Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

“You are witnesses of these things.”

That is what Jesus tells the disciples at the close of today’s Gospel reading. He is almost ready to ascend to the Father, and so he takes care to make sure that the disciples are ready for the mission. They are the ones who will have to testify to the death and resurrection of Christ, and to preach forgiveness of sins in his name to every person on earth.

And we can see that the disciples did indeed take up this mission. In the first reading from Acts, Peter speaks to the Jews and tells them what Christ suffered for all of us. He emphatically urges them to repent and to believe in the Gospel. In the second reading, John exhorts believers to follow the commandments and live the Gospel if they would testify to the love of God. You can’t say that you love God but not follow the commandments – that’s ridiculous – and so John exhorts all his hearers to become people of integrity and to witness with their lives.

“You are witnesses of these things.”

And so we are the hearers of the message now. We too, brothers and sisters in Christ, are witnesses of these things. We may not have seen the events unfold in front of us, but we have seen them in the Liturgy, and we believe that our celebration of the Liturgy is not some simple re-enactment of the events of our salvation, but in a very real sense is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in our own day.

We are the witnesses now. And people have to see us preaching with the way that we live our lives. We have to preach it by going to Mass faithfully, by keeping the commandments, by being people of integrity and fairness at our jobs or in our schools, by reaching out to those who are poor, needy and marginalized, by giving ourselves to others whenever, wherever, and however we can.

We are witnesses of these things. The question is, will others witness Christ in us?

Thursday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures are showing us that two ways are being developed in the early days of Christianity. The first is the way of the world, and the second is the Way – with a capital “W” – which became known as Christianity.

That first way, our Gospel reading tells us, is concerned with earthly things. These earthly things certainly include the small, unimportant stuff: concerns about our own needs, our prestige, our wealth, our own comforts. But it also concerns things that we have no business pursuing: lust, slander, theft, and all manner of violations of the Ten Commandments. This way seeks to silence the truth, as we can see in our first reading. The religious authorities forbade the disciples to speak of Jesus, lest others be led to convert to the other Way.

And that Way would be the way of Christianity. This is the Way that remembers that the small, unimportant stuff is not worth our time. This Way professes that our home isn’t on earth anyway, and so it strives for heavenly things: the life of the Spirit, the good of others, witnessing to the Truth, the salvation of the world, eternal life. Here is the way of those disciples who could not be bound by a human order not to preach in Christ’s name, because the command of Christ himself carries so much more authority.

We have before us the way of death and the Way of life. We too must choose which way we will follow. And so it’s worth our time today to consider that our final home is not on this earth, that we were created for the life to come. So we must choose the Way that leads us there.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perplexing one, to be sure. But in the light of Easter, we can see that Jesus was proclaiming that God is doing something new. Not only that, but God wants us all to be part of that new thing. For Nicodemus, that meant the old ways of worshipping and living were no longer sufficient, and really no longer needed. God was looking not just for people’s obedience, but also their hearts.

We see those hearts at work in the early Christian community. The reading from Acts this morning tells us that the believers cared for one another deeply, and were generous in that care. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” They were even selling their possessions to give to those who were in need. Nobody felt needy, nobody felt cheated, nobody felt like they were doing more than their share. People were worshipping not just with their minds, but also with their hearts, and their worshipping didn’t stop when they left the worship place.

So the same has to be true for us, really. We have to be willing to give of our hearts, to believe not just when we’re in church, but also when we are in the rest of our life. We have to trust God to take care of us when we stick our neck out to help someone else. We have to worship not just with our minds but also with our hearts.

Second Sunday of Easter

Today’s Readings

Today is the feast day for those of us who sometimes question things, and the apostle, St. Thomas, is our patron saint. And so today we can give Thomas a hard time for his unbelief, and we can disparage all those other “doubting Thomases” in our lives, or, maybe, we can just come to the Lord in our humility and say “My Lord and my God!”

