'Peace' is a word which looms large in the Christian vocabulary. 'Peace be with you' is the greeting that Jesus gives to his disciples when he comes and stands among them in today's Gospel, and he repeats the phrase as the disciples rejoice when they recognise him on that first Easter Sunday evening. He uses an identical greeting when he comes to them again eight days later. Earlier, in the course of his farewell address to his closest friends before his passion and death, Jesus had told them not to let their hearts be troubled at his going away: 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you'; but he added 'not as the world gives do I give to you'(Jn. 14:27). Again, he says to them, 'I have said this to you so that you may have peace.'(Jn. 16:33)
We never cease to pray for this peace, especially in the Mass:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth;
Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day;
Grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom ...;
The peace of the Lord be with you always;
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace;
Go in the peace of Christ.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest prays for the penitent:
... may God give you pardon and peace...
An ancient Irish blessing says
Deep peace of the risen Christ to you!
Our constant prayer for the dead is simply
May they rest in peace
and the tombstones of the earliest Christians were often inscribed with the words
As is the case with many of the words and phrases with which we are most familiar through constant use, it is quite possible for us to go on uttering this word 'peace', day in, day out, without ever pausing to reflect on what it actually means! Of course,the dictionary definition of peace is simple enough: 'quiet; tranquillity; mental calm; serenity; freedom from disturbance ...' - but how exactly does this apply in the context of our faith in the risen Christ?
When Jesus initially told his friends that he was leaving peace with them, when he promised them his peace, he wished to comfort them as he was about to depart, to undergo his passion and death. He left them with the assurance that ultimately, after his resurrection, he would return and draw them even closer to himself in a deep communion of life with him and the Father and the Holy Spirit - that Spirit of Truth who 'dwells with you and will be in you'(Jn. 14:17). The key to this new life which springs from the indwelling of the Holy Trinity is Love - an active love which flowers in the keeping of Christ's commandments: 'Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them' (Jn. 14:23); and again: 'If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.'(Jn. 15:10)
The peace of Christ, therefore, as he himself tells us, is not just peace as the world gives or understands it. Certainly, it should bring us serenity, mental calm, and an imperturbable tranquillity - but it is something vastly greater than all that. To rest in a 'peace' which consisted simply of freedom from disturbance would be at best but a doubtful blessing - it sounds more like a recipe for boredom than bliss! No, the peace of Christ is something alive and active, something liberating and dynamic. It is life and love and joy. Paradoxically, it is a gift which both calms and challenges us - it does not grant us an immunity to pain and suffering, or even death, rather it enables us to face all these painful realities and triumph over them in union with the victory of Christ himself.
Just as Jesus came to the disciples on that first Easter Sunday evening, while they were hiding in fear behind closed doors, so too he comes today and shows himself to us, bringing us his peace, and enabling us like them to rejoice in the knowledge that he is risen indeed. He invites us to share in his resurrection and in his life of glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But to us also he shows his hands and his side, bearing the marks that remind us that his victory and peace was attained through his passion and death. He beckons us to join him in freely offering up to the Father whatever pain or suffering we may experience in our lives, so that dying with him we may also rise with him and share in that peace which the world cannot give.