by Catherine Upchurch
Special to The Leaven
Have you noticed how frequently the Scriptures announce tidings of peace? How frequently a biblical letter or a visit ends with a blessing of peace? It occurs so often in both the Old and New Testaments that we might miss its very presence and its importance for shaping our attitudes and dispositions as disciples.
The ancient Israelites understood peace as a gift of God, manifest in the abundance of nature and in crops to be cultivated, as well as protection from enemies (Lv 26:3-13). It is given in priestly blessings (Nm 6:26), and desired for the holy city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants (Ps 122:6-8).
While abundance and well-being are signs of God’s peace, this peace cannot exist without attention to living in right relationship with God and others, especially the poor (Ps 85:11-14). Israel’s prophets repeatedly pair God’s peace with such righteousness (as an example, see Jer 6:13-16). The prophets also speak of the Messiah, the bringer and prince of peace (Is 9:5), whom we recognize as Jesus.
The Hebrew word translated in the Old Testament as peace is “shalom,” and its Greek rendering, used in the New Testament, is “eirene.” Both terms signify “wholeness” and “soundness.” Nations or individuals may be at war with one another, and true injustices may exist on either or both sides.
The peace that God offers does not cover over conflict or ignore it, but seeks to right injustices and bridge the gap between seeming opposites. The peace that Jesus brings is not about the victory of one side over another but about wholeness.
In his book, “Let Us Dream,” Pope Francis writes about the challenges of reconciling differences that all too often divide us. He speaks of the necessity of mutual listening, and writes: “We build a people not with the weapons of war but in the productive tension of walking together.” Jesus knew how to do this very well. He walked and talked and even broke bread with known sinners and respected holy men, with zealots and scribes, ignoring the scandal that might result while planting the seeds of God’s true and lasting peace.
There is no doubt that peace is challenging on the broad scale of factions among nations and within systems. We recognize that there are no easy solutions to conflicts that rage in all areas of the world. Centuries ago, in a time that was also punctuated by the violence of war, St. Francis of Assisi advised his brothers: “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.” A major obstacle to prioritizing peace in the world is the absence of it in our own lives, a feeling of “dis-ease” that makes us long for the wholeness that Jesus brings.
Even St. Paul speaks of being at war within himself: “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:19). The struggle is real for all of us if we are honest, but the struggle is also where we discover our deepest identity in Christ. With his own arrest and crucifixion on the horizon, Jesus said to his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn 14:27).
This is the same gift of wholeness that Jesus is offering us now, what Paul refers to as “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding,” the peace that will guard our hearts and minds (Phil 4:7).
Being a peacemaker is part of being a disciple. It’s hard work with plenty of setbacks. It requires a deep trust in God’s ability to work in our own messy lives so that we can work in a messy world, a world that God loves.
Questions for reflection or discussion
How often do you hear words about peace from the Bible and think of it as a call to wholeness and a gift from God? Read some of the passages cited in the article and substitute the word “wholeness” for peace.
What real world situations at this time tend to make you anxious for peace? In what practical ways might you respond?
Some people, Christians included, believe working for peace is naive. Perhaps you struggle with this as well. What has helped you to keep the peace of Christ central in your life?
How often do you hear homilies about peace in our personal lives and in the larger world? What obstacles do you feel might be limiting some homilists on this topic?
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith, Arkansas.