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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)

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)

The Shadow of Peter, the Touch of Thomas

Doubting Thomas cropped

Biblical Reflection for Divine Mercy Sunday – April 3, 2016

Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (5:12-16) offers us a vivid insight into the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Luke has already mentioned the rapid growth of the Early Church (2:41, 47, 4:4; 6:1, 9:31). In today’s reading from Acts he wants to add the fact that large numbers of women as well as men were being baptized and becoming disciples (5:14). Signs and wonders are the visible result of some of the gifts of the Spirit, such as “the working of miracles” and “deeds of power” (I Corinthians 12:9, 28).

A powerful image of Peter is presented to us (5:15-16):

They even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.

The shadow of Peter

I have always been moved by the image of the shadow of Peter passing over the sick and afflicted. People who passed within Peter’s shadow were healed, not by Peter’s shadow, but by God’s power working through Peter.

These miracles of healing attracted people to the Early Church and confirmed the truth of the teachings of the Apostles and the fact that the power of God was with them. We also learn that the religious leaders who were jealous of Jesus’ power and authority saw the Apostles as a continued threat and demanded respect for themselves. The Apostles weren’t demanding respect for themselves. Their goal was to bring respect and reverence to God. The Apostles had acquired the respect of the people, not because they demanded it, but because they deserved it.

Pope Benedict among us

As I reflect on today’s first reading, I cannot help but call to mind the powerful images of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as he moved among hundreds of thousands of people during his Apostolic Visit to the United States of America in April of 2008. The authentic shepherd, who models his or her life on Jesus, must love the people entrusted to him and imitate Jesus. Pope Benedict did that very well.

For years, the world has witnessed the scourge and pain of sexual abuse of minors and the vulnerable erupt in many countries across the globe. The abuse is evil, devastating, and sinful. A small portion of priests and religious, who promised to protect, defend, and love children, have brought disgrace upon the Church and upon society. Some people tried to blame Pope Benedict for inaction, covert behaviour, and blatant dishonesty in dealing with the sexual abuse of minors. Such blame is unjust, unacceptable, and extremely harmful to the Church, to victims, and to society in general.

I recall Pope Benedict’s visit to the USA with deep emotion and profound gratitude. During that visit, the shadow of Peter came upon America, as it has done wherever any pope visits the People of God. And that shadow, which is God’s healing touch, covers us all with mercy, healing, and peace. When Pope Benedict walked among us, he did more than connect with us. He bonded. He moved multitudes. He showed remarkable courage, wisdom, and compassion.

The media did not miss the deep significance of the Holy Father’s private and moving meeting with victims of clerical sex abuse at the Vatican Embassy in Washington. The Pope was unafraid then and remains unafraid now to enter into the pain, confusion, sadness and evil of the abuse crisis. He let people know that he listened and understood and that the Pope will continue to act so that such a disaster would never repeat itself.

Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia

An ancient Latin expression, first used by St. Ambrose in the fourth century, came to my mind in April 2008, during several moments of the historic papal visit to the USA: Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia, which translated means: “Wherever Peter is, there is the Church.” Peter was in America and his gentle smile and obvious serenity ignited a nation, a Church, and a continent with hope in the midst of cynicism, despair, and many who would like to hasten death for a Church that is alive and young. Only time, reflection, and prayer will reveal if the healing sown in 2008 will continue to bear fruit for the Church in America.

One thing is certain: in Pope Benedict XVI, the shadow of Peter fell on millions of people in America in 2008 and continues to fall on millions around the world to this day, especially upon those who are wounded and hurting from the evil actions of sexual abuse of children. Let us never forget that in Pope Benedict, Peter is still among us.

The touch of Thomas

John’s Resurrection story (Chapters 20-21) comprises a series of encounters between Jesus and his followers that reveal diverse faith reactions. Whether these encounters are with Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, or Thomas, the whole scenario reminds us that among believers there are different degrees of readiness and different factors that cause people to come to faith and help them in turn to become witnesses and evangelizers.

John’s story of Jesus and Thomas (John 20:19-31) records the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus and provides us with an archetypal experience of doubt, struggle, and faith. Herein lies every Christian’s challenge: to believe without having seen. In this Gospel passage, we have a story within a story: the resolution of Thomas’ doubts during Jesus’ appearance to encourage the fearful disciples. Thomas only believes upon hearing the Lord’s call to belief.

Thomas is not the eternal skeptic, nor the bullish, stubborn personality that the Christian tradition has often painted. The Greek lexicon translates the word skepsis as “doubt, misgiving, hesitation, and disbelief.” Thomas, the doubter, was permitted to do something that we would all like to do. He was allowed to touch and “experience” something that by human means was not possible. For us it is more difficult. We need to begin with faith and then blindly touch our way to the heart of our lives.

