Peace of heart

Archbishop Sheen: You were made for God; nothing short of the infinite satisfies you

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.” — Luke 2:14

A serious question. It may seem strange to ask, but have you ever thought of your heart as both a tomb and a womb? And yet, the peace of heart and the joy we so desire in our life requires such. With the help of an icon of the Nativity, we can better understand why.

A thousand words of Scripture. When I reflect upon the mysteries of our faith, I often find sacred icons full of pleasant surprises.

More than what is said of a picture, a good icon is “worth a thousand words” of Scripture and more. For they broaden the written Word and help make the mystery more present and vivid to the eyes of our heart. And in the eyes of the Church, sacred icons and Scripture are of equal and complementary dignity, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (n. 1160).

From whence peace comes. For some, the expression from “womb to tomb” is a reminder of life’s brevity, with its constant struggles and tensions, and death’s finality. But in taking on the lowliness of human flesh and bringing our sins to the cross for love of us, Christ transformed the tomb of death into the womb of eternal life. And it is through the waters of baptism that we are united to Christ’s death and descent into the tomb, and to newness of life in His resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3-4).

It is within the depths and sanctuary of our heart, then, that we must decide and affirm each day to die to our self, to the chaos and disorder of sin, so as to live our life in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus—in His peace. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Life and death. We can see in this icon how Christ’s birth points to Calvary in the swaddling clothes that have more the appearance of burial wrappings and in the manger that resembles more a sacrificial altar, which remind us of Christ’s words: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd… [who] lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10-11).

And because Christ made “peace by the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20), He repeats to us in every Mass, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). No one else is able to give what Jesus offers us. So, how do we best receive the gift of Christ’s peace? By letting God draw us deeper into the great mystery of His love as He did with St. Joseph.

Awe before the mystery. In icons of the Nativity, St. Joseph is traditionally depicted as if struggling to fathom a mystery beyond all understanding—the mystery of God become man. But his was a “holy fear”—a reverence and awe before a mystery so great that in his deep humility he felt unworthy to approach nearer.

Here, the psalmist’s words seem to capture his thoughts: “Behind me and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, far too lofty for me to reach” (Psalm 139:5-6). But with a humble heart, God will always draw us closer to Him.

“Be not afraid!” Indeed, God does not want us to remain outside of the mysteries of our faith but to be immersed in them! Though we notice in the icon that St. Joseph is seated partly outside of the stable cave, we see in his clothing the image of what appears to be the hand of God drawing him deeper into the mystery. God asks only that, like St. Joseph, we approach with humility of heart so that He might draw us deeper into the mystery of His heartbeat of love. With St. Joseph’s assistance, ask God every day to draw you deeper into the mystery of His holy divine will and ever closer to Mary, Mother of Christ the Prince of Peace.

Colors of death and life. Against the cold gray rock, the bright colors of blue and red associated with Mary stand out. Color in icons communicate spiritual truths. Blue is the color we easily associate with water and the sky, and therefore with heaven and divinity. Red, as the color of blood, represents life and humanity. And in the red blanket cushion that Mary lies atop we have a vivid symbol of the sanctuary of life, the womb, contrasted against the grayness of death’s sanctuary, the tomb. And in the flowing blue garment of she who is “full of grace” we see the “life-giving waters” of the Holy Spirit, which give image to God’s promise: “You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails” (Isaiah 58:11).

But for baptismal grace to fully flower in us, we must tend this garden daily with Christ the “New Gardener” (cf. John 20:15), and with Mary, the new Eve.

To know and love God. Nativity scenes traditionally include the image of an ox and ass, which is meant to remind us to be vigilant against forgetting God—“An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people has not understood” (Isaiah 1:3).

This verse begs the question: Do we truly strive to know God and for His divine will to live and reign in our heart? The words we should all be most fearful of hearing are those spoken in the parable of the 10 virgins by the bridegroom to the five foolish ones outside the locked doors of the wedding feast—“Amen, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).

Guarding our peace. Father Jacque Phillippe, in his excellent short treatise, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, points out that because God is the God of peace, “The more our soul is peaceful and tranquil, the more God is reflected in it, the more His image expresses itself in us, the more His grace acts through us. On the other hand, if our soul is agitated and troubled, the grace of God is able to act only with much greater difficulty.”

And we cannot communicate peace to others, he reminds us, if we do not have it reigning in our hearts. Because “God acts in the peace of one’s soul,” Satan tries to get us to surrender our peace so he can better attack us. The key to spiritual combat, Father Phillippe tells us, is to “strive to maintain peace of heart in order to allow the God of Armies to fight for [us].”

Concordia. The centuries-old Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible is particularly beautiful in the way it expresses St. Paul’s counsel to the Colossians: “Let the peace of Christ rejoice in your hearts” (3:15).

While modern translations use the word “control” instead of “rejoice,” I prefer the latter. For it reminds me that it is Christ reigning in our heart who rejoices in the peace we accept from Him. To further contemplate this, consider that the Latin word “concordia” literally means “hearts together” or “oneness of heart.”

Joy and peace. So let us take to heart the words of St. Paul, who says, “Rejoice in the Lord always…. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

Make room in your heart. In conclusion, remember that we are the “innkeepers” of our heart. But as Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen notes, “The Christmas message is not that peace will come automatically…. His birth in Bethlehem was the prelude to His birth in our hearts by grace and faith and love. Peace belongs only to those who will to have it. If there is no peace in the world today, it is not because Christ did not come; it is because we did not let Him in.”

May the Prince of Peace, Christ our Lord, reign and “rejoice” in your hearts.

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