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Jesus, the Beautiful and Noble Shepherd

Good Shepherd cropped

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B – April 26, 2015

In the Bible and in the ancient Near East, “shepherd” was a political title that stressed the obligation of kings to provide for their subjects. The title connoted total concern for and dedication to others. Tending flocks and herds is an important part of the Palestinian economy in biblical times. In the Old Testament, God is called the Shepherd of Israel who goes before the flock (Psalm 68:7), guides it (Psalm 23:3), leads it to food and water (Psalm 23:2), protects it (Psalm 23:4), and carries its young (Isaiah 40:11). Embedded in the living piety of believers, the metaphor brings out the fact that God shelters the entire people.

In Psalm 23, the author speaks of the Lord as his shepherd. The image of shepherd as host is also found in this beloved psalm. 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.

The New Testament does not judge shepherds adversely. They know their sheep (John 10:3), seek lost sheep (Luke 15:4ff.), and hazard their lives for the flock (John 10:11-12). The shepherd is a figure for God himself (Luke 15:4ff.). The New Testament never calls God a shepherd, and only in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4ff.; Matthew 18:12ff.) does the comparison occur. Here God, like the rejoicing shepherd of the parable, takes joy in the forgiveness and restoration of the sinner. The choice of the image reflects vividly the contrast between Jesus’ love for sinners and the Pharisees’ contempt for them. It can be said that the Emmaus story in Luke’s Gospel (24:13-35) is a continuation of Jesus’ journey, his pursuit of wayward disciples which was already prefigured by the parable of the shepherd who went in search of lost sheep until he found them and returned them to the fold (15:3-7).

Confidence

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday, we encounter the Good Shepherd who is really the beautiful or noble shepherd [in the Greek text] who knows his flock intimately. Jesus knew shepherds and had much sympathy for their lot and he relied on one of his favorite metaphors to assure us that we can place our confidence in him. For those who heard Jesus claim this title for himself, it meant more than tenderness and compassion; there was the dramatic and startling degree of love so great that the shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his flock.

Unlike the hired hand, who works for pay, the good shepherd’s life is devoted to the sheep out of pure love. The sheep are far more than a responsibility to the good shepherd — who is also their owner. 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.

The beauty of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, lies in the love with which he offers his life even unto death for each and every one of his sheep. In so doing, he establishes with each one a direct and personal relationship of intense love. Jesus’ beauty and nobility are revealed in his letting himself be loved by us. In Jesus we discover the Father and his Son who are shepherds who care for us, know us and even love us in our stubbornness, deafness and diffidence.

Sometimes, it seems that followers are expected to put the needs of the leader first. The people are the means to an end: the leader’s pleasure. Does it not often seem that shepherds are first, sheep last? The emphasis in today’s readings is on the sheep and their welfare. The shepherd is the means to ensure the end: the well-being of the flock. Sheep are first, shepherds last. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the life-giving shepherd.

Vocations

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The readings are very fitting for as we beg the Lord of the harvest and of the Church to send more laborers into his vast vineyards. As a model of religious leadership, Jesus shows us that love can be the only motivation for ministry, especially for pastoral ministry. He also shows us that there must be no exclusiveness on the part of the religious leader. If there are sheep outside the fold (even sheep excluded by the fold itself), the good shepherd must go fetch them. And they must be brought in, so that there will be one flock under one shepherd. The motivation for inclusion is love, not social justice, not ethical fairness, not mere tolerance, and certainly not political correctness or impressive statistics. Only love can draw the circle that includes everyone.

Shepherds have power over sheep. As we contemplate Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we call to mind everyone over whom we exercise authority — children, elderly parents, our coworkers and colleagues, people who ask us for help throughout the week, people who depend on us for material and spiritual needs. Whatever title we bear, the rod and staff we carry must be symbols not of oppression but of dedication. Today’s readings invite us to ask for forgiveness for the times we have not responded to those for whom we care, and ask for the grace to be good shepherds. We fix our eyes anew on the Good Shepherd who knows that other sheep not of this fold are not lost sheep, but his sheep.

One final thought on shepherding. Anthropologists tell us that between the hunting and the farming stages of cultural development shepherds stood as people who existed in both worlds and tied them together. For that reason, shepherds appear in ancient myths and sagas as a symbol for the divine unity of opposites. What the ancient pagans hinted at, Christian faith has brought into a crisp reality with Jesus Christ as the great reconciler. He is the Good Shepherd, who has come into the center of every great conflict in order to establish beauty, unity and peace.

May it be ever so for each person who strives to be a good shepherd today, in the Church and in the world. As we enter those places of conflict and tribulation in our own times, may the Lord use us as his instruments to establish beauty, nobility, unity and peace.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; and John 10:11-18.]

Luke’s Resurrection Symphony in 4 Movements

Emmaus cropped

Third Sunday of Easter, Year B – April 19, 2015

I often consider Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel to be a Resurrection Symphony in four brilliant movements.

The first movement is the story of the women at the tomb, which ends with Peter’s visit to the tomb to check it (verses 1-12). The second movement tells the great story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, culminating in their learning that the Lord had also appeared to Peter (verses 13-35). The third movement is the appearance of the Lord to his disciples at a meal, ending with their commissioning by Jesus (verses 36-49). And the fourth movement — Jesus’ ascension into heaven (verses 50-52).

The most well-known of these stories is the Emmaus episode that begins in verse 13. It serves as a transition between the events of the Passion and discovery of the tomb and the appearance tradition. It is different from the other resurrection appearances because the Lord disappears at the moment of recognition. The Emmaus narrative (24:13-35) serves as a bridge between the empty tomb (24:1-12) and Jesus’ self-revelation to his apostles (24:36ff.) immediately following the Emmaus disciples’ meal, their recognition of Jesus, and hasty return to Jerusalem.

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.

As the two downtrodden disciples journeyed with Jesus on that Emmaus road, their hearts began to gradually catch fire within them as they came to understand with their minds the truth about the suffering Messiah. At the meal in Emmaus, they experienced the power of the Resurrection in their hearts. The solution to the problem of these two disciples was not a perfectly logical answer.

Emmaus at the synod

The most frequently quoted Gospel story at the October 2008 synod on the Word of God was undoubtedly Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13:35). Cited by cardinals, bishops, experts and special guests in many of the presentations coming from every corner of the earth, the Emmaus story proved once again to be a great model or paradigm for catechesis, teaching, Bible study and above all for Christian living.