Though we know very little about Thomas, his family background, and his destiny, we are given an important hint into his identity in the etymology of his name in Greek: Thomas (Didymous in Greek) means “twin.” Who was Thomas’ other half, his twin? Maybe we can see his twin by looking into the mirror. Thomas’ other half is anyone who has struggled with the pain of unbelief, doubt, and despair, and has allowed the presence of the Risen Jesus to make a difference. When this happens, the ice of skepticism thaws.

Thomas and his twins throughout the world risk everything in Jesus and for Jesus and become sources of blessing for others, in spite of their doubts and despair and because of their doubts and despair.

Divine Mercy Sunday

Divine Mercy Sunday is not a new feast established to celebrate St. Faustina Kowalska’s (1905-1938) revelations. In fact it is not about St. Faustina at all! Rather the feast recovers an ancient liturgical tradition, reflected in a teaching attributed to St. Augustine about the Easter Octave, which he called “the days of mercy and pardon,” referring to Octave Day itself as “the compendium of the days of mercy.”

There is no need to force a link between Divine Mercy and the Gospel story of Thomas and the Risen Christ. The celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday does not compete with, nor endanger the integrity of the Easter Season, nor does it take away from Thomas’ awesome encounter with the Risen Lord in today’s Gospel. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave Day of Easter, celebrating the merciful love of God shining through the whole Easter Triduum and the whole Easter mystery.

At St. Faustina’s canonization on April 30, 2000, Pope John Paul II said in his homily before more than 200,000 people in St. Peter’s Square: “Jesus shows his hands and his side [to the Apostles]. He points, that is, to the wounds of the Passion, especially the wound in his heart, the source from which flows the great wave of mercy poured out on humanity.”

Several years ago, when I was having difficulty in seeing the internal links between the Second Sunday of Easter, my patron saint – Thomas the Apostle, and Sr. Faustina’s revelations, I came across this quote by St. Bernard (Canticle 61, 4-5: PL 183, 1072): “What I cannot obtain by myself, I appropriate (usurp!) with trust from the pierced side of the Lord, because he is full of mercy.” Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Lord gave me a whole new perspective on the meaning of mercy. Then I understood what this day is all about. Now more than ever in the Church and in the world, we need mercy.

“Mercy within mercy within mercy”

Canada’s Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon was ordained to the episcopacy on March 25, 2010. Bishop Bolen, a priest of the Archdiocese of Regina and former official of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity at the Vatican, chose as his episcopal motto “Mercy within mercy within mercy.” The quotation is from Thomas Merton’s 1953 book “The Sign of Jonas,” wherein Merton portrays God as saying: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy. Have you not had sight of me, Jonas, my child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

At his episcopal ordination, which took place on the Feast of the Annunciation, Bishop Bolen said: “The Word which Mary welcomes with her ‘fiat,’ the Word which becomes incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word who gives himself to us completely, even unto death, but which death cannot contain: what that Word speaks is mercy within mercy within mercy.” If ever there was an episcopal motto that sums up a bishop’s life, it is this motto for a remarkable young bishop and leader of the Church in Canada who models mercy in very high density!

As we continue to bask in the afterglow of the Resurrection of the Lord, let us not cease praying that Peter’s shadow of healing and peace cover the Church, and let us beg the Lord that our lives be steeped in mercy within mercy within mercy.

[The readings for Divine Mercy Sunday are: Acts 5:12-16; Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31.]

(Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio)

Stay With Us, Lord!

Emmaus cropped

Biblical Reflection for Easter Sunday – March 27, 2016

Pounding hearts, wounded hearts and burning hearts. The image of the human heart permeates the beautiful Easter Gospel of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It is a very human story, full of pathos; stylized in pattern, and suggesting a Eucharistic celebration (vv 30-32). The disciples come with their questions and doubts (vv 13-24); the Scriptures are recited (v 27); words of clarification and instruction are exchanged on the road (vv 25-27); and finally, the moment of recognition comes in the context of a meal (v 31).

These facts are clear from the account: On Easter night, Cleopas and his companion are going away from the locality where the decisive events have happened toward a little village of no significance. They did not believe the message of the resurrection, due to the scandal of the cross. Puzzled and discouraged, they are unable to see any liberation in the death, the empty tomb, or the message about the appearances of Jesus to the others. In their eyes, either the mission of Jesus had entirely failed, or else they, themselves had been badly deceived in their expectations about Jesus.

Road conversation

When we meet the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is evening, and the glow of that first Easter day has begun to fade. Resurrection for them is nothing more than a rumor or a tale. Buried beneath their verbal exchange lies a deep yearning and a holy hunger. Intimately intertwined with their skepticism is their hope, and their need for God to be alive, vibrant and present. But the baggage of their doubt, sadness and despair impedes the fervor of their faith. They fail to recognize Jesus.

Without being aware of what they are really saying along the road, the two disciples profess many of the central elements of the creed of the Christian faith, yet they remain blind to the necessity of the Messianic suffering predicted in the Scriptures. They are so caught up with their own sadness that they fail to recognize Jesus.

