Peace be with you.” That first Easter evening Jesus’ greeting burst through the gloom and confusion of the upper room. The disciples’ grief over Jesus’ death, their dismay over Jesus’ rejection by Israel’s leaders, their shame over abandoning Jesus at the cross, their bewilderment over the empty tomb and Mary Magadalene’s wild report—all those feelings came to an abrupt halt with the familiar salutation: Peace be with you. But at that moment, Jesus’ salutation must have been more shocking than reassuring. Their heads must have been teeming with questions, with doubts and phantom terrors. What could these words mean?
When we Christians hear this Easter greeting anew this year, we too should be dismayed as much as consoled. For the peace of the risen Christ ushers us into a new existence, where nothing will ever again be the same. Because it is soul-transforming, Christ’s peace is a costly gift that demands radical conversion. Because that peace is all-embracing, uniting us with all sorts of people we would otherwise avoid, it rips away our prejudices and tears asunder the protective walls that afford us comfortable assurance. As Jesus explained, “Not as the world gives, do I give.”
The peace of Christ heralds the beginning of a new age. We are being drawn into a new way of life where the world as we know it—the world of black and white contrasts, of rivalries and wars, of domination and oppression, of zero-sum solutions and justified inequality—should lose its grip on our minds and hearts. Christ’s peace should cast out the fear that runs the world and too easily takes our imaginations captive. In the glow of Christ’s peace, the fear that chills our hearts, puts us on guard and sets us, however subtly, against one another should seep away. We should be set free to live boldly in hope and to challenge those who would shackle our Christian visions.
A primary effect of Easter peace is to unite the church itself. For St. Paul “the bond of peace” Christ gives his disciples defines the church. It unites its members across class, gender and ethnic barriers: slave-free, male-female, Jew-Greek. The bond of peace is more essential to the church’s identity, in Paul’s estimation, than any charisms or offices his disciples may exercise, and in the Christian community genuine unity ought to weigh even more heavily than any claims of religious lineage or preening orthodoxy.
Insofar as any of us in the U.S. church today may be on the prowl to catch out anyone else in a dissident position or find ourselves perpetually on the attack, Christ’s greeting of peace will be an uncomfortable challenge. Insofar as we deny the gifts of others and steamroll over them in pursuit of uniformity of opinion, we have severed ourselves from the bond of peace, which is the risen Christ himself. Insofar as we drag the church into partisan political rivalries or seek from it petty political advantage, we are corroding the bonds of charity. Wherever the charism of unity is at work, where bridges are built, where common ground is celebrated and where enmities are overcome, there Easter peace is at work, healing, strengthening and making the many one in the body of Christ.
From the church, God’s peace ripples out to fill the world: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” The baptized are charged with extending Christ’s work of reconciliation. We are fortunate to live in a time when, in the face of many armed conflicts, people inside and outside the church are taking up the challenge of peacemaking. Whether it is lay communities like Focolare and the Community of Sant’Egidio, Catholic nongovernmental organizations like Caritas Internationalis and Catholic Relief Services or teams of academics and fieldworkers in the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, women and men are working to make Christ’s farewell gift of peace a reality in zones of conflict. Leading this movement, Pope Benedict XVI himself has reached out not only to the interfaith community but also to agnostics and secular activists, inviting them to join in a common witness for peace at Assisi this coming October on the 25th anniversary of the Assisi Day of Prayer. Through all these peacemakers, Christ’s greeting, “Peace be with you,” echoes where it most needs to be heard.
To help others find peace and to sustain themselves from crisis to crisis, year after year, Christian peacemakers need themselves to draw deeply on God’s peace, which is “so much greater than anything we can understand.” From the depths of the divine beauty they will draw inspiration, from the reserves of divine strength they will draw energy, and in their vision of God and God’s kingdom they will find unfailing hope. For those ready to be challenged by Christ’s greeting of peace, for those open to hearing the call to be peacemakers in the broken places of church and world, the risen Jesus’ Easter greeting portends a springtime of abounding grace.