Words on the Word
Isaiah 9:1-6: Every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
Colossians 3:12-17: Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.
Luke 1:26-38: Of his kingdom there will be no end.
First-time or casual readers of the Bible are often surprised, and not a little disedified, by Scripture’s frank accounts of human failure, human wretchedness. Perhaps there is in all of us an implicit expectation that, when we approach the things of God, we should be entering a velvet-curtained sanctuary, where laws apply that are different from those that condition normal life; where the garish colours of day-to-day existence are filtered into soft, sweet pastels; where candles flicker, incense burns, and a murmur of angelic song is just perceptible. Anyone prone to such devout escapism will find the Biblical Word a cold shower, and might therefore tend to avoid it, or read it only selectively, picking out the nice bits. We are gathered here on the Day of Resurrection to honour and pray to the Blessed Mother of God. She is often represented to us as ethereal, as if her feet had barely touched this all too solid earth – yet what images does Scripture put before us? Images of tramping soldiers, of garments rolled in blood, of a brutal rod of oppression. This is the night of violence into which a distant prophecy of Christ appeared like sudden lightning. When he who is to come has come, says Isaiah, he will be called ‘Prince of Peace’. As his government extends, ‘there will be no end of peace.’ From that peace, joy will issue.
Isaiah’s prediction is substantially repeated in the angel’s message to Mary. The Prince of Peace, thenceforth, is no longer a figure of future hope. He is present, with a name and a face, with a Mother. What stirred in her soul when she heard those enormous words and grasped the call they implied? We reflect on this mystery each time we pray the rosary. We are drawn into the moment of incarnation, when humanity, through Mary, declared its assent to God’s purpose. It is a moment of eternity, but also a moment fixed in time. By virtue of conceiving the Prince of Peace, Mary became, by maternal privilege, Queen. We invoke her as Queen of Peace in the Loretan litany. Yet the world into which our Lord was born was not a peaceful world. Nor did peace come to prevail in it. Many of Christ’s followers hoped he would bring peace to the land. His reply was, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ A generation after his Passion, Israel itself was totally destroyed, to reappear on the map only 1,878 years later. What sort of peace is it, then, that Mary bears, Christ embodies? A purely interior reality, or something concrete and objective?
The absence of world peace in the wake of Christ’s incarnation was a conundrum for the early Church. It ought to trouble us still. We believe that God has walked among us; that the eternal Word has spoken in time. How can his reign of peace have failed to be established? We are faced with one of the mysteries of faith, which applies not least to the way we see the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is difficult to speak about this mystery, but we must try. What I have in mind is this: that God’s preferred mode of action in our world is by way of processes, by acting through creatures. Of course, he can intervene directly, by way of miracles, signs, or revelations, but he does so only exceptionally. It is not in the extraordinary that God calls us to seek him. The incarnation was about the sanctification of what is most ordinary. When God created the universe, he did not wave a wand and cause it to appear in a twinkle, the way a Disney-divinity might do. He brought it forth laboriously, step by step, delighting in seeing each seed of life realise its potential at its own leisurely pace. Likewise, when God brought forth Israel, he did not snap his fingers. He let the process of nation-building run its painful course through the confusions and ambiguities of personal and political relations. When he took flesh, God did not appear suddenly, as he might have done, all powerful and glorious. He submitted to the messy process of gestation and birth, choosing powerlessness. It should not surprise us that his way of building his kingdom of peace follows similar laws. God’s peace is not a commodity we can buy, nor a feeling we can induce, nor a reward we can earn. God’s peace is a function of living in his presence, according to his will. God’s peace is the utter surrender of our life to his providential plan, that he might do with us what he will when and how he will. Peace doesn’t plop down from heaven in a parcel. It’s an active, living thing. ‘Seek peace and pursue it’, our Father St Benedict exhorts his monks. The seventh Beatitude tells us, remarkably, we should be makers of peace. The struggle of each of our lives is to realise this peaceful call in fullness. The Queen of Peace is our model. Like her, we are called to say a deliberate ‘Yes’ to the lordship of Christ, letting him take flesh in our flesh, becoming his instruments, sacraments of his presence. We have standards by which we can measure our progress on this path. Is our heart at peace? Are we on peaceful terms with our family and neighbours? Do we seek peace with our enemies? Are we peacemakers? We should examine ourselves earnestly on all these counts. They show whether we have even begun to be true Christians, whether we live as children of our Blessed Mother. If we find we have a way to go, let us gird up our loins and get moving to catch up with peace, until peace truly rules in our heart. Christ is our peace. We are his ambassadors. We’ve a reign of peace to build. It’s an urgent task, so let’s get on with it.