The stranger on the road to Emmaus takes the skepticism and curiosity of the disciples and weaves them into the fabric of the Scripture. Jesus challenges them to reinterpret the events of the past days in light of the Scriptures. However, Cleopas and his companion are “foolish and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have said!” (v 25)

“We were hoping”

The Emmaus disciples saw their hopes and dreams dashed and crushed. Theirs is a piercing cry: “We were hoping” (24:21). They were expecting this Jesus to be a mighty liberator or warrior. They never imagined the outcome of that terrible Friday on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.

We know what happens when such feelings overtake us: We become despondent, indifferent, cynical and sad. How many times have we been like the two on the road, uttering those same words: “We were hoping.”

We were hoping that the marriage would have remained intact and the family united. We were hoping that wars, violence and terrorism would have ceased. We were hoping that that the economic crisis would not have affected our family, resulting in job loss, uncertainty and imposed poverty. We were hoping that our children would have remained in the Church. We were hoping that the ravages of sickness and ageing would have spared a loved one or even ourselves much physical and mental anguish.

Like the two on the road to Emmaus, do we not feel that we are victims of time, fate, circumstance and external factors?

We cannot live without hope, but we must be prudent and wise in our hoping. Given the cultural and social context in which we live, there is a risk of reducing Christian hope to an ideology, to group slogans, to mere appearances and feelings. Nothing could be more opposite to Jesus’ message! He does not want his disciples to simply recite a role of hope. He wants them “to be hope.”

To believe in the Resurrection does not mean we embrace fleeting ideologies, secular strategies, cheap slogans and catchy themes. It means that we fall in love again with God’s envoy, the Risen Lord, and remain in an intimate relationship with him. Apart from him we can do nothing. We cannot afford to simply be people “who were hoping.” Rather we must become hope, and we can be so only if we remain united to him.

“Stay with us”

“Stay with us, Lord, for it is nearly evening” (24:29). This was the fervent plea that the two disciples addressed to the stranger who had walked with them along the way. “Stay with us” is also the prayer of the early Church to the Risen Lord that he not abandon them in their searching for his new presence.

The nightfall at Emmaus is not only the sunset of that first Easter, but it marks the night of faith and doubt, uncertainty and obscurity, confusion and chaos. As Christians, we know that this night is always followed by the dawn of faith and hope. This is illustrated beautifully by the words of St. Gregory the Great: “Since daybreak or dawn is changed gradually from darkness into light, the church […] is fittingly called daybreak or dawn. The dawn hints that the night is over. It does not yet proclaim the full light of day. While dawn dispels darkness and welcomes the light, it holds both of them, the one mixed with the other. […] Are not all of us who follow the truth in this life daybreak and dawn?”

Amidst the shadows of the passing day and the darkness that clouded the disciples’ spirit, the stranger brought a ray of light that rekindled their hope. “Stay with us,” they pleaded. In the intimacy of the breaking of the bread, the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized the Risen One in their midst. How often do we turn to the Lord and plead, like the two on the road: “Stay with us!”

Burning hearts

At table in Emmaus, the disciples’ hearts began to gradually burn within them (24:32) as they came to understand with their minds the truth about the suffering Messiah. The “Good News” descended from their head to their heart, and they experienced that strange and wonderful feeling of their hearts gradually on fire. The analogy of the “burning hearts” is the only way for them to adequately describe their recognition of the Lord.

I remember a beautiful phrase of the great French Catholic author of the last century, François Mauriac: “If you are friends with Christ many others will warm themselves at your fire. […] On the day when you no longer burn with love, many will die of the cold.”

Appearance to Simon

Just as the two disciples were moving away from the city of Jerusalem in verse 13, the end of the story finds them moving back to Jerusalem, to be reunited with the other disciples and apostles who waited for Jesus in the Holy City (v 33). The story’s conclusion is an abrupt announcement by the assembly to the ones returning back to the community rather than, as expected, the two disciples’ relating of what had just occurred (vv 33-34).

How can we describe the Lord’s appearance to Peter and the group of apostles and disciples in Jerusalem? Could it be that Luke has the “Eleven and their company” proclaim the appearance to Peter and announce it first before the travelers’ report, in order to be true to the Lukan understanding of the apostolic circle around Peter as primary “witnesses of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22)?

The appearance to Peter and the testimony of the apostles thus obtain logical priority in the building of the Church. From the very beginning, there was great significance attached to “being with Peter and the apostolic circle.” This does not diminish the Emmaus travelers’ encounter. On the contrary, the happening “on the road” is authenticated and confirmed by being made part of the greater united Easter witness of the assembly of apostles and disciples of Jesus.

Nostalgia

The question lingers: Why does Luke alone spend so much time relating the Emmaus event? The story was most likely told in response to Jesus’ continuing historical absence and its perception as a loss to Jesus’ followers. The main theme of the story is truly recognition of the Lord, not just a recognition of his bodily presence, but of his powerful presence in the Scriptures and in the action of the breaking of the bread. The issue is how Luke uses the story to teach his readers in 80 A.D. They might have been saying to themselves that 50-60 years ago, people were so fortunate to have seen the Risen Lord with their very eyes.

