There was a great commercial a few years back that has three senior ladies talking. One of them, the hostess, has taped all kinds of photographs to her living room wall and says that it’s a really quick way to share these memories with her friends. Just like her car insurance: it only took 15 minutes to get a quote. One of her friends said she was able to do that in half the time, so the hostess says, “I unfriend you.” Her former friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works!”
I thought of that commercial because I think that, often, many people don’t get how God works. They either think that he’s a capricious policeman who’s always looking for some kind of way to catch them in a trivial sin so that he can send them to the place downstairs, or they think he’s a friend who overlooks all their faults and doesn’t mind if they never give him a second thought. Both positions are not how God works!
And if you asked a lot of people why Christmas is so important, if they have any religious answer at all, they might tell you that probably God finally found the right answer after so many years of failure. That all along, from the time of Adam and Eve, people had been doing whatever they wanted, and so God was at his wit’s end and finally just sent his only begotten Son down here to straighten things out. But that’s not how God works!
The truth is, (as we see in today’s Gospel), that God had always intended to save the world by sending his own Son who was with him in the beginning. The Word – God’s Son – was with him in the beginning and everything that has ever been made has been made through him. Not only that, but in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. The Greek here says literally that he “pitched his tent” among us. That was the plan – from the beginning – for God’s own Son to become flesh so that we could become like God. It’s a marvelous exchange!
And when he became flesh, he lived as one of the people in that time. He walked among them and had all the same concerns they did. He was like us in all things but sin. When the appointed hour came, he took on our sins and was crucified for our salvation. He died, as we all must do, but so that sin and death would no longer be able to hold us bound to the earth, he rose from the dead and attained eternal life. Now we the opportunity to do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.
And he didn’t do that because we are good enough or have earned his mercy and grace. Because we could never do enough to earn something so amazingly precious. He did that because he created us in love, and won’t stop loving us until we’re where we belong in that place he has prepared for us in heaven. It’s all grace, it’s all mercy, we don’t deserve it, but God offers it to us anyway, if we will accept it. Because that’s how God works.
It’s kind of like the kid in one of my favorite movies, A Christmas Story. He wanted the Daisy Red Ryder Air Rifle more than anything. He thought he could earn it by being good enough, but he just gets in a fight with a bully and calls him every name in the book. He thought he could earn it by helping Dad change a tire, but he drops the lug nuts and says something that was certainly not “oh fudge!” He thought he could write an amazing essay to convince everyone he should have it, but the teacher just points out he’ll shoot his eye out. But his father gets it for him anyway, because he wants him to be happy, and that’s what fathers do.
Our Father gives us heaven, not because we can earn it or convince him we should have it, but just because he loves us, and he wants us to be happy – happy forever. And that’s what our Father does.
Jesus became one of us, pitching his tent among us, so that he could gather us all up and bring us back to heaven with him, to the kingdom of God for which we were created, in the beginning. That was always the plan. But sin and death keeping us from friendship with God is obliterated by the saving act of Jesus. Sin and death no longer have the final word, because that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!
Often when we get to Christmas time, we think about our Christmases past: who we were with, where we were, how we celebrated. Sometimes we might remember the gifts we receive, sometimes not. For me, what I remember most is the joy of being with my family and the love that we shared certainly marked my memory of those Christmases. Over time, some Christmases have been wonderful, and some marked by sadness, especially after Dad died. That is how Christmas comes and goes throughout our lives, of course. You could probably tell similar stories.
But the real revelation that I had while reflecting on those past Christmases is that we definitely sell Christmas short. Sure, we settle sometimes for the commercial, retail version of Christmas. If you love the people in your life, then you’ll gift them lavishly. Then we’ll all sit around the Christmas lights, eat a big feast, and sing some Christmas carols. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but that’s not the totality of Christmas, not even close.
The totality of Christmas is, quite frankly, overwhelming. Christmas is the beginning of the Incarnation, in which our God – God who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than anything we can think of – this God takes on our flesh, broken and flawed as it can sometimes be, and becomes one of us. In fact, he so perfectly assumed our humanity that although he never sinned, he willingly laid down his life for us, paying the price for our sins, the price of a tortuous, ignominious death on a cross. And far from letting death have the last word, God raised him up, gloriously throwing open the gates of the Kingdom for all to enter in.
That’s pretty awesome, but even that is not the totality of what Christmas is. Because here’s the kicker: are you ready? He did all that for you. Saint Augustine points this out in one of his sermons. He writes: “I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.
“You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.”
