Peace. Virtually every person wants it. Far fewer understand it. All need to know that they will only find it in Jesus Christ.
Peace is the first gift of both the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Lord named in Scripture. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14), the angels declare to the shepherds after the birth of Christ. When the risen Lord appears to His disciples in the Upper Room on Easter night, He first says to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).
The risen Christ’s announcement of peace is an echo of a promise He made in the Upper Room during the Last Supper, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (John 14:27). It is, of course, no accident that Christ promises the gift of His peace as He institutes the Holy Eucharist, in which the mysteries of His Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection are made present and His peace is communicated to those who offer and receive His Body and Blood.
The deepest spiritual reality of the Eucharist, known in Catholic tradition as the res tantum of the Sacrament, is union with Christ and with His Mystical Body, the Church. Closely related to the union signified and effected by the Holy Eucharist is the gift of peace the Sacrament brings. One writer who draws special attention to the relationship of the Eucharist with the gift of Christ’s peace is the distinguished preacher and apologist Msgr. Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957).
“The whole notion of Christian solidarity grows out of, and is centered in, the common participation of a common table,” Knox writes in one of his sermons.1 The gifts of unity and peace respond to a need deeply embedded in human nature, the need for fellowship.2
Reference to the Eucharist as the Sacrament of Peace dates back as far as St. Ignatius of Antioch. This title was also used by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.3 Ronald Knox was aware of the Patristic pedigree of this concept and expressed his wish that it would rise in prominence once again, calling it “very little mentioned” and “too little mentioned” in his day.4
Referring jointly to Eucharistic unity and peace, Knox calls this strain of Eucharistic doctrine “now so little remembered, or at least so much disregarded”.5 There are three interrelated forms of peace given by the Eucharist: peace with God, peace within oneself, and peace with others.6 Contrasting this peace with the peace the world offers, or rather the worldly peace humanity seeks and so often fails to find, Knox writes:
I think the world at this moment is more genuinely anxious for the maintenance of peace between nations than perhaps it has ever been in all its history. Nor should we do well to belittle or to deride the efforts made, even by those who differ deeply from us in fundamental opinions, to secure an object so dear to the heart of Christ. But, if the last irrevocable treaty were signed, and the last cruiser scrapped, and the last gun melted down, would that be peace? Peace in a world that for the most part either forgets God, or openly defies him? Peace in a world where human hearts, emancipating themselves from every social tie, are carried to and fro by their passions, and win from the gratification of them only discontent? For the war within our own intellects, for the war within our own wills, the world has no solution to offer; hold congresses at every town in Switzerland, and our hearts will still be a battleground, for God made them for himself, and they can find no rest until they find rest in him.7
Living through two world wars8, Knox shows a special interest in the concept of Christ’s peace, and how it is shared both within the communion of the Church and with the world. Knox reflects extensively on the transformative power of that fraternal charity which is strengthened by the reception of Holy Communion, a sacramental grace that Knox considered to be too-little appreciated by the Catholics of his day. This charity, if fully realized, could bring peace to a world ravaged by war and divisions.9 In a meditation first written for the Sunday Times of London, Knox describes war as a “sword” that “brings division into our lives”.10
There are many kinds of division brought by war—familial, economic, philosophical, and diplomatic—but the peace-giving power of the Eucharist is greater even than the divisive power of war. War “cannot interrupt the current of sacramental fellowship which unites us with our fellow-Christians when we and they share the same heavenly banquet,” Knox writes. “Years may have to elapse before the external conditions of free intercourse are re-established between us and our friends abroad. But as children round our Father’s Table, we are already at one. Our friends yesterday, our friends to-morrow—in the timeless existence to which the Christian altar introduces us, they are our friends to-day.”11
Indeed, even enemies are sacramentally united as they draw towards God’s altar in their respective churches, wherever the Mass is offered.12 The altar is the “rallying-point of God’s people” and has been from the apostolic age. Even death does not exclude the faithful from drawing near to Christ in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. They too share in the peace of his altar. This unity is closely connected to the understanding that the faithful departed, assisted by the prayers of the Church on earth, rest in peace.13
The Eucharistic altar is a source of peace for the faithful because it is the place where “heaven touches earth” and where a common Sacrifice makes the many members one in Christ. The altar of the Mass is the new Jerusalem on earth, the new meeting-place of God’s people, the new locus of sacrifice and of that peace which flows from sacrifice offered to God. Whereas Jerusalem was established as the “City of Peace” under the dispensation of the Old Covenant, the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Peace under the dispensation of the New Covenant.14 As Jerusalem, and particularly the Temple, was also the locus of God’s fullest presence among his people, so too the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is God’s fullest presence among his people since Our Lord’s Ascension, and the continuing presence of the Eucharistic Lord has the power to effect his people’s unity and peace.15
In order for the faithful to have peace with each other, however, let alone bring peace to the world, they must have peace within themselves. Knox references the Prayer Over the People for the Third Sunday of Lent as a model of the Church’s prayer for peace: “That thou wouldst bring together and mend, mend and for ever preserve, what now lies broken.”16
This prayer applies to the peace we seek in the world, Knox writes, but it is also a fitting prayer for the inner peace of the individual: “Aren’t we conscious, once again, of the need for praying that almighty God will bring together and mend, mend and for ever preserve, what now lies broken? Haven’t we got to be at peace within ourselves before we can bring any peace to the world in which we live?”17
It would be completely contrary to Knox’s theological outlook to view such inner peace as primarily an emotional reality, i.e. a feeling of peace. Knox relies upon the doctrine of the Real Presence and upon the transformative power of the encounter with the Eucharistic Lord in order to explain how individual, inner peace is achieved.
