Wednesday, August 27, 2014
[Isaiah 32: 15-18; Colossians 3:12-15; Matthew 5:1-12]
Tonight we gather in response to the call of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, to pray for peace throughout the Middle East. Our motivation is strengthened by the images of pain and suffering that pass without cease across our television screens: families forced to flee from their homes, innocent children maimed or killed, people inconsolable with grief, livelihoods destroyed, and unspeakable atrocities committed against Christians and other religious minorities. When these images are compared with the one offered in the Scripture readings this evening, we see with clarity just how far we have fallen away from God's vision for the co-existence of his children. At the same time, these words from Sacred Scripture do not leave us in despair; rather, they show the way forward and summon us to hope.
God's will for his beloved people finds beautiful expression in the words of the prophet Isaiah that speak of cohabitation in a peace that springs from justice and righteousness. This is an important cause-and-effect statement. Righteousness means right relationship with God. This gives rise to that proper relating among human beings we call justice, which, in turn, is the foundation of peace. This means that our profound desire for peace everywhere, especially among the noble peoples of the Middle East, takes us inescapably to the question of our understanding of God and our relationship with him. Where there is no peace, we can expect to find injustice. And where there is injustice, God's nature is misunderstood, his vision for humanity is obscured and his commands are ignored.
Our certainty in this regard rests on God's own self-revelation. Throughout salvation history he has made himself known, together with what he expects of us. The divine self-revelation reached its perfection in the gift of Jesus Christ, because he is the eternal Son of God made flesh. In him we are given the sure knowledge that God is love, that He loves each of his children beyond measure, and that he commands us to love one another as he has loved us. From what God Himself has revealed we see clearly that violence perpetrated in His name is an abomination. Violence and terror in the name of God can in no way honour the Almighty; on the contrary, such action blasphemes him.
Among the beautiful teachings of the Lord Jesus, that which outlines most clearly his vision for right relationships among all human beings is his Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes, which were proclaimed anew for us in the reading from St. Matthew's Gospel. He pronounces blessed those who are poor in spirit, that is to say, those who rely peacefully upon the providence of God and grasp at nothing. He extols the meek as the earth's true inheritors and promises the vision of God to the pure of heart. Those who are merciful will receive God's mercy, and those who work for peace will be counted among the children of God. As to righteousness, those who hunger and thirst for it will be filled and those who are persecuted for its sake will inherit the kingdom of God.
These words of Jesus regarding persecution strike a particular chord right now. We know that throughout history persecution has befallen countless numbers of Christians for the simple fact that they were Christians. Our hearts recoil in horror and break as we see it perpetrated still today. Particularly shocking and terrifying for Iraqi Christians has been the painting by members of ISIS of the Arabic letter "nun" on their homes and businesses. It is the first letter of the Arabic word Nasrani, or Nazarene, and is used to denote the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Their purpose in doing this is to identify Christians as a target of their insane threats and atrocities, and we know that many have fled for their lives in consequence.
However, while terrorists use this letter as a target for their hatred, Christians understand it, and bear it proudly, as the source of their strength and the reason for their hope. It denotes our deepest identity as disciples of that Nazarene, who, by his cross and resurrection, destroyed death and manifested the ultimate futility of evil. Living in him, Christians draw strength from the power of his resurrection, and found their hope in the knowledge that, because of Jesus and the love of God revealed and active in him, evil will never have the last word.
At the same time, our identity as Christians, as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, bestows upon us a mission that we must not shirk. Jesus came to reconcile all things to himself and, through him, to the Father. Therefore, we to whom baptism grants a share in his mission must be signs and agents of reconciliation. Jesus gave his life to break down the walls of hatred and division (cf. Ephesians 2:14). Those who follow him, therefore, must live in harmony with one another and work for peace wherever there is bitterness and strife. The love of God revealed in Christ makes clear the inalienable dignity of every man, woman and child. From this it follows that the Christian is one who stands in active solidarity with all whose dignity is affronted. Finally, in Christ God's forgiveness has come to us. Those who have been made Christians by this forgiving love of God must be ready to extend that forgiveness to others. Indeed, tonight we heard St. Paul teach in his letter to the Colossians that love of one another and the readiness and willingness to forgive are the hallmarks of the Christian life. They stand as a sign to others of the right relationships that obtain among human beings when they are in right relationship with God.
We have gathered tonight to pray, and prayer is urgently needed. There is much work for the governments of the world to do in order to bring hostilities to an end in Iraq, Syria, Israel and Gaza. Yet such efforts cannot ultimately succeed without the help that comes from Almighty God. Hostilities and aggression must be stopped. Yet we must not forget that such a cessation is only a first step. Indeed, it is to treat what is but a symptom of a deep malady residing in human hearts. Lasting peace will come only when the underlying disease of injustice is cured, and this in its turn requires right relationship with God rightly understood. What is needed, in other words, is a mighty outpouring of grace upon hearts made ready to receive it that they might be turned away from hatred and toward solidarity, from lust for war to longing for peace.
So, let us pray for this gift of grace. As we do, we ask our merciful God to look with mercy upon all the suffering, that they be consoled; upon all who are working for peace, that they have strength; upon the countless refugees and those who work among them, that they know hope; and upon the perpetrators of violence and terror, that their hearts and minds be changed. Let us pray, as well, for all who follow Christ, that we might accept with renewed understanding and zeal the mission that is ours to be agents of solidarity, peace and reconciliation. And finally, we pray that all people of faith unite in our proclamation of God as all-loving and all-merciful and in our call to the world to live together in accord with God's vision for his people, a vision of righteousness, justice and peace.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
St. Joseph's Basilica, August 27, 2014