As a kid, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was one of my favorites I looked forward to re-watching every year. Now as a grown-up (almost), it's gained my attention again but for a different reason. It's one of the few Christmas specials that takes time to remind its audience of what Christmas is all about. The best specials typically offer is to promote secular ideas such as festive decorating, charitable giving, or spending time with family. Schultz goes further. The true meaning of Christmas is addressed head on in response to Charlie Brown's frustrated question "doesn't anyone know what Christmas is really about?" To answer this question, Schultz has Linus walk out on to center stage (literally) to rehearse, by memory, the scripture passage of Luke 2:8-14. I still get chills when I see this monologue considering how this presentation is a striking contrast to what we usually see. Our pastor even began by showing this scene on the screens before giving his Christmas sermon.
Linus cited directly from the King James Version which ends unlike most other translations. If you listen to Linus as you read along, you'll notice most translations continue verse 14 something like this, "...Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men upon whom His favor rests (ESV)." Actually, recent scholarship and manuscript evidence has led most translations since the KJV to include the added words. In fact, after reading 12 randomly chosen translations of Luke 2:14, only Young's Literal Translation and the King James versions exclude the final qualifying words. Listen for it when people quote this verse in the media and you might notice that the ending often gets swallowed up. Possibly as a consequence to this censored reading, the kind of "peace among men" that the heavenly hosts were speaking about has been misrepresented in two important ways.
First, eliminating the qualifying phrase "upon whom His favor rests" leaves open the universalist claim that all are saved. Certain biblical and logical problems arise from the universalist approach which won't be addressed here. Suffice it to say that nonbelievers are not granted the same peace as believers are. It may sound mean, but it seems to be the case.
The second, but related, problem was most recently expressed during my agency's last firearms qualification. A fellow agent and self-defined secular Jew explained that the prophets predicted the messiah would bring "peace on earth" (Isa 9:6-7 and Hag 2:9). But when peace didn't come to first century Israelites under Roman oppression, they determined Jesus wasn't the expected Messiah.
However, if we consider how this word "peace" (from the original Greek word eirēnē) as Luke and his contemporaries intended it to mean, we find that the word may not have related to the state of political affairs but rather to the ultimate state of eternal peace through salvation. We also need to shed our modern notion of the word "peace" which most people immediately associate with the absence of war. While there are other definitions, the most accurate textual interpretation relies on our ability to assign the most accurate word meaning. When we consider the common use of eirēnē elsewhere in scripture and add that this passage includes only those who Christ chooses to bless, we can be assured that this "peace among men" is refering only to the elect.
If you recall, the consistent teaching of Christ throughout the gospels is that the "Kingdom is at hand." Clearly, he didn't mean that he was currently a human ruler in a political sense or that he came to liberate Israel from foriegn occupation. Sure, God will reconcile the physical earth in the end, but Christ's immediate concern was not with the Romans.
Certainly the celebration of Christmas is about peace. Christ brings a sort of invisible tranquility, a very unique peace that true believers can relate to only partially while on earth. Even in times of tragedy or despair, God's promise to his followers provides comforting reassurance, or eirēnē. In grieving the death of a loved one, for instance, there is the promise of salvation and eternal fellowship with believers that gives a special eirēnē to Christ followers. There will still be sadness and a tremendous sense of loss, but unlike the unbeliever who has no hope, there is a certain confidence that only the Christian has. This is the peace that most commonly is referred to in the gospels and which seems the most reasonable sense for this Luke 2 passage as well.