For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
It’s a terribly disquieting thought, one that had filled me with sheer dread since the father of a classmate died suddenly when we were in junior high. Stefanie’s dad was probably in his late 30s. At the time, my dad was in his 50s. And I was terrified that something awful would happen and he’d be gone.
The idea of losing my father terrified me and made me panicky. I wouldn’t let Daddy leave the house without telling him to be careful and that I loved him, whether his destination was a transcontinental flight or a trip to the Stop & Shop down the street.
If he died, I wouldn’t be able to function. It would be chaos. The planet would spin off its axis. The sky would fall. I’d be utterly lost.
It would be the end of the world as I knew it.
So 30 years later, when Daddy did go home to Jesus – peacefully, in his sleep – I was shocked to find the panic and terror I had anticipated for so long replaced by a palpable, otherworldly sense of peace.
I was in Washington, D.C., when I got the call from my mother in the wee hours of a Wednesday telling me that Daddy had passed. Well, at least I was on the right coast. I could drive north on I-95 to Connecticut in a few hours rather than trying to find a flight from the West Coast.
Instead of hopping in the car right away, I took my time getting ready for the drive home. I sent emails and made phone calls to family and friends, letting them know that my father had passed away. One of the first friends I told was a fellow who was in from out of town to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. I was supposed to see him at lunchtime, and sent a quick note to say Daddy had died and I wouldn’t be able to make it.
A few hours later, just as I was heading out of the district toward Baltimore, my friend emailed me back saying that he had sought out a quiet corner in the U.S. Capital to pray for my family and me – for God to give us “the peace that passes all understanding.”
Such an articulation of peace comes from the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, where, in the third chapter, the apostle writes:
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God. And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:6-7)
In other words, God says, “I got this,” and hands us peace.
But what is this peace of which the Bible speaks? In the Hebrew scripture the word used most often for “peace” is shalom. It means more than just a lack of conflict or absence of war. Shalom comes from the Hebrew verb shalam, which means to “make amends.” Shalom describes a completeness or a soundness; a healing or making whole again.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for peace used most often (including in the passage from Philippians 3) is eirene. It describes a state of tranquility and rest, but also a “joining together,” God’s gift of wholeness when all the disparate parts will be joined together.
Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” Therefore, Jesus himself is both the definition and incarnation of God’s peace – the Prince of Shalom described by Isaiah.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, the author Frederick Buechner explains divine peace this way:
True peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. Picture Jesus at the Last Supper: He had every reason to believe that the end was upon him, and we see im looking around at his friends who will all betray him and saying, ‘Peace I leave with you,’ he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27)
Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another….Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought. Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep…you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them. You need whatever name you choose to give the One whom Lewis named Aslan.
That kind of peace is what descended on my heart and mind in the wake of my father’s death. I didn’t do anything to get it to arrive. I didn’t pray the right prayer or read the right thing. It just … arrived. Like a gift.
It feels like a pair of strong arms I can wrap myself in and sink into like a cosmic bear hug. It makes no sense to have this kind of peace when the world as I knew it had come to an end and my greatest fear had come to pass.
Perhaps even in the darkest of times personally or collectively – even when the most horrific evil we could imagine wrecks havoc and terror in the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, violently ending the lives of 26 innocents – there is a peace that can cut through it all.
Even on the day when the Mayan calendar stops, when some say the world will end and the Apocalypse will begin. Even on the shortest day of the year that I will always think of as annus horribilus. Even when all hope is lost and darkness threatens to swallow the last flicker of light.
May you know the peace that passes all understanding in these last days of Advent -- as we look with hope to the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace -- at Christmas, in the new year, and in all the days to come.
Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.
Photo credit: Mayan glyphs by zimmytws/Shutterstock. Photo (bottom): Cathleen Falsani and her father, Mario "Muzzy" Falsani, at Christmastime 1972. Photo courtesy of the author.