Friday, September 6, 2013

Homily from our Holy Hour for Peace

The Holy Father has asked us to keep 7 September as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the entire world. Saturday at the parish, though, was already filled up with funerals and other previously scheduled goings on long before the Holy Father's announcement. I was, however, scheduled to preside at our monthly First Friday Holy Hour tonight (6 Sept), so I took the opportunity to answer to Pope's call by dedicating our time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to the Holy Father's intentions for peace.

The following is the sermon I preached at the Holy Hour, with some thoughts on Christ, his peace and our call as peacemakers:

The longing for peace is among the deepest desires of the human heart. It should come as no surprise then that peace figures greatly among God’s promises as contained in Holy Scripture. From the time of the Old Covenant, God, through the prophets, promised peace to the Hebrew people if they would heed his word.

The prophet Isaiah famously proclaims God’s vision of a time when swords will be pounded into plough-shares and nations will no longer train for war (Isaiah 2:3-4). The Lord promises that he will lead many peoples to the mountain of the Lord, that he will teach them his ways and that they will walk in his paths and, as a result, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation."

That promise to personally bring peace to all peoples came to a fulfillment when, in the fullness of time, God himself took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ through him reconciled all things for God, making peace by the blood of his cross, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:20).

So, it seems appropriate that as we gather here in hope of that promise, bringing before Jesus in his Eucharistic presence our prayers for peace, that we examine more deeply the nature of the peace to which he calls us and to which the scriptures so often refer. We tend to think of peace simply as an absence of war…yet the biblical notion of peace is a far deeper, a far more profound concept.

The Hebrew word “shalom” that is translated “peace” in the Old Testament derives from the Hebrew root for “whole.” Shalom is about the fulfillment of purpose—about the way things are supposed to be. To greet someone with “shalom” is literally to wish for them every good thing. St. Augustine captures this spirit beautifully in his City of God when he says that "peace is the calm that comes from order" (XIX:13).

In pursuing peace, then, we pursue right order for ourselves and for the world.

However, we must be careful. In our Gospel this evening, Jesus makes a contrast between the peace that he has come to give—the true ‘shalom’ of God—and the peace of the world. In Jesus’ time and, in fact, among his own disciples there was a common belief that the peace of God that the Messiah would bring would follow a great military victory against the oppressors of the Jewish people. When his disciples gathered together with him after the resurrection they ask him pointedly:  “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

The disciples’ concept of peace had been profoundly skewed by the society around them. They felt that, through God’s intervention, they would finally gain peace by trading places with their oppressors--by finally inheriting the worldly means that they expected to make them secure.

Instead this false hope of material security, Jesus reaffirms the promise of the spirit and sends them out as witnesses “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The peace they desire will come not through violence or power but through the Good News—the news that God has reconciled the world to himself in love—and they will bear that news even at the cost of their own martyrdom.

The order that brings true and lasting peace corresponds, not to human wisdom, but to the wisdom of God—a wisdom revealed most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

We, as today’s disciples, need to examine ourselves as well. Is our idea of peace rooted in Christ or is it rooted in political power and military might? It is so tempting to answer violence with violence, to rely on strength of arms to solve our problems. Our Holy Father Pope Francis, in last Sunday’s Angelus address, warns us to turn away from such counterproductive notions:
“I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from the deep within me. How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed! I think of many children will not see the light of the future! With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.

With all my strength, I ask each party in this conflict to listen to the voice of their own conscience, not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but rather to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict. With similar vigour I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation.”
It would seem so much easier to simply ‘flex our muscles’—to enforce peace by the sword instead of engaging in tiresome dialog with people who have already shown their commitment to violence. We must resist that temptation with all of our strength.

Recall that the Roman Empire in the time of Christ was simply enforcing what historians call the Pax Romana, the great Roman Peace. They saw themselves as using the most expedient means available by suppressing conflicts at the point of their swords. Yet it is at the point of those same swords that many of the Martyrs perished. It was in the name of peace and domestic tranquility that the troublesome Christians were fed to the beasts in the arena. Their blood soaked the earth in the name of that great Roman Peace.

Likewise, Christ himself fell victim to the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate who were all too willing to keep their so-called peace by any means necessary. “Do you not consider,” asks Caiaphas “that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish?” The ends justified the means. It was thus that they crucified the Righteous One, the Lord of Glory Himself.

Should not we, who were redeemed in the precious blood that flowed from that Cross, be the last to raise our voices in the name of violence? Should not we, whose home is the Church nourished in the blood of the Holy Martyrs be the first to for call peace? Should not we, who are the inheritors of that faith appropriately called Catholic or Universal, be the quickest to insist that national, tribal and sectarian violence has no place in our world?

Certainly there are times, as the Church herself teaches, that one must turn to the tools of war for defense. Yet we, as Catholic Christians, recognize this as the means of last resort—only to be pursued when all other means have failed and, even then, with a heavy heart—with prayer and supplication to the Lord that such a bitter chalice might pass from us.

It is to that end that we are here tonight: to entreat the Lord in his Divine Mercy to allow peace to reign in our world, especially in the war-torn nation of Syria. We ask the Lord, as well, to continue to transform our hearts so that we may recognize the truth in the Holy Father’s words as he says:
“I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.”

We gather together tonight in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament to pray that the Lord, by his grace, will transform us into true peacemakers—in our prayer, in our attitudes, in our relations with one another. Finally we gather together tonight because we, of all people in the world, recognize the true source of peace: Jesus Christ, Our Lord. It is in the light of that faith that we can proclaim together with St. Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:4-7)

May the Lord grant that peace that surpasses all understanding to us, to our leaders, to our brothers and sisters in war-torn Syria and may he make us instruments of that peace in our world. Thought Christ Our Lord. Amen.

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