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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Shalom: Peace be with you

Christos anesti!

In the western church on the Second Sunday of Easter, the gospel recalls the Easter morning appearance of Christ in the locked upper room. It is the story of Thomas's coming to faith, Thomas who gets the bum rap of being called "doubting" because he didn't see the Jesus with the others. If that is "doubting," then I guess we all doubt. It doesn't take faith to believe in what you can see! Not only that,
the others were hiding in the locked room, and Thomas wasn't with them. Thomas must have been out doing chores or buying groceries, but he apparently wasn't afraid. Why don't we call him "brave" Thomas, or "intrepid" Thomas? Anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk about.

It's the phrase "Peace be with you," which is spoken twice by the Lord in the gospel, and is recalled in every Eucharistic celebration during the communion rite after the Lord's prayer and embolism, as the priest prays,
"Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." Look not upon our sins but upon the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of our kingdom, where you live forever and ever, Amen."
I suppose that this prayer text actually recalls the words of the Last Supper discourse, but the echo of those words certainly resounds in this post-resurrection account.

The pax, or kiss of peace, in the Mass always seems like a missed opportunity, a misunderstood, under-nourished, most of time a clumsy ritual shot in the catechetical dark. It is not that the reality isn't there. There is a lot of agape going on in the church. I know it, I know these people. You know it. What is not happening, a lot of the time, is the connection between this rite and the deeper lives of people. But how can they know if no one tells them? Or if the leader of the assembly fails to see, or know, or demonstrate ritually the corporate intimacy that this rite embodies?

In its oft-ignored, even maligned, wisdom, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal has a take on the rite. Paragraph 83 states that each person "offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner." Paragraph 154 goes further, instructing that the priest "may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary," granting that in the USA, "for a good reason, on special occasions," like "a funeral, (or) a wedding," the priest may offer the sign of peace "to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary." The peace of Christ, a gift of the Holy Spirit, abides in the assembly, in the whole of Christ's body. It is not mediated by the priest, as though from a lighted candle that must be spread from a single source. The source is Christ, the candle is Paschal and baptismal. The meaning of this rite is lost in blown kisses and "don't you look handsome" up and down the aisle. The shalom of Christ is a little different matter. Like the shalom of the resurrection morning, recalling that of the Last Supper, it has gone through death for the sake of the other.

What is the kiss of peace doing in the communion rite? When I look at the structure of the whole rite, from the Lord's prayer to the closing prayer after communion, a kind of corporate intimacy based upon realized and ratified identity with Christ seems to be the aggregate cluster of meaning. The communion rite begins with the Lord's prayer, which acknowledges our common status as the children of God in a community of admitted need and vulnerability, characterized by common forgiveness. It continues through the kiss of peace, the breaking of the bread, and the common walk to the table to take and eat the Spirit-filled food that unites us both physically and metaphysically. Through shared thanksgiving and the expression of our hope for a common future at a heavenly banquet of which this is just a foretaste, the communion rite readies us to live for the world in solidarity with Christ, that is, with one another in the Spirit of God. What it is not is glad-handing, hi-how-are-ya, lookin'-good time. Shalom, like all the attributes of the divine, is a matter of life and death because it's a matter of love. Love is a matter of life and death, that is, love is a process of giving life away so that others may live more abundantly. God has done this perfectly, completely, in Christ. This is the paschal mystery into which we are invited, the mystery of dying for the life of others. We must really work at not trivializing it and making it just a social nicety or on the other end of the spectrum, a tolerated triviality.

Pax tecum is one of the those verbless Latin phrases that is rendered with the English subjunctive: Peace be with you. It continues to be a greeting of familiarity and solidarity in the Jewish (shalom aleichem) and Muslim (salaam aleikum) worlds. Maybe we Americans have such a politicized view of peace, it is so wrapped up in our sense of Manifest Destiny and superpower status that we can't see it with the Mediterranean heart of shalom, or of shantih, the peace of God that passes human understanding.
..."The Hebrew word shalom has a wider meaning than the English equivalent peace, for it signifies welfare of every kind: security, contentment, sound health, prosperity, friendship, peace of mind and heart, as opposed to the dissatisfaction and unrest caused by evil." Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts, Philip Birnbaum.
In giving each other the kiss of
peace, wishing each other shalom before coming to the Eucharistic table, we ought to be saying, in some nascent way, "Let us live for each other; let us die for each other's good, and let the God revealed in Jesus Christ guide our living and dying." If we could all express that to a few friends and strangers standing around us, and our priests could communicate that reality in a more restrained and modest way, maybe it would help us come to communion with a different attitude, and think about peace, when the subject comes up in Congress, in the newspapers, and ultimately at the voting booth, in a more integrated, universal, and holy way. After all, on that Easter morning, "Peace be with you" was followed by, "As the Father sent me, so I send you."