English  ·  Français   ·   Italiano   ·   中文  

The Humble, Yet Powerful Beginning of a New Age

Pentecost Restout cropped

Solemnity of Pentecost – Sunday, May 15th, 2016

We know the story well (Acts 2:1-11) – it is the dawn of the day of Pentecost and the followers of Jesus are gathered to wait and pray. This new day begins with an explosion of sounds from heaven, and a violent wind. The story is reminiscent of the mighty wind that hovered over the waters in the Genesis creation story. What was first heard was then seen – tongues like fire (2:3). The first gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of speech in different languages.

The scene quickly shifts from the inside upper room, where the disciples are gathered, to the Jerusalem streets outside the house. There the Gospel is already drawing crowds together. Out in the streets, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (2:5) confront the Church, and their initial response is bewilderment (2:6). The “tongues” spoken of are obviously various languages of “every nation under heaven,” since each foreigner exclaims: “We hear, each of us, in our own native language” (2:8).

Luke’s roll call of the nations – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes (2:9-10) – makes it very clear that no nationality is excluded from the proclamation of the Good News. In these few lines, Luke gives us a glimpse in miniature of the whole plot of the Acts of the Apostles.

Authentic Christian spirituality

Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses the elements of authentic spirituality (8:8-17). To please God is the goal of human life striven for by both Jew and Christian, yet this goal cannot be attained by those who are dominated by self (“in the flesh”). In order to please God, one must be “in the Spirit,” i.e., living “according to the Spirit” (8:5).

According to Paul, the baptized Christian is not only “in the Spirit,” but the Spirit is now said to dwell in him or her. Paul insists that attachment to Christ is only possible by the “spiritualization” of human beings. This attachment is no mere external identification with the cause of Christ, or even a grateful recognition of what he once did for humanity. Rather, the Christian who belongs to Christ is the one empowered to “live for God” through the vitalizing influence of his Spirit.

Without the Spirit, the source of Christian vitality, the human “body” is like a corpse because of the influence of sin, but in union with Christ the human “spirit” lives, for the Holy Spirit raises the dead to life. The Spirit not only gives new life, but also establishes for human beings the relationship of an adopted son and daughter and heir. It is the Spirit that animates and activates the Christian and makes one a child of God. The theme of sonship in Romans is Paul’s attempt to describe the new status of the Christian in relation to God. Christians have received the Spirit (of Christ or God), but this is not a “spirit” in the sense of a disposition or mentality that a slave would have. Animated by God’s Spirit, the Christian cannot have the attitude of a slave, for the Spirit sets free. Through the Spirit the Christian proclaims that God is Father.

Pentecost in the Gospel of John

Today’s Gospel scene takes place on the night of the first Easter. Only this initial appearance of Jesus to his disciples (John 20:19-23) has parallels in the other Gospels (cf. Luke 24:36-39; Mark 16:14-18). The first appearance is both intense and focused. It is evening and the doors are bolted shut. Anxious disciples are sealed inside. A suspicious, hostile world is forced tightly outside. Jesus is missing. Suddenly, the Risen One defies locked doors, blocked hearts, and distorted vision and simply appears.

The meeting with the Risen Lord in John’s account is the humble yet powerful beginning of a new age: fear is transformed into joy; pain is changed to peace and trust; flight and hiding become courage and mission. Division and hatred are vanquished by the gift of the Holy Spirit – by God’s love revealed in Jesus and through his power to remove evil and sinfulness.

Jesus “breathing on them” (20:22) recalls Genesis 2:7, where God breathed on the first man and gave him life. Just as Adam’s life came from God, so now the disciples’ new spiritual life comes from Jesus. This action is also reminiscent of the revivification of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. It is the evangelist John’s version of Pentecost.

“Peace be with you” is the greeting and gift of the Risen Lord. The Hebrew word shalom means re-establishing the full meaning of things. Biblical peace is not only a pact that allows for a peaceful life, or indicates the opposite of a time of war. Rather, peace refers to the well-being of daily existence, to one’s state of living in harmony with nature, with oneself and with God. Concretely, this peace means blessing, rest, honour, richness, health, and life. The gift of peace that Jesus entrusted to his first disciples becomes a promise and a prayer shared with the entire Christian community.

The mission and the power of Jesus are entrusted into the poor, limited, and fragile hands of his Apostles. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, his own mission continues in them, granting the power to forgive sins and the possibility of reconciliation and intimacy with the Father.

Courageous heralds of the Gospel

The Holy Spirit renewed the Apostles from within, filling them with a power that would give them courage to go out and boldly proclaim that “Christ has died and is risen!” Frightened fishermen have become courageous heralds of the Gospel. Even their enemies could not understand how “uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13) could show such courage and endure difficulties, suffering, and persecution with joy. Nothing could stop them. To those who tried to silence them they replied: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). This is how the Church was born, and from the day of Pentecost she has not ceased to spread the Good News “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

At Pentecost, the full meaning of Jesus’ life and message is poured into our hearts by the Spirit alive in the community. The movement of the Spirit in people results in gifts and talents. This movement does not reach its end in individuals. Rather, it is supposed to have a ripple effect so that our unique abilities promote the common good. The Spirit’s gifts are many: teaching, instructing, healing, consoling, forgiving, and encouraging. The Spirit will increase our gifts to the extent that we love Jesus and our brothers and sisters, obey the commandments, and freely share what we have so lavishly received with others.