Nostalgia would cause people to say that having been there, back then, might make a difference in the way that they think and believe today!  But Luke says that even those who were there weren’t able to recognize Jesus until the Scriptures were “opened” and the “Eucharistic” meal was shared. The bottom line is this: A past generation is not more fortunate or blessed to have encountered the Risen Jesus than is a generation that hasn’t seen him!

Faith in Jesus transcends all history, space and time. Christians of Luke’s time and Christians of our time have the same essential elements necessary for recognizing the Lord: sacred Scripture and the Eucharist.

For Cleopas and his companion on that first Easter, their journey was a gradual, painstaking process requiring a careful remembering and rearticulation of the events of salvation history found in the Scriptures, along with an experience of the Risen Lord. It is no less the same for us, who continue to interpret the Scriptures in this day and age, and move from faith-filled insights to a proclamation and lived experience of the One who is truly risen from the dead. Emmaus places some important questions before us, as individuals and as a faith community.

Questions for reflection

How is Jesus alive and present among us? Is our own friendship with Christ contagious? Do we burn with love for him? Do people avoid us because of our coldness? Are our own hearts gradually on fire within us when the Scriptures are opened to us? When have we taken the road back to Emmaus, preferring to remain in the familiar, among what is known and calculable, rather than move forward to the unknown challenges of new life?

When have we experienced that strange and wonderful feeling of “the burning heart” as we listened to the Word of God at the Eucharist or in private prayer? What do Peter and the Apostolic Tradition mean for us? When have we given in to nostalgia, in our faith life, religious life and experience of Church?

Let me conclude with this prayer for the Easter season:

Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening and the day is far spent.
Just as the two disciples prayed on that evening in Emmaus,
Help us to be focused and centered on you,
Our Lord, our hope and our life.

When doubt and despair fill our lives, stay with us, Lord.
When sadness and emptiness tempt us to believe that you are absent,
Fill us with your consoling presence.
When selfishness prevents us from reaching out to others,
Teach us your art of selflessness.

Stay with us, Lord,
And help us to remember that the royal road of the Cross
Is the only way for us and for the Church.

Stay with us, Lord, along the journey,
And help us to discover you each day
In the breaking and sharing of the Word and the Bread.

Stay with us, Lord, as we journey to the New Jerusalem
Where you are light, peace, and endless home. Amen.


[The readings for Easter Sunday are: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; 2 John 20:1-9 or Luke 24:1-12 or Luke 24:13-35]

(Image: The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio)

Like Alabaster Jars of Nard

Resurrection Women cropped

Biblical Reflection for Easter Vigil – Saturday, March 26, 2016

I consider the Resurrection chapter (24) of Luke’s Gospel to be a beautiful symphony in three major movements. In the first movement of the empty tomb narrative (vv.1-12), God alone breaks open a helpless and hopeless situation. In the second movement of the Emmaus story (vv.13-35), God, in the person of Jesus, accompanies people on their journeys through the ruins of despair and death. The stories of the third movement present Jesus among his disciples (vv.36-53) and lead people into an experience of community.

The Gospel for the Easter Vigil this year (24:1-12) is the first movement of the Resurrection Symphony. It is the women who first discover the empty tomb and receive the message of the angels that Jesus has been raised. While the women are not named in Chapter 23, in 24:10 we learn that it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the mother of James, and some others. Even though the apostles were to be witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:22), they seem to be in disarray while the women disciples are on hand to receive the joyful news.

The story of the empty tomb begins with a reference to the spices that the women had prepared. The previous passage recounting the burial of Jesus (23:50-56), ends with the note that the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph of Arimathea and saw the tomb and how the body of Jesus was laid. The women knew the exact tomb where Jesus was placed. There was no possibility of mistaking the tomb. Having prepared spices and ointments, they rested on the Sabbath according to the Jewish law. As soon as the Sabbath was over they came to embalm the body of Jesus for proper burial.

In their great perplexity before the empty tomb, the women are questioned why they seek the living one among the dead. They are challenged by the two men in dazzling clothes to remember what Jesus had told them while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man had to suffer, be crucified and on the third day rise again.  In one brief moment, everything changes! Jesus “is not here, but has risen.”

The tragic story of Good Friday does not end with the death of Jesus. There is a sequel. God raises Jesus from the dead and thereby writes another chapter in the history of salvation. There will be a tomorrow because the grave is not the end. The announcement, which changed the sadness of these pious women into joy, re-echoes with unchanging eloquence throughout the Church in the celebration of this Easter Vigil.

