Wednesday of the Second Week of Easter

Lectionary: 269

But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison,
led them out, and said,
"Go and take your place in the temple area,
and tell the people everything about this life."

The Acts of the Apostles is full of high comedy as the Spirit-guided disciples of Jesus run smack into the petty leaders of religion and government. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is not going to be foiled or frustrated by the rules. The Gospel must be announced and there's no time like now and no place like here. 

In this story, the angel of the Lord directs the apostles to "tell the people everything about this life." Many years later, drawing on the memory of that moment when the angel opened prison doors and gave him a new command, Saint Peter would urge his people: 
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope ....
So if someone said to you, "I see you go to Church; tell me everything about this life." what would you say? Where would you begin? 

That directive is the founding principle of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA.) The catechumens should learn about our doctrines and beliefs and be acquainted with our customs; but, primarily, they should be told about this life and how we live it. Or, to cite a principle of Alcoholics Anonymous, "How I work the program and how the program works for me."

First, we know, love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There's no point in calling yourself Catholic or Christian is you are not fascinated by, and fastened to, Jesus. His guiding Spirit is our guiding spirit; our decisions, attitudes and opinions are formed in relationship to him. Nothing in our life is outside his purview.

The Acts of the Apostles witnesses the extraordinary dimensions of this transformation. The disciples who fled the Garden of Gethsemane in abject terror walk out of the temple jail and into the temple courtyard and take up where they left off, announcing the Gospel. They are simply fearless. Neither Jewish nor Roman authorities can daunt them. They will face the hazards of travel on land and sea without hesitation. If anyone dies at the hands of an enraged mob or by a king's command, the rest fill his place.

We call this fearlessness freedom. The disciples of Jesus simply ignore the restrictions that customs and law place upon the Gospel. When "they tell the people everything about this way of life" the first thing people notice is their freedom. That unspoken declaration of independence is powerful, attractive and delightful; the people of Jerusalem find it irresistible.

These ancient Christians speak to us again today and from that same part of the world. Security has become an idol and so-called terrorist ruthlessly exploit that general, paralyzing weakness. The love of security undermines democracy; it eats at our sanity like the parasite of mad cow disease.

We have better things to do. We must tell the people everything about this way of life.

Feast of Saint Mark, evangelist

I write you this briefly through Silvanus,
whom I consider a faithful brother,
exhorting you and testifying that this is the true grace of God.
Remain firm in it.
The chosen one at Babylon sends you greeting, as does Mark, my son.
Greet one another with a loving kiss.
Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

Why do people support charitable organizations? I've done some fund raising in my life and I learned that people give because a particular person asked. They might believe in the organization (#2) or the cause (#3). They might even want a tax deduction (#6) but the primary (#1) reason they give is they know and trust the person who is asking for money. In the end, life is about our personal relationships; the happiest people are those who trust and are trusted by others. 

The Church has taken a bad rap in the last few years, especially in the secular media. People who were already distant from the Church were further alienated by the news stories. But the people who attended church regularly and liked their pastors stayed. They often spoke in defense of their priests and reassured them of their support.

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Mark and our first reading, from the First Letter of Saint Peter makes a passing reference to the Evangelist Saint Mark. Peter calls him "my son." We suppose that means a disciple and protégé of the first pope. ("Babylon" is the empyreal city of Rome.)

This early document reminds us that "the church" is just people, a group of men and women with their children who support one another in the practice of our faith.

When Saint Francis wrote his "last will and testament" he said, "The Lord gave me brothers." By the time he wrote that document  the small band had grown into an enormous organization, but he urged the friars to think of one another as brothers and friends. Our loyalty is to one another, not the institution. If we were to go bankrupt, as happens periodically, we would still support one another. We'd just find ways to adapt.

In the VA hospital most of the Catholic men and women I meet have fallen away from the Church. There are many reasons; each one is a story. Some have real complaints about the people whose mean or cruel behavior drove them away. Some were so appalled by what they experienced in the military they lost all faith in "right and wrong." Others experienced upheaval as they entered the military or "recommissioned" back to civilian life; they forgot to recommit to their community of faith. In the rush toward adulthood they sought education, a spouse, a career and a place to live before considering church.

They don't come to the hospital to meet the chaplain but they may be here due to that omission. Life without faith can be pretty brutal.

