English   ·   Français   ·   Italiano     ·   中文    

God Puts Relationship and Community First

Trinity Orta

Feast of the Holy Trinity – Sunday, May 31, 2015

One of the important dimensions of our Trinitarian God is the community of love and persons modeled for us in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For Christians, the Trinity is the primary symbol of a community that is held together by containing diversity within itself.

If our faith is based in this Trinitarian mystery that is fundamentally a mystery of community, then all of our earthly efforts and activities must work toward building up the human community that is a reflection of God’s rich, Trinitarian life.

Today’s Deuteronomy [4:32-34,39-40] passage is an excellent point of departure for probing the depths of the mystery of the Trinity. Consider for a moment Moses’ words encouraging and exhorting the people of Israel: “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him. Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (4:29-31). The whole passage speaks of the special relationship between God and Israel, linking the uniqueness of Israel’s special vocation with the uniqueness of Israel’s God.

Then in a series of rhetorical questions, Moses, knowing full well that the Lord alone is God, puts the people of Israel ‘on the stand,’ and asks them about this God of theirs: “For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: Has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (4:32-35).

Matthew’s commission

The majestic departure scene at the end of Matthew’s Gospel [28:16-20] relates to us Jesus’ final earthly moments and the great commission to the Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (19-20).

The great apostolic commission implies a service that is pastoral: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”; liturgical: “baptizing them”; prophetic: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”; and guaranteed by the Lord’s closeness, until the end of time. The scene gives a foretaste of the final glorious coming of the Son of Man [Matthew 26:64]. Then his triumph will be manifest to all; now it is revealed only to the disciples, who are commissioned to announce it to all nations and bring them to believe in Jesus and obey his commandments. Since universal power belongs to the risen Jesus [Matthew 28:18], he gives the eleven a mission that is truly universal. They are to make disciples of all nations.

Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the risen one, the Church. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”: This is perhaps the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, but primarily it designates the effect of baptism, the union of those baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Trinitarian language

The language of Father and Son is relational language, and reminds us that, for God, as for us, created in God’s image, relationship and community are primary. God can no more be defined by what God does than we can. God is a Being, not a Doing, just as we are human beings, not human doings. This is a point of theology, but also, with all good theology, a practical point.

To define God’s inner life in the Trinity in terms of God’s activity leads to defining humans, created in God’s image, in the same way. Those who choose to say, “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer” err in defining God by function and not by person. God is a living being who exists in intimate relationship with us.

Our God isn’t immovable. God isn’t alone. God is communication between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the profound mystery that the liturgy for the feast of the Holy Trinity recalls: both the unspeakable reality of God and the manner in which this mystery has been given to us. The Trinity celebrates the peace and unity of the divine persons in whom the circular dance of love — “perichoresis” in Greek — continues. That unity is a dance of life and relationships, encompassing all aspects of human life.

We must constantly strive for this unity and peace of God, Jesus, and their life-giving Spirit, a peace that theological controversy never gives. Though theology is absolutely necessary, we would do well to pray more and love God more, than trying to figure out our Trinitarian God! The consolation is this: Complete understanding is not necessary for love.

Listen to St. Catherine of Siena’s famous prayer from her Dialogue on Divine Providence:

“Eternal God, eternal Trinity, you have made the blood of Christ so precious through his sharing in your divine nature. You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an ever-greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are.”                  

Love can never outgrow its fascination with the puzzling aspects of the one loved. This is our approach to the Trinitarian mystery. We must love God more. On this feast, let us pray that we be caught up in the unifying and reconciling work of the Holy Spirit of God. The increasing glory of God is this progressive revelation of the Trinity.

Many times during our lives, we experience this revelation and God’s Trinitarian presence through the depth of love, communication and relationship with other people. Our God is rich in relationships, communication and love for all people. This God models to us what the dynamic Trinitarian life is all about– communication, relationship and affection. The quality of our Christian live is based on imitation of the interior life of the Trinity.