And if you think about it, we need this kind of mercy right now, maybe more than ever. We need it as a people, and we need it individually. The constant threat of terror overseas, and even here in our country. The nightly shootings on the streets of Chicago and many other cities. The degradation of real authority sparked by misconduct of politicians, police officers, teachers, and even priests. Add to all that our own sinful tendencies, addictions, and personal failures.
Amid all of this mess, there is mercy: personal, intentional, glorious mercy. What we have to see on this most holy night is that our God knew the flaws of human flesh, but he loved it so much that he came into it anyway so that it might be redeemed. He was well aware of our brokenness, but he entered into it anyway that he might bind it up and make it whole. Becoming one of us, he was in a powerful position to pour out his great mercy, taking his creation one step further by making it fit for heaven. And, as Saint Augustine points out, he did that for you. Not just you as a group, but you, and you, and you, and you, and so on. What you need to hear me saying is that if you were the only person in history who ever needed mercy, he would have done that for you.
That is Christmas. It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th. God’s mercy is what makes us who we are, what defines us as a Church and as a people. The story of Christ’s Incarnation is what makes us a living sign of God’s mercy in the world. That is who we really are, despite the world’s attempts to define us as something so very much less. The great gift of God’s mercy shines glorious light into every dark corner of our world and of our lives and calls us broken ones to redemption and healing and joy.
It’s crucial for us to live that mercy and not accept what others want to make us. If you’re joining us for the first time tonight, or if you’re visiting family, or if you came here looking for something more for Christmas, then we welcome you and we hope that you experience Christ’s presence among us. We hope that you find in your time with us and with the Lord tonight a desire to go deeper in life and find the meaning of it all. Please know that we would be glad to help you in that journey, and come to one of us on the parish staff, to point you in the right direction. If you’re an active member of our parish family, then I hope the message that you receive tonight, and your encounter with Christ in this moment, leads you to a desire to share Christ’s presence with others.
The Incarnation – the birth and personhood of Jesus Christ – along with his Passion, death and Resurrection, changes everything. When we all rediscover God’s mercy, the Incarnation can change us too, so that we may then go out and change the world around us. When that happens in us, when Christ becomes incarnate in us, the angels will sing just as joyfully now as they did on that most holy night.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!
In this morning’s readings, our God is doing everything possible to get our attention. Salvation is God’s number one priority and he won’t rest until all have come to it. And so he sends Isaiah to “cry out” so many truths that we need to absorb: flesh is fading, but the word of the Lord is forever; the glory of the Lord will be revealed; our guilt is expiated. And this is all good news if we would receive it, but humanity is prone to tuning God out, especially if times are good.
And so he literally jumps up and down to get our attention: Isaiah runs up to the top of a high mountain crying out, “Here is your God!” And failing all of that, God becomes the good shepherd, who notices us lost sheep and sets out to bring us back, even though it would seem – to us – to be wiser not to do so.
God wants us all to come to salvation. He wants us all to open our hearts and receive him. He comes among us, as the Psalmist says, “to rule the world with justice, and the peoples with his constancy.” God urgently seeks to bind up all the broken and lost ones and bring everyone to the kingdom. That’s Advent. Blessed are we when we hear God crying out to us and respond.
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2 | Matthew 5:1-12a
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
I think a lot of us could use some comforting in these days. The news of the grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about clergy sexual abuse over a period of seventy years, and the real possibility of more of that in every other state was pretty awful. Then add the disheartening news of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians under his care, and possibly a young person earlier, along with the shocking news that men in the hierarchy of the Church knew about it and said nothing as he advanced his career, and it’s understandable how horrible we all feel, how much we mourn. We clamor for our God to comfort us.
I could mention so many emotions that I have experienced in these days: anger, disgust, shame, fear, sadness, brokenness. But as I mentioned in my bulletin column a couple of weeks ago, none of that compares to what victims of sexual abuse have probably felt in these days. In some ways, I imagine they feel violated all over again, and that, friends, breaks this pastor’s heart.
The Church should be a safe haven. The Church should protect young people – it’s the Church’s job to love young people into the glory of heaven. For heaven’s sake, we should not permit them to be violated and then swept under the carpet, left with nowhere to go and no one to whom to turn.
My pastor’s heart is broken, too, because all of this derails the mission of the Church. We want to be on fire for Christ and lead every longing heart to our God. But how can we convince a skeptical world to take a chance on a Church that seems to have a real problem with integrity, justice, love, and truth – all those things that we should be beaconing out to a world grown dark in sin and sadness. How can we be a light for the world when we harbor the darkness of sin and shame? How can people ever trust us with their souls when they can’t even trust us with their children?