I hope that in meeting me and receiving the sacraments I offer -- Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist and Reconciliation -- they might rediscover the fellowship which Jesus founded so long ago. A few of us are exemplary saints; most of us are decent people who trust the Son of Mary and gratefully gather to worship his Father.

Monday of the Second Week of Easter

Lectionary: 267

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him."

During the weeks before and after Easter the Church reflects intensely on the Gospel according to Saint John. Today we begin a series of readings from the third chapter, Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus.

For once, the conversation is not very confrontational. Nicodemus has come to Jesus under cover of darkness, apparently because he wants to speak with him privately, without the pressure and conspiratorial atmosphere of a public encounter. Although a member of the Sanhedrin, which has both religious and political authority, he has come as a private citizen. He addresses Jesus respectfully and "acknowledges that you are a teacher who has come from God."

But the simplest statement Jesus can make about his teaching astonishes and confuses Nicodemus. "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."

First there is the bewildering authority of "Amen, Amen, I say to you...." Jesus cannot speak to Nicodemus like a colleague; they are not two "men of the cloth" who share a tacit understanding that "we're human beings like anyone else, but we dress and act in public like religious authorities." Jesus in private is the Son of God. There is no distance between himself and his authority, nor between himself and his word.

Saint Luke would recall that Jesus spoke not like the scribes and the people were amazed. If at one time, as a child of twelve years, he listened to the elders and asked them questions, he has no time now to discuss the merits of various ideas. He does not explore opinions to see how they might sound to others, be developed in conversation, or to see who will agree or disagree with him. Rather, he boldly states the truth in a manner that can be understood by those ready to hear.

"...unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God."

Nicodemus is so astonished by this teaching he wonders, "How can a man once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother's womb and be born again, can he?"

Baptism effects a transformation more fundamental than birth. It is an ontological event, a rewriting, re-framing and redefinition of what it means to be human. The baptized may enjoy his place in family, society and class but these relationships fade and disappear in the relationship with God. "If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."

The baptized disciple has been born again as a new creature. The Jewish scribe is not prepared to have his whole world upended.

As the conversation continues, Jesus cannot offer Nicodemus a compromise. The member of the Sanhedrin cannot be a Jewish disciple of Jesus. "What is born of flesh is flesh; and what is born of spirit is spirit."

Nicodemus will leave Jesus' presence and return to the dark night deeply distressed by what he has heard. However, we will meet him again. First he will appear in his role as member of the Sanhedrin, defending Jesus against growing hostility in that body. Already a rift has developed between him and "the Jews." Born again, he cannot run with the mob to join in Jesus' murder.

He will finally emerge from the darkness that consumed Judas to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.

The Church regards him as a saint; despite his initial astonishment and bewilderment he believed in Jesus. He had been born again of the Spirit.

Sunday of Divine Mercy

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead....

Occasionally I meet an aging Veteran in the hospital who declines my offer of sacraments, saying, "I have not gone to church in many years. I'd be hypocritical if I started now."

There is a certain dignity in the remark but I wonder what he actually wants to do. I understand he thinks he must live by the decisions he has made, but what does he want to do?

Freedom may be called the ability to do what I want to do. The Lord lets us live with the consequences of our decisions but never takes away our freedom. In fact God is the very fountain of freedom; without God we never could have been, are not and never shall be free.

I asked a group of Veterans in treatment for alcoholism if an inmate at state prison might enjoy any freedom. Several had been there and assured me they enjoyed substantial freedom in jail. If one's sense of freedom is measured by one's desires, all you have to do is be content with your lot and you're as free as a bird.

The old man who still refuses the sacraments feels honor bound by past decisions and attitudes, but what does he want to do?

I love Jesus' question to the beggar Bartimaeus, "What do you want?" And I love the blind man's response, "I want to see." Simple question; simple answer. Very often our freedom is right there in front of us if only we would say what we want.

Mercy Sunday is a response to the odd phenomenon of Christians appearing in churches on Easter Sunday. Few can say why they came, or what they wanted. Perhaps they hoped they would not be noticed in the crowd. Announced a week in advance, Mercy Sunday invites un-churched believers to "come back and do what you want to do."

Saint Thomas dug himself into a hole when he sarcastically replied to the disciples, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."

