“Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19) were the first words of the Risen Christ to his fear-filled disciples. He offered them this gift of peace in circumstances somewhat similar to ours. The disciples, we are told, were ‘locked in’, “for fear of the Jews”. Jesus offers this same gift to us, cocooned for fear of COVID-19.
But what is this peace that Jesus offers us? We usually think of peace as the absence of conflict and turmoil, the ending of all those things that make us anxious and fearful. However, the peace Jesus offers is something more profound than the absence of conflict or difficulty. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). The peace Jesus gives is not the kind of peace the world around us can give, not the often illusory security that comes from having wealth or power. It is not something that we can create from our own resources. It is rather a peace that can only be received as a gift ‘from above’. One dimenion of what this gift involves is beautifully illustrated in the following short story I came across a few years ago:
‘Once upon a time there was a King who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The King looked at all the pictures, but there were only two of them he really fancied and he had to choose between them. One picture was of a calm lake, a perfect mirror for the towering mountains that were all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a picture of perfect peace. The other picture had mountains too, but these were rugged and bare. Dark clouds filled the sky overhead, and shafts of lightening played between torrents of rain. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This scene did not look peaceful at all. But when the King looked closer, he saw, behind the waterfall, a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest and there, in the midst of the rush of angry water, she sat nestling her young chicks. This was the picture the King chose because, he said, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or danger. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart”.
The above story captures an important and fundamental dimension of the peace the Risen Christ offers us, namely, a serenity of spirit based on our faith in the victory of Christ over darkness and evil. However, the Peace of Christ is more than ‘grace under pressure’, an enduring serenity even in the midst of danger and uncertainty. It has social, political and even cosmic dimensions inseparably bound up with the coming of God’s Reign on earth as in heaven.
The Reign of God and the peace that comes with it was the central concern of the life and ministry of Jesus, the reason for which he lived, died and rose again. It is that Reign and that Peace we pray for in the “Our Father” when we say ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. This peace is the fruit of God’s work among us, the outcome of his ultimate intention for his people and his world. This is the shalom for which the people of Israel longed and which, they believed, would take root in our world with the coming of the Messiah.
The Hebrew word Shalom has a much deeper and broader meaning than we normally associate with the English word ‘peace’. It signifies the full presence of harmony and integrity in the life of the individual person, in society, and embraces the entire created world. Shalom connotes the idea of wholeness, of being fully healed so that we are “at one” with God, with self, with others, and with all created things.
Shalom implies not just the absence of war, but the elimination of the causes of war: greed, hatred, fear, and their children – injustice, intolerance, and prejudices. It means not only the absence of pain and distress, but having the diseases that causes the pain and distress cured and replaced by the fullness of life. It means the restoration of the natural world, flowing from transformed human relationships, when economic greed and self-interest is replaced by care of neighbour, especially the poor. Then, in the vision of the prophet Isaiah, “[T]he wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat… the lion will eat straw like the ox… They will neither harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Is 11:6-9). This is a vision of renewed relationships, where hostility gives way to community, and leads to a renewed creation where killing is no more. This cosmic dimension of shalom is especially relevant in our day when, as Pope Francis has underlined, the earth ‘our common home… has been hurt and mistreated as never before’ as a result of pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity.
Isaiah vision of universal Peace would be realized with the coming of the Christ. Christ heals the disease rather than simply treating the symptoms. He is our Shalom, the one who overcomes the forces of sin and evil, and ushers in a new world, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, rather than simply trying to fix the old one. I will end this short reflection with a prayer for this great gift of peace, the shalom of Christ. Compassionate and loving Lord, you promised to leave us your peace, a peace unlike that which the world offers to us. Father, lead us all to that peace. Help us to trust in your living word and to do what you ask of us. Grant us a confident faith – one that looks to the light rather than at the darkness – one that dares to enter the turmoil of the world – knowing that you are making the world new. Help us, dear Father, to die with Christ, so that we might also live with him. Amen.
Fr Michael McCabe SMA, April 2020