Thursday in the Octave of Easter

Thursday in the Octave of Easter

Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish; 
he took it and ate it in front of them.

Saint Luke goes to great lengths in this passage to assure us that Jesus Christ rose in the flesh from the dead. He was not simply an enthusiasm that suddenly overwhelmed the cowering disciples and drove them into the streets of Jerusalem to announce his resurrection, as some modern commentators would prefer. 

Even as they watched him eat, Saint Luke says, they were incredulous. 

As I celebrated the Easter Vigil with its candles, smoke, water, bread, wine and so forth, I was reminded that ours is not a spiritual religion. We need flesh with all its frailty, complexity and cussedness to express our faith. We cannot ignore the body's need for food, water and air; for warmth, sleep and protection, for education and health care -- and so forth. 

Some people like to say they don't believe in organized religion. Is there any other kind? If there is it cannot celebrate the Risen Lord whose body was organized not only with hands, feet and head, but also with apostles, disciples, martyrs, bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, prophets and so forth and so on. 

His is a body that enjoys itself! Risen and liberated, it goes where it wants to go, to prisons and hospitals, to homes and villages, to free and enslaved nations. It is spirited, inspired and irrepressible. 

“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

Wednesday in the Octave of Easter

Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The question is asked often enough that it should cause priests and parents to ponder, “Why do I have to go to Church?”

We celebrated Holy Week last week; this week we observe Easter week, “a week of Sundays.” The Ordo, an official publication which guides our celebrations day by day, says:

The days of the Easter Octave form the “early hours” of this “Great Sunday” with accounts of the Lord who rose early in the morning, and the early preaching of the disciples who were witnesses to his resurrection.  The first eight days of the Easter Season make up the octave of Easter and are celebrated as Solemnities of the Lord.  At  Mass, Morning Prayer and Vespers, throughout the octave, a double alleluia is added to the dismissal and its response….  Easter Preface #1 is used throughout the Octave of Easter, (as is the Gloria.)

This is a very holy time of the year for us. But “holy time” is somewhat foreign to many of our contemporaries. They think of time as past, present and future; and argue for its universal flatness. There are no special moments in that schema. My sister, for instance, works for a company that uses a calendar that simply counts the days from one to 365. For them today is Day 113 of 2014.  Time goes from nowhere to nowhere.  In ancient Greek this time is known as chronos. Its opposite is kairos.

Kairos is meaningful time. It may be translated as “opportune time.” When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God he said,” The kairos is fulfilled.”
Easter Week is an opportune time for us. It is the richest, most grace-filled, exhilarating and satisfying week of the year. Every day we hear another wonderful story of Jesus' resurrection. As of Easter Sunday we also begin a fifty-day sequence of readings from the Acts of the Apostles. We learn from their story what it means to know Jesus and to be filled with his Holy Spirit. 

Why do we attend Mass on Sunday? Because the time is right; the opportunity is there. Since the Day Jesus broke bread with his disciples in Emmaus, we have never missed a Sunday Mass. How could anyone turn down such an opportunity, especially when we know the time is short? 

Tuesday in the Octave of Easter

Lectionary: 262

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins;
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For the promise is made to you and to your children
and to all those far off,
whomever the Lord our God will call.”

Our first reading today takes up where it left off yesterday, with Saint Peter’s first preaching to the crowds on that Pentecost Sunday. The people, who had been drawn to the place by the sound of the Holy Spirit rushing through the Upper Room, heard his new interpretation of recent events. Suddenly, what had been rumor and gossip about ghostly sightings became personal. The ludicrous became logical and the risible, reliable.

The Lord who had always loved and favored Jerusalem, who had always excoriated them through the prophets for their infidelity, had sent his only begotten son. Typically, they had ignored, rejected, despised and finally destroyed that Just One; but God raised him up and revealed him as the Son of God, the Messiah! through the preaching of Peter and the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

 “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart…”

Faith in Jesus begins with the awareness of sin and repentance. It is not simple persuasion, the exchange of one opinion for another.

Faith proceeds with joy and gratitude as the sinner realizes she has always been loved and always been favored. She sees the light at last. She surrenders all hostility, suspicion and resentment; she accepts the forgiving, healing rush of the Holy Spirit into her heart.

Unlike the turn from one opinion to another, the exchange of ideas for other ideas, faith requires this daily awareness of my sinful tendencies and habitual self-centeredness. But, rather than shame and horror for my wretched life, faith teaches me daily gratitude for God's mercy; and habitual joy in God's presence.

Faith is like breathing. I may not be immediately aware of it all the time but I cannot live without it. There are certainly moments when strong emotions seem to displace my faith. But I have not stopped breathing during those episodes, neither have I stopped believing in God. When the moment passes and I regain my characteristic calm, I see the Lord still abiding in my heart.

The trauma of Good Friday has passed. The Lord has been raised. Emmanuel, our God, is with us.

Monday in the Octave of Easter

Let this be known to you, and listen to my words.
“You who are children of Israel, hear these words.

Any high school graduate should remember Mark Antony’s shout, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter calls for the crowd’s attention with not one but three shouts: let this be known to you; listen to my words; and hear these words. Whatever he has to say must be important.

This is the beginning of the Church’s evangelization. The shell is broken; the chick emerges from her egg. The disciples, anointed by the Holy Spirit, are suddenly released from all fear and hesitation; they want to tell everyone about Jesus. Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered; they heard roaring sounds of something going on in Jerusalem. They are eager to hear any explanation.

Saint Peter’s call for attention echoes the Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” The Shema includes the rest of the passage: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today.”

Just as the Shema calls for a total orientation of one’s life toward the Lord, Saint Peter’s story of Jesus’ resurrection demands a reorientation toward the Risen Messiah.

