by Br Julian McDonald cfc
It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you”, he said. John 20, 19-31
I read recently of a married couple who were on an organised tour of Spain. Their tour included visits to cathedrals and churches. Their guide had warned them to be on the alert for pick-pockets, many of whom practised their skills in places of worship. On one occasion, the tour group ventured into a cathedral when Mass was being celebrated. The visitors reverently found places in empty pews and were waiting till the Mass was over before inspecting the cathedral. The woman I mentioned was startled out of her reverie when another woman approached her, and with hand outstretched said something in Spanish. Conscious of the warnings about pick-pockets and thieves, the visitor moved back along the seat, clutching her handbag. Clearly puzzled, the Spanish woman moved back to her place. It was only afterwards that the visitor realised that the Spanish woman, with outstretched hand had been offering the visitor a Sign of Peace. “La paz de Dios”, she had said, the peace of God!
We all know the story from the second part of today’s gospel reading, of how Thomas was absent from the group, and refused to believe what the other disciples had told him. We know that he was with them a week later when the Risen Jesus returned, and came to believe when Jesus confronted him with his earlier expressions of doubt.
However, I found myself wondering why I easily pass over the first part of today’s reading and move quickly to the story about Thomas. In John’s story of Jesus’ Easter evening appearance, Jesus walks right into the room in which the disciples had locked themselves and his very first words are: “Peace be with you.” In extending his peace to those gathered, he is surely saying something more than: “Good evening.”
But, I wonder how those in the upper room responded. After all, their fear meant that, if anyone were to burst into the room, it would probably be someone with hostile intent, someone out to arrest them or do them harm. They were definitely not expecting a risen Jesus to walk in. They would have been something like the tourist in Spanish cathedral – expecting their visitor to be hostile. First they were afraid, then they grasped the reality of the situation. But what then? I suggest they felt embarrassed and ashamed.
After all, when Jesus was arrested, they fled in fear, thinking they would be next. And then Peter, in three separate outbursts, denied that he even knew Jesus. In the face of expected persecution, they didn’t look particularly like heroes. And then, with rumours of resurrection floating around, they went into hiding. They seemed to have little expectation of good news, and even less of being forgiven for their cowardice and denial. Yet Jesus appeared in front of them and said: “Peace be with you.”
That prompts me to ask what kind of peace Jesus is actually offering his group of followers paralysed by fear. I suggest he is not offering a peace that amounts to freedom from disturbance – the kind of peace we get when we sit quietly with a book, hoping that nobody will call on the phone or knock at the door. Nor is it simply absence of conflict or peace of mind. I’m convinced it’s the kind of peace we experience when we are reconciled with someone after a break-down in relationship. I think Jesus was saying to them: what you did over the last few days to separate yourselves from me is behind us. As far as I’m concerned, we are no longer separated from one another. We can’t change the past and I am reaching out to you in forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s the peace Jesus is offering them.
This very first action of Jesus in engaging with those whom he had taught, and with whom he had lived and worked for three long years I suggest spells out what resurrection is all about. True, it signals victory over death and offers the promise that death is not the final solution for us either. I also think it’s essentially about offering us the only kind of peace worth having – a peace that crosses the boundaries that separate us from one another, a peace that dissolves whatever divides us, be it language, political views, prejudice, fear, distrust or suspicion. It is a peace that mends hearts and hurts, a peace that leads us to respect and accept everyone we encounter, whatever their race, colour, sexual orientation or religion.
Resurrection manifests itself in countless ways. However, we have to be alert to recognise them. There are signs of resurrection in the multicultural aspect of many of our schools – children and young people show us how to live with difference and to dismiss religion, language and skin colour as barriers that separate. More and more young people are spending time on immersion experiences that uncover for them the richness of other cultures and lead them to forge lasting friendships with people their own age living in circumstances of deprivation and unequal opportunity. They are extending the hand of peace, acceptance and friendship to young people they might otherwise have been inclined to avoid, to distrust or to fear.
All this invites me to stop and ask myself how I offer the sign of peace at Mass and how I reach out to the strangers who come into my life. Am I big enough to offer the peace that Jesus held out on that first Easter night to those locked away in fear?
Whether I say “Peace be with you”, “Pace e bene” or “La Paz de Dios” matters little. It’s what I intend that counts most. Maybe we can make them all mean: “Nothing separates us!”