In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s top men (Sinn Féin was the political wing of the IRA), confessed to having been a British spy for the previous twenty years. People were amazed that this could have happened. The man obviously could not live with this any more and so he went public. He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was murdered four months later. God be good to him. I remember thinking at the time that he must now be living in terrible fear. Fear of being hunted down and killed. He had betrayed many, and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God. Judas had betrayed him for money. Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus. They all betrayed him. Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room, afraid. Why are they afraid? First because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. If you remember in St. John’s Gospel, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it says that some time later they had a dinner for him. Many people came, not only to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus who had been raised from the dead. Wouldn’t you?! But it also says that the authorities decided it would be best to get rid of Lazarus as well as Jesus. 'Tie up any lose ends', as we would say. So, the Apostles had good reason to be afraid, from a human point of view.
Perhaps they were also afraid of what God might do to them. They had betrayed the Son of God. It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.
Then something beautiful happens. Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’ The first thing he does is to take away their fear. There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before. There are no words of judgement, about how they were unable to be faithful. Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘It’s alright.’
I don’t know about you, but I can certainly say that I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me. And in case you think I am just trying to be pious by saying this, I am not. I am a sinner, just like anyone else. That is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about. Sometimes I think it would be better for me not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred. I could run and hide, so to speak. Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish. Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man’ and what was Jesus’ response? ‘Do not be afraid.’ Now after the resurrection, after the betrayal, injustice and panic, when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease. ‘Peace be with you.’
Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘Do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned. Peace be with you.’ God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns, or giving out. He knows what we are like. He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace. I find that very comforting.
Think too of Thomas, who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not take the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive. When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful. And then when Jesus did appear to him, He was so kind in helping him to believe. No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe. No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement. That is so characteristic of Jesus in how he dealt with people. Always compassion, mercy, love and encouragement.
Today is also known as ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’. Let me tell you one short story which to me says it all. There is a story told of a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who was tired of war and wanted to go home. He decided to desert the army, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death. Now this man was the only son of his mother who was now widowed. His mother happened to work in Napoleon’s house and the day before his execution she managed to get to see Napoleon in person. She pleaded for her son and told him that he was the last thing she had in this world. The mother begged Napoleon to have mercy on the man. Napoleon said in reply, ‘He doesn’t deserve to be shown mercy’. But the mother replied to Napoleon, ‘If he did deserve it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
God’s mercy is a gift. We don’t deserve it, but God longs to show us his mercy and that is one of the reasons He appeared to St. Faustina and asked her to spread this devotion to his mercy, because God does not want us to live in fear, but to be assured that any effort on our part to live as He asks, is enough. We will never manage to live perfectly, but as long as we are striving to grow closer to God, that is enough. God has created us to be with him and God will do everything possible to make that happen, except force us. There is nothing we can do, which God will not forgive if we ask him. That is God’s promise to us. All we have to do is reach out to him.
‘Peace be with you. It is I. Do not be afraid.’