The foundation of our Trinitarian faith is dialogue, communication and a “dance of life.” Though we may struggle in understanding the Holy Trinity, we nevertheless take it into our very hands each time that we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross. Words once spoken over us at baptism become the words with which we bless ourselves in the name of the Trinity. Herein lies the meaning of this unique, one God in three Persons. I offer you this prayer for today’s feast and the coming week:

Glory to you, Father,
Who by the power of your love,
Created the world and formed us in your own image And likeness.

Glory to you, only begotten Son,
Who in your wisdom assumed our human condition
To lead us to the Kingdom.

Glory to you, Holy Spirit,
Who in your mercy sanctified us in baptism.
You work to create in us a new beginning each day.

Glory to you, Holy Trinity,
You always have been, you are and you always will be
Equally great to the end of the ages.

We adore you, we praise you, we give you thanks
Because you were pleased to reveal the depth of your mystery
To the humble, to little ones.

Grant that we may walk in faith and joyful hope until the day
When it will be ours to live in the fullness of your love
And to contemplate forever what we now believe here below:
God who is Father, Son and Spirit!  Glory to You!

May God’s Holy Trinity — in unspeakable goodness and mystery — teach us and guide us in the life that is ours, and may we grow in “God’s love poured forth into our hearts by the Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

[The readings for the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity are Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; and Matthew 28:16-20]

(Image: Holy Trinity by Luca Rossetti da Orta)

Set Free the Gifts of the Spirit

Pentecost Restout cropped

Solemnity of Pentecost, Year B – Sunday, May 24, 2015

Christian theology of the Holy Spirit is rooted in Judaism. The term Spirit translates the Hebrew word (ruah) and even in the pronunciation of it we detect God’s wind and breath. The wind of God, the breath of God, the presence of God are all ways of referring to God’s presence.

The expression “Holy Spirit” was used only seven times in the Old Testament, whereas the terms “Spirit of God” or “Spirit of the Lord” occurs 67 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the very first line of the book of Genesis 1:1, God’s Spirit was gently hovering over the primordial waters waiting for the opportune moment of drawing order from that chaos.

Jesus, himself, uses the sensory image of the wind in the mysterious, nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus when he talks about the Spirit as the wind that blows where it wills [cf. John 3]. This, then, is the Spirit’s first function in the Scriptures: to be the mysterious presence of God in history, not reducible to human or earthly logic.

The second function of the Spirit in the Old Testament is that of putting things in order. The Genesis creation account [Chapter 1] reveals a descending Spirit upon this formless world and its descent produces the miracle of creation, the transformation of chaos into cosmos, of disorder, into order, of anonymity into community.

The third function of the Spirit in the Old Testament is life-giver. In Genesis 2:7, we read: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the Spirit, the breath of life and man became a living being. As a result of this divine breath, the human creature is transformed into a living being, no longer to be simply a creature but a partner made in the image and likeness of God, with whom and to whom God speaks and confides responsibility for the world.”

The fourth function of the Holy Spirit is guide. We read in Isaiah 11: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is not something that terrorizes people but could be understood as our ability to say “wow,” “awesome” before God’s handiwork and God’s creation.

The fifth function of the Spirit is healer, articulated so powerfully in the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:26-27 — “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” The Spirit enters, recreates, restores to health and vanquishes sin.

The sixth function of the Holy Spirit is the universal principle. We read in Joel 3:1-2: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, even upon the men-servants and the maid-servants, in those days I will pour out my spirit.” The day will come when all humanity will be truly possessed by the spirit and that day will coincide with the eagerly awaited Messianic age of which the prophets speak. It was this principle that captivated Jesus’activity and ministry in a remarkable way.

The seventh function of the Holy Spirit takes place on the feast of Pentecost when the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. The coming of the Holy Spirit signals the start of a world-wide mission for Christians beyond their geographic boundaries of Israel, first from Israel to Rome, and then from Rome then to the ends of the earth. It is a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force.