Christian hope: a gift of the Spirit

Hope is one of the true manifestations of the Spirit at Pentecost. For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the hope of Christians. We must be icons of hope, a people with a new vision, a people that learn to see the world through the lenses of Christ, the Spirit, and the Church.

The Second Vatican Council encouraged Christians to read the signs of the times, and for Pope John XXIII these were signs of hope and glimpses of the Kingdom’s presence in our midst. The Kingdom manifests itself through the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And the Spirit’s fruits make the Kingdom palpable and palatable: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity.

It is also possible to follow a via negativa and to say where the Kingdom is not. Where there is no justice, no peace, no sharing, no mutual trust, no forgiveness – there is no Kingdom. Where there is rancour, envy, distrust, hatred, ignorance, indifference, unchastity, cynicism – there is no Kingdom and certainly no life.

In God himself, all is joy

A second manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost is joy. Pope Paul VI’s 1975 Apostolic Letter on Christian Joy – Gaudete in Domino – describes this joy in the following way:

Let the agitated members of various groups therefore reject the excesses of systematic and destructive criticism! Without departing from a realistic viewpoint, let Christian communities become centres of optimism where all the members resolutely endeavour to perceive the positive aspect of people and events. “Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.”

The attainment of such an outlook is not just a matter of psychology. It is also a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, who dwells fully in the person of Jesus, made Him during His earthly life so alert to the joys of daily life, so tactful and persuasive for putting sinners back on the road to a new youth of heart and mind! It is this same Spirit who animated the Blessed Virgin and each of the saints. It is this same Spirit who still today gives to so many Christians the joy of living day by day their particular vocation, in the peace and hope which surpass setbacks and sufferings. It is the Spirit of Pentecost who today leads very many followers of Christ along the paths of prayer, in the cheerfulness of filial praise, towards the humble and joyous service of the disinherited and of those on the margins of society. For joy cannot be dissociated from sharing. In God Himself, all is joy because all is giving.

[The readings for Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23.]

(Image: Pentecost by Jean Restout)

In Jesus, the Future Has Already Begun!

Ascension of Jesus cropped

Solemnity of the Ascension – Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Just as Jerusalem was the city of destiny in the Gospel of Luke (the place where salvation was accomplished), so here at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Jerusalem occupies a central position. It is the starting point for the mission of the Christian disciples to “the ends of the earth,” the place where the apostles were situated and the doctrinal focal point in the early days of the community (Acts 15:2, 6).

The first verses of today’s first reading (Acts 1:1-2) connect the book of Acts with the Gospel of Luke, and show that the apostles were instructed by the risen Jesus (vv 3-5). The disciples were anxious for answers. They asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They thought “the promise of the Father” would bring about an age of political sovereignty such as the nation had enjoyed under the reign of King David. But Jesus’ answer made clear that this is not what the promise is all about. Neither would the promise give them a glimpse of the end times, for “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set” for the end of time. The promise was not going to make their lives easier by restoring political or national dominance or by granting divine insight. When they received the Spirit they too would be baptized in fire. They would be empowered to take on the role of Christ: to teach and to nourish and to serve, to be ignored, to suffer and to die for him.

After speaking, Jesus was lifted up into the heavens before his friends. Just imagine this awesome scene! How does it feel to them to watch their Lord and Master leave? The angels’ words to the “men of Galilee” are painfully blunt and leave little room for misinterpretation: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies? This Jesus who has been taken from you will return, just as you saw him go up to the heavens.”

The disciples are given a last bit of instruction: “Don’t keep trying to stare into the future. Don’t be overly concerned about which hour he will come back.” We must not stand idly staring up into the heavens and moaning about the past, about which we can do nothing, except to bury it deeply in God’s hands and heart! The Lord will be glorified, and it follows that his disciples will also share in his glory. Let’s get going and carry a piece of heaven into the world. This is the meaning of the Resurrection and the Ascension of our Lord, not one of divine abandonment of the human cause, but divine empowerment of the Gospel dream!

Beginning From Jerusalem

The resurrection appearances in Luke’s Gospel take place in and around Jerusalem. Luke brings his Gospel story about the time of Jesus to a close (vv 50-53) with the report of the ascension. The Gospel ends as it began (1:9), in the Jerusalem temple (v 53). Luke will also begin the story of the time of the church with a recounting of the ascension. In Luke’s Resurrection chapter, the evangelist recounts the ascension of Jesus on Easter Sunday night, thereby closely associating it with the resurrection.

As I have pointed out in previous Easter reflections, Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel can be divided into four major sections: a) the story of the women at the tomb, which ends with Peter’s visit to the tomb to check it (vv 1-12); b) the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, which culminates in their learning that the Lord had also appeared to Peter (vv 13-35); c) the appearance of the Lord to his disciples at a meal, which culminates with their commissioning by Jesus (vv 36-49); and d) Jesus’ ascension into heaven (vv 50-52).

