“Peace be with you,” Jesus says in the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday (Jn 20:19).
Peace — as in harmony, or even as in a lack of noise — is not exactly plentiful these days. Certainly not in an election year, when cacophony seems to be the (dis)order of the day.
In fact, the barrage of political rhetoric presents an ironic contrast to the first Scripture reading from Pentecost Sunday, from the Acts of the Apostles.
Galileans, filled with the Holy Spirit, were speaking in multiple languages (or tongues), yet each were understood by “devout Jews from every nation,” no matter which nation they were from: Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, even Rome.
But in today’s United States, we have thousands upon thousands of people (not all of them politicians) failing to understand, or wanting to understand, anyone else, even though most speak English. We might as well be speaking Greek or Aramaic or even Latin to one another, for all the good our conversation does.
What is peaceful or harmonious about that? It’s enough to make us cry out the words of today’s psalm: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104: 30).
Which is, of course, exactly what the Lord does in sending the tongues “as of fire” to descend on the Galileans. On that first Pentecost day alone, 3,000 followed Peter’s plea to “repent and be baptized,” a joyous development in the life of the early church.
And that directs us to what Jesus may actually be getting at when he proclaims, “Peace be with you” to his disciples.
Peace is not necessarily “with us” when there is a lack of noise, or even when there is outward “harmony” among us. True peace is found within us when we believe that God dwells in our world and is the source of all life, that death has no power over him, something we are reminded each time we celebrate the paschal mystery.
Initially, after Jesus’ crucifixion, it is clear that his disciples were experiencing anything but peace. They were hiding behind locked doors, troubled by what they had seen and, no doubt, by what they had done, fleeing in terror when Jesus was arrested, tried, sentenced and crucified.
One can only imagine their amazement when Jesus appeared to them, despite the locked doors, and offered them peace — and a pointed suggestion on what kind of peace he meant.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said, breathing on them. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).
Ah, forgiveness, maybe the hardest action that we who call ourselves disciples of Jesus are called to perform, again and again. When we look at our world, our country, even our church, we don’t see much peace, in part because we don’t see much forgiveness.
We do see anger and frustration and obstinance. We see a lack of respect for anyone suggesting a belief or idea different from our own. We see jealousies and hurts, grudges and retribution. We see pain, suffering and anything but peace.
“Peace is not possible without forgiveness,” states Naomi Drew, a noted authority on conflict resolution and author of “Learning the Skills of Peacemaking.”
“Enormous amounts of energy are wasted when we hold back our love, hold onto hate and harbor acrimonious feelings,” says Drew. “The only remedy is letting go, and being willing to forgive.”
Pope Francis spoke to that point during an April 2019 general audience in Rome, asserting that forgiveness fills a gap left by justice, or the lack thereof.
“In life not everything is resolved with justice,” he said. “Especially where one must put a stop to evil, someone must love beyond what is due, in order to recommence a relationship of grace.”
Martin Luther King Jr., no stranger to conflict or the cause of peace, offered this succinct advice: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”
We are called to remember this each time we pray the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
Those are not words to mumble perfunctorily so that they leave our heads the second they leave our mouths. They belong permanently etched in our hearts and minds.
“God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2845). “To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Seven weeks ago, we celebrated Easter, the Resurrection of the Lord. But let us remember something else: Jesus’ commandments didn’t stay in the tomb any more than he did. His call to forgive, to reconcile, to love our neighbors and our enemies remains very much alive and very much a part of who we need to be as his disciples.
It would seem that God sent the Holy Spirit to remind us of that very reality — no matter what language we speak.
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(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)