The Catholic Experience

The Holy Spirit makes the Christian experience truly Catholic and universal, open to all human experience. To be Catholic is to be universal and open to the world. Not only to Canada, North America Europe or Asia, or a certain familiar part of the world or segment of society, but it must be open to all, to every single person. The mind of Christ is not intended to be a selective mentality for a few but the perspective from which the whole world will be renewed and redeemed. An insight like this, the universal scope of salvation did not however come easily and without much pain and confusion.

In fact, the whole of the New Testament can be understood precisely as the emergence of the Catholic, the universal, in Christian life. Christianity, had it not moved from where it was particular and small would have just been a small modification of the Jewish experience, a subset of Jewish piety that was still focused in and around Jerusalem and the restoration of a literal kingdom of Israel. The first two generations of Christians discovered that Christianity could not be just that. Because they had received the Holy Spirit, which is the universal principle, the Holy Spirit opened peoples’ eyes to the universal import of the Christian truth and through the encounter with non-Jews who received the Holy Spirit.

The artists of the Middle Ages often contrasted the Tower of Babel with the “Tower” of the Upper Room. Babel symbolizes the divisions of people caused by sin. Pentecost stands for a hope that such separations are not a tragic necessity. The babbling mob of Babel compares poorly with the heartfelt unity of the Pentecost crowd. Babel was a mob. Pentecost was a community. A people without God lost the ability to communicate. A people suffused with the Spirit spoke heart to heart.

At Pentecost the full meaning of Jesus’life and message is poured into our hearts by the Spirit alive in the community. The New Testament seems to say that – for a fleeting moment – the nations of the earth paused from their customary strife and experienced a community caused by God. The brief and shining hour of Pentecost remains to charm and encourage us to this day.

World Youth Day

One of the finest teachings on the Holy Spirit in recent times took place during the prayer vigil at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia. The Saturday evening event at the Randwick Racecourse began in darkness, gradually illuminated by torches borne by dancers on the podium, representing the opening to the Holy Spirit.

“Tonight we focus our attention on how to become witnesses,” Benedict XVI told the young people in his address. “You are already well aware that our Christian witness is offered to a world which in many ways is fragile. The unity of God’s creation is weakened by wounds that run particularly deep when social relations break apart, or when the human spirit is all but crushed through the exploitation and abuse of persons. Indeed, society today is being fragmented by a way of thinking that is inherently shortsighted, because it disregards the full horizon of truth, the truth about God and about us. By its nature, relativism fails to see the whole picture. It ignores the very principles which enable us to live and flourish in unity, order and harmony.”

Yet, the Pope went on, “such attempts to construct unity in fact undermine it. To separate the Holy Spirit from Christ present in the Church’s institutional structure would compromise the unity of the Christian community, which is precisely the Spirit’s gift! […] Unfortunately the temptation to ‘go it alone’ persists. Some today portray their local community as somehow separate from the so-called institutional Church, by speaking of the former as flexible and open to the Spirit and the latter as rigid and devoid of the Spirit.”

“Let us invoke the Holy Spirit: He is the artisan of God’s works,” the Pope concluded. “Let His gifts shape you! Just as the Church travels the same journey with all humanity, so too you are called to exercise the Spirit’s gifts amidst the ups and downs of your daily life. Let your faith mature through your studies, work, sport, music and art. Let it be sustained by prayer and nurtured by the Sacraments. […] In the end, life is not about accumulation. It is much more than success. To be truly alive is to be transformed from within, open to the energy of God’s love. In accepting the power of the Holy Spirit you too can transform your families, communities and nations. Set free the gifts! Let wisdom, courage, awe and reverence be the marks of greatness!”

Come Holy Spirit!

We read in the gospels “the one whom the Father will send will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us” [John 14:26]. This act of reminding and recalling is stated very clearly in the Catechism of The Catholic Church [No. 1099]: “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory.”  On this great feast and birth of the Church, let us pray for the gift of memory, and for the courage to move from the empowering mystery of the Upper Room to the reality of daily life.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
And kindle in us the fire of your Love!