Words and events

The four Gospels were written from the perspective of the faith of the disciples after they experienced the actual events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That same Easter faith informed and shaped the Gospel story as we have it. Throughout these stories, there is a dynamic interplay between event, faith, and the final shape of the biblical text.  There is repeated admonition to remember words and events from the past. In fact, one of the human pitfalls or flaws is that too quickly we forget what God had said or done. God on the other hand does not forget. God remembers and is faithful to His covenant.

In verse 8 of today’s Gospel we read: “Then they remembered his words.” The women respond in faith by remembering the words of Jesus. They believe the message of the angels by remembering what Jesus said and they go to tell the eleven and the others the good news. But their words “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (v. 11). The women believe, but the eleven apostles do not!

While Luke gives so much prominence to the apostles in the Gospel and in Acts, he is also candid enough to point out the failure of human leaders in the story. In many commentaries on this particular passage, the dominant thought is that the apostles did not believe the women precisely because they were women, as if the result would have been much different had the report of the resurrection been brought by men! I do not think that the problem was due to the fact that women were involved. The problem is that the male apostles simply did not remember what Jesus had said.

Despite their disbelief, Peter apparently believes the women enough that he runs to the tomb and sees the linen cloths and goes home amazed at what had happened. His response is hardly genuine faith. Let us never forget that amazement falls short of authentic faith. The crowds who saw the miracles of Jesus could be amazed but still not become disciples. Discipleship requires commitment, trust, and obedience; amazement does not.

Symphonies of our own

The movements of Luke’s Resurrection Symphony are stages in our individual and communal lives of faith. How often have we found ourselves before stonewalls, tombs, when nothing or no one could revive our hopes or alleviate our despair? Easter is the promise that death will visit each of us. But more important, it is the assurance that death does not complete life, but only changes it. The Easter mysteries give us a new identity and a new name: We are saved, redeemed, renewed; we are Christian, and we have no more need for fear or despair. The tomb could not hold the Lord of Life.

Tomb in Jerusalem

In the midst of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the tomb of Jesus, a shrine to the risen Christ. He is not there. He is among us.

Having lived in Jerusalem for nearly four years, I can assure you that all around that tomb are the remnants of over 2,000 years of dreadfully human discord, chaos and corruption that continues to this very day.  Nevertheless, it is the most important shrine and holy place for Christians.

The resurrection of Jesus is the sign that God is ultimately going to win. At Calvary, and elsewhere throughout the Church, corruption seems so rampant. On this night when the Lord broke the bonds of death, we know deep within that God is ultimately victorious. I know this within my flesh and bones, in my heart of hearts, because 70 feet away from Calvary there is a tomb, which is now empty.

God shall win, and conquer sin and death. God shall build a just society. As Christians, we have an even deeper message — not that God is going to win, but that we in Christ are going to win.

Women and Easter

We still have profound lessons to learn from the women who ran to the tomb that first Easter morning. They represented countless, nameless, yet devoted women who were part of the crowds that Jesus addressed and in the homes he frequented.

They were the courageous ones who reached out fearlessly to touch the fringe of his cloak. They shouted after him; they entered his hosts’ houses uninvited, they poured most expensive, perfumed nard over his feet to the consternation of the critics. Some met him at wells at high noon. They waited on him and waited for him, and they accompanied him from Galilee to Samaria to Jerusalem. They knew the promise made to them, they welcomed him, they knew from Jesus’ own treatment of them the strength of their own testimony to him, and they were unafraid to show him great love.

In the end, they stood beneath his dying body, while the men were hiding for fear of the authorities. It was the women who ground spices for his burial and they calculated how to roll back the stone from his tomb. They attended firmly to the business of his living and dying. They were rewarded for their fidelity by being the first recipients of the Good News of the Resurrection.

Women of the Church

Whenever I read this Easter Gospel, I cannot help but think of the lives of countless women religious who greatly influenced my life from my childhood, and encouraged me to be a Christian and a priest.  I remember with gratitude the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, my first teachers.

I recall with deep emotion the Sisters of the Holy Family of Spoleto and the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary with whom I had the privilege of working in my first years of pastoral ministry in Canada. The Sisters of Sion, the Salvatorian Sisters of Emmaus el-Quebeibeh and Nazareth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition showed me how to love and imitate the Lord in his own homeland during my graduate studies.

Later on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto and Hamilton and the Sisters of Mercy of Ireland shared with me very fruitful years of ministry at the Newman Center of Toronto and most especially during World Youth Day 2002. The diminishment of many of these religious congregations in the Church is cause for sadness, yet also of profound gratitude. I regret that several generations of young people will never have the grace of getting to know women religious as I knew them: as teachers, pastoral workers, colleagues and friends.

Though their “charisms” will live on through lay-led institutions in many instances, nothing can ever replace their presence in the life of the Church and in our own personal stories. Their lives were alabaster jars of nard poured out in active service, in decisive, courageous, prophetic works, and in watchful presence at the end.  Their action on Jesus’ behalf was hopeful, positive, courageous, and unambiguous. Their active faith in him and their decisive following of him are, finally, the unchanging beauty and eloquence of the Church’s vocation. When I think of that first Easter, in an eerie, garden-like setting outside the walls of Jerusalem, I cannot help but remember the faithful women in my life who have carried the message of the Resurrection to the ends of the earth.

