Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 6th Week of Easter

In today’s gospel passage Jesus tells his disciples: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." They are words that we pray every day in the Eucharist right after the Lord’s Prayer. They should be most familiar to us. Let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves what these words really mean. What exactly is this "peace" that Jesus gives us?

If we would go to a Dictionary of the English Language we would find definitions like these: peace is "a non-warring condition of a nation or the world," "a state of harmony in a group or a person," ‘freedom from strife or dissention," "a state characterized by tranquility," or "a condition of public order." Two things seem to be common to all these definitions: an absence of conflict and the presence of a harmony between parties. But this is only common English usage, and may not pertain to a Biblical sense. Let’s go instead to the Christian tradition. I began with biblical commentaries. I’m sorry to say that they weren’t very helpful. The Jerome Biblical Commentary skipped over this passage altogether. And Fr. Raymond Brown’s massive commentary on the Gospel of John noted only that Jesus’ peace is the gift of salvation and that the phrase "Grace and Peace" became a common greeting among early Christians.

Then I thought to do some Google searches about famous Christians who had written about peace. I typed in "St. Augustine Peace" to see what would come up. It was not what I expected. It gave me a connection to the Peace and Plenty motel in St. Augustine, FL. Bummer. Then I remembered one of the most famous statements about peace in all of Christian Literature. It occurs in the Paradiso section of Dante’s Divine Comedy: "E’n la sua voluntade e nostra pace." (Canto III) "In His Will is our Peace." The context of the statement is fascinating. In this section of the Divine Comedy Beatrice is leading Dante through the various spheres of heaven. They have just entered the lowest sphere, the sphere of the moon. This is the sphere reserved for those people who have broken vows taken in their earthly life, but then have later repented. There they encounter a "transfigured woman" who is enjoying the heavenly bliss; she is Piccarda Donati of Florence. Piccarda had been a cloistered sister, but she was forced out of the convent by her brother who wanted to use her in a political marriage. She had a hard life. At one point Dante seeks to find out if she doesn’t really aspire to a higher sphere in heaven, to know what wonderful delights are being enjoyed in the highest spheres of heaven. That’s when she replies: "In His Will is our Peace." In effect, she is saying that this is where God’s will has placed her, she accepts that and she is fully at peace with that.

I think Dante has touched an important point here. Peace is first of all accepting those things we cannot change. And that’s very hard. We can create so much turmoil for ourselves by worrying about things that we have absolutely no control over. We want to change how someone else acts. We want to develop an ability that we have no aptitude for (e.g. playing the cello. My fingers were too short.). We want to change this or that in society. If we let things like that consume our minds (and they can), we will have no harmony, no peace. Here’s where the real force of Jesus’ saying comes in; why worry, he has already given us the gift of salvation. And so we have no need to worry; we have no need of anything else. If we focus on accepting that gift of salvation that he brings, then we won’t worry about things we can’t change.

At mass each day when we hear: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you," let’s make it a daily reminder to focus above all on the gift of salvation he brings and stop worrying about those things we cannot change. That’s the first step to truly knowing Christ’s peace in our hearts.

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