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The Resurrection of Christ and Our Experience of Peace
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there is one hidden theme in the New Testament, it is the fact that while Christ certainly wants His followers to imitate Him in carrying His cross and to deny themselves to prove that they are His disciples, at the same time He promises them not only an eventual and eternal glory with Him in heaven, but already on this earth, a deep-souled happiness.
In general we might say there are two functions to this happiness that a faithful follower of Christ should expect. The first role of happiness is to be that of a witness to the world. If there is one thing which both the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI made very clear, it is that religious should be witnesses to the world.
We witness by testifying to the truth of that which we believe. But a witness not only gives evidence) he also, somehow, is to prove that his testimony is true. We can convince the world that Christ deserves to be followed, that His teaching is indeed the teaching of the Son of God become man, if and insofar as we witness to the happiness which our following of Christ and our obedience to His teaching produces. That proof is incontestable. If people see us genuinely and not spuriously happy, they will want to learn the secret that we evidently have learned.
This is the logic of the Church's teaching, especially to religious, of being witnesses to a world that sorely needs Christ but must first be convinced that Christ is worth following. We witness by proving to the world that the one thing every human heart desires, we have found. We show we have found it by being truly, deeply happy. Hence the importance of being truly faithful to Christ, because He promises those who follow Him that joy which the world cannot give and the kind of peace that no one else but He can confer. That is "happiness as a witness".
But the particular focus of this conference is rather on "happiness as an experience in ourselves". We shall take as the context for our reflections Christ's appearance to the apostles on Easter Sunday night and then go on, after we briefly reflect on the narrative as given to us by the Evangelist, to see how Christ wants us to be at peace and to become apostles of peace.
First then, the narrative. Saint John writes no less than eighteen verses right after the account of Christ's deathand John doesn't waste a wordto describe the visit of Mary of Magdala to the tomb, she the sinner. That is a lot of verses to spend on a sinful woman: As far as we can tell, according to the Evangelist's account, Christ appeared to her first, before the apostles.
Christ knew His priorities. He respected precedence. He didn't choose to appear first to her except for a profound reason, so much so that she is called the Apostle of the Apostles. You recall He said, "Mary" and she, "Rabboni". And then He gave a commission to her and through her to them. Then came His evening appearance to the disciples. Quoting John,
In the evening of that same day, the first day
As the Father sent me,
After saying this he breathed on them and said:
'Receive the Holy Spirit.
Evidently Christ wanted His first message to the apostles, the foundation of His Church, to be peace. He not only spoke the word twice as soon as He appeared to them, but He made it a commandment. The Greek is imperative, "Peace be with you", or "Be at peace".
What does it mean to be at peace? It means first of all to have the joy of knowing that, "Although I am a sinner, my sins are forgiven". And this is not emotion; this is knowledge based on faith. It means to have the happiness of conviction. We usually don't associate happiness with a state of mind; we should, otherwise what we call happiness is an ephemeral sentiment. Peace is the happiness of conviction that, "My past life will not be held against me". We are all sinners. We know it; we don't need to invoke an article of faith to know that we have sinned. What we need to know on faith is that though we have sinned, we are absolutely sure (that is conviction), "These sins of mine will not be held against me".
It means to have the experience of God's friendship. We can say, "Although I have so often failed Him, His mercy (proved by becoming man and dying for me) is greater than my infidelity. My sins are as a drop of water in the burning furnace of His infinite love. I can have the serenity of spirit that comes with the confidence of realizing that God is my loving FatherI know it, I am sure of itand that I am His loving, though wayward child."
If there was ever an age in human history when the possession of peace is prized above everything else, it is today. Countless millions in our own country, which is the most affluent society in the annals of man humanly speaking, have everything. Sometimes we don't realize it, but other cultures know it better than we: ours is the most unsettled, insecure, unstable, worried, harried, anxious, troubled society on the face of the earth. Here millions of dollars are spent, not annually, but weekly, in consulting specialists for one purpose, to give people some certitude in their anxiety, some temporary peace of mind. Even those who do not believe what we believe, but who know what torments the human spirit, are unanimous in saying that the center of all the trials and worries and anxieties is a sense of guilt. Consequently, it is as though the world of unbelief is telling us what a precious treasure Christ came to give as His first gift on the day He rose from the dead. Having redeemed us from sin, He tells us first to be at peace.
How does Christ assure us of this precious peace, the greatest possession on earth this side of heavenly glory? He first of all assures it to us by the sacrament of His peace, the sacrament of penance, which the Church declares He instituted on Easter Sunday night. It is meant to give us peace. Hence the value of receiving the graces that come to us through this sacrament, no matter how little or how much we have to confess. Let no one deceive you on this point; allow no one to tell you that confession is only for grave sins. One of the main functions of this sacrament for priests and religious is to deepen in them that intimacy with God whose experience is peace. One of its sacramental purposes, therefore, is precisely to reduce anxiety, worry, and frustration by the divine alchemy of grace available especially in this sacrament. That is His first way of assuring us of His peace, that He tells us we are to possess.