He was astonished when Jesus took him up on that challenge. Fortunately he was humble enough to eat his own words and reply, "My Lord and My God."

Every Sunday, every day, at every hour of every day the Lord offers us the freedom to love. So long as we choose to love we are free.

Saturday in the Octave of Easter

Lectionary: 266

When Jesus had risen, early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told his companions who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.

Biblical scholars in the Roman Catholic tradition generally agree that the passage we heard today from the Saint Mark's Gospel was written by someone else and tagged onto the end of the document. Apparently some members of the Church felt Mark had finished too soon, so they added certain stories from the writings of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. This passage is honored as "canonical" and also recognized as an afterthought. 

The original document ended with the women finding a young man in the tomb, hearing his message and leaving: 
Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Like everyone else, I have wondered about this abrupt ending to Saint Mark's story. Why does he not tell the stories that another scribe added to the text? Is it possible he didn't know them? 

But, in fact, all of the "resurrection narratives," taken as a whole, leave a lot unsaid. First, nothing is said directly about his resurrection. We're only told what happened afterward. "An angel came and rolled away the stone" but apparently not to let the revived corpse escape. He was already gone! Artists have given us pictures of his resurrection but they take their details from his Transfiguration when his clothes were brilliant white and his face shone like the sun. No one saw him rise!

Scholars point to two different traditions. Luke and John finish their stories in Jerusalem; Mark and Matthew direct the disciples back to Galilee for Jesus' final appearance. The modern reader would ask, "Which was it?"

Only Luke tells us about his appearances for forty days but very little about what happened during those days. Did he walk with them, eat with them, laugh and talk and teach them as he had before? In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter says certain witnesses "ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" but we do that every day at Mass.

We'd like to know more. John says he appeared on Easter Sunday and on the following Sunday. There is one final appearance by the Sea of Tiberias but he does not tell us whether that was soon after Easter or years later. The Evangelists and other New Testament authors give us no consistent narrative about Jesus' resurrection. So Saint Mark's abrupt, inconclusive ending is different, but not very different. 

I have found that imprecision curiously satisfying. It's a story that tells much but leaves much unsaid because there will never be an answer to all our questions. Over the centuries Christians have speculated endlessly about the incidents of that weekend. And we have artifacts like the Shroud of Turin, Veronica's Veil, relics of the True Cross and hundreds of nails to buttress our accounts though none of them proves much of anything. All the facts in the world do not add up to Truth. 

Our faith, the Church, and scripture tells us the Father has raised Jesus from the dead. We're delighted by that. We celebrate it daily in our prayers, weekly in our Mass, and annually with our cycle of liturgical seasons. That's all ye know and all ye need to know. 

Friday in the Octave of Easter

Lectionary: 265

On the next day, their leaders, elders, and scribes were assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly class. They brought them into their presence and questioned them, "By what power or by what name have you done this?"

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

So complained Prince Hamlet when his murdered father appeared to him, despite the ban heaven had laid on such phenomena. The dead were not supposed to appear on Christmas Eve.

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / The bird of dawning singeth all night long. / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad. / The nights are wholesome. Then no planets strike, / No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallowed and so gracious is that time.
The people of Jerusalem thought the time was out of joint when the Fullness of Time appeared among them and a new age -- or "dispensation" -- had begun. Neither they nor their leaders were prepared to welcome the Holy Spirit or to invoke the Holy Name of Jesus.

Many people in the United States, after World War II, believed the time was not right for the Civil Rights Movement. They urged postponement, or at least a slowing down, of the march toward full integration. Many preferred to "Wait till I am dead!" before they should have to meet, work with, pray with or talk to African Americans.

We know the time was precisely right for the Civil Rights movement; and the first century was precisely right for Jesus. He was born in the fullness of time, and was crucified when his hour had come. It is rank foolishness to suppose Jesus might have been born at another time, in another place or to a different woman. You and I are creatures of our time and place in just the same way; we have been created in the last age before the Judgment Day.

The Divine Author of the Letter to the Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us that we are the most fortunate generation. The eleventh chapter reviews the many generations who saw the Holy City from afar.

The world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and on mountains,  in caves and in crevices in the earth. Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised.
In the twelfth chapter the same author reviews the blessings we have received which our ancestors only hoped for, and reminds us, "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood."