And the thing is, we should be getting it right by now. We didn’t go far enough when these things started coming to light in the 1980s. We went much further after the scandals of 2002, but a lot of things got left out. There was no process to discipline bishops who covered up scandal, or even bishops who were abusers. Even though our diocese had a publicly available list of priests who were abusers, far too many dioceses did not. And every time we didn’t go far enough, we gave evil a chance to darken our world.
As your pastor, with a broken heart, I am sorry for the sins the Church has committed – sorry for the abuse that got perpetrated by clergy and covered up by other clergy. I am sorry if you were abused, and I am sorry for everyone who has felt shame because of what is going on. I know these are just words, and inadequate ones at that. But they convey my real feelings, and they are feelings I really want you to know.
Back in my first parish as a priest, I had an initial meeting with a couple preparing for marriage. She was Catholic and he was from one of the main-line Protestant communities. As I walked them through the paperwork, I got to the part where the Catholic has to agree to raise the children in the Catholic faith. I always do that with both parties present, because that’s a decision they need to come to together. Most often, the couple has talked about that and has accepted it. But this time the groom voiced his objection. When I asked him to tell me more about that, he told me that he had been abused by a minister at his church. And though he was obviously scarred from it, he appreciated that his church took it seriously and did everything possible to help him heal. He wasn’t confident the Catholic Church was ready to do that.
I told him about the measures the Church had taken since 2002, and the way that we promote safe environment. They are measures that truly have made a great deal of difference in the years since. I wasn’t able to convince him, and the couple never did marry for that and other reasons. But that interaction rekindled all the feelings I had in seminary when the scandals broke and half my class left.
It’s time to do more. We all have to hold each other accountable for everything – bishops, priests, deacons, faithful. We all have care for each other’s souls and need to say something when things aren’t right. We need to pray that our nation’s bishops, when they meet this coming November, will take the concrete steps needed to make the hierarchy of our Church conform to the witness, integrity, and zeal of the Apostles, whose successors they have been ordained to be. We need to pray that every child and every person in the Church will be treated as Christ himself. We need to pray that the bright light of Truth would scatter the darkness of sin. We need to pray in these days that our God would write his Law in our hearts, that he would be our God, and that we would be his people.
Because, in the face of this, it’s easy to come to despair. It’s easy to think this will never change and it’s all just going to come up over and over again. I want to say two things about that. First of all, as we heard in yesterday’s Gospel, the Cross is the heart of what it means to be a disciple. When we are tempted to think it would be easier to walk away from the Church so that we don’t have to feel the pain, we need to say, “Get behind me, Satan.” Because it’s always the evil one who wants to convince us that life is better without the Cross. Second, as I said last Monday to our Confirmation students, there is a place we can go when we can’t see a solution to the problem. Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill up our emptiness, to convert our stony hearts, to sanctify the Church and to bring reconciliation and healing to a broken Church and a broken world.
I remember being in seminary in 2002 when so many of my classmates decided to leave. I certainly wondered why I was still there, and if I should leave too. As I prayed about that, the Bible verse that kept coming to my mind was the response of Saint Peter to our Lord when he asked the disciples if they were going to leave like so many of the others. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” That one verse has gotten me through just about every occasion when I felt tempted – tempted by the evil one – to walk away. And in these days, I think we need to realize how important it is that we are here: tonight, and every day. Because we certainly could walk away, but the Church is our Mother and she means too much to us. The Church and its sanctity and holiness are worth fighting for, and we are the warriors that our Lord has chosen to bring holiness to our Church and to our world in this sad hour. We have to be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness if we ever want to be truly satisfied.
I know I have a lot of nerve asking you to pray hard, to hold us and each other accountable, and to fight for the Church when the Church has let you down. Why won’t they clean up their mess? After all, they are the ones who fouled it up. But the Church isn’t a “they.” The Church is a “we.” And if we ever want the Church to be holy and a beacon of light, then we have the be the ones to fight for it. If we don’t do it, who will?
To all of us who clamor for righteousness, our Lord has made a solemn promise: our reward will be great in heaven. That promise is worth fighting for, friends. It’s worth purifying our own lives, calling out for real change in the Church, and praying for with every fiber of our being. Even if others ridicule and persecute us for our faith, we will be rewarded with greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
I borrowed the idea for our gathering tonight from my alma mater,Mundelein Seminary, who recently completed a Novena for the Healing of the Church. The prayer that they used for that novena is printed in your worship aid. I’d ask you now to stand and pray it with me:
Loving God, turn your ear to the cries of your sons and daughters who seek healing for Your Church.