What should probably be understood as one event (resurrection, glorification, ascension, sending of the Spirit — the paschal mystery) has been historicized by Luke when he writes of a visible ascension of Jesus after 40 days and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. For Luke, the ascension marks the end of the appearances of Jesus except for the extraordinary appearance to Paul. With regard to Luke’s understanding of salvation history, the ascension also marks the end of the time of Jesus (Luke 24:50-53) and signals the beginning of the time of the Church.

Conformity to the Jewish Scriptures

The final scene of Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that what is written in the Jewish Scriptures must of necessity be fulfilled because it reveals the plan of God which cannot fail to be accomplished. The life, death and resurrection of Christ are fully in accord with the Scriptures. The clearest expression of this is found in the words addressed by the risen Christ to his disciples: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44). This statement shows the basis of the necessity for the paschal mystery of Jesus, affirmed in numerous passages in the Gospels: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and after three days rise again”; “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:54); “This Scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).

Present in a thousand places

On the day of his Ascension, one might conclude that Jesus removed himself into a new form of divine exclusion. The case is exactly the opposite. In God, Jesus is “here” in a new and very specific way. Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union with the entire world for all time be complete.

In his “ascension” Jesus made a commitment to the earth that we live in. His footprints are not etched for tourists to view in the stone beneath us. But they are visible in the hearts of those who follow him. As he gave up the ability to be present in one place, he gained the capability of being present in a thousand places. When Jesus vanished, he filled the earth with the presence of God. God’s presence is still here and is available for us as the ultimate fulfillment of all our dreams. We know that we move toward heaven to the extent that we approach Jesus. We are assured that he hasn’t ever stopped being present with us throughout all time. And through us he wants to become even more present, especially as his Church.

Profound lesson

The Ascension of Our Lord teaches us a profound lesson about possessing and being possessed. Through his ascension, Jesus shows that clinging to him in time and history serves no purpose. Nor does he cling to the human beings around him, unwilling to let them go free in order to continue their Gospel mission. Rather, his whole life, death and resurrection teach us to accept everyone and everything as a gift, on loan to us.

It is not good to cling tightly to relationships or to hoard earthly treasures. Today let us learn to revere all that we have with deep gratitude, and hold everything in open hands. During our times of prayer, let us open our hands and surrender all the important treasures and relationships of our lives to God. Let us be aware of our feelings toward others, and toward the things we have. Let us spend time expressing our gratitude to God for each gift and relationship. And most important of all, let us find some concrete ways to express our love and gratitude to people we often take for granted, including Jesus.

Just as the Risen Lord entrusted himself into the hands of such pathetic, broken people, he does the same to us. The full significance of the Ascension reminds us that Christ accepts our lack of self-confidence in ourselves. He accepts the shadowy and dark areas of our humanity. He accepts our capacity for deceit, betrayal, greed and power. And having accepted us, he calls us, gives us the eternal commission to be his people, and sends us to serve him and love him, in spite of ourselves and because of ourselves.

On the day of his Ascension, one might conclude that Jesus removed himself into a new form of divine exclusion. The case is exactly the opposite. In God, Jesus is “here” in a new and very specific way. Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union with the entire world for all time be complete. Jesus left the world one day in order to be available to all people throughout all time. He had to dissolve bonds he had made with his friends, in order to be available for everybody. In Jesus, the future has already begun!

“He whom you love is no longer where he was before. He is now wherever you are.”
(St. John Chrysostom)

[The readings for the Ascension of the Lord are: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28; Luke 24:46-53]

Council of Jerusalem, the Advocate, and Pastoral Strategy

Pentecost El Greco cropped

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C – May 1, 2016

The early Church community in Jerusalem was not without its problems! Several of the controversies are evident in today’s first reading from Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles.

When some of the converted Pharisees of Jerusalem discover the results of the first missionary journey of Paul (15:1-5), they urge that the Gentiles be taught to follow the Mosaic Law. Recognizing the authority of the Church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas go there to settle the question of whether Gentiles can embrace a form of Christianity that does not include this obligation. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) marks the official rejection of the rigid view that Gentile converts were obliged to observe the Mosaic Law completely. From here to the end of the book of Acts, Paul and the Gentile mission become the focus of Luke’s writing.

Early Church controversies

If the Gentiles are to become Christian, does that imply they must observe the customs of the Jewish converts to Christianity? This would mean imposing circumcision, dietary restrictions, and marriage regulations. The scene from today’s first reading not only presents us with one of the first great controversies of the Early Church, but also gives us some excellent insights into our own understanding of tradition and continuity, and the resolution of conflicts in the Church.

In the reading from the Book of Acts, some unauthorized members of the Jerusalem Church tried to insist upon circumcision as a necessity for salvation within the church at Antioch. The classical problem of the Early Church revolved around the necessity of the Mosaic Law for salvation. Jesus certainly kept it perfectly, from his birth, for he was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21) and he never annulled the force of the Mosaic Law. In fact he states quite clearly: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). Yet Peter on the impulse of the Spirit, had baptized the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius without requiring circumcision.