Lord, send us your Spirit,
And renew the face of the earth…
The face of our Church, the face of our communities,
Our own faces, our own hearts. Amen.

[The readings for the solemnity of Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Galatians 5:16-25; and John 20:19-23 or John 15:26-27; 16:12-15]

(Image: “Pentecost” by Jean Restout)

Fulfilling the Gospel Dream

Men of Jerusalem cropped

Ascension of our Lord, Year B – Sunday, May 17, 2015

The angels’ words to the “men of Galilee” in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord (1:1-11) 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.”

Jesus’ 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.

As Jesus disappeared, he didn’t simply dissolve into thin air. 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 all the 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!

The Ascension according to Mark’s account

There are similarities in the reports of Jesus’ Ascension found in the Synoptic Gospels — Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In each case, Jesus assigns his disciples the task of proclaiming the gospel message to the entire world.

In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the disciples are sent by Jesus to baptize and to preach. In Luke’s Gospel, however, the commission to baptize is not found. Instead, Jesus directs the disciples to return to Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of his promise to send them the Holy Spirit. Only the Gospels of Mark and Luke actually report Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Matthew’s Gospel concludes with Jesus’ promise to remain with his disciples forever.

The Ascension Gospel text for this year (Mark 16:15-20) is taken from the conclusion of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s concluding chapter contains several irregularities obvious to many readers. On Easter Sunday morning in this Year B, we heard proclaimed the story of the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, and the fright and fear that accompanied these first Resurrection witnesses. Verse 8 comes to an abrupt conclusion as they flee in fright and tell no one what had transpired. This may very well be the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, but it is also possible that the more complete ending has been lost.

Some manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel include what scholars have termed the “Shorter Ending.” This ending indicates that the women told their story to Peter’s companions. A significant number of scholars believe that this ending is not original to Mark. They think that this ending was added by copyists who sought to resolve the original abrupt ending at Verse 8.

Other early manuscripts include a “Longer Ending” that scholars also believe was written by someone other than the Evangelist. Nonetheless, quotations from this “Longer Ending” are found in the writings of the early Church Fathers, and it was accepted at the Council of Trent as part of the canonical Gospel of Mark. Our Gospel for this year’s celebration of the Feast of the Ascension is taken from this “Longer Ending.”

Even if this ending to Mark’s Gospel was written by someone other than the Evangelist, in the commission that Jesus gives to his disciples, there are elements that are quite typical of Mark’s Gospel. The signs that will accompany belief in Jesus are as distinct as the action performed by Jesus during his ministry. Those who believe in Jesus will be empowered to do what Jesus himself has done.

During his ministry, Jesus sent his disciples to preach, to heal, and to drive out unclean spirits. Now they are sent again to do these things and more. From his place with God in heaven, Jesus helped his disciples, and he continues to help us as we try to live as his followers.

Only the Gospel of Mark notes that Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of God. In noting this, Mark teaches that Jesus’ ascension affirms the glory Jesus received from God after his death and resurrection.

Garofalo Ascension of JesusThe desire for heavenly realities …

Just as the Risen Lord entrusted himself into the hands of such pathetic, broken people who were with him, he does the same to us. Our own brokenness and sinfulness are so overpowering at times that we forget that this incredible commissioning is possible, even for poor, weak, folks like us! How often do we marvel at the fact that Christ could truly inhabit us and act through our bodies, minds and hearts, and yes, even through the Church!

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. The mysterious feast of the Ascension reminds us that Christ accepts our lack of 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. John Henry Cardinal Newman said it well long ago:

“He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again – 
and again and again, and more and more,
to sanctify and glorify us.
It were well if we understood this;
but we are slow to master the great truth,
that Christ is, as it were,
walking among us, and by his hand, or eye, or voice,
bidding us follow him.”

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! May Christ’s dying and rising move us to make God’s glory dwell on earth. May our hope for the future inspire us in a respect for the present moment. May the desire for the heavenly realities not make us neglect our work on earth.