Because I’m sure we can all think of at least one time when we were reluctant to believe something, or had our faith tested, only to have Jesus stand before us and say, “Peace be with you.” I remember the time that it became apparent to me that the Lord was calling me to go to seminary after so many years being out of school. I had a long list of reasons why that wouldn’t work, why it couldn’t be done at this stage of my life, why anyone would be a better choice than me. And I never got a direct answer to any of that. Never. In some ways, all I got was Jesus standing in the midst of my questioning and saying to me “Peace be with you.” And six months later I was in seminary.

You’ve had that same kind of experience at some point in your life, I’d bet. Maybe it was in college when you started really questioning your faith and felt like everything anyone had ever told you was a lie. Or maybe it was the time you were called to do something at Church, or even take a turn in your career, and couldn’t possibly believe that you were qualified to do that. Maybe it was the time it suddenly dawned on you that you were a parent, and had no idea how you could ever raise a child. It could even have been the time when you completely changed your career – as I did – and weren’t totally sure that was God’s will for you.

Like Thomas, we want evidence, hard facts, a good hard look at the big picture, before we’re ready to jump in. We want to “see the mark of the nails in his hands and put our fingers into the nailmarks and put our hands into his side.” But that’s not faith. Some people say that seeing is believing, but faith tells us that believing is seeing. “Blessed are they,” Jesus says, “who have not seen but still believe.” We sometimes first have to make an act of faith, a leap of faith if you will, before we can really see what God is doing in our lives. And that’s the hard part, that’s the part that we, like Thomas, are reluctant to do.

Jesus makes three invitations to us today. The first is to believe. Believe with all your heart and mind and soul. Believe first, and leave the seeing to later. Trust that God is with you, walking with you, guiding you, willing the best for you. Be ready to make that leap of faith. What God has in store for us is so much better than our puny plans for our lives. Be blessed by not seeing but still believing.

The second invitation is to touch. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, “and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” He makes that same invitation to us every time we walk up to receive Holy Communion. What a gift it is to be able to share in Christ’s wounds, to be bound up in his Passion, to live the resurrection and to be nourished by his very body and blood. Just like Thomas, we’re invited to touch so that we too might believe.

The third invitation is to live a new day. The Gospel tells us that Jesus first came to the Apostles on the evening of the “first day of the week.” That detail isn’t there so that we know what day it is or can mark our calendars. In the Gospel, the “first day of the week” refers to the new day that Jesus is bringing about – a new day of faith, a new day of trust in God’s divine mercy, a new day of being caught up in God’s life. We are invited to that new day every time we gather for worship.

We have doubts, periodically and sometimes persistently. But God does not abandon us in our doubt. Just like Thomas, he comes to us in the midst of our uncertainty and says to us: “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.” “Peace be with you.”

Easter Saturday

Today’s readings

We are confronted in today’s Gospel with something we all have to struggle with, and that is a reluctance to believe. In the disciples’ case, it was a slowness to believe based on the fact that they didn’t really have the resources that we do – like the scriptures and hundreds of years of Church teaching. But still, they did have Jesus’ words, which they apparently didn’t understand, which they in some ways really didn’t believe.

We come to Mass today having been there, done that. Like I said, we have more resources: the scriptures and the Church, and so it often seems like we should know better. And I think in some ways we do believe, at least in our heads. But when it comes to believing with our heats, it’s another thing entirely. How easy is it to believe that God loves us and has a plan for us when we are confronted with a difficult situation? When a loved one is dying? When we’ve lost a job? When the economy has eaten up our retirement? When we’ve just learned that we are seriously ill?

But like the disciples, Jesus comes to us today and tells us that our faith must be the bedrock of our lives: helping us to be joyful in the good times and providing a source of strength in our bad times. And just when we are all thinking about ourselves – about what we need, about what we’re going through – just when the disciples are trying to figure out what to do next – Jesus makes it clear: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” Get back on the horse, get back into life, live the faith and be a witness. That’s the life of the disciple, that’s the life of faith.

And we can do all that today and every day because of what we celebrate on this Easter Day: Christ is risen, and sin and death have been destroyed. God does have a plan for us, he does love us, and he has done all he needs to do to prove it.

Easter Thursday

Today’s readings

The time between Easter and Pentecost is often referred to as the period of Mystagogy. Mystagogy is a Greek word meaning “looking back on the mysteries.” It is a time of unpacking what we have just been through, and coming to see, with eyes enlightened by faith, the meaning of things we may never have noticed before.