The Apostles and elders gathered for deliberation and came to an agreement with the Mother Church at Jerusalem that the Mosaic laws were not to be required, nor the many traditions of the rabbis. The converts, out of courtesy, were asked not to partake of blood, nor of animals improperly slaughtered without draining the blood, nor of strangled animals for the same reason, nor of marriages within certain blood bonds.

Tradition and history

The Council of Jerusalem therefore settled a doctrinal issue about circumcision and the Mosaic Law, but did it in a way that preserved peace. This is a very good model for handling questions of tradition, continuity, and conflict today. Both the theological issues and the feelings of people are very important. Peter and Paul show a remarkable respect for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of ordinary people and situations. Even when the Spirit seemed to shatter the sacred traditions that existed for centuries, Peter and Paul knew that the Holy Spirit was not bound by tradition and history.

Neither Peter nor Paul were afraid of taking their cases and questions to the leaders of the whole Church. Through prayer, fasting, consultation, and voting, decisions are made. Underlying all of this is the desire to preserve peace at all costs, without compromising on principles and human rights. After all, Jesus’ farewell gift to the Church is peace, not division and discord. Our judgments and decisions must lead us and all future generations to our final goal, the New Jerusalem established on earth, the reign of justice, joy, and peace among us.

Defense attorney

Today’s Gospel reading (John 14:23-29) reminds us that those who encounter Christ and enter into a friendly relationship with him welcome into their hearts Trinitarian Communion itself, in accordance with Jesus’ promise to his disciples: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (14:23).

In John 14:16 Jesus says that he will send “another Advocate” to be on our side. John uses the Greek word parakletos, which literally means “one called alongside,” and a standard use of the term is for one called alongside to help in a legal situation as a defense attorney. There is a legal tone to some of what Jesus says about the Advocate, yet the picture is more exactly that of a prosecuting attorney.

Jesus himself is going to be crucified and die; in the eyes of the world he will be judged, found guilty, and convicted. Yet after his death, the “paraclete” will come forward and reverse the sentence by convicting the world and providing Jesus’ innocence (16:8-11).

Jesus was our first Advocate with the Father. The new Advocate is not a kind of a proxy sent to replace the absent Lord: on the contrary, it assures his presence as well as the Father’s. They will “come to” the one who remains faithful to Jesus’ word, and they will dwell “with” him. Not with the others – those who do not love the Lord and do not keep his word.

The Paraclete dwells in everyone who loves Jesus and keeps the commandments, and so his presence is not limited by time (14:15-17). This may be the way in which the coming of the Paraclete is “better.” These words of Jesus about the Paraclete illustrate beautifully how the audience to which he speaks at the Last Supper extends beyond those present at that moment in history. Jesus’ words are also addressed to us today.

The Paraclete is just as present in the modern disciples of Jesus as he was in the first generation. No one should think that Jesus has abandoned his Church in our times. He continues to send us God’s Spirit of Truth. We are told in the Gospel that the “one whom the Father will send will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us” (14:26). This reminding or calling to memory is beautifully expressed in a new term used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe the work of the paraclete: “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory” (#1099). The Holy Spirit will increase our gifts to the extent that we love Jesus and our brothers and sisters, dwell in his Word, obey the commandments, and generously share with others what we have so freely received.

A model

The Council of Jerusalem left us a model for dealing with difficult situations in the Church. Both the theological issues and the feelings of people were very important for the Apostles. Even when the Spirit seemed to shatter the sacred traditions that existed for centuries, Peter and Paul knew that the Holy Spirit was not bound by tradition and history. May we who follow in that same tradition and history be ever open to the working of the Spirit in our day, and in so doing be agents of the Advocate for the Church and the world.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 15:1-2,22-29; Revelation 21:10-14,22-23; and John 14:23-29]

(Image: Pentecost by El Greco)

The New Jerusalem, Coming Down Out of Heaven From God

Jerusalem cropped

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C – April 24, 2016

In light of today’s second reading from the book of Revelation (21:1-5a), I wish to offer some reflections on the Holy City of Jerusalem and its important place in Christian spirituality.

There is a wonderful rabbinic saying from the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) that reveals heaven, earth and Jerusalem as the essential components of the Hebrew soul. The rabbis say: “As the world was being created, God gave out 10 portions of joy to the world and nine were given to Jerusalem; 10 portions of beauty God gave to the world and nine were for Jerusalem; 10 portions of suffering God gave to the world and nine were for Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem is the city where the joys, aspirations and pains of humanity converge. It is the city where dreams are dreamt and either realized or shattered. A well-known medieval map shows Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple at the center of the world, the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia fanning out from the center like gigantic petals. It is a vision of world redemption arising from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the heart of the world and the center of history.

