Homily for Advent 3C, 16 December 2018, Philippians 4:4-7

It’s customary on Gaudete Sunday to speak about Christian joy. Rejoice in the Lord! says St. Paul. It’s wonderful for us to ponder this Apostolic imperative: so very remarkable, so challenging, so attractive! The joy of Christ; the joy of the Holy Spirit: it’s both our birth right as Christians to possess, and our duty to live out in practice. Well, I’ve often preached about Christian joy on Gaudete Sunday. Today then, instead, I’d like to consider what frequently goes with joy in St. Paul’s writing, and also in Jewish piety, and that is God’s gift of Peace. Christians have within them a perennial well spring of peace, as well as of joy. Surely all of us know this from experience. We have tasted it, or at least glimpsed it. Our experience may indeed be partial, or only fleeting, but still we can be in no doubt whatever about its authenticity, or its origin in God. Having encountered this even once, we know how utterly desirable it is, and how blessed are those who attain it. So St. Paul often invokes peace upon his people. Often he wishes it for them. Often too he urges it, insists upon it, commands it. But in today’s passage from the letter to the Philippians, he promises it.

The peace of God, writes Paul, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

What does Paul mean by that? According to the interpretation of our current lectionary translation, which is perfectly legitimate, the peace of God surpasses understanding because it’s so great, so deep, so powerful, so divine, that in principle we can never fully comprehend it. This is the peace of the Three Trinitarian Persons, which we are invited to enter, and participate in. But St. Paul might well mean here something slightly different. The peace of God surpasses understanding, in that it outweighs, or confounds, or trumps, merely human ways of thinking. That is: just as Christian joy is compatible with circumstances of trouble, pain, distress, grief, so also is Christian peace. The world knows nothing about this, but such peace is invincible, and those who are in Christ Jesus are able to have felt access to it at all times. The Saints, and especially the martyrs, all bear witness to this peace, which is so deep and strong that it somehow overwhelms even the most intense anguish of body and mind.

It’s good to speak about peace especially in Advent, for we are preparing to welcome among us Christ, to whom Isaiah gave the title Prince of Peace (9:5). Soon indeed we’ll hear the joyful song of the Angels on Christmas night, proclaiming their message of peace on earth (Lk 2:14). Very soon too we shall be gazing on the scene at the crib, where the baby Jesus lies, so peacefully, so quietly, so humbly, with his mother Mary, and St. Joseph, and the shepherds, and wise men, and the ox and the ass, and the star which leads us there unerringly, while also confusing Herod, and foiling his murderous plots.

It’s good to speak about peace now too, as we look around us. Our world so very much lacks, and so very much needs the gift of peace. From so many places in the world there come news of hostility, conflict, violence, war. To look no further than our own country: just now we’re all engulfed in a deeply divisive debate about our proper relationship with Europe. Before that we had the debate about the constitution of the United Kingdom itself, which also we found to be deeply divisive. As for our broken society, there are so many divided families, separated parents, traumatised children; so much stress and mental illness; so much loneliness and isolation; so many people who have no first hand experience whatever of peace. Then, so sad to say, even within the Catholic Church, we have the appearance nowadays of multiple factions, with mutually incompatible positions on a range of subjects, more or less at open war with one another.

All this can actually help us reflect on the meaning of St. Paul’s words about peace. Most emphatically these are not the bland platitudes of a sentimentalist, or the fantasies of someone living detached from reality, or the benign wishes of an appeaser who only wants a comfortable life, and so urges peace at any price. No, no! Look at St. Paul himself! We see there a man who was almost always at the centre of conflict. Paul’s very presence provoked riots, brought cities to a standstill, incited plots against his life. Even within the Christian communities he himself had founded, Paul could be a cause of division. Perhaps though, amidst all that, he was personally cool, calm and collected? He was not. Paul tells us himself that he is permanently filled with anxiety about all the Churches. Plainly, too, his mind habitually seethed with ideas, as he wrestled with theological mysteries, or pastoral difficulties, or worked out arguments against his many opponents.

With St. Paul, then, we know that not all issues are trivial, nor all conflicts possible to avoid. Some things are worth fighting for, even dying for. Sometimes, simply because we are Christians, we find ourselves morally bound to stand and fight. Nevertheless, also with St. Paul, we hold peace to be a great good. We pray for it, work for it, hope for it, strive to bring it about. We invoke peace and blessing on our enemies, even as we also pray for their conversion, and prepare to defend ourselves against their attacks. 

Even more, we invoke the peace of Christ on one another, especially at Mass. At every Mass too we ask the Lord to grant peace and unity to his Church. And at every Mass, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Priest invokes God’s peace on each one of us.

When you are in a boat on a choppy sea, and find yourself overtaken by nausea, you are advised to look steadily at the horizon. When you are lost in the wilderness at night, you need to locate the pole star. When you lack peace in your heart, or in your community, you need to look steadily at Jesus Christ. In his light, and in the light of his saving love, we are able to see all things in their proper context. Looking at him, we know that he alone has ultimate significance for us. And praying to him, we know that he has both the power and the will to give peace. Pray, says St. Paul, and God’s own peace will surround you like a garrison of soldiers. Come into the presence of Jesus, in a one-to-one, personal, close up, silent, loving encounter, and he will give peace. Not only that. Insofar as he gives peace to you, that same peace will leak outwards also, and diffuse itself, and spread, touching individual hearts, and societies, and even the whole world. We see this happening in the lives of all the Saints. Just as a matter of fact, we read about it also on every page of our Visitors book. And so we pray now: grant us peace O Lord in our day. Establish your peace in our hearts, and in our lives. Give peace to those who lack it, and for whom we pray. And draw us all to enter your own everlasting peace in heaven. Amen.