The disciples in today’s Gospel reading are beginning that period of Mystagogy. They have seen the risen Lord, and now things they wondered about are all starting to make sense to them. Remember, they didn’t have the Gospels to guide them like we do; they had to live through all of this and it’s so clear from the readings of Lent and especially Holy Week that they were confounded by what Jesus was doing and what was happening to him. They were horrified and disillusioned and grieved by his death. But now, seeing him risen from the grave, they are beginning to make sense of it all. As the Gospel says today, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” and they came to see how the Scriptures applied to Jesus.

This is a special period for those we just received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. They will use this time of Mystagogy to grow in their new-found faith. It will be a time for them, too, to look back on the mysteries. They will reflect on their faith journey that began in childhood and eventually brought them here. They will reflect on the wonderful rites they have experienced, from the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, to their Election by the Bishop early in Lent, to the Scrutinies we witnessed with them, all the way to their Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist on Holy Saturday night. They will see God at work in their lives and make sense of things they may have been confused about before.

But this Mystagogy isn’t just limited to the disciples and our Neophytes. We are all mystagogues. Mystagogy, I think, is a life-long process, and all of us, converts and cradle Catholics alike, spend the rest of our lives unpacking the mysteries, reflecting on our lives of faith, coming to see who Jesus is for us in whole new ways, appreciating more deeply the love and grace poured out on us every day. Every day is a new opportunity for Mystagogy, and an opportunity to exclaim with our Psalmist today, seeing the wonderful mysteries that have unfolded for us, “O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!”

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

“Do not be amazed!” – I just love that line in the Gospel. We have to get behind the sentiment of that statement today if we are to really understand what this day is all about. We believe in a God who is very surprising. All through the Bible, we can read stories of people trying to come to terms with God, and just when they thought they had him all figured out, he bursts in to their complacency and says, “No, that’s not it, you just don’t get me at all, do you?”

That happens to us too, doesn’t it? God surprises us all the time. Most often, people note the bad surprises: the death of a loved one, an illness, loss of a job. But those things are not of God. God didn’t make those surprises; he allows them in this imperfect world, but they are not his will for us. What is his will for us is what surprises us: the grace to deal with a difficult situation with a strength we never knew we had, the help of a friend or loved one at just the right time, words spoken by a stranger or an acquaintance that help us to find the ability to journey on from where we are. And in our surprise, God says, “Do not be amazed!”

To really get how surprising this day must have been for Jesus’ disciples, we have to have been involved in the story to this point. Jesus had been doing wonderful, amazing things: healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking words of challenge and hope. The Jewish leaders of the time became more and more uncomfortable with his message, seeing it as blasphemy and a rejection of everything good and holy. More and more, their anger raged up, and many times they attempted to arrest him. Finally, the movement against him rises to a fever pitch. Judas, who thought he would get rich off this wonder-worker Jesus grows disillusioned to the point that he is willing to hand Jesus over to them.

Jesus’ hour had come: he was put through a farce of a trial, brutally beaten and contemptuously treated. Finally he is nailed to a cross and suffers hours of agony and abandonment by most of his disciples before he gives us his spirit at last. All seemed darker than dark. Jesus is placed in a tomb that was not his own by people who had just been acquaintances. His friends have fled in fear. His mother and some women wept at the end of it all. Things couldn’t have been worse or more hopeless.

But then came the morning. Some of the women go to anoint his body for its burial, and just when they are wondering who is going to help them roll the stone away so they can get in to the tomb, they come upon the tomb, open and empty. They had to be utterly amazed – they probably didn’t even know what had actually happened. But as they stood there, mouths hanging open, thoughts reeling in their minds, the messenger appears: “Do not be amazed!” Jesus said he would rise, and rise he did, hammering home the point that hopelessness is no obstacle to God’s power, that fear is no match for grace, that death and darkness are nothing compared to God’s great love. Do not be amazed!

