Peace on Earth: Jesus’ Entire Message and Mission Summed Up
COMMENTARY: Peace, not just as the absence of war but as the fullness of blessing, is a summary of Jesus’ entire message and mission. And it will always be one of the great paradoxes in the Gospel.
Earlier this month I was able to participate in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in which, among other things, we were privileged to have Mass in a cave in Bethlehem’s Shepherds’ Field. There, we pondered the angels’ visit to the shepherds guarding their flocks by night and the message they proclaimed to them: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests.”
Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, had come to bring peace on earth. Isaiah had prophesied about him, “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. … They name him … Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5). Zechariah had prophesied that he would “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79).
When he would send out his disciples, he would instruct them, “As you enter a house, wish it peace” (Matthew 10:12). During the Last Supper, he would describe peace as his lasting endowment: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). And after the Resurrection, when he walked through the closed doors of the Upper Room, he would twice wish the fearful apostles, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-21).
Peace, not just as the absence of war but as the fullness of blessing, is a summary of his entire message and mission.
The peace he introduced, however, will always be one of the great paradoxes in the Gospel.
“Not as the world gives do I give [peace] to you,” he underlined (John 14:27). “Do not think I have come to bring peace upon the earth” according to earthly categories, he said. “I have come not to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34), saying that on account of him, families would experience disharmony.
As he was preparing to enter the holy city of Jerusalem to fulfill his mission, he would weep and exclaim, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes,” saying that the city would be leveled because his contemporaries “did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44).
Though he had come to bring peace on earth, there would nevertheless remain division and destruction because many would not embrace his peace plan and reorder their priorities and path according to what would make for lasting tranquility.
Jesus would be what Simeon had prophesied at his presentation in the Temple: a sign of contradiction. From Herod’s attempting to assassinate him as an infant and his fellow Nazarenes’ trying to hurl him to his death off a cliff to the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians all co-conspiring with the hated Romans to have him crucified, the Prince of Peace would nevertheless be a sign destined to bring out either the best or the worst in others.
Those who would accept him he would name and bless as peacemakers and true children of God (Matthew 5:9). Those who would reject him, however, would not only not experience peace, but undermine and destroy it.
It’s important to keep this paradox in mind as we live the Christmas mystery.
Sometimes the message of the angels to the shepherds, taken in isolation, can make the Gospel seem utopian and irrelevant in confrontation with the harsh realities of today’s world.
Some might even say that if Jesus came to bring peace, the lack of it in the world can almost make his mission seem a failure.
When the Pope gives his annual Christmas Urbi et Orbi message, and prays for peace to reach a seemingly ever-growing list of troubled areas of the world, it seems to suggest that the people who walked in darkness, rather than seeing a great light, are in fact growing in number.
Rather than invalidating Jesus’ mission, however, it highlights its importance.
Just like those alive 2,000 years ago failed to recognize the time of the Messiah’s visitation and embrace what makes for peace, so every generation has a choice to make as to the way they will respond to the type of peace Christ gives.
Christ has revolutionized the way we are called to respond, not just to God but each other, to transform us to respond with cruciform love and forgiveness rather than victimized vengeance, fears and phobias, to build peace through treating others the way we would want to treat him and be treated, to become Good Samaritans rather than Cains.
This work of peace, however, is something ever present. The values and virtues of Christ’s kingdom never exist in a vacuum, but must be consciously chosen over the temptations to prioritize power, possessions and pleasures over people, spin over truth, fear over trust.
The paradox of peace was brought home to me in an indelible way at the end of my recent pilgrimage. I was celebrating Mass for the group just before our departure from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv for our flights home.
During the words of consecration, as I said the “b” in “This is my Body,” I heard a loud pop from outside the Notre Dame Center chapel just outside the Jerusalem Old City walls. It sounded like a single firework, but fireworks almost always come in bunches. I tried not to get distracted as I genuflected and rose to consecrate the Precious Blood. When I got to the “b” in “This is the chalice of my Blood,” I heard another couple of pops.
Immediately after Mass, when I arrived in the sacristy, I asked our guide whether he heard the sounds at the consecration. He didn’t say a word, but just passed me his phone, where he showed me a video already uploaded of what had happened only about 10 minutes prior.
The video showed a young man lying on a sidewalk just outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate with a couple of soldiers with automatic rifles in the background. The seemingly helpless man turned and then one of the soldiers shot him twice.
I asked the guide, “Please tell me those were rubber bullets.” He said, “No — real,” and then added, with sober resignation, “They have orders to shoot to kill.”
I was speechless. At the very moments when the words of consecration were being enunciated, blood was being shed, and a human life ended, just down the hill.
At the very end of a beautiful pilgrimage, the reality of the lack of peace in the Holy Land came into relief.
As soon as I arrived home, I visited the website of The Jerusalem Post to find out more. The newspaper documented various protests that had quickly arisen in response to soldiers’ killing 25-year-old Mohammed Shawkat Salima, but much more copy was given to Israeli police and government officials who defended it.
Within the article there was a video that gave greater context. Salima had been walking across a crosswalk toward the Damascus Gate. He passed a 20-year-old Haredi Jewish man walking in the opposite direction. After passing the Haredi by, however, Salima turned back and began to stab him as he vigorously tried to get his arms out of his suit coat to ward off the aggressor.
Israeli soldiers soon converged, and Salima ran toward one of them and stabbed him. At that, another soldier shot him, and he fell, neutralized, to the sidewalk. Several seconds later, when Salima began to turn toward them on the ground, the soldiers discharged the fatal shots.
The official justification for shooting one who seemed to be helpless was because soldiers in such situations can never be sure that someone isn’t wearing a suicide belt to try to end his life by taking the lives of others.
Plausible enough, but jarring still.
The whole episode was a poignant reminder of the lack of peace in the land of Jesus’ visitation and the need to act on the unexpired imperative given in Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
The name Jerusalem means, in Hebrew, “City of Peace,” but stands today as a poignant reminder of how much work still needs to be done to live up to its name.
Jesus came to show us the way. Through the Eucharist, he strengthens us from within as peacemakers.
But the work awaits, in Jerusalem and beyond.