FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 22, 2018

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12
A reading from the first letter of John 3:1-2
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 1:11-18

Dear Reader,

The only sound in the church was the burbling of the water in the baptismal font.  It was late afternoon and the sun, deep in the western sky, shimmered through the stained-glass windows and dappled the church in reds and blues.  My practice was to sit near the Font for vespers, my evening prayer to end the day.  Light played on the water’s surface as the tower bells tolled the Angelus.  These waters are your tomb and your mother.  One of the early Fathers of the Church coined that phrase regarding the Font that has fascinated me from the first time I heard it.

Some may think the phrase to be an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory terms that the mind struggles to wrap around and to reconcile.  Some, failing to do that would dismiss one part of the phrase or the other.  My choice is to ponder and plumb the depths for meaning.  Sometimes that can be a scary course that surfaces implications that are difficult and demanding, with implications with which I would rather not have to deal.  The tomb part, the dying, isn’t so bad.  The possibility of dying to sin and everything that would separate us from the love of God comforts a troubled spirit.    One can rest there.  It is the birthing part that troubles.  Entering the tomb to die is essentially passive, a letting go.  The community baptized me.  It was done to me.  Maybe being born is passive, too; but the implications are phenomenal, the ensuing responsibilities, tremendous.

In the early Church, when adults were baptized in the course of the Easter vigil, the elect came to the Font’s edge and shed their clothes, stripping themselves of everything that was of their former lives.  Naked, they entered the waters to be immersed in them.  Drowning is an apt image.  So is dying.  But then they rose from the depths and crossed over to the other side.  As they emerged, they were clothed in a white, alb-like garment.  You have put on Christ.  In him you have been baptized.  That is the birth that goes deeper than putting on as one would a shirt or a pair of trousers.  The new birth results in identification with Christ.  The new life lived is Christ’s own.  The love bond that results is tremendous and will never be broken.

John spells out the implications in bold relief.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  Christ is the Word made flesh.  Christ is the only Son of God, the Father’s beloved one.  The baptized are born into that relationship and assume the mantle of God’s beloved.  There may be passivity in accepting this new identity; we cannot be passive in living out what that identity means.

The baptized are called to do what Jesus does, called to act in, with, and through Christ and to do all in his name.  What power resides there!  That is what peter declares as he reminds the leaders of the people that the healing of the crippled man that now incriminates him was done by the power and in the name of the Risen One whom they condemned.  Peter says this, not to denounce the leaders, but to invite them to repent and embrace the Name.

Hear the words of the Gospel today.  Jesus speaks of his role as shepherd, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, just as the sheep know him.  The language speaks of intimacy of relationship, reflective of Jesus’ relationship with the Father.  I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  Be vulnerable to those words.  Let them penetrate to the core of your being.  Hear the conclusion to the declaration: I will lay down my life for the sheep.

Not to belabor the issue, but we might be comforted to know we are sheep.  Not the brightest of God’s creatures, sheep cannot possibly have much of a burden or conscience or responsibility.  They simply follow.  Not so here.  Being identified with Christ means taking on the responsibility of shepherding and knowing the sheep.  At once we are both sheep and shepherds.

The language begins to limp.  So let us speak in clearer terms.  What is your experience of Church?  What is your experience of parish?  What role do you play?  The call to membership is not to embrace passivity.  The Church, the parish is a communal reality; all members have shared responsibility.  The faith resides in them.  Members must know each other and must reflect the depth of that knowing.  The members come together to celebrate the Sacraments.  It is the community that baptizes.  The members of the community are co-celebrants of Eucharist, and not mere passive spectators.  As the Assembly, they are called to full, active, and conscious participation.  Passive attendance will not cut it, if you will.  When you gather with your parish community, is love so strong that you know the others would lay down their lives for you, just as you would for them?

Sometimes the evening news doubles as a powerful catechist.  The image of people, most of them strangers to each other at this point, realize that there is a young man, the cycle rider, under the car.  No one hesitates.  They move in on the burning car and together lift it.  One of their number stoops down and pulls the man from beneath the car and saves his life.  Later, to a person, when their deed is praised, they refuse to be called heroes.  They just did what anyone would do in those circumstances.  Would that that were so!