“This is the day that the Lord has made: let us rejoice in it and be glad. Alleluia!”

[The readings for the Easter Vigil are: Genesis 1:1-2:2 or 1:1, 26-31a; Genesis 22:1-18 or 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 54:5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11 and Luke 24:1-12]

The Connoisseur of Crosses and Cross Bearing

Cross Delacroix cropped

Biblical Reflection for Good Friday – March 25, 2016

Each year on Good Friday we relive the tragic chain of events of the Passion of our Savior leading to his crucifixion on Golgotha. There is a haunting question about this day that has resounded throughout history. Where was God in the midst of the disaster on Calvary?

This is a question that even Jesus the Lord cried out from the wood of the cross: “Where are you? Have you really forgotten me? Why are you deaf to my the sound of my pleading?” (Psalm 22).

The profoundly moving Scripture readings of today’s solemn liturgy do not focus upon the corpse of Jesus, but they move delicately back and forth between the dead Jesus and the grieving community. The passages are filled with words of sorrow and hope, death and life. In the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (4:14-16; 5:7-9), the author contemplates Jesus’ agony in the garden in relation to temple sacrifices and the priesthood according to the Hebrew Scriptures.

We are told what kind of God we have, and what kind of God would allow a Good Friday to happen: a God-man who was always son, like us in all things but sin. Far from creating an abyss between Christ and ourselves, our trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself, thanks to this man of the cross.

The consequence is that from now on, not one of us can be bowed down under a painful situation without finding that Christ is, by that very fact, at our side. If, in fact, the trials of human existence have given Christ his present position close to God, for having suffered death he has been clothed with glory and honor.

Prayers and silent tears

In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. He was heard because of his reverence. The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. It is all the more striking, therefore, that on one essential point, no distinction was made: No text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin. In the Old Testament, an attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood.

Unlike the Levitical priests, the death of Jesus was essential for his priesthood. He is a priest of compassion. His authority attracts us because of his compassion, the authority of his words, his penetrating, loving gaze at each one of us, the steadfastness of his faith. Ultimately, he exists for others: He exists to serve.

He has been tested in all respects like us — he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside — only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. He was a priest — one who lived for others, who offered up everything of this sad but beautiful world to the God who loved him. That’s the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.

If last evening’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper invited us to look at what we have done with our baptism, and how we are a Eucharistic people, then this afternoon’s Commemoration of Jesus’ Death invites us to look at our own priesthood, yours and mine, and ask ourselves for whom we really live and who we really love. We must ask ourselves a question today: Am I a priestly person like he was? Do I live for others? Is the world any less violent, any less hostile, any more patient, kind and just, because of me?

Source of Christian liturgy

John’s Passion narrative (18:1-19:42) is so heavily liturgical that Jesus is seen not only as God, but also as the source of Christian liturgy: even blood and water flow forth from his wounded side. We are invited to realize very deeply the tragedy of Jesus’ death in the context of our own trials, sorrows, and deaths. The cross is a sign of contradiction, a sign of victory, and we gaze upon the cross and respond in faith to the message of life that flows from it, a message that brings us healing and reconciliation.

Haunting questions linger about the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus. How did the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday turn to the “Crucify Him!” of Good Friday? The crowd turns around like a single man and insists on his death with a determination that springs at least in part from being carried away by the irrationality of the collective spirit. Whether one was a Zealot, or Pharisee, or simple peasant, or Roman soldier, or Sanhedrin official, whether King Herod or Pontius Pilate, they all came together out of their need to find some measure of peace through a scapegoat. It is in the crowd that we locate the universal scope of the cross. The question is not who killed Jesus, but what killed Jesus, and what vicious circles of violence continue to crucify him today in his brothers and sisters of the human family?

Where is God?

Good Friday shows us where God is — here, hanging on the wood of the cross in Jerusalem, and on the crosses throughout the world where people are betrayed by an ally, abandoned by a friend, denounced by their community, shouted at by crowds, made into a scapegoat, passed from authority to authority, physically abused, mocked and humiliated, labeled and mislabeled, stripped of their clothing and dignity, tortured and executed out of anger, violence, jealousy, and hatred. The way of the Cross continues in our world today. Yet it is only there that we receive the mystery of the death that gives life.

Today, the “Via Dolorosa” is transformed into the “Via Gloriosa.” This day, through the mystery and fire of the cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of the darkness.

Remembering John Paul II

This year, we mark the eleventh anniversary of death of Pope John Paul II. There are few places on this planet that have not been touched by Pope John Paul II. He was a living exegesis of the Gospels. He walked his talk until the end.