The journey motif of the Emmaus story (and one can say of the entire synod on the Word of God) is not only a matter of the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, but also of the painful and gradual journey of words that must descend from the head to the heart; of a coming to faith, and a return to a proper relationship with the stranger who is none other than Jesus the Lord.

Eating and drinking with Jesus

The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (Year B) is the continuation of the Emmaus story — how God always leads people into an experience of community and table fellowship (Luke 24:36-48). There are several aspects of the story — the appearance of Jesus among the startled and frightened disciples (verses 36-43) and the words about the fulfillment of Scripture and commissioning of the disciples (verses 44-48). Many elements that were present in the Emmaus story are made more explicit. The Lukan stories also represent the Risen Lord as the One who receives hospitality and food from the disciples. Only after the disciples have extended an invitation to the Stranger to remain with them is it possible for full recognition to take place. They were unable to fully recognize him on the road, but they did recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

Table fellowship reveals the depth of humanity. The touching, human scene of Jesus taking bread and fish and eating it with his disciples drives home the fact that ghosts don’t eat — humans do — and it reassures the disciples that the Risen Lord is truly in their midst. No theological or dogmatic assertion will prove this to them. Rather, the striking humanity of Jesus, at table, will finally convince them that he is alive.

In spite of the testimony from the women and the two travelers, the disciples still could not believe their eyes when Jesus appeared before them. Only Jesus could validate the experience and supply its proper understanding. Jesus would first prove their experience was no hoax. Like the appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, Jesus showed his wounds and challenged his followers to “touch” him. The experience of the Risen Lord was tactile. Jesus has substance, unlike a ghost. Unlike John 20, Jesus showed his followers his hands and feet (not his hands and side). Luke inferred that Jesus had been nailed in his feet.

Today’s passage also parallels John 21 with the subject of the cooked fish. In John 21:9-14, Jesus was cooking the fish. In Luke, the disciples gave Jesus the cooked fish to eat. If Luke 13:35-48 is combined with the narrative from the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), both stories involved the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30, 35 and John 21:13). The most notable narratives with the blessing of bread and fish were the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-9; Matthew 14.13-21, Matthew 15.32-39; Luke 9.10-17; John 6.1-14). A meal that featured fish and bread was common around the Sea of Galilee and in Jerusalem. Such meals were a regular part of life on the road with Jesus and his followers.

The real heart of the story, however, is not the meal but the quality of the appearance or vision. Jesus appeared as a living, solid form. The Holy and Divine could be found in the tangible. Holiness was not only a matter of ecstasy, touching the transcendent, while leaving the world behind. God reached his people through his creation, not in spite of it. This insight became the foundation of the Church’s self-awareness as the Body of Christ. It also grounded worship in the Church as sacramental. The believer encounters the Risen Christ through the bodily senses. His followers saw, touched, and heard the Risen One. We see, hear, and touch Christ today through the sacraments, through shared witness and service to others.

The Eucharist is a summary of Jesus’ life, a call to lay down one’s life for others. 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” (I 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 sacramental encounter of young people with Christ

Allow me to share a final thought with you about eating and drinking with Jesus.

During the synod on the Word of God, one of the memorable interventions was made by Salesian Father Pascual Chávez Villanueva, president of the Union of Superiors-General and Rector of the Salesian Society of St. John Bosco. Father Pascual, whose Salesian Congregation has a special charism for working with young people, offered the Emmaus story as model of bringing the Word of God closer to the world of youth. He drew our attention to the fact that young people today share very few things with the two disciples on the road but perhaps nothing as much as the frustration of their dreams, the fatigue in their faith and the disenchantment in discipleship.

“Young people need a Church that meets them there where they are. Arriving to Emmaus, the disciples still did not recognize the person of Jesus. What Jesus was unable to do in accompanying them, conversing with them, interpreting the Word of God, he accomplished with the Eucharistic gesture. An education in faith which forgets or postpones the sacramental encounter of young people with Christ, is not a secure, efficient way to find him.”

Those final words have remained with me. How do we teach young people the importance of the sacraments in their own lives? How do we provide opportunities for young people to encounter Christ? Do we not open the door to this importance and foster such encounters by beginning with simple table fellowship with young people?

It is often the very ordinary moments of table fellowship that bring about the realization that we are human, loving, loveable and genuinely interested in others, their tribulations, their hopes and their futures. Table fellowship does indeed reveal the depth of humanity, and the depth of compassion. It is a springboard to adult faith, and to a living encounter with the Risen Lord who wishes to share his own life with us each day. Stay with us, Lord!

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:35-48.]

Allowing the Presence of the Risen Jesus to Make a Difference

Doubting Thomas cropped

Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B – April 12, 2015

There is a proverb that says: “When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.” It seems as if this were written for Thomas the Apostle in today’s very familiar Gospel story that provides us with an archetypal experience of doubt, struggle and faith.

John’s first appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples is both intense and focused. It is evening, the first day of the week, and the doors were bolted shut. Anxious disciples are sealed inside. A suspicious, hostile world is forced tightly outside. Jesus is missing. Suddenly, the Risen One defies locked doors, blocked hearts, and distorted vision and simply appears. Jesus reaches out ever so gently to the broken and wounded Apostle. Thomas hesitatingly put his finger into the wounds of Jesus and love flowed out. How can you hear this story without thinking of Caravaggio’s magnificent painting of this scene?

Who is this Thomas? He, along with many of the other male disciples, stood before the cross, not comprehending. Thomas’ dreams were hanging on that cross and his hopes had been shattered. Over the years I have come to see Thomas as truly one of the greatest and most honest lovers of Jesus, not the eternal skeptic, nor the bullish, stubborn personality that the Christian tradition has often painted. I have never enjoyed being called “doubting Thomas” when I was growing up, simply because I liked to ask questions! I used to secretly hope that I was named after Aquinas, More, Becket or Villanova. But my mother insisted that it was the Apostle they chose for me!

Thomas’ struggle and ours

What do we do when something to which we have totally committed ourselves is destroyed before our very eyes? What do we do when powerful and faceless institutions suddenly crush someone to whom we have given total loyalty And what do we do when our immediate reaction in the actual moment of crisis is to run and hide, for fear of the madding crowds? Such were the questions of most of the disciples, including Thomas, who had supported and followed Jesus of Nazareth for the better part of three years.