We are heartbroken. We are bruised. We are hurting.
In these days we again wrestle with understanding the heinous acts of abuse by those entrusted with shepherding Your flock. Ease our troubled hearts. Mend our broken spirits.
Be “ever present in our distress.”
Merciful Lord, send Your Healing Spirit to our brothers and sisters who have endured pain and abuse physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Comfort their weary spirits. Soothe their pain. Grant them justice. May our eyes be opened to see Your image in these wounded members of Your Church.
Shepherd of Souls, make Your presence known to us that these wrongful acts will be addressed. Inspire our leaders of the Church to seek new and effective paths to keep safe the flock they shepherd.
Give us all courage to act and speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable. Rush the winds of the Spirit to scatter the darkness of sin. Pour forth Your healing Spirit to renew our trust and hope in You, who are our refuge and our strength.
We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Quite honestly, this Gospel story is a little strange, maybe even surprising. I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.” As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy! To his credit, the centurion must have heard of this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.” And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself. For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says. And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once. It’s an interesting exchange, to be sure.
We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith. The prayer that we say, just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, says this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass. Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.
But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us. True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings us.
Today we have set before us two tables. One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other… let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess. What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?
We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom. Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal. Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times. Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent. But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding. These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal. They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment. But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.
The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live. He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time. Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church. And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct. Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us. We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.
Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives. Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you. Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.” The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.
All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel. They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed. But now, they have to come to terms with all of it. Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person. And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with. Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out. But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.
As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves. Have we been dining at the table of foolishness? Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time? Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there? Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV? Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables. Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup. We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food. We have been dining at the wrong table.
And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet. Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord. Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding? Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point. We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him. But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.
And so God did the only thing he could do. If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us. He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do. Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us. As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.
Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago. But that was nothing. It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now. Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die. But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever. That’s what Jesus tells us today. Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God. This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it. But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.
And so which table will we choose now? Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!
Where are you?
This is the question God asked Adam and Eve early on in our first reading today. And for them, the answer to the question was that they were not in an especially good place. We know the story: God had given them everything they need to live in the Garden of Eden, instructing them that the only thing they could not do was eat from the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden. The fall was already at work in them even then, because they found that the one thing they were not permitted to do was the one thing they wanted to do more than anything, and so they give into the seductive suggestions of the serpent and eat the fruit anyway.
They soon find that they cannot hide from their sin: they are naked in the garden, and the sin is apparent, and so they do what fallen human beings have done ever since: they try to hide from God. Which would certainly be easy to do if God did not create man and woman out of love for them. But he did that, and continued to seek relationship with them, and so he asks the question, the answer to which he certainly knows: “Where are you?”
Explaining that they had found their nakedness, the weight of their sin is apparent. They desired something more than they desired God. That’s what sin is. And what ensues is the first recorded instance of “passing the buck:” the man blames the woman (and also blames God for putting the woman in the garden with him in the first place), the woman blames the serpent. So it has gone ever since: we desire something more than God, that sinful desire drags us down, we try to hide from God, and when we can’t, we blame someone else. Sin has entered the world and now darkens it in ways that are heartbreaking.
Where are you?
If you’re not seeing the face of God in your life; if you find yourself desiring something more than you desire God and the blessings God is giving you, it’s likely you’re not in a very good place right now. Maybe we have just lost track of where we are, who we are and where we should be going. Maybe we just plod along, very busy, very scattered by the rush and routine. Or maybe, like Adam, we are hiding out, afraid to face or deal with something that needs addressing.
But that’s no way for us to live our lives, friends. God made us out of love, made us for love, made us to love, and he pursues us no matter how far we have wandered or to what depth we have fallen. If we come clean with God, name our sin and refuse to blame someone else, we can have forgiveness, we can have mercy. We can have God.
That “unforgiveable sin” of which our Gospel seeks is exactly the kind of thing that got us into trouble in the first place. It’s not something we’ve said or done to someone else, or even to God, but instead hiding from God and not wanting his mercy. It’s like having a world-class chef offer you a sumptuous meal, but refusing to eat it because you don’t want to sit down with him and eat, so you go away hungry. If you refuse God’s mercy because you don’t want his grace to change your life, you go away unforgiven. You sin against the Holy Spirit. It’s not that God won’t forgive, it’s that we don’t want to let God change our nakedness.
Where are you?
