Third Sunday of Easter: Preaching Forgiveness

Today's readings.

Two weeks ago today, we celebrated Easter, the great feast of our salvation, when Christ rose victorious over sin and death.  Today, two weeks later, the question is, so now what?

In today’s Liturgy of the Word, three different audiences hear the same message.  In the first reading, Peter is speaking to a Jewish audience.  This audience has just witnessed Peter and John stopping at the Temple Gate to cure a crippled man in the Name of Jesus.  These folks were used to seeing the man crippled, and for them, in that culture, at that time, being crippled meant that his life was steeped in sin.  So seeing the man cured meant also that his sins were wiped away.  The reading we have from Acts today follows that story and in it, Peter teaches that audience about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and exhorts them to repent and be converted, in order that their sins, too, might be wiped away.

In the second reading, John is writing to his community, obviously an audience of Christians.  In that letter, John exhorts the community to avoid committing sin and to keep God’s commandments.  But because he knows that we are all weak human beings, he knows that sin happens, and so he encourages them by reminding them of Jesus Christ the righteous one, who is our expiation, who wipes away sin.

In the Gospel, the audience is the disciples.  Jesus enters their midst and they are terrified, thinking they’ve seen a ghost.  After inviting them to touch him and after eating some cooked fish to let them know that he is not a ghost, but a real person, Jesus opens their minds so that they can understand all of the Scriptures that prophesied about his life and ministry.  He then encourages them to go out and preach repentance so that people’s sins might be wiped away.

It almost sounds like a Lenten message, doesn’t it?  All of the readings speak of sin.  But the difference here is that all of the readings speak of sin wiped away.  And all of the readings speak of that wiping away coming about through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Through this beautiful Paschal Mystery, the blackboards of our lives are wiped clean so that a new story, free from the effects of sin and death, can be written about us in the Name of Jesus Christ.

Let’s take a show of hands: how many of you gave something up for Lent, or did some act of charity or service, or gave money to the poor, or spent more time in prayer or prayed a different way during Lent?  That’s great; those penitential practices helped to prepare us for the joy of Easter.  During Easter, though, we quite rightly replace all the penance and fasting with joy and feasting.  So maybe we’ve all given up those practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer that we started during Lent.  I know that, in many ways, I have.

But maybe we shouldn’t give up reforming our lives for Easter.  Because the so now what? of Easter is that we truly believe things have really changed.  We believe that Jesus Christ died a cruel death and rose gloriously triumphant over that death.  We believe that His death and resurrection repaired our broken relationship with God and allowed us to experience the joy of salvation.  We believe that the Paschal Mystery is what makes it possible for us to live one day with God in heaven.  None of that was possible before Easter.

So I think we should continue to reform our lives during Easter, perhaps by continuing some of our Lenten practices.  Because the idea is not to return to our old patterns of sin.  If the things we gave up were obstacles to living a life guided by Christ in the Holy Spirit and obstacles to living in community with others, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to go back to them.  If the works of charity, service and almsgiving we did helped us to be more aware of our many blessings and more aware of the needs of others, maybe we should look for ways to continue to grow in those virtues.  If our new practices of prayer helped us to grow closer to God and nourished our spiritual lives, maybe we should make room for that kind of prayer more often than just during Lent.  Because with the blackboards of our lives wiped clean of sin, we don’t want to go back and write the same old story

So what is the story that we should be writing on those clean slates?  The Gospel tells us today: the story of the God’s forgiveness.  That story goes something like this:  Like the people in the first reading, we are called to live reformed lives.  Like the people in the second reading, we must be obedient to God’s command of love.  And like the disciples in the Gospel reading, we are called to go out and preach forgiveness of sins.

I know what you’re thinking right now: Deacon Pat, I’m not a preacher, how can I go out and preach the forgiveness of sins?  Well, preaching, as I often need to be reminded, is much more than just speaking: it’s doing.  St. Francis said it best: “Preach the Gospel constantly.  When necessary, use words.”  Our baptism – the baptism received at the Easter vigil, or whenever it was we were baptized, and which we renewed on Easter Sunday – empowers us to be preachers of forgiveness in our daily lives.

That might mean working to put aside the petty family squabbles, or even the significant family squabbles, that divide us.  That might mean forgetting our hurts and the offenses we’ve endured so that we can repair our families and communities.  It might mean that we are the ones who make the phone call to a friend even when we’ve done that a hundred times and they’ve seem to have lost our phone number.  Perhaps it even means swallowing our own pride and asking for forgiveness for something that wasn’t entirely our fault.  Forgiveness of sins is preached by the Church – which, brothers and sisters in Christ, is all of us – living forgiveness day in and day out.

