It’s some time now since a bishop last came to St Edmund’s to celebrate Mass, but something to notice at such a Mass is that at the beginning, instead of saying The Lord be with you a bishop says Peace be with you. This seemingly unimportant act joins the bishop, as the local successor of the apostles, to the appearances of the risen Christ: both in Luke and John Our Lord greets his disciples repeatedly with these words, which he only uses after his resurrection. So we heard them in last Sunday’s account in John of Jesus with the Twelve, and then with Thomas, in the ‘upper room’, and this Sunday in a similar account in the gospel of Luke (from chapter 24). The picture here is of the cenacle in Jerusalem, which some of you may have visited, the traditional site of the upper room. What does it all mean?
In the gospel accounts, and in the life of the Church, Easter season and Eastertide are marked by overwhelming joy. The impossible has happened, the gloom of death, bereavement and despair have come to an end. But for the Twelve, seeing the Lord again must also have had a disturbing and uneasy dimension: they hadn’t been good or loyal friends, running away; their leader, moreover, had denied knowing Jesus after his arrest and one of their number had actually betrayed him. There must have been some awkward shuffling of feet, a reluctance to look Jesus in the eye. The gospel of John tells us somewhere that Jesus always knew what was going on in someone’s heart: he would have known all this.
Therefore we can see the risen Jesus’ greeting in this light. It’s a message of reconciliation; he is stretching out his hands (his wounded hands) to his useless friends. We don’t know whether they attempted to apologise, (‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to let you down’, ‘You don’t mind, do you?’) but with these words Jesus takes the initiative, offering them forgiveness and mercy. This has been a constant message of Pope Francis – last Sunday on Divine Mercy Sunday, in the special Year of Mercy we had a few years ago, and on countless occasions: God takes the initiative, he doesn’t wait for us to realise our need for forgiveness.
The bishop’s greeting at the beginning of Mass makes this greeting of the risen Christ the greeting of the Church. We yearn for many physical expressions of worship which are part of the Mass, most of which we have been forbidden to practice for over a year now because of the pandemic, and one of the saddest gaps in the Mass is the expression of the sign of Peace. In a Catholic Mass we normally exchange this shortly before we receive Holy Communion; we’re asked to show our unity with one another before we presume to take the Lord’s Body and Blood. The recovery of a proper sign of peace is one of the most important fruits of the reforms of worship ushered in by the Second Vatican Council; it is also a challenge to selfish individualism which can so easily poison our worship. Perhaps we will value it more when we get it back because we’ve been deprived of it. Perhaps when we can do it again our hugs or handshakes will be particularly warm.
The Church also proclaims Peace be with you to a world riven, like the world of the 1st century Roman Empire, by divisions and violence. Christian teaching about peace, and our ever-stronger rejection of war and violence, takes its inspiration from the reconciliation between God and humanity brought about by Jesus’ death on the Cross and his rising from the dead. In our parish Lent course we focussed on Pope Francis’ letter Fratelli Tutti and in this letter there’s a strong denunciation of war and a moving away from ways in which Christians have accommodated war over the centuries. There is still a lot of war and militarism around us: the message of Easter, and of the gospel reading for this Sunday, offers humanity a better path. Peace be with you!