4th Sunday of Advent (C) [Lect.: 12]
Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP
St Albert Priory, 20 Dec 2015
Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
We heard in the reading from the prophet Micah: “He shall be peace.” The Church believes that Jesus fulfills this prophecy, that Jesus is the one who fulfills Israel’s hopes – and so will deliver the Lord’s peace to the ends of the earth.
We can be forgiven if we do not always feel as though Jesus has in fact fulfilled the prophecy of the prophet Micah. Chronic conflict and contention are endemic to our world – not just today, but throughout the past two millennia since Christ came.
We can be forgiven if we do not always feel as though Jesus has in fact fulfilled the prophecy of the prophet Micah. Chronic conflict and contention are endemic to our world – not just today, but throughout the past two millennia since Christ came. Peace consists of a concord both with others and within oneself. But the outer and inner harmony that are the hallmarks of peace seem as far away as ever. Foreign and domestic terrorists, abuse and crime, and discourse that is becoming ever more uncivil, are threats to our peace from without – from the particularly brutal to the particularly widespread. The peace to be found within also seems to be in short supply, as ever more desperate searches for meaning or distraction seem to attest.
So, what is this promise of peace that our Lord has fulfilled? How did Israel understand it? How did the Apostles understand it? And how are we to understand it?
The ancient covenant spoke often of “peace.” “Shalom,” as we know, was the common greeting of the Hebrew people. (It is a greeting we extend to one another now in the liturgy: “Peace be with you.”)
For the Hebrew people, the sense of “shalom” was not merely the idea of “peace” as the absence of conflict. It expressed a hope for wholeness. To wish someone peace was to wish them well, to wish them to be in harmony, to be whole.
For the Hebrew people, the sense of “shalom” was not merely the idea of “peace” as the absence of conflict. It expressed a hope for wholeness. To wish someone peace was to wish them well, to wish them to be in harmony, to be whole. This went beyond mere physical health and wellness, extending to the heart and the spirit. Of course, peace also referred to friendly relations with others, and among nations. The prophecy in Micah that we hear today, like that in Isaiah regarding the Prince of Peace, proclaims that there will be a vindicator for Israel in the face of her foreign oppressors. Peace also meant a right relationship with God. The First Book of Kings tells of Solomon’s making “peace offerings” (or “communion offerings”) to God. And, for Israel, real peace was not believed to be complete until some future, divine establishment of Israel. The last chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah makes clear that the peace for which we pray will only arrive when the new heavens and the new earth have come.
For the new covenant, the New Testament, the word “peace” – now in variations on the Greek eirene – also is used in greetings. This can be seen in the openings and closings of letters – a wish that the peace of the Holy Spirit may be within the hearers. Indeed, we may note a close identification of God with peace. St. Paul speaks of the peace of God and the God of peace. And of course, this extends to Christ – as St. Paul states, Christ Himself is “our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). How? He says that Christ made “peace through the blood of his Cross.” (Colossians 1:20) As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, unlike the former offerings, His one offering, His body, gives us peace with our Father.
However, Christ’s cross is not “peaceful” in any unambiguous way. A cross is designed as an instrument of torture, the very height of both external and internal discord. To the one lifted upon the cross, it is as if society says existentially: “we reject you.” And the cross delivers and puts on display even the internal discord of agony, as far as possible.
Yet in that horrible suffering and death, we see the peace of Christ within Himself, in the choices He makes and in the words He says. In his appearances before Herod and before Pilate, He is serene in his mission, even while knowing well what awaits Him. It is an inner peace that allows Him to suffer and die for us, and, even from the cross, to ask forgiveness for those doing the deed. Even within his own person, the Church has understood his offering to be steadfast, without wavering or any attempt to escape. He knows He is doing the will of the Father, by which “we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” In this respect, He carries his peace within Him, even in the face of the most horrific torture.
The peace that Christ leaves us has never been delivered with a guarantee of carefree security for this life. Jesus Himself distinguishes the peace that He gives with what the world calls “peace.”
The peace that Christ leaves us has never been delivered with a guarantee of carefree security for this life. Jesus Himself distinguishes the peace that He gives with what the world calls “peace.” We will recognize his words from John’s Gospel, used in the liturgy each day, but we do not so often hear the line that follows (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Elsewhere, He declares (John 16:33): “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” We can also recall his admonition about our future, namely, that (Matthew 24:6): “You will hear of wars and reports of wars; see that you are not alarmed, for these things must happen, but it will not yet be the end.” And He warned that He did not come to spare us our own cross, or to spare us strife and misunderstandings along our own way of the cross (Matthew 10:34): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” He speaks of the sword of division, of discord, over Himself.
Indeed, He came to bring us His peace – for He is the Prince of Peace. He is Peace. So, how can we receive this peace?
The peace of Christ is received in each of us by being incorporated into his Body. By sin, we had been made children of war, of disquiet, of enmity; sin entered the world and corrupted our nature. Christ has redeemed us, but we have access to that redemption in our person, not in our nature. That is, each of us must receive his justification in ourselves, in baptism, and live it out through our lives. It is only at the end, at the eschaton, that human nature will be transformed as a whole.
This is, in effect, why we celebrate Advent. That is, there is a real way in which the whole human race still awaits the coming of Christ. We still need the Savior. We do not have within ourselves the power to save ourselves. The peace that the world can give is founded on exterior power, or perhaps on inner resources, rather than on the One who can bring us to true peace and goodness. This is the lesson we are to learn every Advent – a lesson that, apparently, we still need to learn. Until we are fully perfected, at least some part of us is not at peace, not fully at rest, not completely transformed by the peace of Christ.
When we look out our world, it can be difficult to see where to begin to bring it Christ’s peace. We see Islamic extremism, and we say: “I do not feel peace in my heart toward these people.” We see an ever-more strident secularism that disdains religion, and we say: “I cannot easily wish peace toward those who only want to dismiss the faith.”
The peace that Christ gives does not allow us to escape these challenges. While it calls us to forgive those who repent, it does not call us to be silent in the face of brutality or senselessness. His peace does not allow us to abandon our faith, our loved ones, or the common good. Faith does not call us to check our brains or our courage at the door of public engagement. We are permitted to defend ourselves, and we are even required to defend the innocent; this has been affirmed by the Church’s Tradition, of which the Catechism (e.g., nos. 2263-2267) is but one testimony. However, we know that force of arms at best can be only a necessary response to attack; it is not the ultimate solution.
For many centuries, the Church has embraced the season of Advent as a time to celebrate and ponder the three comings of Christ: (1) his past coming to the world at Bethlehem; (2) his future coming at the end of the world; and (3) his present coming, to our hearts. It is this last one that needs to be fleshed out a little more – literally. For Christ is to come today, not only to establish his kingdom in our hearts, but, through those transformed hearts, to bring his kingdom ever more fully to our world.
Jesus Christ is the promise of ultimate peace – not a carefree path to peace, but a peaceful end. May what was said to Mary be true of us: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Amen.