In my Reconciliation practicum class, I have had to memorize the very beautiful words of absolution that the priest speaks to the penitent at the end of Sacramental Confession.  The first part of that prayer goes like this: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.”  Every time I hear those words in Confession, or when I speak them in practice for hearing confessions, I am overwhelmed by the great love that God has for us.  Indeed, the whole purpose of God’s unconditional love as lived in the three persons of the Trinity is to make possible the forgiveness of our sins.  So our own love of God and one another must make that forgiveness possible too.  That’s what it means for us to preach forgiveness of sins.

Two weeks ago today, we celebrated Easter, the great feast of our salvation, when Christ rose victorious over sin and death.  Today, two weeks later, the question is, so now what?  After today’s Liturgy of the Word, I think we all know the answer to that question.  The new question is, will we do it?

CNS Movie Review: United 93

CNS Movie Review: United 93

NEW YORK (CNS) — Is it too soon for a big-screen drama about Sept. 11, 2001? Does anyone really want to relive the events of that awful day? Can any film that makes the attempt avoid the specter of exploitation?

Those questions will surely percolate in the minds of prospective ticket buyers.

And good questions they are indeed.  The CNS review seems to portray the film in a pretty good light, and it may just be worth seeing.  I had heard that the movie was controversial, and I guess the controversy is whether or not it's too soon to make this kind of movie, or if it should have been made at all.

The real question, I think is why would someone want to see a film about That Awful Day?  Maybe it's morbid curiosity, the kind of thing that explains how the media get away with sensationalizing some of the terrible things they cover.  But maybe it's to remember those who died on Sept. 11, or to remember our own feelings that day, or even to deal with our ongoing grief.  If one of the latter are the case, maybe it would be a good movie to see after all, and it sounds like the film handles the subject pretty well, at least according to this review.

CNS STORY: Priests’ morale reported high despite hurt, anger at abuse crisis

CNS STORY: Priests' morale reported high despite hurt, anger at abuse crisis

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The morale of U.S. priests is high despite the hurt and anger they feel over the crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors, a prominent priest-psychotherapist said at a seminar at The Catholic University of America.

Father Stephen J. Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and author of the recent book The Joy of Priesthood, led the April 24 seminar at the university's Life Cycle Institute. He reported on a survey of nearly 1,300 priests in 16 dioceses that he conducted between September 2003 and April 2005 to assess the effects of the abuse crisis on priestly morale.

It's too bad Fr. Rossetti's numbers here are a year old.  I understand why, but I wonder what the numbers would look like after the latest round of scandal, particularly here in the Chicago/Joliet area.  Having said that, his The Joy of Priesthood would be on my required reading list for any priest or seminarian.  I read it on my priesthood retreat and found it very helpful.

Yes, you can still find joy in your vocation in all this mess. 

Second Sunday of Easter: Peace Be With You

Today's readings. 

Why is it that you're here today?  Is it because your faith is what carries you through the highs and lows of life, because you need to worship in order to be empowered to live?  Is it because the Word of God and the life-giving Eucharist is central to who you are and vital to the service that you give?  Is it because your prayer life begins and ends in the gathered community that has its source in Christ?  Is it because you came to the 9:30 or 11:30 in the Chapel last Sunday and you heard the deacon give an incredible homily and you just couldn't stay away?

Or are your motives a little less lofty?  Are you here because your parents pestered you until you gave up and came to Mass?  Are you here because that's what you always do on [Saturday Evening] Sunday Morning?  Are you here because you are afraid of having to confess that you didn't come?  Are you here because you are lonely, or had nothing else to do, or are desperate that God change your life?

The good news is that if our reason for being here today is less than perfect, we have ten patron saints locked up in that room in Jerusalem.  For fear of the Jews they are together, clinging to one another, mourning their lost friend, wondering what would happen to them, and trying to make sense of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene, Peter and the beloved disciple found earlier that day. 

