Sunday, 18 August 2013

"I came not to bring peace, but a sword"

The peace of God which passeth all understanding. So begins the traditional blessing. But what is this peace of Christ? 

From Jesus' words today, it seems a rather strange sort of peace: the peace that is born of fire and the sword, distress, division of families and communities. Is that what I am wishing on you when I bless you at the end of Mass?If that is indeed the peace of Christ, then no one can say that Jesus did not practice what he preached. Look at his own family. His mother was promised, earlier on in Luke's infancy narrative, that her heart would be pierced by the sword. And so it surely would be, when she stood and watched only son die on the cross. 

This, I think, is part of the rationale of the great Christian feast celebrated last Thursday, of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Very ancient tradition has said that Our Lady did not die, but rather passed without death straight into heaven. The idea is, I think, that as a mother watching her own child's die, she had already in some way died herself. A second death would be superfluous.

And how Jesus treated her in life was not always what we would nowadays consider exemplary: remember him ordering her around at the wedding at Cana, or the time when she tried to come to his door and he asked "who is my mother?" And just before he died, he handed Mary over to John, to become the mother of the new Church he left behind. Putting it mildly, biological families seem to be a fairly low priority for Jesus. The peace of Christ is not about complicity with inherited mores, not about loyalty to ones blood at all costs.

I suppose Jesus' attitude towards peace must have been coloured by the famous peace of the Empire He lived in: the famous "Pax Romana" of Emperor Augustus, a peace won by crushing freedoms and rival kingdoms. Even political peace is not something that should be maintained at all costs. Within the peace of Christ, there is room for resistance, room for disobedience, and that means room too for strife and suffering.

A saint whose feast we kept last Wednesday knew this all too well. Maximilian Kolbe was born at the end of the 19th century in Poland under German occupation. I suppose you could say that there was a sort of Augustinian peace there, too: the peace guaranteed by the oppressor through crushing resistance. Poland was restored to independence in Kolbe's lifetime, only of course to lose it again later to the same oppressors. It is said that in his youth he had a vision or a dream in which he was offered a choice of purity or martyrdom. He chose both. In his lifetime, he became a Franciscan friar, and set up a community which eventually numbered over 600. He was dedicated to waging spiritual warfare against the oppressive forces of materialism and worldly empire, and was keen to make use of every modern means of communication at his disposal to do so. He set up radio stations and magazines, not only at home, but even in Nagasaki in Japan, to spread the gospel of Christ. He knew by bitter experience that true peace has to be fought for.

The purity of his life was enough to make him a saint, but it was crowned by his death as a martyr. Interred in a Nazi concentration camp, he befriended several Jews. A sort of decimation was taking place, where people were randomly selected to be executed. A Jewish man with a family was chosen. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in exchange, and it was taken. He gave it not for the protection of his blood family, nor even for the protection of one of his Christian family in the church, but for someone who was not in any conventional sense related to him at all. Did he give it peacefully, with a calm mind, an untroubled countenance? I don't know. I rather doubt it. But that's not the point. Because surely what today's gospel shows us is that, whatever the peace Christ brings is, is not that sort of peace. It's a peace that comes with the fire and the sword.

Christians used to talk rather more about fire than we do now. Hellfire especially. Is this the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about? In a way, I think yes. The baptism of fire that Jesus is to undergo is a dipping into suffering a dipping into despair, a dipping into Godforsakenness. That is what the Crucifixion is: God knowing really and truly utter Godlessness. The source of everything being swallowed into the nothing. Or as we put it in our Creed, the Son of God descending into Hell. But it is a fire that Jesus descends into only to rise out of it again, and to pull out its denizens with him. It is a purifying fire, made so because Jesus by passing through it has purified it for us. And so we have nothing to fear from the fire or the sword, however deeply both may pierce us.

Jesus's words today are challenging. And we can see in the Blessed Virgin Mary and in St Maximilian Kolbe how we are to respond to His challenge. With Mary, we are to stand by the Cross, to stand with the suffering, those we love and those we don't, and yet love Jesus still. With St Maximilian, the important thing is not so much his martyr's death, as the person he has become to die it. God willing, we will never face his fate, but we can still become the sort of person he became. We do so by prayer, with hope and courage, and with acceptance of the fire that purifies and the sword that pierces us.

The peace of Christ that we Christians are called to is not some sense of inner calm, although we may enjoy that sometimes. Rather, it is a state of heartfelt gratitude for Crucifixion: not just Jesus', but our own; gratitude for the fires which purge and make us clean; willingness to offer up ourselves as part of Christ's sacrifice, knowing well that what is not crucified cannot be resurrected.

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