The Threat of Peace

by Bishop Robert O’Neill

I have been thinking a lot about change recently — how difficult we all seem to find it, and how resistant we all are to it even when we know it is good, necessary, and in our best interest.

Given that a life of discipleship is nothing if it is not a commitment to a life of transformation — a life of being changed by grace ever more fully into the image and likeness of God — it would seem that most of us have a problem.

I recently heard a story about the dedication of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971 that makes the point.

Jacqueline Kennedy had commissioned Leonard Bernstein to compose a mass for the occasion. Originally, Bernstein intended to base his work on the traditional Catholic mass, but over time he was drawn to the idea of doing something more innovative. He himself wrote English texts to go alongside the original Latin. Several Broadway composers were invited to contribute additional texts, and the final work even included a contribution from Paul Simon.

In the summer before its premiere — at the height of the anti-war movement and of considerable national upheaval — the FBI warned President Richard Nixon that the mass contained hidden anti-war messages that were politically subversive and posed a problem for his administration. Their specific concern, it seems, were these three words: “Dona nobis pacem” — meaning simply, “Give us peace.”

For centuries, these words have been a part of the mass. We still say them ourselves during different seasons of the year:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
 Have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
 Have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,
 Grant us peace.

Who knew that the prospect of peace could be so threatening? But in fact it is.

If the life of Jesus is any indication, it would seem that whenever true love draws near, we just know, and even fear down deep, that we ourselves will need to move if indeed we wish to live in it and grow in its ways. This is one of the meta-narratives we find woven through all four gospels.

Just take Mark for example.

It begins splendidly. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John to follow him, and the invitation is so attractive and compelling that they leave their nets “immediately.” When Jesus teaches in the synagogue, people are astounded by the wisdom and grace they experience in him. When Jesus casts out a demon, people are amazed and exclaim, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” When Jesus spends the night at Peter’s house, he heals Peter’s mother-in-law, his fame spreads, and everyone in the surrounding region is drawn to him. As he moves further into Galilee, he heals a leper — liberating him not only from an awful disease but from a life of awful isolation and marginalization. As Mark writes in typical summary form, “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases…”

What could be better? This is good news. The kingdom of heaven is indeed here. There is healing and new life, liberation and freedom, new relationship and peace. This is what love is and what love does in this world, and this is only the beginning. Amen and hallelujah!

But wait. This is only the first chapter of Mark. Now read the second.

Jesus does other things too. He breaks bread with a tax collector named Levi. He sits with sinners. He fails to conform to the conventional wisdom regarding fasting. He challenges the rules concerning Sabbath observance. This is where the questioning, the grumbling, the resistance, and outright hostility begins to set in.

This too is what true love does. In drawing near to us, it draws near to others as well — all others, to be precise, even those we fear and deem unworthy. The way of true love challenges the status quo, defies our cherished assumptions, disturbs everybody’s equilibrium, and demands that our carefully cultivated and maintained divisions cease. To walk in the way of love requires the continual practice of honest and fearless self-examination and always compels change from those who wish to live and grow in it.

This is the witness of the gospels. Isn’t it curious that a life of love — the prospect of true freedom and lasting peace for ourselves and all others — can be, at one and the same time, both so attractive and so threatening?

So I wonder, as we enter this season of Lent — a time that invites our own self-examination and repentance (read: honest self-appraisal, the willingness to change, and the repositioning and redirecting of our hearts, minds, and wills) — what change might Jesus be calling you to embrace? In this world that knows no peace, what might love be inviting you to do — actively, concretely, proactively, and practically — in order to become even more fully an instrument of God’s peace?

It’s not a threat. Not something to be feared. Just an invitation into life. There’s forty days to think about it, but honestly, there’s just not a moment to waste for any of us.