It doesn't matter what brings us together in this sacred place, because what really matters is that at least we are together; at least we are here.  And it really is an act of faith to come together every week.  More so now, perhaps, than ever before.  It would be so much easier to give in to the many scandals that keep people from the Church these days.  It would be far easier for all of us to give in to the embarrassment of being Catholic that we surely must feel every time we turn on the news these days.  It might even be understandable to find someplace else to worship, or for priests not to wear their Roman Collars in public, or for seminarians to give up pursuing the vocation to which they've been called.  But, for whatever reason, we didn't, and because we are here, together, with all of our fears and embarrassments and frailties, our Lord, in his Divine Mercy, can break through all those locked doors and say to us as he said to the Ten: "Peace be with you."

It might be easy to give poor Doubting Thomas a hard time, but it cannot be so for those of us who come here with all our fears and doubts and uncertainties.  Because it is Thomas who speaks for us these days, when we would just as soon find some reason to write off what we've been taught and to do something else.  For those of us with modern minds who cannot and will not believe merely on the word of others, Thomas, who would not believe on the mere words of the Ten, is our spokesman.  For everyone for whom seeing is believing, Thomas's resolve to withhold judgment until he saw the Lord's hands and side is our statement of faith – such as it is.

And I think I can understand Thomas's behavior here.  For whatever reason, he was missing from the group when the Lord came and appeared to them that first time.  He certainly must have felt left out, and perhaps hurt that he was not given the same gift that they were.  And we must remember that the Ten were all unbelieving before they saw Jesus' hands and side too: only upon seeing that were they able to exclaim: "We have seen the Lord!"

Thomas was given the opportunity to have a much more intimate experience of the Risen Lord than did the other ten.  He alone was invited to reach out and touch Jesus in his brokenness:  "Put your finger here," Jesus says, "and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side."  Here again, Thomas is invited to the faith in the same way that we are this Easter day, because we too will have the opportunity to reach out and touch our Risen Lord, broken and bruised, in the Eucharist in a few minutes.  As we take the Body and Blood of our Lord, perhaps we will hear the faith of Thomas crying out, "My Lord and my God!" 

It is very important, I think, to notice that every time Jesus breaks through the locked doors, he offers his peace.  In the very same way, Jesus is breaking through whatever it is that is locking us up these days and saying, "Peace be with you."  The peace that Jesus offers is not just the absence of whatever conflict we are experiencing, but more so, a wholeness that binds up our brokenness, heals our wounds, and calms the cries of our doubts and fears.  We have to know that it is that peace that leads us back to this sacred place, despite whatever it is that we think has brought us here this day.  It is that peace that helps us recognize our Lord, triumphant over the grave, who silences the doubt that we all experience when we are broken and our lives are crazy, and our world is a mess, and our Church is in disarray. 

It is that peace that brings us together to meet our Risen Lord, and which empowers us to go out in the same way the disciples did, to forgive and comfort and bless and heal and feed and love everyone in the Name of Christ.  We must remember that many have not seen the Risen Lord but may come to believe because of us.  And it is truly a sign of the Risen Lord, brothers and sisters in Christ, when we overcome our embarrassments and scandal and are united with each other. It is a sign of the Risen Lord when we, with all of our fears and doubts and imperfections, continue to serve others in the name of Christ.  When we do that, perhaps others will see the presence of Christ in us and exclaim with Thomas, "My Lord and my God!"

So, whatever it is that has brought you here this day, please hear the words of the Risen Lord as he breaks through the locked door of your own woundedness: "Peace be with you."

Easter Sunday: “Aha!”

Today's readings. 

Have you ever had an "aha!" experience?  Probably you have, although you might not have called it that.  I can remember one of mine.  Back in my early 20s, I was taking voice lessons.  My teacher tried for weeks – well, probably months – to get me to learn a physical thing related to singing.  That involved lifting the "soft pallet" in the back of my mouth in order to make more room for sound to come out.  The problem with it is that there is nothing else that you can compare that physical movement to in order to have it make sense.  So I tried everything I knew to do for a long time to make it happen.  And time and time again, he would repeat the same instruction to me so that I'd get it.  And time and time again, I'd go home frustrated that I just did not understand.

Then one day in class, something just "clicked" and I sang the exercise we were working on.  At that point my teacher said, "that's it!!!!"  And I remember how it felt … my throat was much more open and the sound was better and more on pitch.  Things just worked … they sounded way better than ever.  That "aha!" moment forever changed the way I sang.

You've probably had an "aha!" moment too.  Maybe it was getting the answer to a math problem, or mastering the technique of a pitch in baseball, or coming up with just the right combination of ingredients cooking a sauce, or getting a particularly delicate plant to grow in your garden, or getting your second wind in a long distance run.  Whatever it was, you probably remember the time when it just worked and it forever changed the way you did that particular thing.  That's an "aha!" moment.

