Memoria S Irenaei 27 Iunii 2012
Colloquio CMAA apud Civitatem Lacus Salini habitum
If, rather than me, you had had the Pope himself here to celebrate Mass, we would have just heard him greet us at the Gospel “Ειρηνη πασιν!” - which is Greek for “Pax (sit cum) omnibus!” That greeting, and its close relative “Pax vobis”, are known to us from the Mass as celebrated by Bishops, but not by priests. Where I greet you before the collect: “The Lord be with you”, the bishop proclaims: “Peace be with you”; And where the deacon usually prefaces the Gospel by singing “the Lord be with you”, the Pope proclaims “Peace to all”.
It seems strange, perhaps, that the lesser ministers of the Church should invoke the Lord Himself in person upon the congregation, whereas a Prelate uses the abstract word “peace” instead of the personal “Lord”.
Why should it be so? It recalls that first greeting of His Apostles by the risen Christ on the first Easter Day. It reminds us that the Bishop stands in our midst as a successor of the Apostles. For a Bishop, above all, is a living link with those who not only knew the Lord, but received from Him, in person, the authority to celebrate the Mass and forgive sins. Before His death, Our Lord told the Apostles gathered together in His presence at that sublime Last Supper – the first Mass – that “I leave you peace; my peace I bequeath to you”.
But there is only one way in which a bequest can be ratified, namely, through the testator's death. Hence only after His death would He at last greet them: “Peace be with you – Pax vobis – ειρηνη υμιν”, and then fill out the meaning of that greeting with the solemn commission: “receive the Holy Spirit, for those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven”. That greeting and that commission go together. The apostles were both witnesses and recipients of that truly momentous greeting – a greeting which is the fruit of the cross and resurrection. For, as St Paul tells the Colossians: Christ “made peace by the blood of His cross”. (Col 1:20)
That is why those same words of greeting, simple yet profound, are reserved to Bishops, successors of the Apostles and heirs to their authority in the Church. When the Pope and the Bishops greet us with peace, they recall that first meeting of the risen Christ with the Apostles. In this we see the words of today's introit from ps. 84 brought to life: “Loquetur Dominus pacem in plebem suam: et super sanctos suos, et in eos qui convertuntur ad ipsum”. That is: “the Lord speaks peace to His people, and upon his saints, and to those who are turned towards Him.” Thus the Lord's characteristic words are those of peace. By this greeting of peace He identified Himself to the Apostles after his death and resurrection. The words of the psalm continue: [He speaks] “over his saints”, reminding us that Christ breathed over the apostles on that Easter day to give them the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. And finally [He speaks] “to those who are turned towards Him” And that, of course, means all those who receive the Apostles' witness and believe in it and are turned away from sin to God. This “turning to God” is, of course, symbolised by our 'orientation' in the liturgy, when we 'turn to the Lord' in prayer and sacrifice, in order to bring down upon us God's peace in Holy Communion.
This emphasis upon peace is connected with St Irenaeus in a particular way. I quoted the papal greeting Ειρηρη πασιν in Greek in order to draw your attention to the fact that Irenaeus's name is derived from Ειρηνη, the Greek word for peace. So far it might simply be a pun, but the Church sees the connection very really, as the Antiphon to the Gospel Canticle at Lauds this morning witnesses: “Irenaeus, in keeping with his name, truly peaceable in his way of life and in his aims, laboured most earnestly for the peace of the Church.” Moreover, in the Collect prayer at this Mass we prayed: “O God, who called the Bishop St. Irenaeus to confirm true doctrine and the peace of the Church, grant, we pray, through his intercession, that, being renewed in faith and charity, we may always be intent on fostering unity and concord.”
Who, then, was this holy bishop who strove to bring peace to God's Church? Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor around the year 130 A.D. and became a disciple of Polycarp, the great martyr bishop of Smyrna who had in his own youth been a disciple of the aged Apostle St. John. This is one of the best attested examples of a direct personal apostolic succession. It is possible that St. Polycarp was one of those who writes of St. John at the end of his Gospel: “This is the disciple who testifies about these things, and wrote these things. We know that his witness is true.” (Jn 21:24) John is here attested as a witness, (which is, of course, the meaning of the Greek word “martyr”); he is a witness to Christ and the truth of the account he has given of his death, resurrection and teaching. Fidelity to that teaching is fundamental to John's witness and it is this which he hands on to his disciples, including Polycarp,and thence to Irenaeus.
It is John who transmits to us the account of the risen Lord's greeting of peace and of the gift of the Spirit to the Apostles for the forgiveness of sins. It is John who tells us what the true knowledge of God is – it is recognising Jesus Christ as the only Son of the Father whom the Father has sent to redeem us. In seeing Him we see the Father. As St Paul says: He is the one who in His flesh has broken down the barrier which divided us from God, and He is our peace. (cf. Eph 2:14)
Irenaeus, the heir to this teaching and to this witness, faithfully taught it by his life's work after he had moved to Gaul, where he became bishop in the city of Lugdunum or Lyons as we know it. Here he strove heroically to overcome one of the constant threats to the peace of the Church: the tendency to propose new forms of truth, new paths to liberty; departures from the witness of the Apostles which we call heresies. There were those he encountered, called “gnostics” who held that only by adopting secret doctrines of which they were the sole guardians and teachers could anyone find salvation. These were known as “gnostics”, on account of their holding that knowledge (that is in Greek γνωσισ), not faith, sets us free. Irenaeus, faithfully following his teacher St Polycarp and the Apostle St John, wrote his best known work: “Adversus haereses”, that is “against all the heresies”, to refute these doctrines and to emphasise that Christ did not bring strange and secret teachings, but the simple truth of Himself as the image of the Father and the salvation of those who believe in Him as the Son of God made man, who has died and risen again to make us one with the Father by taking away from us the power of sin by which we had all been estranged from our heavenly Father.
As a bishop Irenaeus was the teacher of his flock, transmitting faithfully what he had received from his teacher and ultimately from Christ. He sealed the witness of his teaching by the witness of his death which is why we celebrate his Mass in red vestments. A martyr's death, the shedding of his blood, would be all in vain were it not for the blood of Christ's cross by which our peace was made with God.
I said that only the bishop greets the people with peace. That is, of course, true at the beginning of Mass. But in every Mass Christ becomes present in the sacrament of his body and blood. When that shall have taken place here in a short while, as we shall be turned to the Lord at His altar here, in His name I shall greet you with peace, singing: “Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum”. Then as the sacred host is broken symbolically for us to receive Him, we shall sing of Him who takes away the sins of the world, and so we shall prepare ourselves once more to receive Him who is our peace. For here is the simple yet profound truth which a child may believe firmly yet surpasses all our powers of thought, that Almighty God Himself who breathed His peace upon the Apostles, is as truly present here and now to renew in us the gift of His death and resurrection and of our union in the Holy Spirit with Him in the Father. Amen.
~Fr. Guy Nicholls, Birmingham Oratory