On December 1, while leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I was able to celebrate Christmas Mass in a cave in Bethlehem’s Shepherds’ Field (the Church gives permission to do so all but a few days a year). There my fellow pilgrims and I were able to ponder the angels’ visit to the shepherds guarding their flocks by night and the message they proclaimed to them: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests.”
Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, had come to bring peace on earth. (Isaiah had prophesied about Him), in words that we hear during Christmas Midnight Mass, “For a Child is born to us, a Son is given to us. They name Him … Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). Zechariah had foretold that Jesus would “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Lk 1:79). When Jesus eventually sent out His disciples, He instructed them, “As you enter a house, wish it peace” (Mt 10:12). During the Last Supper, He would describe peace as His lasting endowment: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), and after the Resurrection, when He walked through the closed doors of the Upper Room, He would three times wish the fearful Apostles, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19-21).
Peace, understood Biblically not just as the absence of war but as the fullness of blessing, is a summary of Jesus’ entire message and mission.
The peace He introduced, however, will always be one of the great paradoxes in the Gospel.
“Not as the world gives do I give [peace] to you,” He underlined (Jn 14:27). “Do not think I have come to bring peace upon the earth” according to earthly categories, He said. “I have come not to bring not peace but the sword” (Mt 10:34), stating that on account of Him, families would experience disharmony. As He was preparing to enter the holy city of Jerusalem to fulfill His mission, He would weep and pronounce, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes,” saying that the city would be leveled because His contemporaries “did not recognize the time of Your visitation” (Lk 19:42-44).
Though He had come to bring peace on earth, in other words, there would nevertheless remain division and destruction, because many would not embrace His peace plan and reorder their priorities and path according to what would make for lasting tranquility.
Jesus would be what Simeon had prophesied at His presentation in the Temple: a sign of contradiction. From Herod’s attempting to assassinate Him as an infant, to His fellow Nazarenes’ trying to hurl Him to his death off a cliff, to the Scribes’, Pharisees’, Sadducees’ and Herodians’ all co-conspiring with the hated Romans to have Him crucified, the Prince of Peace would nevertheless be a sign destined to bring out either the best and the worst in others, both peace and disturbance.
Those who would accept Him, He would name and bless as peacemakers and true children of God (Mt 5:9). Those who would reject Him, however, would not only not experience peace but undermine and possibly destroy it.
It’s important to keep this paradox in mind as we live the Christmas mystery.
Sometimes the message of the angels to the shepherds, taken in isolation, can make the Gospel seem Utopian and irrelevant in confrontation with the harsh realities of today’s world.
Some might even say that if Jesus came to bring peace, the lack of it in the world can almost make His mission seem a failure.
When the pope gives his annual Christmas Urbi et Orbi message and prays for peace to reach a seemingly ever-growing list of troubled areas of the world, it seems to suggest that the people who walk in darkness are in fact growing in number, rather than seeing a great light.
Rather than invalidating Jesus’ mission, however, the lack of peace in the world highlights its importance.
Just like those alive 2,000 years ago failed to recognize the time of the Messiah’s visitation and embrace what makes for peace, so every generation has a choice to make as to the way they will respond to the type of peace Christ leaves and gives.
Christ has revolutionized the way we are called to respond not just to God but to each other, to transform us to retaliate with cruciform love and forgiveness rather than victimized vengeance, fears and phobias, to build peace through treating others the way we would want to treat Him and be treated, to become Good Samaritans rather than Cains.
This work of peace, however, is something ever present. The values and virtues of Christ’s Kingdom never exist in a vacuum, but must be consciously chosen over the temptations to prioritize power, possessions, and pleasures over people, spin over truth, fear over trust.
The paradox of peace was brought home to me in an indelible way at the end of my recent pilgrimage. I was celebrating Mass for the group just before our departure from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv for our flights home.
During the words of consecration, as I said the “b” in “This is My Body,” I heard a loud pop from outside the Notre Dame Center chapel just outside the Jerusalem old city walls. It sounded like a single firework, but fireworks almost always come in bunches. I tried not to get distracted as I genuflected and rose to consecrate the Precious Blood. When I got to the “b” in “This is the chalice of My Blood,” I heard another couple of pops.
Immediately after Mass when I arrived in the Sacristy, I asked our guide whether he heard the sounds at the Consecration. He didn’t say a word, but just passed me his phone, where he showed me a video already virally uploaded of what had happened only about 10 minutes prior.
The video showed a young man lying on a sidewalk just outside Damascus Gate with a couple of Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles in the background. The seemingly helpless man turned and then one of the soldiers shot him again twice.
I asked the guide, “Please tell me those were rubber bullets.” He said, “No. Real,” and then added, with sober resignation, “They have orders to shoot to kill.”
I was speechless. At the very moments when the words of Consecration were being enunciated, blood was being shed, and a human life ended, a stone’s throw down the hill.
At the very end of a beautiful pilgrimage, the reality of the lack of peace in the land where Jesus was born came into relief.
After arriving home, I visited the website of the Jerusalem Post to find out the details of what had occurred. The newspaper documented the killing of 25-year-old Mohammed Shawkat Salima as well as the various protests that had quickly arisen in response to what the soldiers had done. Much more copy, however, was given to the defense of the soldiers’ actions by Israeli police and government officials.
Within one of the articles was a video that gave greater context. Salima had been walking across a crosswalk toward the Damascus Gate. He passed a 20-year-old Haredi Jewish man walking in the opposite direction. A couple of seconds later, Salima turned around and began to stab the Haredi from behind as the victim vigorously tried to get his arms out of his suit coat to ward off the aggressor.
Israeli soldiers soon converged and Salima ran toward one of them and stabbed him. At that, another soldier shot him and he fell, neutralized, to the sidewalk. Several seconds later, when Salemi began to rotate in their direction on the ground, the soldiers discharged the fatal shots.
The official justification for shooting one who seemed to be helpless was because soldiers in such situations can never be sure that someone isn’t wearing a suicide vest to try to take the lives of others as he ends his own life.
The whole episode was a poignant reminder of the lack of peace in the land of Jesus’ visitation and the need to act on the unexpired imperative given in Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
The name Jerusalem means in Hebrew, “City of Peace,” but the provocative actions and death of Mohammed Shawkat Salima, a short distance from where Christ Himself was crucified, are as a poignant reminder of how much work still needs to be done to make that a reality.
As we prepare to hear anew the angels’ “good news of great joy to all the people,” and their message of “peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests,” let us recognize the time of our visitation has arrived and commit ourselves, with the Prince of Peace, to His mission.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.