The Sign of Peace is a staple of the Mass for most of us. The priest bestows the peace of Christ upon us and we in turn offer peace to our brothers and sisters in Christ. This part of the Mass has probably become routine and we do it without much thought. In reality, we should be amazed at these words since they are the very words Our Lord uttered upon His appearance to the disciples in the locked Upper Room following His Resurrection. These words are nothing short of astonishing. Meditate for a moment on the account from the Gospel of St. John:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:19-21)
This passage of Scripture is significant in the Catholic theological understanding of the Sacrament of Penance, but for this article we are going to focus on Our Lord’s first words to his disciples after the Resurrection and their implication in our own lives.
Human weakness on full display
What had the disciples just done in the previous days? They had celebrated the Last Supper at which St. Peter claims he will never deny Christ, but a few hours later he does just that. The disciples fall asleep multiple times in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ tells them to pray. Once His betrayal is at hand, all of the Apostles save St. John flee. They abandon Our Lord in His hour of need. Christ is then subjected to torturous flogging, the Crowning of Thorns, the carrying of His Holy Cross, and finally crucifixion and death. The God of the universe, our Creator, dies for us largely abandoned by those whom He loves. It is Our Heavenly Mother, a few of the women disciples, and St. John who stand beside Him during His agony.
All of this has happened in the preceding days when we find the disciples sitting in the locked Upper Room. They are terrified and grieving. They do not know what to do. They have given into human weakness—as we all do—and are now confused. The tomb is empty, St. Mary Magdalene has seen the Risen Lord, but what does it all mean? It is in all of this pain, weakness, sin, loneliness, stupidity, fear, cruelty, and death that Christ appears to His disciples and tells them “Shalom.” It is the very same “Shalom” He says to us in the Mass and when we receive the healing peace of the Sacrament of Confession.
Our own journey
All of us abandon Our Lord at different times in our lives. We give into temptation. We fall short in our vocations. We slip up and backslide on the path to holiness. Some good we thought we wanted or needed turns out to be less than we needed or even harmful to us. St. Augustine teaches us that sin is a “privation of the good”, privatio boni. We either choose a lesser good or we do not choose the good that is mean to be present in a given situation. The disciples—like ourselves—chose physical security over Our Lord. Instead of coming back at the Resurrection in vengeance and fury, He returns in total and complete self-emptying love and forgiveness. He knows what has been done. He shows them—and us—His wounds and tells all of us down through the ages to begin again and not to forget what sin and death cost.
The same is true for us. When we fall short, we are reminded of what Christ has done for us and we begin again. We seek forgiveness in His loving embrace through the Sacrament of Confession. He always extends His peace to us, even when we commit the most grievous of sins. St. Paul was responsible for the martyrdom of Christians before His radical conversion to Christ. Most of us are not literally struck blind by the Light of Christ, but all of us need to constantly have our vision cured when we fall into temptation.
Our Lord knows that this life is a battle for us. He knows that He has called us to holiness, to perfection, but we are incapable of doing it on our own. That is why we must constantly fall on Him. He is the only One who can extend “Shalom” to each one of us again and again. He is the only One who can heal our weaknesses, failings, character defects, wounds, and sins. He comes back at the Resurrection and wipes the slate clean.
It is these words we say to one another at Mass. It is these words that our priest in persona Christi extends to us. We all need this peace. We all need to be forgiven every single day of our lives as we fall and get back up again and again. This Easter season reminds us that we begin anew in the peace extended by Our Lord. Each Mass we are reminded of the astonishing gift of Our Lord’s “Shalom.” Let us not forget what Love costs and embrace the peace of Christ in our daily lives.