The history of salvation revealed in the Bible is situated between two visions which form the beginning and the end of the human drama: The vision of paradise lost in the book of Genesis and the vision of the new Jerusalem which descends from God in the book of Revelation. We come from God, and we return to him. These two visions are the two beacons which shed their light on everything that comes between them concerning the history and fate of humankind made up of human suffering and joy.

Jerusalem in the Old Testament

Jerusalem, as a symbol of the land itself, is called holy and the city is a symbol of the assurance of the saving power of God: “Just as the mountains are around Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people” (Psalm 125:2). The psalmist extols the Holy City with these rousing exclamations: “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:1-2). “May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my greatest joy” [Psalm 137:6).

No one better anticipated Jerusalem’s future than Isaiah, the eighth-century Hebrew prophet-poet. After predicting the world’s destruction, Isaiah located his messianic vision of future redemption in Jerusalem’s hills. He prophesied that one day all the nations will end their warring and gather in final reconciliation on the highest hill, the hill called Zion (Jerusalem). From Zion, the “mountain of the house of the Lord,” the divine Law of Justice will come forth. Listen to Isaiah’s words (Isaiah 2:1-5): “In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem for Christians

The Gospel of Luke and his subsequent account of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles depicts Jerusalem in a highly positive manner. Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the Temple of Jerusalem. The opening scene depicts the announcement of the forthcoming conception and birth of John the Baptist to Zachary, John’s father, a priest who by lot entered the sanctuary to burn incense (Luke 1:10). The Gospel closes with the disciples of Jesus celebrating in the Temple each day as they await the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost (Luke 24:52-53).

There are other indications in early Christian Scriptures and writings of the great spiritual significance of Jerusalem. Paul’s reaching out to the Gentiles with the message of the Gospel included a constant appeal for the “poor” of the Church in Jerusalem and Judea. It was intended to symbolize the solidarity of Church members of Jewish and Gentile origins. For Paul, who contrasted the Jerusalem below and the Jerusalem above in his epistle to the Galatians, Jerusalem remained an important anchor and reference point.

Apocalyptic Jerusalem

For Christians, Jerusalem is the city of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the center of history and of the world. It is also the city whose name evokes the new city of the future: the New Jerusalem as mentioned in today’s second reading from Revelation 21. John’s wild dream speaks of a city from God, by God and with God. The author describes the New Jerusalem as the goal of human history. Jerusalem is to be a model for what life with God will be “in the end.” The Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel touched upon this theme with his description of the holy city: “JERUSALEM should be everywhere and JERUSALEM IS everywhere where a person strives for PEACE, where the heart is opened to PRAYER, to GENEROSITY, to THANKSGIVING.”

City of God for three great religions

Jerusalem is the City of God, God’s sanctuary, the place where every believer — Jew, Christian or Muslim has heard the Word of God, and because of that, wishes to adore God. This religious necessity is also an essential part of the human, individual and collective identity: It consists of persons and a people. The religious memory is also a national memory for the Jew and the Muslim in particular. For Christians, Jerusalem was and remains the Mother Church, the birthplace of the first Christian community.

Questions for reflection

Why is Jerusalem such an important city? What does Jerusalem mean for me? What aspects of Judaism and Islam have enlightened me and helped me with my own faith? How do I envision the future of Jerusalem?

When I think of the Church, what image comes to mind? How does my image of the Church reflect my experience as being part of the Church? If we are to be a living temple of God, what qualities should characterize us as church? What symbol do you think most unites us as a Christian people?

All of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are struggling today with the foundation of a society at once just and secure. The continuing drama of the Holy Land is a drama of faith. How long will religion be the cause of wars and disputes among believers? It is not for this reason that God has revealed himself to us or spoken to us in these holy places, but rather for the salvation of the human race, and for the love of humanity, the only constructive instrument and the only way that leads to justice.

How do I envision the future of Jerusalem? What religious symbols and metaphors nurture my vision of this holy city? Does my religious imagination lead me to a vision of peace and justice or does it engender feelings of hatred, exclusion and violence?

Fidelity to Jerusalem and Rome

I conclude with this prayer written by Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, which appears in his book “Due Pellegrini per la Giustizia” (Centro Ambrosiano: Edizioni Piemme, 1992). I have prayed these words often during my years of study in both Rome and Jerusalem.

“Lord Our God,
We Praise you and we bless you for Jerusalem,
Because you have given this city to us
As the symbol of the story of God and the story of humanity;
The sign of your love for us and of your forgiveness for our sins;
The symbol of our earthly pilgrimage toward you,
A pilgrimage that involves so many difficulties and so many conflicts.

“We pray for Jerusalem and for all of our Jewish
And Arab brothers and sisters.
We give you thanks, Lord,
Because you have called us to serve Christ
And to carry his cross today in the Church,
The Church that has its center in Rome;
Since you have called us to be one with your Son,
You teach us to give a name to our oneness with him,
In the words of Ignatius of Loyola,

“The true bride of Christ our Lord, who is our Holy Mother Church
We thank you for the Church and for Rome
That is the image of unity
And the pilgrimage toward this unity,
And for the trials that we must undergo to achieve this unity.