This peace is achieved “precisely in proportion as you manage to get more closely in touch, and more intimately in touch, with the Eucharistic life of our blessed Lord.”18 The “gift of the living Christ” confers the gifts of unity and peace to the faithful. Christ gives “all of himself to each that each may be one with all”.19 The Eucharist produces the fruits of “more charity towards your neighbor, more loyalty towards the Church, (and) more unselfishness in your human attachments.” It also “makes you more at unity with yourself; it catches up your life into a rhythm that echoes the heavenly music.”20
To share in the peace of Christ is to share in the love that is the bond between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and to allow Christ to “reign amidst the chaos of your heart”.21
Not only does the divine charity ground unity and peace among Christians, but it also inspires the desire for peace in human hearts. The love of Christ impels the faithful to desire peace.22
This desire for peace is essential if the objective gift of peace given in the Eucharist is to have its full effect. Knox also makes clear in his treatment of the Eucharist and peace that it is not the objective gift that fails to produce the peace God desires for us, but rather our lack of cooperation with His gift. We are to allow ourselves and our relationships to be transformed by the grace of the Sacrament, even as the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Transubstantiation signifies the transformation at work in our lives, from division and conflict to unity and peace:
Is not that (transubstantiation) to remind us, that all our natural friendships and ties and loyalties ought to be supernaturalized when we partake of this holy gift, transmuted into one single supernatural solidarity, the union of Christian people, through Christ, in Christ? Husband and wife, one now in Christ; mother and child, one now in Christ; friends, school-fellows, neighbors, guild-members, one now in Christ.23
Even the prayers of God’s people are ‘welded’ together “in the crucible of (Christ’s) divine charity”.24 Yet the unity and peace the Lord seeks to give his people often languishes for lack of cooperation. “The unity is real,” Knox writes. “It only remains for us to make it our own by corresponding with the grace given us, too often neglected.”25
Were the members of the Church to cease neglecting these sacramental gifts and to cooperate with them, the change it would effect could very well reach beyond one’s own life and relationships, and make an impact on the wider world. Given the number of Catholics and their dispersion around the globe, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that Catholics could do a very great deal to advance the cause of true peace in the world:
If we would only try to realize our membership in Christ, then perhaps, little by little, bickering in families would begin to disappear, and then feuds in parishes, and then jealousies between parish and parish, between diocese and diocese; until at last—who knows?—nations themselves might catch the infection of the movement, and the Catholics of Europe, nay, of the whole world, would interpose themselves as a solid barrier against any disturbance of the world’s peace.26
The gift of peace is a culminating experience of one’s positive response to the proclamation of the Gospel. Those who are evangelized—who choose the “narrow way” of repentance, conversion, and carrying their crosses as they follow Christ—come to know true peace. Catholic disciples find at the Lord’s altar peace with God, within themselves, and with their neighbor.
At the same time, the gift of peace equips those who have participated in the Eucharist to go into the world and share the gift they have received from Christ. Knox once wrote of the Benedictine monks, who have taken along with “Ora et Labora” the motto “Pax”, that they are “a perpetual example and a visible advertisement to us of how we ought to live, of how we ought to die in order that we may live; in a word, of where our true peace lies.”27 These words describe well the influence that the gift of peace given in the Eucharist should have in the lives of Catholic disciples and in the Church’s mission of evangelization.
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