If you’ve ever known someone who has suffered with cancer, or if you yourself are a cancer survivor, you know what a terrible illness cancer is. A well-known bishop who battled cancer described his experiences with that illness in a little book he completed shortly before his death.. As he wrote the final chapter, he looked out his window and saw fall changing to winter- a time, in his words, of dying. He knew that spring would come again, with all its new life and wonder, but he also knew that he would not be around to see it, because his death was imminent. Nevertheless, because of his faith in Jesus Christ, he was able to write, "(M)y heart is filled with joy. I am at peace." Indeed, the title of his book is, appropriately enough, The Gift of Peace.
This peace of which this bishop wrote is the same peace about which our Lord speaks in today’s gospel. "Peace I leave with you," he told his friends, "My peace I give to you." These words should be very familiar to us, because we recall them at every celebration of Mass, right after we pray the Our Father. At this time we also ask that we might receive this peace when the priest prays: "Grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live forever and ever." Finally, we are invited to offer one another "the sign of peace."
In New Testament times, the sign of peace took the form of a ritual kiss. Today, it’s usually expressed by a handshake, although in some places hugs are common, or in Asian churches, a reverent bow of the head. But regardless of the form it takes, this "sign of peace," is more than just a specifically Christian form of greeting, or a way to acknowledge those who sit around us. Instead, we might understand this ritual action as both a wish and a challenge.
The sign of peace is a wish because by saying "Peace be with you," we sincerely hope that others will enjoy the gift of peace. And it really is a gift because- to borrow St. Paul’s terminology- peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. St. Thomas Aquinas described peace as the "tranquility of right order" that comes from a life lived in harmony and friendship with God. We might understand this peace, then, as a sign of our overall spiritual health. In other words, whether or not we are at peace is a barometer of how open and responsive we are to the presence and promptings of the Holy Spirit.
However, since so many of us aren’t at peace, this is why the sign of peace is also a challenge. Because if we aren’t at peace, we have to ask ourselves "Why?" Is there something not right or out of kilter in our relationship with God? Are we filled with anxiety, worry, or fear because we aren’t trusting in God? Has our friendship with God been strained or broken by sin? Is our conscience troubling us? Have we been trusting in something or someone other than God? Are we not convinced that God loves us and wants to forgive us? If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes," it may be that something in our life needs to change, and we should take active steps to cultivate in our lives the gift of peace.
St. Francis de Sales gives us some wonderful and simple advice on how to do just this. He writes, "Let us do three things and we shall be at peace." First, we need to really intend to glorify and honor God. Second, we need to do what we realistically can to honor and glorify God. And third, we need to leave the rest to God.
Now, it’s important for us to remember that the peace we’re speaking of is not peace as the world might understand it. As Jesus said in today’s gospel, "Not as the world gives do I give it to you." This shouldn’t surprise us, as this peace is a "byproduct" of our friendship with Jesus- a friendship that invites our rejection by the world, and a friendship that entails carrying a cross.
Therefore, we know that the peace Jesus gives is not a life free from pain. Indeed, Jesus’ words of peace in today’s gospel were given on the eve of his crucifixion. Furthermore, Jesus’ peace doesn’t guarantee us a life free from conflict, as wonderful and desirable as that might be. Instead, Jesus’ peace is a peace we can experience even in the midst of conflict.
During the Second World War, a Bavarian farmer and wife who had protected a Jewish family were being pursued by the Nazis. When the farmer shared with his wife his fear about the great danger they were in, his wife replied: "But why should we worry? We believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection!" With these words, this woman revealed a remarkable interior peace, even in the midst of a life-threatening crisis.
When our circumstances and surroundings seem anything but peaceful, and when we struggle with life’s inevitable heartaches, we too can enjoy the peace of mind and spirit that can only come as a gift from Jesus, who is always at our side- offering us consolation, guidance and challenge; instilling gratitude, joy, and wisdom; filling us with faith, hope, and charity; calling us to conversion and forgiveness; and strengthening us to carry our cross. With this peace comes an assurance that the Lord will always provide, that his love will never fail, and that the risen life he promises us, will never come to an end. And with this peace comes the knowledge that Jesus loves us; Jesus is in control; and we have nothing to fear. May this peace be with you this day, and always.