The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time to attend to the theme of Peace. During that week leading up to this occasion, I had opportunities to think about what we mean when use that word.
One of my children went on a class field trip to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, and learned about the work of Canadian military aviators in peace-making. He heard about times in which men and women place themselves in harm’s way, to intervene in situations where differences and conflict have escalated to violence and bloodshed.
I presided this past week at a renewal of vows ceremony for a couple celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. He is in business, and she is a justice of the peace. It was interesting to hear about her daily work. One of her duties is to preside over hearings in which a person may be “committed” to a psychiatric ward for mandatory mental health care. She routinely issues search warrants that are used by the police in their efforts to enforce laws, and to investigate crimes. She also has the legal authority to preside over marriage ceremonies, and she tells me that she only does so if she believes the couple is seriously committed to living up to their promises! (Interesting to think about this as proactive peacemaking)
There are so many aspects to the meaning of Peace. What does the word mean to you? We may think of: An end to armed conflict. Resolving political tensions. Cooperation and dialogue amongst religious groups. Healing of relationships. Safety and well-being. The establishment of equality and fairness in economic, social, and political terms. Inner peace.
Is inner peace possible without peace in the world? Is peace in the world possible if we do not have peace inside ourselves?
Our English word peace is a translation of the word “pax”, from the Vulgate- the latin version of the Bible. Pax was the latin translation of the Hebrew word “shalom”. “Pax” is the same word that was used to refer to a treaty to end a war.
The Hebrew word shalom is very similar to the Arabic word “salaam”. In modern Hebrew, Shalom means peace, completeness, and hello or goodbye. In many languages the word for peace is used as a greeting, and a farewell. Shalom, Salaam, and Aloha are used that way. So is the Sanskrit word Namaste’, which is what my yoga teacher says at the end of every class, as she bows to us, and we bow to her.
At the end of a yoga class, especially when we have spent the last few minutes resting in quiet meditation, allowing the effects of all the breathing, and stretching and posing we have done to work in our bodies, there is often a feeling in the room that I would describe as a shared desire for well-being. When my body feels well treated, and relaxed, and my mind is at ease, I can more easily recall that I want only good for those around me.
When the Bible writers used the word Shalom, they were drawing on a deep well of meaning. In Middle Eastern culture, Shalom and the words related to it meant to be safe and secure, and complete. This was understood on an individual level, but also in terms of how people related in a society, and how countries got along. It is connected to working concepts of justice, and truth, equality, and basic fairness.
A Japanese Buddhist teacher named Daisaku Ikeda said, “peace cannot be a mere stillness, a great interlude between wars. It must be a vital and energetic arena of life-activity, won through our own volitional, proactive efforts. Peace must be a living drama.”
Shalom is about much more than just the absence of dispute or conflict. It is about an active presence- a movement towards fullness, rightness, completeness, for all people, for all of creation. It is a commitment to help things be as God would have them be.
I realized the other day, as I sat on the yoga mat, that I was not feeling “peace”, or “namaste’”, or “shalom” at that moment only because the teacher had bowed to us, and offered her blessing. It was not just the speaking of the word that was making it come true. Any sense of peace I felt at that moment was also related to the work I and the other students had been doing. In our own small ways, in that place, we were engaged in making, or being peace.
I mentioned that Shalom is related to the Arabic word Salaam. In a number of middle eastern languages, there are words built around the S L M consonant sounds that express personal commitment to these universal concepts of peace, safety, wholeness, and well-being. These are not just nouns, but they are action words- things we are supposed to be working towards.
Salaam is the root of the words Moslem, and Islam. Literally, a Moslem is one who has committed, or submitted themselves to God. They find their wholeness, their completeness, their peace, in God.
At Christmas time we remember the angels singing, “Peace on Earth, Good will to all of God’s people.” Later in the Gospels, we often read of Jesus saying to his followers “Peace be with you”. This is our translation of “Shalom Aleichem”, which can also be read as “Well-being be upon you” or “may you be well”.
We can hear that as a kind greeting. We can also hear it as a promise, that God’s dream of peace is possible. As followers of Jesus, I believe we can also hear it as our job description. Peace.