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Things look gloomy at this solemn turn of the year – winter has just set in, and next week few wild bells may ring as the year 2008 dies in the night. Peace poles stand against the wind and snow here but self-annihilating terrorists wish destruction to our democracy and to other nations and people who cherish freedom, including the freedom to be idealistic, reflective, thoughtful, extravagant, exuberant and even iconoclastic.

Peace on Earth seems far away, and maybe it was a mistaken idea to begin with – a translational malapropism, having come about from a glorious misreading of the Latin.

The good tidings brought to the shepherds on that first Christmas night, we are now told, were not the thrilling challenge of “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” but the rather mundane greeting of “On earth, peace to persons of good will,” et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis – the “on earth” contrapuntal to the “on high” of the previous statement (Gloria in excelsis deo, “Glory to God on high”).

But even if peace on earth is not the promise, we can still look for persons of good will, a search that encompasses many more religions than Christianity alone, and those who believe in an absolute, though secular, morality as well.

Of course there are the global giants, whose names come to mind immediately: Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Jimmy Carter, Paul David Hewson, Wangari Maathai. Or anyone who helps the frail elderly with shopping, turns in a found wallet, volunteers at a soup kitchen, mentors a child. Goodwill to everyone this holiday season, and may the new year bring us the tolerance and compassion that will surely lead to peace.