If you were to go through all four gospels, there are two phrases that Jesus continually brings up, with some slight variations. The first is, “Do not be afraid.” The second dovetails the first, “Peace be with you.” These two are eternally linked in the saving ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
Think back to the last time you were afraid, not just apprehensive but truly fearful. Chances are, if you are like most of humanity, when you were afraid you couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t listen properly or reason clearly. All of your attention was focused on your fear and what brought it about.
Now, Jesus was no stranger to fear in his own life. He walked into the depths of the Garden of Gethsemane, a place whose name means “the place of the olive press.” There, hours before his death, the weight and burden of the Father’s will for him began to bear down, and its horror crushed his heart, causing him to cry for the cup of suffering and death and fear to be taken away.
The depths of what actually took place that night amid the gnarled limbs of the ancient olive trees between Father and Son remains a mystery. We do know some very important and comforting points, however.
Jesus was truly afraid. This was no mere show for future evangelists to record that would look impressive between the covers of a book. Luke presents us with the gravity and reality of the moment simply and starkly:
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:44)
Bathed in a bloody sweat, Jesus prays. An angel is sent to comfort and strengthen him and he rises to meet those who were coming to destroy him. Jesus understands our fears and struggles intimately. The fear he experienced squeezed blood from his body and wrenched tears from his eyes. Approaching him when you are wracked with doubt and fear will cause compassion and love to richly flow from his heart so as to grant to you strength and peace, shalom.
“My peace I give to you.” The peace of Jesus is not a fragile thing, not something that passes away. It is not a tepid thing that is here today and gone tomorrow because it comes from the unchanging Prince of Peace himself. It flows from his wounded heart and is rooted in his very being. So when Jesus offers to share his peace with you, he is offering to you a participation in his very self, his life-giving being.
When Jesus gives us “peace,” what he means is “shalom.” Shalom is not simply Hebrew for “peace,” it is a wish, a hope, for wholeness, completeness. To wish someone shalom is to hope that nothing is ever lacking in their life, that all they need to be human will be theirs. Shalom can only truly be found in Jesus, in him in whom there is nothing lacking.
The peace of Jesus does not mean an end to suffering, however. The martyrs down through the centuries will attest to that. And anyone who has suffered the blasts of homophobia and church-sponsored fear and stupidity knows it as well. But amid the hungry, churning waves that threaten to overwhelm us, there can reside something at our core, something central to our relationship with God that keeps our eyes fixed on the crucified/risen One and prevents us from excessive “navel gazing’ about our problems.
Jesus wants to give us his peace, his shalom. Do we honestly desire to receive it? Jesus wants to lovingly reach into our lives and dispel the fears that rob us of peace and joy. Are we willing to place our lives in his nail-scared hands and allow Jesus to be as big and as loving and healing as he wants to be?
Fear is useless. Anger saps strength. Nursing old hurts starves the life out of us. Only the peace proclaimed by the angels on Christmas night, the peace announced by the risen Jesus to his fearful apostles, only that undying peace can fill our lives with riches and blessings, riches and blessings we, in turn, can share with others. It is our simply for the asking.
For God’s sake, and our own — let’s ask!
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.