It is surely no coincidence that the very first words out of the mouth of Christ to his chosen disciples gathered in the upper room were, “Peace be with you!” Peace had eluded mankind since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were alienated not only from God but also from one another through sin. The closeness that Adam and Eve had experienced since their creation (“This one at last is bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh”) was shattered and they clothed themselves in shame and embarrassment. The closeness that Adam and Eve had enjoyed with God since their creation (“They heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day”) was likewise shattered and they hid from God among the trees of the garden. Mankind’s first parents were not at peace with one another and they were not at peace with God — a legacy that has continued to the present day under the familiar and ominous title “original sin.”
God the Father of course did not abandon Adam and Eve after their infraction. Although God did not offer these first parents much consolation, he did foretell that their cause had not been completely lost. Tension between good and evil would continue throughout history. God warned the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel (Gen.3:15). The ancient Jews easily identified Eden’s serpent with the devil whose eventual defeat is implied in this verse. In fact, this Scriptural passage has often been labeled as the “proto-evangelium,” the first Gospel, the first promise of a redeemer for fallen humankind. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, France, and several other fathers of the Church interpreted this verse to refer to Christ who would strike at the head of Satan initiating an eventual victory over sin. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the new Eve, is often depicted in statuary with her foot crushing the serpent’s head. However subtly, the long process of redemption had begun.
After centuries of false starts throughout Jewish history, the moment of redemption arrived. As St. Paul observed to the Galatians: “We were enslaved to the elemental powers of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.” Now, through Christ, men and women were once again to become sons and daughters in good standing of their heavenly Father, happily to stand before Him with no need to hide from Him or themselves. This redemption was and is an awesome event, striking fear even into pious hearts. As St. John writes in this Sunday’s first reading: “When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead.
He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.”
On a personal level for the believing Christian, the long process of redemption is brought powerfully into perspective in the sacrament of penance. At the memorable first encounter between the risen Christ and his disciples, Jesus makes very clear that the fruit of his Passion, Death and Resurrection is the prospect of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation for all mankind. This Sunday’s Gospel account relates Christ’s historic announcement that the burden of Adam and Eve’s sin has been lifted and humanity once again may converse openly with the Lord. St. John writes: “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” The ministry of reconciliation, made effective by Christ’s death and resurrection, is handed on to his Church in the person of the disciples to be preached and celebrated through the world, offering mankind everywhere the promise and prospect of peace with God and with all creation.
The present day Church enshrines and celebrates this wonderful gift of reconciliation in the familiar (or, alas, not so familiar) sacrament of penance. “Peace be with you!” echoes powerfully in the confessional. Contrite sinners, acknowledging their own sinfulness, submit themselves to the judgment of a priest who assesses both the severity of their offenses and the sincerity of their repentance. In Christ’s Name, the priest absolves those who admit their offenses and promise sincerely to amend their ways. The Risen Christ’s very first peace-filled words are spoken to all and effective for all in the sacrament of penance.