“We ask you that we may be faithful to Jerusalem and to Rome,
To your Son and to the Church,
In this common journey of humanity
Toward the heart of the Trinity,
Toward the contemplation of your face
Of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

[The readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter are: Acts 14:21-27; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a, 34-35]

(Image: Jerusalem and the Temple by James Tissot)

Voice of the Good Shepherd

Lost sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C – April 17, 2016

As we move away from the day of Christ’s resurrection, the Sunday Scripture readings for the Easter Season help to deepen our understanding of what happened to Jesus and to the Church through his triumph over death. On the Second Sunday of Easter, we looked carefully at the wounds of Christ and renewed friendship with him at table in a locked upper room.

The Third Sunday of Easter this year (C) enabled us to peer into the intimate lakeshore scene, leading us through the ruins of denial and despair, and offering us a chance to recommit ourselves to loving Christ as friends.

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, we encounter the Good Shepherd who is really the beautiful or noble shepherd who knows his flock intimately. “Good Shepherd Sunday” is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations in the Church. In all three liturgical cycles, the Fourth Sunday of Easter presents a passage from John’s Gospel about the Good Shepherd.

In the Old Testament, God himself is represented as the shepherd of his people. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). “He is our God and we are his people whom he shepherds” (Psalm 95:7). The future Messiah is also described with the image of the shepherd: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (Isaiah 40:11).

In the Bible and the ancient Near East, “shepherd” was also a political title that stressed the obligation of kings to provide for their subjects. The title connoted total concern for and dedication to others. Shepherd and host are both images set against the background of the desert, where the protector of the sheep is also the protector of the desert traveler, offering hospitality and safety from enemies. The rod is a defensive weapon against wild animals, while the staff is a supportive instrument; they symbolize concern and loyalty.

Ideal image

This ideal image of the shepherd finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He is the “Good Shepherd” who goes in search of the lost sheep; he feels compassion for the people because he sees them “as sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36); he calls his disciples “the little flock” (Luke 12:32). Peter calls Jesus “the shepherd of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25) and the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20).

Today’s Gospel passage (John 10:27-30) highlights two important characteristics of Jesus’ role as shepherd. The first has to do with the reciprocal knowledge that the sheep and shepherd have: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.” The sheep remained for many years in the company of the shepherd who knew the character of each one and gave them affectionate names. Thus it is with Jesus and his disciples: He knows his disciples “by name,” intimately. He loves them with a personal love that treats each as if they were the only one who existed for him.

There is also a second aspect of the shepherd’s vocation in today’s Gospel. The shepherd gives his life to his sheep and for his sheep, and no one can take them out of his hand. Wild animals and thieves were a nightmare and constant threat for the shepherds of Israel. Herein lies the difference between the true shepherd who shepherds the family’s flock, and the hired hand who works only for the pay he receives, who does not love, and indeed often hates, the sheep. When the mercenary is confronted with danger, he flees and leaves the sheep at the mercy of the wolf or bandits; the true shepherd courageously faces the danger to save the flock.

The sheep are far more than a responsibility to the Good Shepherd: They are the object of the shepherd’s love and concern. Thus, the shepherd’s devotion to them is completely unselfish; the Good Shepherd is willing to die for the sheep rather than abandon them. To the hired hand, the sheep are merely a commodity, to be watched over only so they can provide wool and mutton.

Gift from God

Today’s Gospel passage presents to us one of the deepest mysteries of the human spirit. Faith, the ability to hear and to follow a call, is a gift to Jesus and a gift to the followers of Jesus. Why are some capable of hearing that leads to faith? Why are some capable of recognizing the Father in the words of Jesus? The only answer presented is that faith is a gift. Our God and his Son are shepherds that care for us and know us and even love us in our stubbornness, deafness and diffidence. Do we really rejoice in hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd?

I cannot help but call to mind the profound teaching on the Good Shepherd that was offered to us by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during the Mass of inauguration of his Petrine Ministry five years ago, on Sunday, April 24, 2005, at the Vatican. In his very first homily as the Successor of Peter, Benedict XVI said: “One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ Whom he serves. ‘Feed my sheep,’ says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, He says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of His presence, which He gives us in the Blessed Sacrament.”

External and internal deserts

Benedict XVI continued:

“For the Fathers of the Church, the parable of the lost sheep, which the shepherd seeks in the desert, was an image of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The human race — every one of us — is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all — he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. […]

“The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: For him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, toward friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.

“One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. ‘Feed my sheep,’ says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends — at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more — in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another.

“Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd — the task of the fisher of men — can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.”


[The readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter are: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30]

(Image: The Good Shepherd finding the Lost Sheep by Jeremy Sams)

On This Night – an Easter series

OTN wide
Referring to the night of the Easter Vigil, in the Easter Proclamation (the Exsutet) we pray that “This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt.” The Easter Proclamation also says that “This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” It is the Easter Proclamation, referring to Easter, but also referring to Passover. It even says, “These, then, are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.”

