At the Last Supper, when Christ knew that His hour had come to depart from this world, He was stirred with great love for His disciples. “He loved His own… He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). That is, fully and completely (John 13:1). What did He do to show His love? He shared with them two mystical expressions of divine love: the washing of the feet as an example of humble service, and the prototype the Eucharist as the communion of His most precious Body and Blood.
At this solemn hour Christ also offered a long farewell discourse to the disciples (John 13:31-17:26). This was a last will and testament in which Christ explained His saving work on Earth and He also encouraged the disciples with numerous blessings and promises for their own upcoming mission. Among these blessings and promises were the gifts of peace and joy.
Jesus said to them “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give [peace] to you” (John 14:27). And again, “You will weep and lament…but your sorrow will turn into joy…and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20, 22).
After His resurrection, when Christ appeared for the first time to the disciples as a group, He blessed them with the greeting “Peace be with you!” confirming the gift of peace He had spoken about at the Last Supper. Christ then made a dramatic gesture by showing to the disciples the marks of the crucifixion on His hands and on His side. He did so to confirm that the risen Christ was the One who had been crucified, and the One who had been crucified was the risen Christ, the same Christ always and forever. Assured by His presence and glory, the disciples were filled with joy, as the Lord had foretold at the Last Supper. “Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
“Peace be with you!” It was a particular gift of peace, a blessing of peace, which only the crucified and risen Christ could give. It was not just a vague reference to peace, a wishful gesture of goodwill, as the world might have it. Rather it was Christ’s peace, a costly peace through His suffering and sacrifice, now risen from the dead, overcoming the power of death and creating the joy of new life.
We need Christ’s blessing of peace today. With so much going on in the world, so much conflict, anxiety, and fear, the blessing of peace is exactly the balm we need. But what is true peace? Why is real peace so difficult to secure to a significant degree of stability and permanency? As much as the world needs and may strive for peace, the reality of peace seems to be just out of our reach. Why so? We should ponder on these questions. We know that when good or bad things happen, they usually happen because of particular causes and reasons. Prayerful meditation on these issues can help us discover the blessing of peace and joy which Christ freely bestows on us all.
On a personal level, whenever we greet one another and say “peace,” we sincerely express the wish and hope of peacefulness, the relief from anxiety and frustration, the sense of calmness and serenity to be enjoyed together. But then why is peace so fleeting? The answer is obvious. The demands of family obligations, the rush of work responsibilities, and not least the flood of negative news, overwhelm us. Our longing for peace seems to vanish on the treadmill of daily challenges and frustrations.
What can be done? When athletes lose their timing and the vigor of the game they say “get back to basics!” Christians must say and do the same thing. Get back to Christian basics! The basics of the life of faith, like steadfast faith in God, heartfelt prayer, devotional life and worship, and an ordered and balanced Christian life and work, all without which the blessings of peace and joy cannot be reached.
On a social and work level, we interact in many and diverse ways as we engage in communal life. We intermingle with one another, we make transactions, we negotiate agreements and contracts. The cooperation and harmony in these activities are entirely dependent on integrity, honesty, fairness, and respectful dialog. In this we seem to have gravely failed as a society, however. Too many of us have become agitated, angry, impatient, rude, and belligerent. The result is the spectre of our divisions over just about everything in culture, politics, economics, and even in health issues.
Each of us needs to look into a mirror. We cannot contribute to society what we do not possess ourselves. If we are to bring the blessing of peace to our troubled and hurting society, we need first to receive it from Christ in our own hearts, our own lives, our own families.
On an international level, when nations make treaties and alliances for trade or other forms of cooperation, the value of those agreements lies in the good faith, maturity, and wisdom of their respective leaders. Nations negotiate and act ultimately, as expected, on the basis of self-interest and national security. Yet, even given this selfish drive for gaining advantage, there is plenty of room for all nations, based on international laws and norms, to work peaceably, to negotiate spheres of influence without resorting to war, and to flourish together on our tiny planet.
However, as we know, all such hopes and dreams have been dashed lately. The vicious war in Ukraine has exposed the fault lines of long-standing antagonism between West and East. This terrible war, an act of folly and moral degradation, has once again unmasked the depth of evil and cruelty that human beings are capable of. Let us pray fervently and encourage our leaders persistently to end this absurd war by relying more on the tools of diplomacy rather than the weapons of war.
“Peace be with you!” The source of true peace is Christ Himself. We read in the book of Ephesians: “He is our peace” (Eph. 3:14). Christ is our peace because He breaks down “the dividing wall[s] of hostility” and reconciles us to God and to one another” (Eph. 3:15-16). This is the great mystery of our redemption, the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ, through which “God was in Christ reconciling us to Himself” and inaugurating the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). We celebrate this Pascha of redemption in Christ with resounding words of joy:
A sacred Pascha has been shown to us; a new and holy Pascha!
A mystical Pascha; an all-venerable Pascha; a Pascha, which is Christ the Redeemer!
A Pascha of delight; a Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha; a Pascha ransom from sorrow!
A Pascha in which, let us embrace one another with joy!
(Adapted Paschal Hymns)
Christ possesses the full authority of Redeemer. His showed us the credentials of His saving work: the marks of the nails and the wound in His side. He endured lies, hatred, abuse, buffeting, spitting, scourging, a crown of thorns, all for the love and the truth of God on our behalf. By His suffering and death, He took away the wall of sin and He united us with God. By His resurrection and the overcoming of the power death itself, He revealed that He is our new Pascha, the new life of grace and forgiveness, of healing and reconciliation, of peace and joy.
Nicholas Cabasilas in his book ‘Life in Christ’ writes that the risen Christ still bears the stigmata, the marks of the crucifixion, as the risen Christ in heaven. He shows them to the angels as trophies of love for you, for me, for all of us. There is “no greater love than this, that one should lay down his or her life for their friends” (John 15:12).
May the risen Christ, as He blessed the disciples long ago, also bless us and empower us to share His blessings of peace and joy with others far and near in His name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Holy Cross School of Theology.