The doubting Thomas within each of us must be touched. We are asked to respond to the wounds first within ourselves then in others. Even in our weakness, we are urged to breathe forth the Spirit so that the wounds may be healed and our fears overcome. With Thomas we will believe, when our trembling hand finally and hesitantly reaches out to the Lord in the community of faith. The words addressed to Thomas were given to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed!”

Long ago St. Gregory the Great said of Thomas the Apostle: “If, by touching the wounds on the body of his master, Thomas is able to help us overcome the wounds of disbelief, then the doubting of Thomas will have been more use to us than the faith of all the other apostles.”

Centuries after Thomas, we remain forever grateful for the honesty and humanity of his struggle. Though we know so 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.

Divine Mercy is not an option!

Over the past few years, I have listened to not a few liturgists and pastoral ministers complaining about the fact that this Sunday was given a new name by Saint John Paul II in the Jubilee Year 2000. Officially called the Second Sunday of Easter after the liturgical reform of Vatican II, now, by Decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the name has been changed to: “Second Sunday of Easter, or Divine Mercy Sunday.”

Pope John Paul II made the surprise announcement of this change in his homily at the canonization of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska on April 30, 2000. On that day he declared: “It is important then that we accept the whole message that comes to us from the Word of God on this Second Sunday of Easter, which from now on throughout the Church, will be called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday.'”

What do the visions of a Polish nun have to do with Thomas the Apostle’s encounter with the Risen Lord? Do we have to ‘force’ a link between Divine Mercy and the Gospel story of Thomas and the Risen Jesus? The answer to the first question is: “Everything!” and to the second: “No!”

Clearly, 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. 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.

The connection is more than evident from the scripture readings for this first Sunday after Easter. At St. Faustina’s canonization, Pope John Paul II said in his moving homily: “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.”

The Meaning of the Day

Divine Mercy Sunday is not a new feast established to celebrate St. Faustina’s revelations. In fact it is not about St. Faustina at all! Rather it 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,” and the Octave Day itself “the compendium of the days of mercy.”

The Vatican did not give the title of “Divine Mercy Sunday” to the Second Sunday of Easter merely as an “option,” for those dioceses who happen to like that sort of thing! This means that preaching on God’s mercy is not just an option for this Sunday. To fail to preach on God’s mercy this day would mean largely to ignore the prayers, readings and psalms appointed for that day, as well as the title “Divine Mercy Sunday” now given to that day in the Roman Missal.

Several years ago, when I, too, was finding difficulty in seeing the internal links between the Second Sunday of Easter, my patron saint, Thomas, and Sr. Faustina’s revelation for this day, I came across this wonderful 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.

“My merit, therefore, is God’s mercy. I am certainly not poor in merits, as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are many (Psalm 119:156), I too will abound with merits. And what about my justice? O Lord, I will remember only your justice. In fact, it is also mine, because you are for me justice on the part of God.”

Then the light went on for me. From that moment onward, I no longer regret being named after this Thomas and not the others! Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Lord gave me a whole new perspective on the meaning of mercy.

And that has made all of the difference.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday are: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31]

The Silence and Courage of the Resurrection Witnesses

Resurrection Women cropped

Easter Sunday – Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter is the promise that death will visit each of us. But more important, it is the assurance that death is not the last word. The Resurrection of Jesus prompts us to recall, from the darkest moments of grief to life’s smallest trials, how much God comforts us and gives us the strength to persevere. 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.

Through the powerful Scripture readings of the Triduum, and especially the Gospels of the Easter Vigil and Easter morning, we catch glimpses of just what resurrection means. How can we give expression to the conquest of death and the harrowing of hell? We must honestly admit to ourselves that there are no words. Therefore we turn to the experiences of the women at the tomb in Mark’s Resurrection account and to Mary Magdalene, witness of the Risen Lord, to find images and words to describe what has happened.

The Silence of the Women

Mark’s Gospel text for the Easter Vigil [16:1-8] leaves us more than perplexed. We read that after discovering Jesus’ tomb to be open and empty and hearing the angelic message about the resurrection and a future meeting with him in Galilee, the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Is it possible that Mark’s Gospel can really end with 16:8? Early Christian editors, puzzled by such a shocking ending, supplied two more conventional endings for the Gospel; the longer of these is printed in most bibles as Mark 16:9-20. Nevertheless, the question lingers: What can we say about a resurrection story in which the risen Jesus, himself never appears? How could Mark differ so much from Luke’s masterful resurrection chapter [24] or John’s highly developed portraits of the first witnesses of the resurrection [20-21]?

Rather than dismiss the strangeness of Mark’s ending, let us reflect carefully on what Mark’s Gospel offers us. First of all, we never see the Risen Jesus, himself. We are offered instead a rather haunting scene. It early morning, still dark, and the women arrive at the tomb for a near impossible task. The tomb is already opened and they are greeted by someone from heaven who commissions them: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.” [16:7]

The fear and trembling that accompanies the women prevents them from telling anyone about what they have seen. Of what are they afraid? By remaining silent, are they disobeying the message of the angel to “Go and tell…?” What are we to make of the silence of the women?

Mark’s resurrection story contains an initial declaration and summary statement of all of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel: “Do not be alarmed!” [16:6]. The reader is told to abandon every fear. Second, the reader is told: “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him” [16:6].

The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was not the final, definitive moment of his life. As Christians, our faith is not placed in a crucified, dead man, nor in an empty tomb, but in a risen, living Lord who lives among us with a whole new type of presence. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” [16:7]. The message of the resurrection in Mark’s Gospel is given to us. The event is simply too great to be presented with meager words!

Mark’s resurrection account is constructed to unsettle us–to undo the ease that makes us forget that the call to discipleship is the call to the cross.  Throughout the entire Gospel, we are invited to view our lives in the shadow of the cross.

The women go to the tomb, drawn unconsciously by the powerful and enticing mystery of God about to be revealed to them. They flee from the tomb [16:8] shocked by the awesome message of Jesus’ resurrection. Faced with this rather incredible news of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the silent and fearful flight of the women is not only understandable but also highly appropriate.

Is it not also the same for you and for me? When faced with the awesome power of God at work in our lives, raising those dead parts back to life and restoring our dashed hopes and crushed spirits, a response of silence and fear, wonder and awe, is also understandable and at times appropriate –even for us.

