Yearning for Peace
Yesterday was the second Sunday in Advent. In some circles, the theme for this day might be noted as "peace." As themes go, it is a good one. It recalls a classic announcement of the birth of Christ--"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14)--even as it does the yearning of human hearts.
Peace is an interesting concept, because we often frame it negatively. It is, to us, the absence of something: war, strife, conflict, etc. It is what we hope to experience when stresses and strains are removed. It is a state of not being something else. From a certain point of view, I track well with that sentiment. Peace is not war. War is not peace. These are axioms.
And yet, as I have often heard, an idea of peace that is defined as not being something else is a bit shallow. It is empty and frail. It is but faded picture whose Technicolor reality is ignored in favor of the quicker definition or experience.
Those who study such things tells us that a broader biblical/theological definition of peace is more. Not content with simply being the absence of conflict, peace might be more fully understood is an entire state of being. Peace is about completeness, wholeness, and a kind of full integration. Such a state can be said to occur both within our own beings and, I think, especially with relation to and interaction with God.
Much later in His life than that first Christmas, Jesus tells his disciples the following: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27). Here we see at least a few things. First, the idea that peace is at least partially about the absence of something. In this case, troubled hearts and fear. Second, though, we might also go beyond this and say that peace is something positive that is given. There may be hints here of that fuller definition of the term.
Third, Jesus reminds him that His peace is not as the world gives. And what does he mean by that? Well, if I were to hazard a guess I would wager that He is talking both about world systems in general as well as the situation in which his hearers live. In that latter context, he means Rome. Jesus and his disciples lived in the time of the great Pax Romana, a period of history where the power of the Empire had stabilized the world of the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Compared to much of the chaos that existed before, after, and outside of Rome, it was definitely the absence of some conflict.
And yet, the peace that Rome brought--that the world brought--was a stark and harsh state of affairs. It was peace at the edge of a sword. Peace brought by legions of troops that demanded compliance. Peace that ruled through enforced punishment. Peace supported by crude instruments of death like a wooden cross.
The peace that Rome gave to the world was a stabilized civilization, but one whose rule was temporary and supported by violent power dynamics. At this point I could go on to talk about other human systems of order in our world and the way in which they might share similar processes. The ways in which violence--or at least the hint of violence--can be what holds our worlds together too. That despite how far the arc of the moral universe has bent the threat of the sword still hangs low over us as we look to inculcate order. I could talk about all that...but for now I simply invite you to think on such things.
The world and its processes bring us peace...of a sort. But, missing the peace that is wholeness, completeness, and divine, many of the ways that we human beings look to enact it is simply a power game. Something that is only a shadowy reflection of what true peace can be.
But this is not the end of the story. That's one of the things that Advent can remind us of.
May we receive God's true peace and live as agents of that peace. As the Lord's Prayer reminds us: may God's Kingdom come and God's will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.