[The readings for the Feast of the Ascension are: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Ephesians 4:1-13 or 4:1-7, 11-13; and Mark 16:15-20]

(Images: “Ascension of Jesus” by Harry Anderson; “Ascension” by Garofalo)

Goodness and Friendship Through the Ages

Last Supper Champaigne cropped

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B – May 10, 2015

On this Sixth Sunday of Easter, I wish to offer some reflections on the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles [10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48], and then some thoughts on friendship flowing from John’s Gospel [15:9-17] and Benedict XVI’s teaching.

Christianity demands that the believer not only grasp intellectually the main tenets of the faith, but also act on them in daily life. The extraordinary story of Cornelius’ conversion in today’s first reading certainly illustrates this message. It is the longest individual narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. The theme of this narrative is divine compulsion: Peter is the least prepared to accept Cornelius into the Christian community, and he even refuses to admit him two times.

Peter had to be converted before he could convert Cornelius. Peter came to the realization that God’s gifts were given to all those who listened to the Word of God. His question “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” [10:47] echoes the Ethiopian’s question and Philip’s response in the earlier story: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [8:36].

Peter and CorneliusPeter’s actions with Cornelius had far-reaching implications. Struck at once with the exceptional sincerity, hospitality and deep goodness of Cornelius and his household, Peter spontaneously exclaimed: “God has made it clear to me that no one should call anyone unclean or impure. God shows no partiality.”

That statement broke centuries of customs, and even of theology, that Israel alone was God’ s chosen people, separated from all other nations as God’ s very own [cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Exodus 19:5-6]. Peter had no choice but to baptize the household of Cornelius and he was criticized for his ‘ecumenical’ approach, but responded to his critics: “Who am I that I could withstand God?” [11:17]. When his critics heard these words, they were silenced and began to glorify God [11:18].

Paul, too, found the same spontaneous manifestation of the faith among the gentiles, and so made the exciting declaration: “We now turn to the Gentiles!” The controversy over the law was to linger for a long time, so that Paul dedicated to this topic his most comprehensive theological work: the Letter to the Romans.

I call you friends

In today’s Gospel text from St. John [15:15], we hear the powerful words: “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends.” We are not useless servants but friends! The Lord calls us friends; he makes us his friends; he gives us his friendship.

Jesus defines friendship in two ways. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us everything he hears from the Father; he gives us his full confidence and, with confidence, also knowledge. He reveals his face to us, his heart. He shows his tenderness for us, his passionate love that goes to the folly of the cross.

If we were to name one of the most frequent and important themes of Benedict XVI’s teaching and preaching over the past four years, it would certainly be his invitation to be a friend of Jesus. He sounded this theme clearly during the Mass “for the election of the Roman Pontiff” in St. Peter’s Basilica, before the conclave. “Adult and mature is a faith profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ. This friendship opens us to all that is good and gives us the measure to discern between what is true and what is false, between deceit and truth,” he said.

I remember how moved I was as I listened to the Holy Father’s homily at the beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome on April 24, 2005. Three times during that memorable homily, Benedict XVI spoke of the importance of “friendship” with Jesus:

“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, toward the One who gives us life, and life in abundance. […]

“There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him. […]

“Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

Eight months later, in his Angelus address of Jan. 15, 2006, Benedict XVI said:

“Friendship with the Teacher guarantees profound peace and serenity to the soul, even in the dark moments and in the most arduous trials. When faith meets with dark nights, in which the presence of God is no longer ‘felt’ or ‘seen,’ friendship with Jesus guarantees that in reality nothing can ever separate us from his love” (cf. Rom 8: 39).

Again on Aug. 26, 2007, the theme of friendship was front and center:

“True friendship with Jesus is expressed in the way of life: It is expressed with goodness of heart, with humility, meekness and mercy, love for justice and truth, a sincere and honest commitment to peace and reconciliation.”