The Witness of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-48) are sometimes understood to be the same woman. From this, plus the statement that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2), has risen the tradition that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute before she met Jesus. But in reality we know nothing about her sins or weaknesses. They could have been inexplicable physical disease, mental illness, or anything that prevented her from wholeness in mind and body.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the Gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and His disciples, ministered to him, and who, according to each of the evangelists, was present at His crucifixion and burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body.

Jesus lived in an androcentric society. Women were property, first of their fathers, then of their husbands; they did not have the right to testify; they could not study the Torah. In this restricting atmosphere, Jesus acted without animosity, accepting women, honoring them, respecting them, and treasuring their friendship. He journeyed with them, touched and cured them, loved them and allowed them to love him.

In our Easter Sunday Gospel [John 20 :1-18], we peer once again into the early morning scene of sadness as Mary Magdalene weeps uncontrollably at the grave of her friend, Jesus. We hear anew their conversation: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” “…Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means, Teacher). … “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her. (John 20:15-18)

Because of her incredible message and mission, Mary Magdalene was fittingly called “Apostola Apostolorum” (Apostle to the Apostles) in the early Church because she was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce His Resurrection to the other apostles.

For Jesus, women were equally as able as men to penetrate the great religious truths, live them and announce them to others. There is no secret code about this story, which is still astonishingly good news more than 2,000 years later. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

[The readings for Easter Sunday are: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9 or Mark 16:1-7 or Luke 24:13-35]

(Image: “Holy Women at the Tomb” by William-Adolphe Bourgeureau)

Between the Sadness of the Cross and the Joy of Easter

Pieta cropped

Holy Saturday – Saturday, April 4, 2014

Holy Saturday is a day of grief and mourning, of patient waiting and hoping. With Mary and the disciples, we grieve the death of the most important member of our Christian community. The faith of Mary and the disciples was strongly challenged on that first Holy Saturday as they awaited the resurrection.

When the full impact of the death of friends and loved ones fully hits us, it has the potential to stun, dull, and crush the human heart. It can immobilize us from action and thought. If we are people without faith and hope, the experience of confusion, grief and loss has the potential to kill us.

Today we reflect on that period of confusion and silence, between the sadness of the cross and the joy of Easter. From the bewilderment of Jesus’ disciples to the great faith of Mary, we examine our own lives in light of the great “Sabbath of Time” and draw courage from Mary’s example to face the future with deep hope, patience, love and interior peace.

At the end of this long day of waiting, we celebrate the mother of all liturgies, a true feast for the senses. The Church gathers in darkness and lights a new fire and a great candle that will make this night bright for us. We listen to our ancient scriptures: stories of creation, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Miriam and the crossing of the sea, poems of promise and rejoicing, and the story of the empty tomb. We see, hear, taste, feel the newness of God in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. In the “Mother of all liturgies” the past and present meet, death and life embrace and life is triumphant; we reject evil and renew our baptismal promises to God.

On Holy Saturday, many of us are far too busy with Easter preparations to reflect on the significance of this day. We do not take the necessary time to grieve, ponder and enter into the mind and heart of Mary and the disciples on that first Holy Saturday.

I am very grateful to one of my good friends and Basilian confrères, Father Robert Crooker, CSB, who taught me years ago about the mystery and meaning of Holy Saturday. Father Crooker is a retired professor of Canon Law from our Basilian University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. Though now in his 80s, this priest is a great example of one who has remained “evergreen” in his faith, spirituality, outlook and love of the Church. He is one of those special persons with whom one can discuss the deepest spiritual and religious matters in simple, profound, wise and always hopeful ways.

Father Crooker sent me the following text back in 1990, which I have read on every Holy Saturday since. His words can help us appreciate more deeply the significance of this great day of watching and waiting.

* * *

Our Lady’s Sabbath
By Father Robert Crooker, CSB

I’ve read your book now, Luke, and even though you asked me to correct or amplify those parts about the days before my son began to teach and preach in Galilee, not one line of it would I change. But oh, the memories it stirred! I never tire of thinking back on all he did and said, and weighing it anew within my heart. Even the things that you had learned from me came to me with new force. A case in point: I told you when we found him in the Temple, we did not understand, Joseph and I, the word he spoke to us, how he must be about his Father’s business; but now it seems to me that everything he said was full of deeper meanings than we grasped, and only on the Last Day shall we know all that he meant.

You know Elizabeth said to me at our visit, “Blest is she who has believed.” The more I think on that, the plainer it becomes that my belief is dearer than my motherhood itself. (You also wrote how Jesus told that woman, the one who called the womb that bore him happy, that happier are they who hear God’s Word and keep it.) True indeed it was that day that God Almighty did great things for me, but greater yet are those God has done since, although in ways so hidden and sublime no human words can tell, even to one so docile to God’s Spirit as are you!

And so it was, my thoughts turned as I read to something that you scarcely touched upon: the Sabbath when my son lay in the tomb (of which you say no more than that we kept the rest according to the Law’s command). That was the day the Spirit poured on me such gifts of faith and hope as to surpass, if such may be, the very ones the Spirit gave at Pentecost in tongues of holy fire. When we had buried Jesus’ body, John insisted that I not go to my home, but come to spend the Sabbath rest with him. We said but little to each other there, and if we sought to speak our voices failed. And yet, for all the grief and pain that pierced my heart that night, there was a certitude and peace beyond expression that I would have shared with him, so desolate he seemed, had I but found the words. (My son himself was much like that the day that Joseph died: we sat, he held my hand, we wept together, yet almost nothing did he find to say. I wondered, later, that he chose to speak so much to Martha at her brother’s tomb, more than to me at Joseph’s death– but then my Joseph has to wait for the Last Day to rise, and so the case was not the same.)

Mary and Martha had, of course, told me the words he spoke as he prepared to call their brother from his grave, especially that phrase so deeply graven in their minds: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” It was those very words that came to me the afternoon I stood and watched him die: I asked within myself as once I had to Gabriel long before, “How can this be?” The answer was the same: with God all things are possible. So, as I sat next day, and weighed these words again within my heart, even amid the darkness and the pain, they seemed to me most certain, and my soul did magnify my Savior God the more.

Do not misunderstand: I knew not then just how it all would happen on the morrow. But when they went with spices to the tomb, I sensed within that it would not be right for me to go along and seek him there. In all the wild confusion of that day, I stayed at John’s, and while they dashed about with half-believed reports that he was risen, he came himself to share with me his joy and let me glimpse the blessed, glorious light that radiated from his precious wounds.