Certainly our age is confounding. Not only could our ancestors have never imagined the changes of our time; we can't either! Very often we can't believe our own eyes and we say, "Is this really happening?"

Hebrews urges us to endure these trials as "discipline."

for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not [then] submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed.
Our trials are not proof of God's anger but clear signs of his fatherly love. Encouraged by the Holy Spirit and equipped with his Holy Name, we embrace the challenges of our time even as Jesus embraced the cross in his time.

Thursday in the Octave of Easter

Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away, and that the Lord may grant you times of refreshment and send you the Christ already appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the times of universal restoration of which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. 
For Moses said: 
A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen in all that he may say to you. Everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be cut off from the people. 

As Saint Luke tells the story, Jesus fulfilled the promise of Deuteronomy; he is the prophet like Moses whom "God has raised up for you from among your own kin," When the people of Jerusalem saw the crippled man walking and dancing and praising God and heard Saint Peter's explanation, they realized they had missed the opportunity. Now heaven "has received him until the times of universal restoration" and they must wait until he is sent again. 
But Luke is less interested in Jesus' Second Coming and more interested in Jesus as prophet and his Church as a church of prophecy. 
When I studied theology in preparation for ordination, less than ten years after the Second Vatican Council, our professors and my classmates were optimistic about the future. Following the Second World War, surviving nations erected great international institutions to create a more stable world. The United Nations, the World Court in the Hague, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hoped to promote broad economic and educational equality for future generations, regardless of their national identity. 
After the horror of Nazism, nationalism appeared to wane and people began to think of themselves as citizens of the world. In the late 1960's photos of the Earth from the Moon, and growing awareness of our compromised atmosphere helped us to re-envision the world without boundary lines or great walls. 
Many of the bishops of the Council shared that optimistic vision. The Church hoped to work with the secular world of government and business for the progress of all people. Our prophetic voice was not raised in opposition to government and business but in harmony with them. 
By the 1980's that optimism had begun to sour. Banks eagerly loaned money to corrupt government leaders who, too often, fled justice into comfortable exile, taking their bank accounts with them. Visions of equality and opportunity disappeared as a new class of super-rich appeared. In response the Church developed its "preferential option for the poor." The voice of prophecy is the cry of the poor, opposing the godless authorities who believe only in The Economy and promise only Security. 
But much has changed since the 1980's as the middle class "comes apart" into separate groups. There is the college-educated middle-management, middle class with stable marriages who doggedly adjust to changing technologies and survive in a fluid job market. And there is the slipping middle class, plagued by disabilities, addictions to cigarettes, alcohol and prescription drugs, failing marriages and poor health, disillusioned with religion and increasingly dependent upon government entitlements. (I meet the more fortunate one's served by the Veterans Health Administration.) 
The bright promises of the post-war years have faded and succeeding generations are less wealthy than their parents. The Boom Generation will never enjoy the retirement benefits of their parents and grandparents; their children cannot expect even a reliable health care system. 
Predictably, nationalism has reappeared in North America and Europe. It promises a return to the past but portends a future of endless war. 
What does the prophetic church say to our time? The testimony of scripture assures us the prophet will always challenge established political, social and religious structures. The Holy Spirit drives Abraham's children from the church, synagogue or mosque into the streets. The pious cannot be assured of religious comfort if they harbor animosity against anyone, rich or poor, native or alien. 
Pope Francis advocates for refugees and exiles. Many people have heard his appeal. sometimes defying their own governments to offer sanctuary to God's children. Other Christian leaders have championed the unborn, the elderly, the imprisoned and innumerable minorities. 
But most bishops and priests have dedicated their lives to shoring up the failing institutions of parishes, Catholic schools and retreat houses. We still believe faith is practiced primarily in the local face-to-face, palm-to-palm, side-by-side community.  There is no virtual church.
Saint Peter warned the people of Jerusalem, "Everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be cut off from the people." 
It is certainly difficult to practice fidelity in these changing times. The old recommendation for the Christian faithful, "Pay, pray and obey." satisfies no one. We must daily ask the Lord, "'What do you want of me today?" as the Holy Spirit forms, instructs, inspires and guides a prophetic church through the chaos of our time.