At the end of March and the beginning of April 2005, we were inundated with words, stories, images, and profoundly moving ceremonies coming to us from the Vatican. We learned once again in his retreating and passing how vast a person he was among us and on the world stage. Our memories of what he was like before his “retreat” or “departure” became suffused with the profound weight of post-mortem insight.

That period of 2005 was an extraordinary time of evangelization, catechesis and education for the universal Church. John Paul II was a bestseller in life and also in death.

Crucible of suffering

During the final years of his brilliant pontificate, John Paul II brought suffering back into the realm of the expected in human life. Everyone could see that his spirituality gave him an inner strength — a spirituality with which one can also overcome fear, even the fear of death. What an incredible lesson for the world! His struggle with the physical effects of aging was also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older, and a culture that sees no redemption in suffering.

As an affectionate father and a careful teacher, Pope John Paul II indicated sure and sound points of reference indispensable for everyone, especially for the young. The contrast between John Paul II’s physical vigor at the start of his pontificate and his state at journey’s end was striking.

In his final hours and his death this new generation wished to show they had understood his teaching, gathering silently in prayer in St. Peter’s Square and many other places around the world. Tens of thousands of young people were aware that his demise was a loss: “Their” Pope was dying, whom they considered as “their father” in the faith. Though broken and bent at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, John Paul II crossed the threshold of history, standing tall, as a giant.

May we learn from “Papa Wojtyla” how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. Today, let us pray to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla — now Saint John Paul II.

A great Christian tradition

While I was still Catholic Chaplain at the University of Toronto’s Newman Center, a wonderful, elderly Catholic woman confided to me one Good Friday the struggles that she and her family were having with the acceptance of the cross as the central symbol of the Christian life. The woman wept as she expressed concern about her own daughter’ troubled faith, and she shared with me a poem that her daughter, Hanna had written about the cross.

Far from describing a lack of faith, the poem reveals the raw faith and deep love that the mystery of Good Friday elicits from all Christians throughout the world on this day. The poem reads:

“But Lord,” I complained,
“This cross is too heavy, too awkward,
It protrudes in the front, it drags in the back,
It slips off the side, it just does not fit,
Lord, it cannot be for me!”

“Ah, gently, gently,” says He.
“It is not the cross that needs altering,
It is your way of carrying it.”

And stooping down ever so graciously,
He, the Connoisseur of Crosses, and cross bearing,
Adjusted mine, straightened my shoulders,
Beckoned me to look up and to smile,
To carry it with dignity, if not with love,
For I was following in a great tradition.

[The readings for Good Friday are Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; and John 18:1-19:42]

(Image: The Cross by Delacroix)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Last Supper Bouveret cropped

Biblical Reflection for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – March 24, 2016

In commemorating the events of Holy Week, we do much more than just recall Christ’s suffering and glorification. We actually celebrate his life and share in his victory. Through his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus accomplishes the mission to which his Father calls him. He conquers sin and restores humanity to the justice of God.

Holy Thursday marks the end of the Lenten season. Tonight in a very special way, we experience Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist, which has been handed down to us. On this night we begin the three days that are the center of our year, and indeed of the Christian faith. The Scripture readings for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 and Psalm 116:12-13) root us deeply in our Jewish past, celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet. In the Gospel (John 13:1-20) we look at Jesus square in the face as he kneels before us to wash feet in humble service. On this night, Jesus gives us an image of what the church is supposed to look like, feel like, and act like.

We contemplate Christ in the Upper Room, on the eve of his Passion, as he made a gift of himself to the Church, instituted the ministerial priesthood and left to his disciples the new commandment of love. In this way he wished to remain with us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, making himself the food of our salvation. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we will keep a vigil of adoration with the Lord, obeying the desire that he expressed to the Apostles in the Garden of Olives: “Remain here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).

The Lord’s Supper

The four accounts of the Last Supper are based on two traditions: the Pauline-Lukan deriving from Antioch (1 Corinthians 11:23 – 26; Luke 22:14-20) and the Markan-Matthean, deriving from Jerusalem (Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29. The Lord’s Supper is central in almost all Christian denominations because it focuses sharply on the death of Jesus. The broken bread speaks of his broken body: the poured wine of his shed blood. As Paul puts it, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). From the very beginning, the enshrinement of Jesus’ death in the celebration of the Eucharist attests to the continuing significance of his death and provides a way of reappropriating it afresh for those who never knew him personally. The sacrificial death of Jesus has deep relevance for the church.

Sacrifice in the New Testament

To properly understand the notion of sacrifice, it is necessary to interpret it in the light of the New Testament. The Eucharist is the sacramental, symbolic form under which the eternally enduring self-giving of Jesus to the Father on behalf of humankind obtains power over the participants in the Holy Spirit. This understanding makes clear that the church adds nothing to the sacrifice of the cross. It undertakes nothing on its own in the self-giving of Jesus. Rather, the church is taken up into the self-giving. The church is enabled to participate in this act in the power of the Spirit.