Yet even then, I somehow could not touch: He spoke to me as through some mystic veil that hung between the mortal and the Risen. (It was the same, I later heard, with Mary of Magdala, who met him in the garden beside the tomb.) When afterwards they told of how he made poor Thomas feel his hands and side, I wondered why it was that I, who bore him in my womb and at my breast had nurtured him, was not allowed to touch and others were. I’ve pondered that, and now I see a reason for it: the Apostles are sent to tell the world what they have heard and seen and touched, but I was called to be perfect disciple, steadfast in belief even that day when he who is called “Rock” was shaken, and had first to be restored before he could confirm his brothers’ faith. Thus even in his rising he has left his mother here to walk by faith, not sight, until he shall return to take her home. It will not be much longer now, I think, before I share his glory to the full and drink with great delight the joys that he prepares for me.

The Sabbath is not kept, these days, the way it was when I was young; my son himself was never strict on that the way my parents were, and now of course his followers prefer to celebrate the first day of the week, to mark the day he arose triumphant over death. I know that this is right; yet all the same I love to keep the holy rest each week, and recollect with awe and thankfulness the graces of that blest but dreadful day when I, alone unshaken, held within my heart the faith of God’s new Israel.

(Image: “Pieta Martinengo” by Giovanni Bellini)

Embracing the True Science of the Cross

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Good Friday – Friday, April 3, 2015

Each year on Good Friday we read the Passion according to St. John. Throughout this hauntingly moving narrative, there is an emphasis on Jesus’ sovereignty even in death.

As we contemplate the mystery of Jesus crucified, we learn in his suffering and dying how vast a person he was among us. We are invited to realize the tragedy of Jesus’ death in the context of our own trials, sorrows, and deaths. Jesus’ cross is a message, a word for us, a sign of contradiction, a sign of victory, and we gaze upon the cross and respond in faith to the message of life which flows from it, a message which brings us healing and reconciliation.

As the cross is held high in our midst, in some strange and mysterious way, we look upon it and find strength and hope in the midst of our own struggles.

“Ecce Homo”

Jesus crucified is the symbol of what humankind does to goodness — we kill it. It is not evil that we are afraid of but goodness. In John’s Passion story, Pontius Pilate presents Jesus to the people with the words: “Ecce Homo” — Behold the Man (19:5). What an incredible expression to describe the paradoxical person and mission of God’s own son!

“Ecce Homo” — in whom humanity was so well integrated that he was fully human and is truly a model for each of how we must be fully human in order to be authentically holy.

“Ecce Homo” — who lived for others, healing them, restoring them and loving them to life.

“Ecce Homo” — who had the courage to choose women as disciples and close friends in his day.

“Ecce Homo” — who claimed to have a unique, personal relationship with the God of Israel whom he called “Abba.”

“Ecce Homo” — who came into the world as the sinless one, the perfect one, the just one, the holy one, and his fellow human beings killed him. In the end, we destroy and kill the perfect human being, the very one that we have so longed for and loved.

From the very beginning of our lives, we are darkened with this self-destructive force, this primordial sin of being blind to human goodness. Is that not part of what we mean when we speak of original sin: the endless capacity within the human flesh for self-destruction and self-hatred?

In his death, Jesus turns us outward

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is torn from the midst of his family, disciples and friends, and they don’t ever get a chance to see him again until he is raised from the dead. But things are different in John’s Gospel where Jesus does get a chance to say good-bye, at least to his mother and one of his male disciples, who are gathered at the foot of his cross. Before he dies on the cross, Jesus commits his beloved disciple to his mother’s care and his mother to that disciple’s care. “Behold your son! Behold your mother!” Jesus turns us outward toward people to whom we are not physically related, identifying these people as our spiritual mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers.

Through his death, Jesus breaks down the barriers between people and creates a new family by the power that flows from his death for humanity. Even the bowing of his head at the moment of death can be interpreted as a nod in their direction. Out of Jesus’ death comes life for his followers.

The Science of the cross

On this day, the death of Jesus invites us all, especially Christians and Jews, into a knowledge of our communion with one another and, a recognition of the terrible brokenness of the world. Nothing and no one can ever wrench us away any longer from that communion. Nothing can remove our sense of belonging to, participating in, and being the beneficiaries of God’s saving encounter with Israel and with the broken world, which occurred in the crucifixion of Jesus, who we Christians believe to be son of Israel and Son of God.

On Good Friday, let us remember a Jewish woman, Edith Stein, who loved the cross and embraced its contradiction and mystery throughout her own life. There is a marvelous, life-size, bronze sculpture Edith Stein in the center of the German city of Cologne, close to the archdiocesan seminary. The sculpture depicts three Edith Steins at the three critical moments of her life. The first moment presents Edith as the young, Jewish philosopher and professor, a student of Edmund Husserl. Edith is presented deep in meditation and a Star of David leans against her knee.

The second depiction of the young woman shows Edith split in two. The artist shows her face and head almost divided. She moved from Judaism to agnosticism and even atheism. Hers was a painful search for the truth.

The third representation is Edith as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and she holds in her arms the crucified Christ: “Teresa blessed by the Cross” as her name indicates. She moved from Judaism, through atheism, to Christianity.

In her biography, we find a poignant moment from the critical period in her life, in Breslau, when she was moving beyond Judaism. Before her official entrance into the Carmel of Cologne, she had to face her Jewish mother. Her mother said to her daughter: “Edith, You can be religious also in the Jewish faith, don’t you think?”

Edith responded: “Sure, when you have never known anything else.”

Then her mother desperately replied: “And you, why did you know him? I don’t want to say anything against him; certainly he was a very good man; but why did he become God?”

The last weeks at home and the moment of separation were very painful. It was impossible to make her mother understand even a little. Edith wrote: “And yet I crossed the threshold of the Lord’s house in profound peace.”

Like Edith Stein, we encounter Jesus and his cross, and we have known something else. We have met Someone else: the Man of the cross. We have no alternative but to go to him.

After Edith had entered the Cologne Carmel, she continued to write her great work on the cross: “Kreuzwissenschaft” — the science of the cross. From Cologne she and her sister Rosa were deported to Echt in Holland and then rounded up with other Jews only to be sent to Auschwitz where she and sister were burned to death by the evil Nazi regime on Aug. 9, 1942.

