The Comfort of Peace

The dove – a symbol of peace for thousands of years in many different cultures.  From Genesis in the story of Noah’s Ark, to Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove – the dove has been a meaningful symbol.  And as we come together on this Second Sunday of Advent, we seek comfort in this enduring symbol of peace.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”  How we need that comfort today.  And how we need God’s peace.

Peace is such a powerful word.  We seek it for every aspect of our lives, don’t we?  We want it in our relationships.  We long for it amidst the turmoil of each day. St. Augustine wrote centuries ago:  “Peace is so great that even in this earthly and mortal life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we desire with such zest, or find to be more thoroughly gratifying.”

The word “peace” is central to today’s psalm, which is filled with promise in the midst of a time of waiting and uncertainty.   “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their heart.”  The psalmist looks to a time when “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;  righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” 

Throughout the Bible, peace is a multi-faceted concept.  The Hebrew word, shalom, has many meanings:  safety, welfare, security, good fortune, friendliness, peace, harmony, completeness.  The people of ancient Israel envisioned a life of bounty and well-being that came from God; a life of harmony which all Israel awaited with high expectation.  The prophets foretold a king sent by God who would be a “prince of peace,” and at Jesus’ birth the angels proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will toward men.”  

Jesus’ peace is a gift from God, a gift that has to do with our relationship with God, God dwelling within us.  God’s peace is our salvation, given to us in Christ.  As the apostle Paul wrote, “Christ himself is our peace.”

So as we celebrate the coming of Christ and the advent of peace, how do we create a time, as the Psalmist says, when “righteousness and peace will kiss each other”?

We do face some challenges.  Despite our desire to live up to the promise of peace, our struggles to achieve it are very evident.  Our domestic politics are rife with conflict, with different sides each determined that they alone know the best path forward. Racism and the role of policing in our streets and neighborhoods are an ongoing challenge.  Today, not only are people fighting about wearing face masks, but we have only begun arguing about eligibility for vaccinations.

When we have difficulty dealing with discord in our everyday lives, where do we begin to seek peace on a larger scale?

First, we need to remember that peace begins with us, ourselves.  Peace starts with us as individuals, with our families, our communities.  Peace can’t be conditional upon the actions of others, or those we label as the enemy.  Peace begins with us.

Too often we look in the wrong direction – blaming the OTHER GUY.  One political party makes a proposal for coronavirus relief, then the opposing party gets blamed for its being too MUCH money, or not ENOUGH.  I’m continually dismayed that even in the face of the threat that this pandemic poses to our lives, our economy, our very nation  — nothing seems to diminish our political entrenchment.   There are countless examples around the globe – nations, tribes, communities, standing with weapons in hand, whether bombs, guns, or words – threatening, taunting, neither side willing to make the first move, neither side willing to let go.  And so the conflicts continue.  

The initiative for peace begins with US.  God calls us to be a people of peace; we can’t simply REACT to others.  As the psalmist says, “peace is within you.”  WE are to take the first steps on the path that all people will one day walk.

A Russian Orthodox priest tells the following story:  “I remember a man of some standing who once came to see me and told me that a friend of his, who claimed no small spiritual achievements, had offended him.  ‘Who should go and make his peace with the other?’ he asked.  ‘I cannot answer your question,’ I replied, ‘as I cannot possibly set myself as a judge between you.  But one thing is certain to me:  the meanest of the two of you will wait for the other to make the move.’  The great man said no word, but went forthwith to make his peace with his friend.”  

The words of the Hindu scriptures speak a similar theme.  The Bhagavad-Gita says that “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive.  If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.”

Peace, shalom, is not merely the absence of war, nor a truce between enemies.  It’s not an end to psychological tensions, nor a sentimental feeling of well-being.  Peace is a profound oneness with God, which is manifested in all our relationships.  Peace comes from living in harmony with God, with each other, and with ourselves.  The Trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “Peace is not something you must hope for in the future.  Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.”     

The basis of peace isn’t the elimination of conflict, nor the quieting of other people.  Peace isn’t repression or suppression or silence.  Peace comes with harmony, and with wholeness.  Peace means fullness, and being all that God wants us to be.  And to have true peace, we need to love one another.

So how do we create the basis for peace?  How do we encourage harmony and wholeness?  How do we help one another be all that God wants us to be? 

One way is by correctly identifying our REAL enemies.  Human beings aren’t enemies of one another.  Our real enemies are larger than any of us individually.  Our real enemies are hunger and hatred, pandemic and poverty.  Our real enemies are racism and inequality and injustice.  Our enemies are all those things that separate us from one another – anything that prevents us from looking each other in the eye and recognizing our common humanity.  From political parties that fight tooth-and-nail, to media pundits who amplify the rhetoric to increase ratings.  From the abuse of young innocents who are trafficked, to the desperation of those consumed by opioid addiction. Our real enemies are all those things that separate us from one another, all those things that keep us from wholeness.

Our true peace is Christ, who gathers us together at this table.  

When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, she said:  “All works of love are works of peace.  We do not need bombs and guns; we need love and compassion.  We who have been gathered here must know that peace is learned so as to give it to others.  Let us learn that unless we are full of God, we cannot give that love, we cannot give that peace, to others.  I thank God for this great gift, and for making the world acknowledge works of love to be works of peace.”

We have been offered a precious gift, the gift and comfort of peace.  The peace of God withstands the test of time. The peace of God endures through pandemic and all the hardships of life.  The peace of God can’t be taken from us.  The peace of God settles our hearts, transforms our minds, and gives life to our souls.  God’s peace is a promise.  And on that night in a Bethlehem stable, God’s promise is fulfilled.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.