We might say that this is the “identity card” that qualifies us as his real “friends”; this is the “passport” that will give us access to eternal life. How do we understand the tremendous gift of friendship in our lives?

Matter of the heart

For many years, I have looked to the life and writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman [1801-1890] as a brilliant model of friendship. Newman truly speaks heart-to-heart — “cor ad cor loquitur” — a phrase that he chose as his personal motto. There was nothing superficial about Newman’s way of relating to so many different people. He looked at them and loved them for who they were.

The beloved English Cardinal had a great appreciation for the nobility of human virtues as evidenced in the literature and history of ancient Rome and Greece. At the same time the saints that he most admired — St. Paul, the ancient Church Fathers, his spiritual father St. Philip Neri, and St. Francis De Sales — could all be described as humanly attractive

Newman had an extraordinary capacity and gift for friendship, which often translated into leadership. No one could describe Cardinal Newman as extroverted or light-hearted. We need only to glance at the many volumes of his letters and diaries, or look at the index of names in his autobiographical works, to see that he shared deep friendships with hundreds of people throughout his life. This personal influence has been exerted very powerfully upon millions of people who have read his works and discovered what friendship really means.

Authenticity

I could not write about friendship without passing along a warning to countless women and men who search for it every day. The great popularity of online social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook merits careful attention, reflection and scrutiny. It has been said that if Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated nation worldwide!

We must carefully ask several questions: What is it doing for us?

These tools help to bring people together and improve social networks. For example, homebound, infirm, chronically ill and elderly people can connect with a community of others in the same situation and new bonds of solidarity are born.

But there are also related questions: What is it doing to us? What is it doing to our sense of social boundaries? To our sense of individuality? To our friendships?

Friendship in these virtual spaces is quite different from real time friendship. Friendship is a relationship that involves the sharing of mutual interests, reciprocity, trust, and the revelation of intimate details over time and within specific contexts. True friendship depends on mutual revelations, and can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy and modesty.

On social networking sites, however, there is a concept of public friendship which is not the friendship spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel, nor Benedict XVI in his wonderful writings, nor Cardinal Newman in his letters. The distance and abstraction of our online friendships and online relationships can lead to a kind of systemic desensitization as a culture if we are not wise, prudent and attentive to these new realities.

We expose everything, but are we feeling anything?

Such friendships, or rather acquaintances, are quite different from the “cor ad cor loquitur” so ardently desired and experienced by Jesus with his disciples, or by an impetuous Peter, a Roman official named Cornelius, a British Cardinal named John Henry and a German Pope named Benedict XVI who have modeled their lives on the Good Shepherd and faithful friend to every human being.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17.]

(Images: “Last Supper” by Philippe de Champaigne; “Peter baptizing Cornelius” by Francesco Trevisani)

Making Our Home in Jesus

sl-blog-making-our-home-in-jesus-610x343

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B – May 3rd, 2015

In John’s Gospel (15:1-8) for the 5th Sunday of Easter, we have the image of the vine and its branches to express the relationship between Christ and his disciples. We should not be surprised that at one level it seems utterly simple, but that at other levels it fills us with a sense of mystery, awe, and beauty, always leaving us wanting more.

The branches of a vine have an intimate relationship with the vine, depending on it at all times and forming one living organism with it. The vine, which can be a bit foreign in northern climates, is natural for anyone in the Middle East, where many families possess a vine, a fig tree, or olive trees in their gardens.

Jesus tells his followers that he is the true vine, the real vine, and that they are the branches, whose task is to bear fruit by sharing his life: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Abide in me, and I in you. If you abide in me, and my words in you, ask whatever you want. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

While the images of Christ as king and lord, teacher, shepherd and judge, have their own importance in forming our perspective on how Christ relates to us, these images need to be balanced by such images as the vine, which integrate the disciple into the life of Christ and Christ into the life of the disciple in an intimate unity and closeness that the other images might not always convey.

