence, or orphans, or broken bodies, or families with heartbreak.
Now that peace may be possible, it is difficult to know how to handle it, like a man or woman just released from prison and not sure how to use the new freedom. And yet the Christmas season is all about peace, and the new year is certainly about hope.
So we try to be positive and hopeful about 1994. At such a crossroads, it is difficult for us to think about New Year's resolutions that are about anything other than peace. Tonight in the quietness of the season with the lights on the tree still twinkling, and the hope of something new hanging in the air, I am reminded of the words of Gandhi, who said ``There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.''
Earlier this evening, my wife wrapped a present for a friend. It was an embossed picture of a well-known quotation. As we in Ireland move with bated breath to 1994, I shall wrap around me the wisdom of its words: ``I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, give me a light that I may safely tread into the unknown.'' And he replied, ``Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.''