” On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” —John 20:19
Anyone who has read the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh knows that the climax of the story is a scene in which Lord Marchmain, the patriarch of an aristocratic Catholic family in England at a time just before the Second World War, lies on his deathbed. Although his family is Catholic, the Marchmains are a mixed lot when it comes to the practice of the faith. Lady Marchmain, who had already died by this point in the novel, and two of the children are devout Catholics, while Lord Marchmain and the other two children spend most of the novel estranged from the Church.
As Lord Marchmain lies dying, with his family gathered around him, the topic of whether and when it would be appropriate to summon a priest comes up, as it inevitably does in all but the most indifferent Catholic families. One of the Marchmain daughters, Julia, who has been involved in an adulterous relationship with the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder, discusses with Charles the propriety of a priest visiting her father to see if he might want to receive the last sacraments.
Charles Ryder is not a religious man at this point in the novel, and objects to the very idea that the Church might “interfere” with the final days of a dying man who has for decades shown no interest in religion. Ryder asks, “Can’t they even let him die in peace?” To which Julia replies, “They mean something so different by ‘peace.’”
What do Christians mean when they use the word “peace?” Is it merely the absence of conflict or confrontation, the kind of “live and let live” attitude the world calls “peace?”
Whatever the world means by “peace,” Jesus certainly means a great deal when He speaks this word in John’s Gospel. Appearing to His disciples in the Upper Room on two occasions after His Resurrection, He says not once but three times, “Peace be with you.”
The peace of Jesus is peace between God and humanity, a peace that had been broken since the sin of Adam and Eve. Jesus, Who is fully God and fully human, has by His death and resurrection brought us back into union with God. The risen Jesus comes to His fearful disciples, announcing that He has brought peace between us and God, the most important peace there can possibly be.
That is the mercy we celebrate on this Divine Mercy Sunday: that the Son of God has loved us when we were unlovable, has died out of love for us in order to heal a relationship we had broken. And He even died to heal that relationship knowing we would break it again! That is why Jesus empowers His apostles to share His mercy with others through the forgiveness of sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). This is one of the source-texts for our understanding of the Sacrament of Penance.
Pope Francis once said about confession:
Without doubt among the Sacraments, it is that of Reconciliation that best shows the merciful face of God. We must never forget, either as penitents or as confessors: there is no sin that God cannot forgive! None! Only what is hidden from divine mercy cannot be forgiven, like those that hide themselves from the sun cannot be illuminated or warmed.
He also said, “Confession is not a form of torture but rather a liberating encounter, full of humanity, through which we can educate in a mercy that does not exclude, but rather includes the just commitment to make amends, as far as possible, for the sin committed.”
To contrast the Catholic understanding of God’s mercy with a modern term, we need to see that God’s mercy is not just “tolerance.” God does not “tolerate” us. He loves us, even when we act against His love. God waits for us, He pursues us, He calls out to us, He invites us and commands us and even tries to woo us back to Him when we sin. He never stops loving us, and He will not settle for the false “peace” of leaving us alone. He wants us to know the true peace that only comes from a living relationship with Him.
And the dynamic of today’s Gospel—Jesus showing mercy to His apostles and calling them to share His mercy with others—applies to us as well. We are not all called to hear confessions, but we are all called to share the love and mercy of God with other people. We live in a world desperately in need of mercy.
Today, people are feeling more estranged from God than perhaps they ever have before. People have become very foggy about what is true and false, what is good and evil. Many think God is unknowable; others think He has abandoned them. And it’s very likely they aren’t going to stop feeling this way until they meet someone who knows God and is willing to share this knowledge, someone who is a friend of God and is willing to share this friendship.
People can very often be unforgiving and feel unforgiven, and that isn’t likely to change until they meet someone who’s been forgiven by God and shows what it means to share God’s forgiveness of even the worst sins.
Very close to the end of Brideshead Revisited, Julia makes the difficult yet critical decision to break off her relationship with Charles Ryder. The reason she gives is not that she has become “holier than thou,” but because she has come to recognize that she is a sinner and needs God desperately. “The worse I am, the more I need God,” she says. “I can’t shut myself out from his mercy.” Even Charles himself eventually becomes Catholic and prays before the Blessed Sacrament at the very end of the novel. God didn’t leave them alone. He drew them to Himself.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (John 14:27). Jesus says these words to His disciples at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, and the priest echoes Jesus just after the Lord’s Prayer during Mass. The peace of Jesus is not a “live and let live” peace. It is an “I live and I want you to share my life” peace. Jesus gets close to us. He gets involved with us. He won’t just leave us alone, and He doesn’t want us to leave others alone. He wants nothing less than for everyone to share His life forever.
Of course, Catholics are not called to become meddlers, butting in where we don’t belong and interfering for our own purposes in other people’s lives. We are not free to impose our wills on others. “The Church proposes; She imposes nothing,” Pope St. John Paul once wrote. We share the love of Christ and the riches of our faith with other people so that they will know Christ’s peace.
Christ’s followers need to draw close to people who are hurting, who are poor, who are sick, to the depressed and to the addicted, to those in broken families, and to people who are alienated from God. It is crucial to get involved, not just to care but to show interested and self-sacrificial love.
It is essential to invest time and attention in other people, and to invite them to share the life Jesus has given His people as a gift. That is what it means to be merciful. That is what it means to be a peacemaker. When He gives the Beatitudes, Jesus says that the merciful and peacemakers are “blessed,” which means that they will know Christ’s peace forever. May God grant this blessing to the members of His Church, and through them to the whole world.
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