Today’s passage is one of the classic descriptions of authentic Christian spirituality. The image of the vine, while inviting us to a depth of spirituality, sets that personal quest within the larger context of the family of God, stretching through time from Abraham to the present day and beyond, and through space from the Middle East in the first century to the four corners of the earth today.

If Jesus is the vine, we are summoned to ‘abide,’ to ‘live,’ to make our home ‘in him.’ The Gospel text of the vine challenges us: How do we maintain intimacy with the living God as we strive to be obedient to our vocation of bearing fruit for the world? What does it mean, to ‘abide’ or ‘dwell’ in the vine, to be intimately attached to Jesus?

Abiding in Jesus includes being part of the life of the Church, committed to the daily and weekly fellowship of his people, in mutual support, prayer, common worship, sacramental life, study and not least, work for the Gospel in the world. In every Eucharistic celebration we are drawn into that intimate fellowship both with Jesus himself and with each other at his table.

Authentic Christian spirituality is the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ given to us, as the vine gives its sap to the branches, so that we can be extensions of his work, his love, his fruitbearing, his glorifying of the Father. That is the heart of the Eucharistic mystery.

And yet as soon as Jesus introduced the theme of the vine and the branches in the Gospel passage, he speaks of his Father, the vinedresser, doing two things that require a knife. Every branch that doesn’t bear fruit, the Father removes, cuts away; and every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, so that it may bear more fruit.

The spirituality to which this Gospel passage invites us is not one of unbridled personal development, fulfilling all the potential we might discover within ourselves. As we follow Jesus and come to know him personally, we find him calling us to submit to the pruning-knife, to cut out some things from our lives that are good in themselves and that would even have had the potential to develop into fruitbearing branches, in order that other things may flourish. Pruning is always a painful process. It is a form of loss or death. The vinedresser is never more intimately involved than when wielding the pruning-knife!

The call to abide in the vine is a call to a personal and intimate knowledge of Jesus himself, not an idea, but a living person. True disciples of Jesus are dependent on the inner presence and activity of Christ for the renewal and regeneration of their own life into one of faith and love. True disciples can only be effective in the regeneration of the lives of others when they are “plugged into Jesus,” grafted onto his life, allowing his very presence to pulsate through their minds and hearts.

The images of vine and vineyard are brought together beautifully in that well-known passage from “Lumen Gentium,” No. 6, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

“The Church is a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God. On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the Prophets and in which the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles has been brought about and will be brought about. That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman. The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing.”

To illustrate this dependency, this grafting on the Lord, let me share with you some profound words of a great woman of the Church, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein] (1891-1942), Carmelite, martyr, co-patroness of Europe, and one who knew what it meant to be intimately connected to the Lord. They are taken from Chapter 6 of her “Essays on Woman” (ICS Publications).

“The notion of the Church as community of the faithful is the most accessible to human reason. Whoever believes in Christ and his gospel, hopes for the fulfillment of his promises, clings to him in love, and keeps his commandments must unite with all who are like-minded in the deepest communion of mind and heart. Those who adhered to the Lord during his stay on earth were the early seeds of the great Christian community; they spread that community and that faith which held them together, until they have been inherited by us today through the process of time.

“But, if even a natural human community is more than a loose union of single individuals, if even here we can verify a movement developing into a kind of organic unit, it must be still more true of the supernatural community of the Church. The union of the soul with Christ differs from the union among people in the world: It is a rooting and growing in him (so we are told by the parable of the vine and the branches) which begins in baptism, and which is constantly strengthened and formed through the sacraments in diverse ways. However this real union with Christ implies the growth of a genuine community among all Christians. Thus the Church forms the Mystical Body of Christ. The Body is a living Body, and the spirit which gives the Body life is Christ’s spirit, streaming from the head to all parts (Ephesians 5:23,30). The spirit which Christ radiates is the Holy Spirit; the Church is thus the temple of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:21-22).”

This week, let us pray that our belonging to Christ be profound and real, going beyond all of the turbulence that exists on life’s surface. May Christ’s very life flow through us, building up the Body of Christ that is the Church.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8.]

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)