Even that is not where the wonder of it all stopped. In their joy, the disciples eventually recollected themselves and were able to go out and tell people what had happened. Christ, crucified, overcame death to rise to new life. In the light of the resurrection, they came to understand what Jesus had always preached and also received the grace of the Spirit so that they could preach it to others. Their preaching shaped the Church, guiding it through the centuries to our own day. Today we gather not just to remember an amazing event that happened two thousand years ago, but rather to experience the joy of that resurrection with those women at the tomb, with the disciples who heard about it from them, with all the people from every time and place, on earth and in heaven, all of us who have had the Gospel preached to us. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as one. Do not be amazed!

And the marvel continues: the death and resurrection of Christ has had an effect on this cold and dark and sinful world. Through that wonderful saving action, the finality of our death has been obliterated, the vicious cycle of our sins has been erased. We have been freed from it all through the power of grace, freely given if we will freely accept it, lavished out on all of us prodigal ones who return to God with sorrow for our sins and hope for forgiveness. We have truly been saved and made free. Do not be amazed!

We have also been given the great gift of eternal life. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has broken the chains of death and risen triumphant from the grave. Because of that, our own graves will never be our final resting place, pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever. Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive. We have hope in these days because Christ who is our hope has overcome the obstacles to our living. Do not be amazed!

Back on the evening of Holy Thursday, when the Church gathered to commemorate the giving of the Eucharist, the entrance antiphon told us what was to come:

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection;
through him we are saved and made free.

And this morning, we gather to celebrate that that is truly what has happened. Through the cross and resurrection we are saved and made free to live the salvation, life and resurrection that God always intended for us to have. We should glory in the cross! Do not be amazed!

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

The scene at the cross is heart-wrenching. His chosen Twelve have deserted him, all but one. But some women who were among his devoted followers have braved the implications for them and have arrived with him at the foot of the cross. The Beloved Disciple – probably John – has come too. And, of course, his mother.

His mother’s grief has to be palpable. Joseph is out of the picture now; we assume he has died. Jesus is all she has left in the world, her promised one. She continues to trust in God but the pain of these moments is almost too much to bear. And so Jesus speaks to her from the cross: “Woman, behold your son.” And to John, “Behold your mother.” Jesus knows that for those who were closest to him in life, they will have need of support after his death. Grief cannot be borne alone. That relationship, forged at the foot of the cross, became the basis for discipleship for both Mary and John that would be instrumental in leading the fledgling Church into the ages ahead.

But even more than that, we see in Mary an icon of the Church. We grieve too, but we for our sins. As we look up at the cross, we see – with horrifying clarity – the effect of our sins. As Isaiah says, “he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins.” No one sentenced Jesus to die on that cross as much as we did, and do, in our daily sins of commission and omission, in our harsh words, in our unkind and impure thoughts, in our lack of loving and in the neglect of our mission. And yet, as John clearly points out in his Gospel, he went to the cross willingly, taking all that brokenness with him.

Like Mary, we the Church wait at the foot of the cross, not abandoning our Jesus who did not abandon us to our sins. We, like Mary, receive at the cross our relationships, purified for our salvation, beholding our mothers and sons and daughters and fathers, because we never get to the resurrection alone.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

“We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection;
through him we are saved and made free.”

That is the proper entrance antiphon, also known as the introit, for this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he says “May I never boast about anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.” As you know, the Church considers these three days – the Sacred Triduum – as just one day, one liturgy. When we gather for Mass tonight, and reconvene tomorrow for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and finally gather for the great Easter Vigil on Saturday, it’s just one day for the church, one Liturgy in three parts. And the only part that has an entrance antiphon is tonight’s Mass, so the Church has chosen this text to set the tone for our celebrations for these three nights, and to draw all of them together with the cross holding them all together.

I think what the cross teaches us in these days, and what this evening’s part of the Liturgy says in particular is summed up in the Latin word, caritas. Caritas is most often translated into English as either “charity” or “love.” And, as in the case of most translations, both are inadequate. When we think about the word “charity,” we usually think of something we do to the poor: we give to the poor, we have pity on the poor, that kind of thing. And “love” can have a whole host of different meanings, depending on the context, and the emotion involved. And that’s not what caritas means at all. I think caritas is best imagined as a love that shows itself in the action of setting oneself aside for the good of others. It’s a love that remembers that everything is not about me, that God gives us opportunities all the time to pour ourselves out on behalf of others, that we were put on this earth to love one another into heaven.