We can’t ignore the connection between the Jewish feast of Passover and the Christian feast of Easter. It is not just because Jesus was likely eating the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before he died. The very word for Easter in Latin and in Greek, “Pascha” is pretty much the same word for Passover in Hebrew: “Pesach”.

And so, this Easter season, I wanted to explore a bit more some of these Easter themes. What is the significance of Exodus and of Egypt? What is the meaning of Passover and how do Jews celebrate it? What is Passover today and how has it evolved over the centuries? How did early Christians interpret the meaning of Passover? In order to find out answers to these questions I turned to my good friend, Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, who once again, agreed to share his thoughts with all of you, through the medium of television.

Please join me and Rabbi Aaron for our mini three-part series on Easter and Passover titled, On This Night, for the next three Sundays at 8:30pm ET and together let us grow deeper on the understanding of that night, the night when God led our forebears out of Egypt and when Jesus broke the prison-bars of death.

OTN title

 

On This Night

Ep 1: Exodus | April 10, 8:30pm ET
Ep 2: Pesach | April 17, 8:30pm ET
Ep 3: Passover | April 24, 8:30pm ET

 

 

 

Are you interested in more programs about our Jewish heritage or with Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich?
Watch our Advent series, In the Beginning.

You may also be interested in watching the following episodes of Perspectives: The Weekly Edition:
Perspectives Weekly: Hanukkah.
Perspectives Weekly: Interfaith Dialogue
Perspectives on Marriage: Aaron and Melanie Kohn

Peter’s Rehabilitation and Ours

Jn 21 cropped

Third Sunday of Easter, Year C – April 10, 2016

Today’s dramatic Gospel story (John 21:1-19) is set against the backdrop of the Sea of Galilee. Much of Jesus’ ministry took place along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1) and the Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1).

This “sea” is really a fresh-water lake in the shape of a small harp that is 12-13 miles in length and 7-8 miles wide. Fish and fishing played an important role in the New Testament and in the early Church. Fishing eventually became an important symbol of the church’s missionary task, since Jesus had invited his earliest disciples to “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:10). There is something “fishy” about the origins of Christianity!

The “breakfast symphony” in two movements

Chapter 21 is an epilogue to the Fourth Gospel, a post-resurrectional “breakfast symphony” in two movements. The first movement (vv.1-14) describes the appearance of the Risen Jesus to his disciples “by the Sea of Tiberias.” It is concerned with fish and fishing. When Peter decides to go fishing, there is a certain feeling of resignation and bleakness about it, alluding to the depression and discouragement he and the other disciples must have experienced after Jesus’ death. Peter is simply taking up his old profession.”

Jesus’ appearance is shrouded in mystery, in the familiar atmosphere of “not knowing who he was” that we see so often from the Gospel writers. The disciples have been out at sea and “that night they catch nothing” (v 3), a graphic portrayal of barrenness. They have done what they thought was the right thing but experienced failure. This prepares them to learn one of the central lessons of discipleship — apart from Jesus they can do nothing (15:5). The turning point comes early in the morning, perhaps symbolizing the dawning of spiritual light. Jesus is described again as simply standing there, without a description of his arrival on the spot (v 4; 20:14, 19, 26).

Jesus takes the initiative and calls out to the disciples: “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” (v. 5).  The disciples admit they have failed at fishing and Jesus tells them, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some” (v. 6). They could have easily understood this remark as the idle suggestion of a bystander. But he does not say, “Try over there and you might find some!” He doesn’t offer a suggestion; he gives a promise that in fact they will find fish where he directs them to cast.

When the disciples come ashore, they notice is a charcoal fire with bread and fish already prepared (v. 9). There is no indication of where Jesus got the bread and fish; the appearance of the food is as mysterious as his own. The only other charcoal fire mentioned in the Gospels is the provocative scene from Luke’s Passion Narrative when Peter disowns Jesus (Luke 22:55). That scene presents the fire of denial and betrayal. John’s Gospel offers the fire of repentance and recommitment.

The meal referred to may have had Eucharistic significance for early Christians since John 21:13 recalls John 6:11 which uses the vocabulary of Jesus’ action at the Last Supper. Many people have asked and continue to ask about the number of fish — 153. Long ago, St. Jerome had claimed that Greek zoologists catalogued 153 species of fish in the lake! The number is meant to have special symbolism in relation to the apostles’ universal mission.

The next scene is one of great awe, with none of the disciples daring to ask Jesus, “Who are you?” (v. 12). There was something different about him, yet they were able to recognize him. Now it is the Lord Jesus who is the focus of the story. After breakfast Jesus speaks to Peter. Throughout this story Peter has been referred to as Simon Peter (vv. 2-3, 7b, 11) or simply as Peter (v. 7a), the name Jesus had given him (1:42; cf. Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14). Now Jesus calls him by his former name, Simon son of John (v. 15), as if he were no longer (or not yet!) a disciple.

Peter’s rehabilitation and new role

The second movement of the “symphony” (vv. 15-23) presents a poignant dialogue between Jesus and Peter. It is one of the most personal and moving commissionings in the Bible, concerned with sheep and shepherding. Peter certainly knew failure along the road of discipleship. The disciple who was called “rock” wept with regret in Luke 22:62 after denying his Lord. Peter is given an opportunity to repent and recommit himself to Jesus.