The New Testament uses the word sacrifice to describe the self-giving of Jesus and the Christian. Jesus’ self-giving was a dedication of himself to the Father on behalf of all people. The sacrifice of the Christian consists in the giving of oneself in union with Jesus. This includes sentiments of love and obedience toward the Father on behalf of humankind. There is more to the self-giving of Jesus and the Christian: It is the initiative of the Father. It is important to remember that this movement is not from human beings to God, but the opposite.

This is expressed through the use of the passive voice to describe the delivery of Jesus into the hands of sinners: “This is my body which is given” (Luke 22:19) and on the night he was handed over (1 Corinthians 11:23). John interprets this with the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). In a similar way, Paul refers to the God “who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 3:32). In 2 Corinthians God is the one who through Christ reconciled the world to himself “God was in Christ reconciling the world,” (5:18-19).

When we speak of the self-giving of Jesus, we understand it to be the movement of God to us, to accept it and give thanks for it. To speak of the self-giving of the Christian on behalf of others includes the movement of God to human beings through other human beings. In other words, God enters the world as a loving God through the self-giving of Christ and the self-giving of Christians who live in Christ.

Remembering Jesus

The Eucharist is a summary of Jesus’ life, a call to lay down one’s life for others. The laying down of Jesus’ life for the whole of humankind is not simply a gift but that which gives life; he dies in order to live and give life. Thus the body of Jesus was not simply slain, but “given for you.” In fact, Paul’s consistent emphasis is that Christ died “for others” (1 Corinthians 8:11; Thessalonians 5:10), which in turn also shows us the way God wants us to live. “He died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

The bread is not simply spoken of as bread, but in the Gospels as bread broken, and St. Paul refers not simply to the bread but to the one loaf. The meal aspect is radically subordinated to the central sharing of loving service. It is not by chance that the Gospel of John contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead relates the “washing of feet” (John 13:1-20): By bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally. St. Paul vigorously reaffirms the impropriety of a Eucharistic celebration lacking charity expressed by practical sharing with the poor (1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 27-34).

“To remember” in the New Testament almost always signified to recall something or to think about it in such a way that it is expressed in speech or is formative of attitudes and actions. When we commemorate or “do this as a memorial,” the object of the memory is not an image or a replica of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper itself.

To celebrate the Eucharist is to commit oneself to a discipleship that “remembers” Jesus, not only in the ritual breaking of the bread and sharing the cup, but also in the “imitation” of Jesus, in the ongoing breaking of one’s own body and spilling of one’s own blood “in remembrance” of Jesus.” For this reason, Paul adds: “You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

A powerful sign of unity

The breaking of bread is also a powerful sign of unity. When we break bread, it is a means of sharing in the body of Christ. Paul says, “Because there is one bread […] we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). It is not only that the person sharing the cup and the broken bread establishes a union with Christ: A further union is established through the “partaking” of the same loaf: The union between all the members of the celebrating community. The unity expressed here is not just a matter of human conviviality; it is a gift given in the breaking of bread, a sharing in the body of Christ. The Eucharist makes the members of the body celebrate their oneness, a oneness experienced on three levels: one in Christ, one with each other, and one in service to the world.

The meals of Jesus

Throughout the Gospel stories, Jesus dines with sinners and takes the opportunity to teach some very important qualities of discipleship and holiness. Jesus’ befriending such types of people and eating with them angered his opponents, especially the religious leaders of his day. They murmured against him: “He has gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner,” or “Look at him who eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes!”

But where others saw only sinners, people on the fringe, public pariahs to be hated and isolated, Jesus saw human beings, perhaps people trapped in their own failure, desperately trying to be something better, awkwardly trying to make amends for a life of injustice. Jesus of Nazareth exclaimed: “Today salvation has come to this house, since this man also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

So often at meals Jesus showed us most clearly that he reconciled sinners. We have the stories of Zacchaeus, Levi, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, the disillusioned disciples at Emmaus, and Peter at the lakeside. Even the Last Supper, which was such a solemn occasion, was in reality a meal shared with sinners.

Jesus’ guest list includes Judas (his betrayer), Peter (who denied him), and the squabbling and obtuse disciples. Jesus eats with people who fail, even at the Last Supper. The early Church founded its understanding of the Eucharist on the basis of the dangerous memory of Jesus’ table fellowship. As Jesus shared his table with the broken and the outcasts, early Christians were being summoned to share their Eucharistic table with the broken and outcasts.

Let us never forget these important principles as we establish our liturgical policies and practices and determine the names of who should come to dinner with Jesus. On this night of “Institution”, let us remember that it is the Lord who sets the table, it is the Lord who gives the supreme example of sacrifice. We who are entrusted with the sacred ministry of priesthood are first and foremost servants and foot washers at the Sacred Banquet. What an extraordinary privilege it is to serve the Master in this way!

[The readings for Holy Thursday are: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and John 13:1-15]

(Image: The Last Supper by Bouveret)