Today's Gospel reading shows us the disciples still looking for that "aha!" moment in their faith.  It tells us "For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead."  Here we see these eleven men, who had followed Jesus faithfully for three years and who never really grasped what it was Jesus was trying to tell them.  These same eleven men were frightened and disappointed and mourning over the death of their friend.  And now they've come to the tomb, only to find it empty, the cloths all rolled up and in disarray.  We're told that "the other disciple" – whoever that was –  "saw and believed."  But one sentence later, we see that "they" – presumably including that same "other disciple" – did not yet understand.

And I think we can all understand why they didn't get it.  If we look at the Gospel reading for today, it's pretty confusing.  I mean, the disciples didn't get a guidebook or a list of instructions or things to look for.  They weren't told what would happen when.  So all they know is that the tomb is empty, and Mary Magdalene's reaction isn't hard to understand: "They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they put him."  They were all confused; they did not yet have that "aha!" moment.

Even we who have the benefit of the 20/20 hindsight of history, if we're really pressed, we'd probably end up with much the same reaction as the disciples.  If I went up and down the aisle here and asked a bunch of people, I'm sure not one could give me a good, step-by-step explanation of what happened on that first Easter morning.  And you know what?  If I were sitting there and was asked myself, I wouldn't be able to explain it either.  The Resurrection, brothers and sisters in Christ, requires an act of faith, an act of faith that we must make today and every day as followers of the Lord.

The disciples couldn't make that act of faith just yet.  They couldn't understand what was going on because they did not yet have an experience of meeting the Risen Lord.  In the weeks to come, they'll have those experiences, and finally on Pentecost, they will be filled with the Holy Spirit in the ultimate "aha!" moment.  Then everything will become crystal clear for them and they can proclaim the Gospel to every corner of the earth.

We, too, must have those experiences of the Risen Lord in our lives.  Otherwise we can't possibly be expected to understand any of this.  Those experiences of the Risen Lord are what lead us to our own "aha!" moments of faith and enable us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. 

The great thing is that we can have an experience of the Risen Lord every single Sunday of our lives, by coming to this sacred place.  It is here that we hear the Word proclaimed, here that we partake of the very Body and Blood of our Lord.  An occasional experience of this mystery simply will not do; we must nurture our faith with many experiences of the Risen Lord – today, and every Sunday of our lives – so that we can have the "aha!" moments that make our faith grow.

And on those days when those "aha!" moments of our faith bring everything into focus, when we come to better clarity of who we are and who our Lord is, we can proclaim with the psalmist: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad!"

Holy Saturday: Anticipation

All-powerful and ever-living God,
your only Son went down among the dead
and rose again in glory.
In your goodness
raise up your faithful people,
buried with him in baptism,
to be one with him
in the eternal life of heaven,
where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

That prayer, from today's Liturgy of the Hours, sums up this day of the Triduum, which we must admit is probably one of the most mysterious days of our faith.  This is the day that we remember that line in the Apostle's Creed, "he descended into hell."

The second reading for today's Office of Readings speaks of the weirdness of this day:  "Something strange is happening–there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness."  It's weird because we all know, at this point in history, what is to come.  But yet the world and especially the Liturgy are quiet, and will remain so until the wondrous cacophony of the Easter Gloria at tonight's Vigil.

The best I think we can all do is to enter into the silence–and the weirdness–and see what Word is spoken to us in all of that.  Let us truly silence ourselves in order to prepare to celebrate with all the more raucousness the Resurrection of our Lord.

Good Friday: Were You There?

What got me today was the spiritual, "Were You There?"  It was sung this afternoon at Veneration of the Cross, of course, and also this evening at the Living Stations of the Cross.  The youth acted this out, and sang a verse of the spiritual between every station.  I found that very moving.  I think sometimes kids can be so simply profound in their acting out of something sacred.

And the song took on a new meaning for me this year than it has in the past.  There's always the almost-syrupy emotional response to this song, which I find, well, annoying.  So usually it's just a song to sing for me.  But this year, as I sang it at both services, I found it contemplative, meditative, almost like praying the rosary.  It was an extremely prayerful experience, which added to the prayerfulness of the day.  As the sufferings of our Lord were retold in the sung Passion this afternoon, and acted out stations this evening, in some ways, we were there in a remembering act of anamnesis.

Today's readings.