On Good Friday we gather together as the Christian community to “behold the man” — “Ecce Homo” — and to gaze upon Jesus, who took upon himself all of our sins and failings so that we could experience peace and reconciliation with the One who sent him. If we have not truly encountered and embraced the Man of the cross our efforts are in vain. The validity of all of our efforts is determined by our embracing Jesus and his cross each day, by allowing the Paschal mystery to transfigure our lives.

The cross of Jesus teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope and new life. On Good Friday, may the cross be our true science, our comfort in time of trouble, our refuge in the face of danger, our safeguard on life’s journey, until the Lord welcomes us to our heavenly home. Let us continue to mark ourselves daily with the sign of the cross, and be ever mindful of what we are truly doing and professing with this sign:

“In the Name of the Father”
We touch our minds because we know
So little how to create a world of justice, peace and hope.

“In the Name of the Son”
We touch the center of our body
To bring acceptance to the fears and pain
Stemming from our own passage through death to life.

“In the Name of the Spirit”
We embrace our heart
To remember that from the center of the Cross of Jesus,
God’s vulnerable heart
Can bring healing and salvation to our own.

[The readings for Good Friday are: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-16, 17, 25; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42]

(Image: “Ecce Homo” by Antonio Cisero)

The Bare Facts and Bare Feet of the Last Supper

Washing of the Feet Giotto cropped

Mass of the Lord’s Supper – Thursday, April 2, 2015

Both the Jewish and Christian traditions view eating and feasting as more than simply an opportunity to refuel the body, enjoy certain delicacies, or celebrate a particular occasion.

Eating and feasting became for both traditions, encounters with transcendent realities and even union with the divine. In the New Testament, so much of Jesus’ own ministry took place during meals at table. Some say that you can eat your way through the Gospels with Jesus!

Jesus attends many meals throughout the four Gospels: with Levi and his business colleagues, with Simon the Pharisee, with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, with Zacchaeus and the crowd in Jericho, with outcasts and centurions, with crowds on Galilean hillsides, and with disciples in their homes.

It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist. The Scripture readings for Holy Thursday root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. Instead of presenting to us one of the synoptic Gospel stories of the “institution” of the Eucharist, the Church offers us the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.

Just imagine the scene! As Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, takes a pitcher of water, stoops down and begins washing the feet of his disciples, he teaches his friends that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones nor by the quantity of bloody sacrifices offered on temple altars but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot washer along the journey.

On this holy night of “institution,” as Jesus drank from the cup of his blood and stooped to wash feet, a new and dynamic, common bond was created with his disciples and with us. It is as though the whole history of salvation ends tonight just as it begins — with bare feet and the voice of God speaking to us through his own flesh and blood: “As I have done for you, so you must also do.” The washing of the feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is John’s way of saying to Christ’s followers throughout the ages: “You must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, but you must also remember his admonition to go out and serve the world.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus teaches us that true authority in the Church comes from being a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. His life is a feast for the poor and for sinners. It must be the same for those who receive the Lord’s body and blood. We become what we receive in this meal and we imitate Jesus in his saving works, his healing words, and his gestures of humble service. From the Eucharist must flow a certain style of communitarian life, a genuine care for our neighbors, and for strangers.

Finally, the celebration of the Eucharist always projects us forward just as we profess the memorial acclamation after the consecration at Mass: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.”

The transforming power of a meal

Each year around Holy Thursday, I try to make time to watch one of my favorite “Eucharistic” movies: “Babette’s Feast.” It is a story of the opening of the hearts of a small, puritanical community on the coast of Norway by the generosity of a French refugee cook. The movie, directed by Gabriel Axel, received the Academy Award in 1986 for Best Foreign Film and is a faithful adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story “Babettes gæstebud.” It has been called “a cinematic icon of the Eucharist” because it explores love and generosity in the context of a meal and the meal’s ability to transform lives.

Here is the plot of the story. In 19th-century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honored pastor of a small Protestant church that is practically a sect unto itself. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay with their father, to serve him and their church. After some years, a French woman refugee, Babette, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as maid/housekeeper/cook. Babette arrived with a note from a French singer who had passed through the area some time before, fallen in love with one of the sisters, but left disappointed. The note commends Babette to these “good people,” and offhandedly mentions that she can cook. During the intervening dozen years, Babette cooks very plain and simple meals to which the sisters are accustomed.

In the 12th year of her service to this family, Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of 10,000 francs. At the same time, the sisters are planning a simple celebration of the 100th anniversary of their father, the founder of their small Christian sect. They expect Babette to leave with her winnings, but instead, she surprises them by offering to cook a meal for the anniversary. Although the sisters are secretly concerned about what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead. Babette uses just the tiniest opening, a modest celebration, to cook up a storm and wreak havoc in the lives of the sisters, and with their community, by such outrageous generosity.

God is ever ready, looking for the smallest opening, in a sense praying that we will grant him the joy of accepting his offer! Life in Christ begins with the tiniest move on our part, just the hint of an opening, and then God steps in and overwhelms us in response. When we accept, God takes over in the kitchen, raining down upon us grace upon grace. The finest French delicacies are nothing compared to the gifts God has to bestow upon us, especially in the ultimate gift of himself in the Eucharist.

In the end, Babette’s feast produced some amazing effects. The community had become reconciled with each other. The dinner guests at Babette’s feast encountered the divine and received fulfillment through the experience of the physical act of eating. “Babette’s Feast” is a masterpiece that can help us to explore divine generosity with the image of a meal, its transforming quality, its gestures of humble, loving service, and its fruits of reconciliation and forgiveness that take place around the table. No wonder why this film reminds me of the other meal that took place in an Upper Room in Jerusalem centuries before.

[The readings for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15]

(Image: “Jesus Christ Washing the Feet of His Apostles” by Giotto di Bondone)

The Passion of Jesus Is Our Reason for Hope

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Palm Sunday, Year B – Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Passion, suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord are the very themes that unite us as a Christian people and a Church during Holy Week.

This year on Palm Sunday, we listen attentively to Mark’s Passion story of Jesus’ final days and hours on earth. It is a story of striking contrasts. As we hear anew this moving story, Jesus’ passion penetrates the numbness of our lives. This week in particular, we have a privileged opportunity to learn from what happened to Jesus and discover not only the identity of those who tried, condemned and killed him long ago, but also what killed Jesus and what vicious circles of violence, brutality, hatred and jealousy continue to crucify him today in his brothers and sisters of the human family.