Despite its unexpectedness, it will prove to be a familiar story. Just as the Lord has continually reminded the people of his love and of their sins, Peter’s Gospel is about Jerusalem’s failure to recognize her visitation. 

The revelation of their sins is good news because Peter offers the immediate avenue of salvation -- belief in Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul and Martin Luther were certainly right that the way of salvation is "faith alone." But faith means the acknowledgement of sin and the confident expectation of grace. That kind of faith is not an opinion about a set of doctrines. No one is saved because he agrees with God. (There is an ancient legend at Mount Saint Francis of the professor who would quote scripture with the preface, "As the Holy Spirit says, and rightly, .....") 

Faith is the narrow gate of acknowledging one's sins in the majestic presence of God and receiving daily, hourly and with each breath the reassurance of mercy.  

The Resurrection of the Lord

The Mass of Easter Sunday
Lectionary: 42

This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible,
not to all the people, but to us,
the witnesses chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people
and testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”

If you intend to speak of God, you should be a prophet, You should understand that God has sent you to speak in his name; he wants to speak to your family, friends and neighbors through your joy, your peace of mind and your conviction.

When you speak of God in the third person, you should understand that God is present; he hears what you say. He has not removed himself from your conversation. You are speaking for God like Moses and Aaron, a prophet of the Lord.

In today’s first reading we hear Saint Peter announcing to Cornelius and his guests the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Cornelius and his people are gentiles who live in the new, international city of Caesaria. They may have heard rumors about Jesus; some excitement among the native Jews; but during his lifetime they would have had little interest in Jesus of Nazareth. He was just another cause célèbre among the local inhabitants, with their strange god and their strange ways.

Saint Peter has come to Cornelius not on his own initiative. He has seen a very disturbing vision and heard a commanding voice that told him he must accept a gentile’s invitation to speak of Jesus. Now Peter is a simple fisherman who has dealt with gentiles. He has sold fish to them and, perhaps, bought stuff from them. 

But he has never eaten with them. His Jewish religion banned such intercourse. He may have joked with them about their different beliefs, as working men will kid one another; but he has never got down and spoke seriously, heart-to-heart, about matters of faith with these aliens.

Now, however, Peter understands that he must give testimony about Jesus to Cornelius and his guests; and, to his surprise they are ready to hear it. Saint Luke records his astonishment when Peter says “You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean. And that is why I came without objection when sent for. May I ask, then, why you summoned me?”

Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this hour, three o’clock in the afternoon, I was at prayer in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling robes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your almsgiving remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter. He is a guest in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’" 

So I sent for you immediately, and you were kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to listen to all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

Saint Peter can hardly believe what he hears. Jesus had prepared him for this moment when he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But Peter had not expected this.

And so he opened his mouth, as Saint Luke tells us: Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

He recounted for them the events from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, his healings and good works, his death in Jerusalem and his resurrection.”

When the gentiles of Caesarea heard about the resurrection “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word of God… 

Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ."

In this reading and the stories of Jesus’ resurrection the Bible teaches us how we should speak of God. He is not an idea that makes sense to us. He is not a theory to explain the evidence. God needs no apology and little introduction.

Rather, we should speak willingly and eagerly of Jesus’ resurrection to everyone who wants to hear it. 

Notice how Cornelius says, "we are all here in the presence of God to listen." When we speak of God, we speak as witnesses and prophets, not philosophers. The Lord is standing right behind us; he is pushing through our every word and gesture to reach the hearts of those who listen to us.

During our baptisms last night, we anointed every new Christian as a prophet. They must speak as God speaks, humbly, quietly, confidently and joyfully. 

We will speak of God to those who want to hear the word. We will share matters of the heart not in dispassionate, objective secular language, as if the mysteries of our faith must be explained to reasonable people. Rather we will sing and dance and shout the Good News as witnesses, as prophets who speak not of God but in God.

The Lord is risen!   He is risen, indeed!

Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday)

Lectionary: 40

I was ready to respond to those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said: Here I am! Here I am! To a nation that did not invoke my name.

I have stretched out my hands all day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own designs...

     Isaiah 65

Saint Francis found in a broken down chapel near Assisi a familiar image of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have come to know it as the San Damiano Cross. It depicts Saint John's description of the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord. Some scholars believe the disfigured image at the bottom of the cross represents the Last Supper. 

His death and resurrection are both described in the standing image of Jesus. His hands and feet are nailed and bleeding, and yet his posture is relaxed. His arms are outstretched in a comfortable manner of welcome, and his eyes gaze at the viewer without any trace of pain. He is the Lord who freely lays his life down and freely takes it up again. No one can take his life from him. This is the very story we encounter in the Passion of Saint John. 

Last Saturday I discovered, as if for the first time, the above passage from Isaiah 65. I remembered clearly God's frantic call, "Here I am! Here I am!" but I had not noticed the next words, "I have stretched out my hands all day to a rebellious people." Surely the icon writer who painted the San Damiano Cross had this passage in mind. 

Recently I have seen on billboards and bumper stickers the meme, "I love you this much." The accompanying image of Christ Crucified is usually brutal. 

That was not Isaiah's original intention, nor that of the writer of the San Damiano icon. Saint Francis reflected deeply upon Jesus' suffering and death but not with a medieval fascination in horror. That aberration would come later, with the Black Death. After that catastrophe, the European imagination indulged in the grotesque such as we find in the art of Hieronymous Bosch or Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ

Catholics see beauty in the crucifixion of Jesus. We should not be distracted by the gory details. Rather, we see his outstretched arms and we hear his loving call, "Here I am! Here I am!" Hearing his voice we turn away from our rebellious ways and, with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, turn again to him.