Acts 14:19-28; John 14:27-31a
On the evening of July 3rd of the year 13 BC, Augustus Caesar quietly returned home after a 3-year stay in Spain and France where he had been, in his own words, “successfully settling the affairs” of those provinces. The next day, the senate voted to erect a monument to him along the same road that led him back to Rome. Finished four years later, the Altar of Peace was formally dedicated to Augustus Caesar who was proclaimed high priest and the “bringer of peace.” Of this the ancient Roman poet Horace wrote: Caesar guards us from the rage that is the fire in which the swords of war are forged.
The poet may have said more than he intended. At the edges of the Empire, rage against economic and military oppression smoldered beneath the surface of the Roman peace. Augustus and his successors found themselves regularly enforcing the peace at the point of a sword or the wood of a cross.
Peace is a fragile thing when various groups define it on their own terms and for their own benefit. The Caesars defined peace as the tranquility of Roman order, but they had enough trouble keeping the peace in their own time, let alone for all time. As the Catechism teaches, a more lasting perspective recognizes that peace is not merely the absence of war or a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity (CCC §2304).
Paul understood the workings of true peace. After enduring violent persecution at Lystra, Paul left for a time and ministered elsewhere. He left; he didn’t run away. True peace is an act of virtue, not cowardice. The cowardly enforce their will at the end of a weapon, whether sword or tongue. The courageous and prudential resist the urge to rage and find better ways to use their time and talent in service of God and neighbor. Further, when Paul returned to Lystra, he didn’t waste his time antagonizing his foes. He built up the Church; counseling the disciples, appointing priests, and commending all to the Lord in prayer. Paul chose the divine peace that empowers people rather than the worldly peace that overpowers them. Now matter how seemingly justified, Paul knew that rage is a fire that brings heat but no light.
Paul followed the light; indeed, he had once been blinded by it. This was the true Light who said Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid (John 14:27).
The peace that the world gives is the peace of the Empire; the imposition of earthly power that inspires fear. The peace that Christ gives is the peace of the Kingdom; the divine indwelling that dispels every fear.
The peace of Augustus won him an altar, the peace of Christ, a cross. Yet look at the result. How many people kneel before an image of Caesar’s Altar of Peace and how many before an image of the cross? The Roman Empire handed Jesus its darkest, most fearful symbol of fragile, earthly peace and he transformed it into the brightest and most courageous symbol of lasting, heavenly peace. If Christ can do this to a piece of wood, think what he can do if we ask him to transform our hearts.