Zooming in on Mark’s Passion narrative

Mark’s account (Mark 11:1-10) of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the most subdued version of the event in the New Testament. For some reason the evangelist places much emphasis on the donkey in this account. It was the custom for pilgrims to enter Jerusalem on foot. Only kings and rulers would “ride” into the city — most often on great steeds and horses and in ostentatious processions, in order to make their presence known. Jesus, a different kind of king, chooses to ride into the city, not on a majestic stallion but on the back of a young beast of burden.

By being led through the city on the back of a lowly donkey, Jesus comes as a king whose rule is not about being served but serving. His kingdom is not built on might but on compassion and generous service. The donkey Jesus mounts sends us back to the words of the ancient prophet, Zechariah, who foretold this scene five centuries before: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey . . . ”

In Mark’s jarring Passion story, we witness the anguish of Jesus who has been totally abandoned by friends and disciples. Jesus is resigned to his fate. He makes no response to Judas when he betrays him nor to Pilate during his interrogation. In Mark, Pilate makes no effort to save him, as the Roman procurator does in the other three Gospels.

As he does throughout his Gospel, Mark depicts the utter of failure of the disciples to provide any support to Jesus or to even understand what is happening. The enigmatic, young male disciple who flees naked into the night when Jesus is arrested is a powerful symbol in Mark’s Gospel of his followers who initially left family and friends behind to follow Jesus. Now that the heat is on, they leave everything behind to flee from him.

When we remember the events of that first Holy Week – from the upper room to Gethsemane, from Pilate’s judgment seat to Golgotha, from the cross to the empty tomb, Jesus turns our world and its value system upside down. He teaches us that true authority is found in dedicated service and generosity to others; greatness is centered in humility; the just and loving will be exalted by God in God’s good time.

Viewing Mark’s Passion through the lenses of fidelity

In the midst of Mark’s stories of betrayal and violence, the evangelist inserts a dramatic story of exquisite fidelity. While Jesus visits Simon the Leper in Bethany on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, an anonymous woman breaks, open her alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and anoints Jesus’ head in good, royal, biblical fashion (14:3-9). As the fragrance of the oil fills the room, those with Jesus are shocked at the woman’s extravagant gesture. But Jesus defends her. She had performed an act of true fidelity and love, he tells them, “for she has anticipated anointing my body for burial” (14:8). For this, Jesus promises, she would be remembered wherever the Gospel would be preached (14:9). This woman is the only one in all of the New Testament to be so greatly honored.

While his male disciples and apostles clearly manifest a bold track record of failure, betrayal and abandonment, this anonymous woman embodies boldness, courage, love and fidelity. What an example! Though she may not fully understand the significance of her symbolic and prophetic act of anointing him, nor the timeliness of her action, she only desires simply to be with him and to express to him lavish love and attention.

Is this not what each of us is called to do during Holy Week in particular? Is it not to love Jesus and to be attentive to him throughout the final tragic movements of the symphony of his earthly life, and in the midst of all of the setbacks, failures and betrayals of our own lives? Our lives must be like the woman’s jar of expensive ointment poured out so lavishly on the Lord in the final moments of his life on earth.

Who, if not the condemned Savior?

At the conclusion of the Stations of the Cross at Rome’s Colosseum on Good Friday night in the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke these moving and powerful words:

“Who, if not the condemned Savior, can fully understand the pain of those unjustly condemned?

Who, if not the King scorned and humiliated, can meet the expectations of the countless men and women who live without hope or dignity?

Who, if not the crucified Son of God, can know the sorrow and loneliness of so many lives shattered and without a future?”

What a Savior we have! He truly understands our human condition. He walks with us and shares our sorrows, loneliness and suffering. How do we respond to such outlandish love and genuine solidarity? Passion Sunday invites us to put on what Paul calls the “attitude of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:6-11) in his passion and death: to “empty” ourselves of our own interests, fears and needs for the sake of others. May we reach out to heal those who are hurting and comfort the despairing around us despite our own denials and betrayals.

During the moving liturgies of Holy Week, we are given the special grace to carry on, with joy and in hope, despite rejection, humiliation and suffering. In this way, the Passion of Jesus becomes a reason for hope and a moment of grace for all us as we seek the reign of God in our own lives — however lonely and painful that search may be. Holy Week gives us the consolation and the conviction that we are not alone.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 or 15:1-39. For use with RCIA, Mark 11:1-10 or John 12:12-16]

(Image: The Flagellation of Christ by Annibale Carracci)

Deacon-structing St. Joseph

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When Joseph awoke he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him…
(From the Gospel for March 19, the Solemnity of Joseph, the Husband of Mary, Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24)

Last week, I ended by saying that I would deacon-struct Holy Week, but I can’t let this week go by without saying something about my favourite Saint. Sometimes, because it’s Lent we may overlook some feasts or solemnities that fall during the season. It’s hard to ignore the Feast of St. Patrick, but how many really pay attention to the Solemnity of St. Joseph?

There isn’t much that we know about Joseph. We know that his Father’s name was Jacob and that he was the husband of Mary. We know that before they lived together he found out she was pregnant and instead of shaming her or causing scandal, he decided to divorce her quietly. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he was an upright man, a man of principle. We also know that he was a righteous man who followed the law: He observed religious law – we know he went to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals. He also followed civil law – he went to Bethlehem for the census. We also know that Joseph had dreams. God spoke to him in his dreams and he followed his dreams.

One thing we don’t know about Joseph are his words. In all of the Gospels, no where do we ever hear anything Joseph says. He never says anything. But he’s a man of action: He does what the angel tells him; he takes Mary as his wife; he goes to Bethlehem; he finds a place to stay for the night; he takes his family to Egypt. He’s a man of action – not a man of words.

For centuries, scholars and artists have tried to figure out Joseph’s words. One of my favourite Christmas songs is Joseph’s Song by Michael Card. In it, Joseph prays:

“How can it be, this baby in my arms, sleeping now, so peacefully. The son of God, the angel said, how could it be? O Lord I know he’s not my own, not of my flesh, not of my bone. Still Father let this baby be the son of my love.”

Then Joseph prays:

“Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours. How can a man be father to the son of God? Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter… how can I raise a king? How can I raise a king?”