He has also given us beyond the sacrament of reconciliation the graces of peace being offered for us throughout the world through the efficacious invocation and prayers of the Church asking God to give us this gift. Think of how often the word peace occurs in the Church's liturgy. Reflect on the fact that every Mass said daily (almost 400,000 times a day and by now countless millions of times is offered for obtaining God's mercy on us sinners.
This is the heart of the conference. We pray constantly for ourselves and for others; and the Church is praying for us, that God might have mercy on us sinners. What does this constant begging of God's mercy on us sinners mean? Haven't we been forgiven? Is it just to reassure ourselves that we have been? What is all this repetitious pleading for mercy? I am not now referring to those who are estranged from God. It is clear enough that God's mercy for them is the grace of repentance, to be reconciled with Him.
In every Hail Mary we pray "for us sinners". What do we mean? We mean that an essential part of God's mercy is that peace which is tranquility subjectively experienced, which comes from order objectively when a soul is in the friendship of God. First and fundamentally, begging for God's mercy always means asking that those who are somehow estranged from God or who are positively in the state of sin will obtain from Him the gift to see their wrong doing, repent, and be reconciled. But being reconciled with God is not enough, since merely because we are really and objectively in God's friendship in itself is no assurance that we experience the fact and realize we are in His friendship. The more we look at our past or just look into our souls and see the weakness and the evil tendencies we have, we become more and more horrified and frankly, even terrified. We have a fallen human nature; we know the sins of which this nature is capable. For us to be serene and tranquilnot anxious, worried, concerned, or despondentin a word, for us to be at peace, it is not enough to know only with our minds, believing that God is merciful.
Consequently, I call peace "the experience of God's mercy". It is the realization, the awareness, the consciousness, the conviction that God is with me and I am with Him. And for that we must constantly pray, because there is one thing to which we are all so awfully subject, that is, the opposite of peace. The more we strive after perfection, the more the ideals of the spiritual life are presented to us and we reflect on them, the more dreadful seems the chasm between us and the Christ that we are supposed to become like. To not only be doing what we should be doing, but to experience the joy of God's being pleased with usfor that we need grace, especially this priceless grace of peace. No books will do it, nor sermons, nor homilies; nothing but sheer grace.
We have too many things to worry about and that make us anxious; too many, that if we allowed ourselves, to make us despair. Hence the mandate of the Savior to be at peace. We have consolation in knowing that the Church militant on earth is praying, even while we are militant in struggling against our passions, against the bad example around us and against the evil spirit. Even while we are militant, we can be at peace.
There is the Church's constant prayer in and outside of the liturgy. Every Hail Mary is a prayer for interior peace. Every time we pray collectively "pray for us sinners", we are asking that we might not only be forgiven, but that we might experience God's forgiveness. But beyond that, there is the efficacious treasury of Christ's merits. One of the most important things that this treasury is intended to gain for us is God's mercy - twice over: once in being forgiven, and once again in knowing that we are forgiven. Think for a moment of how much suffering there is in the Christian worldin hospitals, in asylums, in war-torn countries, in broken homes, in broken hearts, in communist held territoriessufferings that only God fully understands. All of these merits are part of the Church's treasury on which we draw, to be assured that God is indeed merciful.
None of us doubts that the apostolate of peace is a worthy apostolate. It is, in fact, highly recommended to us by Christ as one of the Beatitudes. If we are going to be peacemakers in the profound sense of assisting people to experience God's peace, not only in reconciling people either with God or between themselves, the first condition is that we ourselves are at peace. Peace is one possession that no one gives unless he has it. This means that we must correspond with the graces of peace that God is giving us, that we learn to let go. Christ does not want us to lack peace; when we are not at peace, Christ wants us to overcome that state of mind. He does not want us to be worried or anxious. The first condition of a peacemaker is personal peace and that takes effort.
The second condition is telling people, beginning with those who are nearest and dearest to us, that they have a right to be at peace; in fact, they have an order from Christ! Anxiety is surely permitted by God, but He wants us not to give in to it.
Thirdly, in working in this apostolate of peace, we have to cultivate the habit of listening to people who have troubles, to acquire not just a listening ear, but what is more important, a listening heart. Christ wants us to be channels of peace. It is not to allow people to pour all their troubles into our souls, especially when their troubles would then become our troubles; but people do want to have someone with whom they can at times share what is on their minds.
Finally, be sure never to leave anyone who happens to be in trial without telling that person to pray. Of all the passages of the New Testament, there are few that are more practical than James 5:13, "If any one of you is in trouble, he should pray". Prayer is the sovereign remedy for trial. It is also the talisman of peace. It means, of course, that we ourselves have learned that when we are in trouble, we instinctively and immediately pray. It may be as short a prayer as the invocation of the Holy Name. But immediately we take ourselves to God, who has evidently permitted the trial; and we ask Him to let us see why He wants us to bear the trial, if it is something that we must carry, or to let go of the worry if it is not worth being anxious about.
Every time the mind begins to become anxious or worried, right away breathe a prayer and discover that peace is ready at hand. This grace of peace like all graces is there for the asking, but it must be asked for. Let us ask our Savior, the Prince of Peace, to teach us what He meant when He said that He came to give that kind of peace which the world cannot give.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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