Jesus questions Peter and then gives a command, and he does so three times. His question is the ultimate question in life: do you truly love me more than these? (v. 15). Does it refer to the net, the boats, the material things of their fishing profession? By “these” Jesus probably means “these other disciples.” According to the other Gospels, Peter had boasted that though all the others fall away, he would not (Matthew 26:33; Mark 14:29; Luke 22:33; John 13:37). John does not record this boast, but Peter’s actions in swimming to shore and hauling up the net by himself reveal the same attitude. Jesus’ question, therefore, goes even deeper than the issue of false attachments. He gets at the root of all sin, namely, pride.

Behind this translation there are two verbs for love, truly love (agapao) and love (phileo). There is a pattern, with Jesus asking Peter twice whether he loves him (agapao) and each time Peter responding that, yes, he does love him (phileo). Then the third time Jesus switches to using Peter’s word. Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus during the trial and crucifixion is now canceled out by the three-fold declaration of love.

In response to the searing, painful third question, Peter says, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you (v. 17). After each profession of love Jesus gives a similar command, using different words. First he is to feed (boske) lambs (arnia, v. 15); then he is to shepherd (poimaine) sheep (probata, v. 16). The third command includes a word from both of the previous commands (v. 17, boske/probata), thereby tying the three commands together.

Peter’s qualifications for ministry

Why does Jesus ask Peter, on whom he is going to confer the pastoral office as chief shepherd, these questions and not others? Wouldn’t there be other questions which we can imagine his having asked him concerning his suitability for ministry? For example, “Simon, son of John, are you aware of the great responsibilities that you are undertaking?” “Do you realize your weakness and track record?” “Simon, son of John, do you understand?” “Are you aware of how many people about you are in need of help?” “Are you able to respond to all the demands made of you?”

In our day where proficiency and efficiency seem to be at the top of the list of “professional” ministerial aptitudes, we might translate those questions into the language of age and agility, academic qualifications, psychological balance, previous leadership experience, financial management, success in public relations, eloquence, diplomacy, etc. Such questions may be important to varying degrees for effective ministry today. But Jesus sums them all up in a single, basic question, repeated with two different verbs in Greek to indicate the different nuances of love and friendship which are being referred to: “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Are you really my friend?” This question goes directly to a person’s heart.

The key qualification for the Petrine ministry, and for all ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, is a love for the Lord that is characterized by humility, dependence and obedience. Peter already had a devotion to Jesus, but he was still full of self-will and was thrusting himself to the front. Such a proud attitude of heart would spell disaster for the community, as had already been evident in Israel’s history right up to the opponents who had just had Jesus crucified and has been just as evident in the history of the church to our own day!

Peter himself learned his lesson, as is clear from his first letter. When he addresses the elders of the communities he does so as a “fellow elder” and encourages them to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers … not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (I Pet 5:1-4). This is authority exercised in humility and conscious of the Chief Shepherd. Such are marks of an authentic shepherd.

Ultimate responsibility for the flock

Once Peter’s love has matured, he allows the Risen Lord to look into his own heart: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). Only when Peter allowed himself to be forgiven by Jesus, would he receive his new responsibility for the flock. For Peter, insight into Jesus’ true identity and his compassion brought new demands and responsibilities. Peter is truly a model for us, as he must always remember his own failures as he undertakes leadership within the church. Rather than incapacitating him, his remembrance enables him to be a merciful and compassionate leader.

How do we deal with memories of our own failures as we reach out to others? Into what kind of intimacy is God calling us at this moment in our life? With whom is God calling us to be intimate? What do we understand to be our responsibilities following upon our own declaration of faith in Jesus? Peter learned his lesson well; he would imitate Jesus the rest of his life even to the point of giving that life as a martyr, dying upside down on a cross on the Vatican hill. Are we prepared to go to that extreme for our faith in Jesus? Do we love Jesus more than “these?”

[The readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter are: Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelations 5:11-14; John 21:1-19 or 21:1-14]

(Image: Christ appears on the shore of Lake Tiberias by James Tissot)

A Walk with the Lord: As The Son Rises

Sun rises as people gather for ecumenical Easter service in Massachusetts

The sun rises as people gather for an ecumenical Easter service in Scituate, Mass., March 31, 2013. (CNS photo/Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)

A Walk with the Lord: President Kennedy celebrates Easter

U.S. President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, and their children, Caroline and John Jr., are seen on Easter Sunday in 1963. (CNS photo/Reuters)

A Walk with the Lord: Let us praise the Lord!

MUSICIANS TAKE PART IN PARADE DURING CATHOLIC FESTIVAL IN BRAZIL

Musicians take part in a parade during the Festa do Divino, or Festival of the Divine, in Sao Luiz do Paraitinga, Brazil, May 27, 2012. The Festa do Divino is one of Brazil’s most important Catholic celebrations, marking Pentecost 50 days after Easter. (CNS photo/Roosevelt Cassio, Reuters)