Two parts of this evening’s Liturgy show us what caritas means. The first is what we call the mandatum: the washing of the feet. Here, Jesus gets up from the meal, puts on a towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time. In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration. And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot. The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey. It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was supplied not by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, usually a servant or slave. But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around himself, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.

We will reenact that Gospel vignette in a few minutes. But I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of this particular ritual. Not because I don’t like washing feet or don’t care to have mine washed. It’s just that I think this particular ritual should be reenacted outside of church. Every day, in every place where Christians are. Let me give you an example.

In seminary, we used to eat cafeteria style most of the time, much like any institution of higher learning. But several times a year, we would have formal dinners. They would happen on special feast days or to celebrate the giving of ministries or ordinations to the deaconate. On those occasions, our round tables would have white tablecloths, there would be wine at the table, and special food. On one of the chairs of every table, there would be a white apron. The person who got that chair was to put on the apron – much like Jesus wrapped the towel around him – and serve the rest of the people at the table. Now, when I first got to seminary, my objective, I am not proud to tell you, was to get over to the refectory early so that I wouldn’t have to be that person. Lots of us did that at first. But sometime during seminary, and I’m not sure exactly when it happened, my objective changed. I would try to get to the refectory early, not to avoid being the one to serve the rest, but to get that seat at the table so that I could serve the others. Certainly that was the work of the Holy Spirit.

And I think this kind of caritas can happen everywhere. Maybe you make an effort to get home from work a little sooner to help your spouse get dinner ready or help your children with their homework. Maybe at work you try to get in early so that you can make the first pot of coffee so that people can smell it when they come in to the office. Or maybe after lunch you take a minute or two to wipe out the microwave so it’s not gross the next day. If you’re a young person, perhaps you can try on occasion to do a chore without being asked or even wash the dishes when it’s not your turn to do it. Or if one of your classmates has a lot of stuff to bring to school one day, you can offer to carry some of his or her books to lighten the load.

This kind of thing costs us. It’s not our job. We’re entitled to be treated well too. It’s inconvenient. I’ve had a hard day at work – or at school. I want to see this show on television. I’m in the middle of reading the paper. But caritas requires something of us – something over and above what we may be prepared to do. But, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he’s given us an example: as he has done, so we must do. And not just here in church washing each other’s feet, but out there in our world, washing the feet of all those in our lives who need to be loved into heaven.

The second part of our Liturgy that illustrates caritas is one with which we are so familiar, we may most of the time let it pass us by without giving it a thought. And that, of course, is the Eucharist. This evening we commemorate that night when Jesus, for the very first time, shared bread and wine with his closest friends and offered the meal as his very own body and blood, poured out on behalf of the world, given that we might remember, as often as we do it, what caritas means. This is the meal that we share here tonight, not just as a memory of something that happened in the far distant past, but instead experienced with Jesus and his disciples, and all the church of every time and place, on earth and in heaven, gathered around the same Table of the Lord, nourished by the same body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior who poured himself out for us in the ultimate act of caritas.

We who eat this meal have to be willing to be changed by it. Because we too must pour ourselves out for others. We must feed them with our presence and our love and our understanding even when we would rather not. We must help them to know Christ’s presence in their lives by the way that we serve them, in humility, giving of ourselves and asking nothing in return.

The ultimate act of caritas will unfold tomorrow and Saturday night as we look to the cross and keep vigil for the resurrection. Tonight it will suffice for us to hear the command to go and do likewise, pouring ourselves out for others, laying down our life for them, washing their feet and becoming Eucharist for them. It may seem difficult to glory in the cross – it may even seem strange to say it. But the Church makes it clear tonight: the cross is our salvation, it is caritas poured out for us, it is caritas poured out on others through us, every time we extend ourselves, lay down our lives, abandon our sense of entitlement and give of ourselves.

“We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection;
through him we are saved and made free.”

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