I like this song because to me it shows what Joseph models perfectly: He was a man after God’s will. He longed to know God’s will and searched to see how he fit into the Father’s plan.

And just like God had a plan for Joseph, God has a plan for each one of us. The plan does not need to be more than that He wants us to be upright and righteous. He wants us to be loving parents, loving husbands and wives. God wants us to follow the law: observe the commandments. But, just like Joseph in the song, we may feel that we don’t have anything to contribute, that we are nothing but simple carpenters. Just like Joseph we may never see the fruit of our work. We may never reap the harvest. The first reading on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, is from the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 7:4-5, 12-14, 16). In it, we hear about a promise to King David. We hear about it in Psalm 89 as well: “The son of David will live forever” or “his line will continue forever.” In the second reading for the same feast day (Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22) Paul tells the Romans about another upright man who never saw the fruit of his work: Abraham. He did God’s will, but never saw the fulfilment of God’s promise to him.

But the promise was fulfilled. St. Joseph may have been a simple carpenter, who did not amount to much during his life, but today, 2000 years later, he is venerated as one of the greatest saints in the Church. Every March 19th we celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. There aren’t a lot of Saints for whom we have solemnities. The Church has been observing this feast since the 10th century and it has been a universal feast since the 16thcentury. And Joseph gets another feast day on May 1st: Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker. Except for Mary, no other saint has more than one feast day.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of husbands, of fathers, the patron saint of families, the patron saint of homes and the patron saint of workers. Joseph is also the unofficial patron saint against doubt and hesitation, of fighting against communism and of a good and happy death. We also believe that Joseph prays for all pregnant women, for immigrants, travellers and for those buying or selling a house.

In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph patron of the universal Church. He is the Patron of the Universal Church! And for us in our country, we should know that St. Joseph is the principal patron of Canada. That’s a huge responsibility for a man of so few words. But it’s a perfect job for a man of action.

As we journey through Lent – especially when we gather around the Eucharistic table, let’s pray to St. Joseph. Let him guide us and help us open our hearts to God’s plan for us: that we may be upright and righteous; that we may be men and women after God’s will; that we may be able to pray, “Father show me how I fit into this plan of yours.” And dream. Let God speak to you in your dreams and then get up and do as the angel of the Lord directs you. God has a great plan for everyone. Even for a simple carpenter.

Gazing Upon the Face of Jesus

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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B – March 22, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B) invites us to fix our gaze upon Jesus, the model priest of suffering, compassion, and human solidarity.

First, let us consider John’s Gospel story from Chapter 12 — a fitting climax to Jesus’ public ministry. It is the last official act before the events of his passion next Sunday. There are Gentiles, non-Jews, who seek Jesus out for the first time. They do not come simply to catch a glimpse of him, to have some general audience with him, but rather to “see” him. In John’s Gospel, “seeing” Jesus is believing in him. How simple yet how stunning a request: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” [John 12:21]!

Throughout the entire Scriptures, men and women have longed to see God, to gaze upon God’s countenance, beauty and glory. How many times in the psalms do we ask to see the face of God? “Shine your face on your servant” (Psalm 119:135). Not only do we beg to see God’s face, but we are told to look for it. “Seek my face,” says the Lord (Psalm 27:8).

But we cannot seem to find the face we are told to look for. Then the laments begin: “Do not hide your face from me” (Psalm 102:2). “Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14). “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:2). We beg, we seek, but we cannot find God’s face. Then we are distraught. Moses, speaking as friend-to-friend, asked to see God’s face. But God said to him, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live” (Exodus 33:20).

When we ask in the Psalms to see God’s face, we are really asking to see God as God truly is, to gaze into the depths of God. In the last chapter of the last book of the Scriptures, it is written: “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). We see God’s face revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. How often do we long to “see” the face of Jesus? Where are we seeking his face today? What do we do when we finally “see” the face of Jesus?

Garden of suffering

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is filled with the thoughts and theology of Paul and John, but he also contemplates Jesus’ agony in the garden in relation to temple sacrifices and the priesthood according to the Hebrew Scriptures. 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. An attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood of the Old Covenant. Furthermore, no text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin.

Hebrews 5:7-9 presents us with a different type of priesthood — one of extraordinary compassion and solidarity. In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. Jesus 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. That is the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.

What does this image of Jesus teach us today? Far from creating an abyss between Jesus Christ and ourselves, our own daily trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself. 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. Jesus was “heard because of his ‘reverence’ or his ‘pious submission.'” And we are given the consolation that we, too, will be heard because of our own persistence in prayer, our reverence before God and our pious submission to his will for us.

John Paul II’s agony

We read in today’s Gospel passage that the Greeks address themselves first to Philip, who is from the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee: “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus” (John 12:22). To see Jesus, one must be led to him by an apostle. The testimony of those who lived with him, at his side, shows him to us and we cannot do without this testimony.

We need the apostolic writings, especially the Gospels, handed down to us by tradition, of which our parents, priests, deacons, teachers, catechists, preachers and other believers are witnesses and bearers of the Good News. How important and necessary it is to recognize those key people in our lives who are living witnesses and links to the tradition and the Good News about Jesus Christ! One such person for millions of people throughout the world was Karol Wojtyla, the man we know as Saint John Paul II.

Almost exactly ten years ago, the world witnessed the agony and passion of this Successor of Peter in a most public way. As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the John Paul II’s death on April 2, I cannot help but recall those moving days and see how much he revealed to us the face of God and the image of Jesus crucified.

One of the most powerful lessons he taught us in the twilight of his Pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made John Paul II waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. Many believe that the most powerful message he preached was when the words and actions failed.

One of the unforgettable, silent, teaching moments of those final days took place on Good Friday night 2005, while the Pope, seated in his private chapel in the Vatican, viewed the television coverage of the Via Crucis from Rome’s Colosseum. At the station commemorating the death of the Lord, a television camera in the papal chapel showed the Pope embracing a cross in his hands with his cheek resting against the wood. His accepting of suffering and death needed no words. The image spoke for itself.

Several hours before his death, Pope John Paul’s last audible words were: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” In the intimate setting of prayer, as Mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter’s Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2. Through his public passion, suffering and death, this holy priest, Successor of the Apostles, and Servant of God, showed us the face of Jesus in a remarkable way.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrew 5:7-9; and John 12:20-33. For use with RCIA, Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45.]

(Image: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)