In these summer months, sometimes our routine changes. Maybe there isn’t that constant daily hustle of getting the kids to school and then practices and activities and all the other things that make life crazy. Perhaps there’s a little leisure time, maybe even a vacation that provides a little more room for us to reflect on our lives and where we are and where we are going. This is the time to see our lives for what they are, and come humbly to our God if we have been hiding.
Sin is not who we are, sin is not part of human nature. Sin has certainly entered our world and we have to deal it in our daily lives, but it cannot ever define us unless we let it. Jesus was the most perfect example of human nature, completely free from sin. We can approach that glory when we stop hiding ourselves from God, when we let God into our lives, and when we let his grace change us into what we were created for. We are better than our sins. God doesn’t ever stop pursuing us in love. All we have to do is answer his call and say, “I’m right here, God. Standing before you in need of your mercy. Pleading for your grace. Wanting you and what you want for me more than anything. I’m right here.” Maybe we can make that our prayer today. I know it’s going to be mine.
Where are you?
Today, on the eighth day of Easter, which we still celebrate as Easter Sunday, we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, which was instituted by Pope Saint John Paul II, of blessed memory. On this Sunday, we remember that the resurrection of our Lord was an act of intense mercy for us sinners, obliterating the power of sin and giving us the possibility of life eternal, if we are willing to live the Gospel and turn away from our sins.
And even though His Holiness did not choose the Gospel reading we have for today, I don’t think he could have chosen a better one to illustrate God’s Divine Mercy. Today, Saint John recounts the evening when the disciples were together, save for Thomas, pretty much just trying to figure out what to do next. So far that day, they had come to find the tomb empty, and Mary Magdalene reported that she had seen the Lord alive. Obviously, they needed to process what was happening.
But they were incredibly afraid. They knew that they could easily suffer the same fate as the Lord, and feared that the Jews were hunting them down. I think in some ways, too, beginning to realize that the Lord had truly risen, they were afraid that they might not be doing what our Lord expected of them. So they meet together in perhaps the same upper room in which they had eaten the Last Supper, with the doors locked for fear of their pursuers, and they’re talking things over. Suddenly, into their confusion, the Lord appears, bringing his gift of peace, and bestowing on them the Holy Spirit. Immediately, they come to believe and go out to do what believers do: tell the story.
Which brings us to poor Saint Thomas, who, for whatever reason, was not with them when the Lord appeared. It’s important to remember that the only reason the others believed was because they had received the Holy Spirit: it takes that gift of Divine Mercy to come to understand our Lord’s message. Since Thomas had not received that gift, he’s at a different place on the faith journey than the rest of them. So before we get too hard on “doubting Thomas,” I think he should get a bit of a break here.
Then our Lord comes and gives him what he asked for: a direct, personal, intimate encounter, in which his questions are answered and he is able to hold his Lord and come to full belief. Here, he too receives the Spirit, and can then go out to preach the Gospel to those our Lord entrusts to him.
I think we see Divine Mercy here in a few different ways. First, we see it in our Lord’s wounds, which he showed to Thomas at his request. Jesus truly suffered in the flesh for us, dying an agonizing death on the Cross, that death that paid the price for our own sins. He paid the price for us, and he paid it in a horrible, painful, public way. No one dies for those he doesn’t love, and so we see in our Lord’s wounds his immense Divine Mercy for us.
We see Divine Mercy in the gift of the Holy Spirit. It takes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which we receive in baptism and confirmation, to embark on a life of faith. Confusion reigns where the Spirit has not been received: that was the case for the disciples including Saint Thomas, and it is the case for all of us. Without the Holy Spirit, we can’t know God or enter into relationship with him. But thanks to his Divine Mercy, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit at our disposal.
And finally, we see Divine Mercy in the interaction with Saint Thomas. Jesus could have left Thomas in his doubt. He wasn’t there with the others, he refused to believe, so let him sort it all out. But our Lord wouldn’t – couldn’t – do that. Instead, he pursues Thomas, and gives him what he needs to believe. He does that with us too, never giving up on us. That’s Divine Mercy.
Here’s the message though. Like our Lord’s other gifts, Divine Mercy isn’t meant to be received and then kept in a neat little box on our prayer shelf. Our world is desperate for God’s Divine Mercy. There are hungry people to be fed, there are people who need to know the Lord, there is terror and war and animosity that needs to be drenched in God’s love, there are people in our own lives who need our forgiveness. So we disciples, who received the gift of the Holy Spirit as a direct outpouring of God’s love, need to take that Divine Mercy to a world that needs it so desperately.
Holy God, holy mighty one, holy immortal one, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
Jesus, I trust in you!