There is more.  Jesus says: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  Jesus’ call is universal.  His desire is that there be one human family, and that all believe they are sisters and brothers in the human experience.  Our sense of responsibility must be universal, too.  No one is beyond the pale. Kenyans and Ugandans are our brothers and sisters.  So, too, are Israelis and Iraqis.  So are those of every family and tribe on the face of the earth.  That is not easy to deal with; but it is the truth and is our responsibility if we have put on Christ.  That is what it means to live in Christ and for Christ to live in us.

The Gospel concludes with Jesus’ being confident as he moves toward the crucifixion.  I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.  No wonder the cross, that horrid instrument of torment, has become for us a symbol of hope and life.  Jesus suffered these things and so entered into glory.  So will we if we do the same.

Where will all this take us?  God only knows.  But if we believe that God loves us with the same love God has for Christ, what does it matter?  Hear again what John says in the second reading.  Listen and remember.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  That will happen even if the worst befalls us.  That is the promise.

So it is that often I paused by the Font and remembered.  Remembering gives the courage to go on.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus

Advertisements

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER – B – April 15, 2018

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 3:13-15, 17-19
A reading from the first Letter of John 2:1-5a
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 24:35-48

Dear Reader,

Isn’t it strange that Catholics have the reputation for being overly burdened with guilt?  To have a sense of guilt, one must have a sense of sin, that there is such a thing as acting contrary to the way God would have one act.  While it seems apparent today that there is ample evidence of the lack of that sense, of the desire to live a lifestyle that says anything goes, there is also ample evidence that many have a desire for meaning and purpose in their lives, for an ethic that ennobles, and for a reason to hope.

It is healthy to have a consciousness of sin, past or present, in one’s life.  There is nothing unhealthy about admitting to having done something wrong, regretting the action, and wishing to atone.  In this fifty-day Feast of Easter, we exult because we believe that Christ triumphed over sin, suffering and death.  We believe that Christ atoned for our sins and bestowed forgiveness upon us.  During this long Easter Day Festival, we rejoice with those among us who have passed through the Waters of Baptism where they, too, died to sin and rose to be identified with Jesus.  They have begun to walk with Jesus on the Way.

They, like we have been fourteen days on this Easter journey so far this year.  That is long enough for some of the perhaps naïve enthusiasm we felt in the light of the Easter Candle in the Vigil Night, when they stood wet and reborn on the other side of the Font and we glowed in the renewal of our baptismal promises.  We all thought we were through with sin forever.

Now, fourteen days later, there may be evidence that we have not yet achieved the perfection longed for.  The newly baptized with their promises fresh in their minds may have been stunned that some of the old and former ways still exercise a hold over them.  We, on the other hand, with years of experience to draw from, may not be quite as shocked that some of our moral weaknesses still persist.  There may be evidence of growth, but there is evidence of sin, too.  Should we then succumb to guilt, the way our ancestors in the faith are reputed to have done?  I don’t think so, not if we take in the Liturgy of the Word proclaimed on this Third Sunday of Easter.

Each of the readings speaks to us of sin and, yes, of our guilt for sin.  But they rush on to put before us the reality of our Advocate who through his dying and rising offered himself in satisfaction for our sins, and the sins of all of humankind.  Remember that bumper stick that had some popularity some time ago?  Christians aren’t different; they’re just forgiven!  That may be a bit simplistic; but it is the truth.

In the first reading Peter confronts the crowd of Jews gathered in the Temple area.  They have witnessed a miracle at Peter’s hands and wonder about his powers.  Peter is quick to give the credit where the credit is due.  It is in the Name of Jesus that the miracle happened.  This opens the door for Peter to place Jesus in Jewish history, in line with God’s promise that began with Abraham, continued through Isaac and Jacob, and now results in Jesus’ glorification as the holy and Righteous One, the same one the audience denied and handed over to be crucified.

Is Peter laying a guilt-trip on the Jews?  Not if you listen carefully.  What was done by them was done out of ignorance.  What is possible now is the acceptance of Christ as the fulfillment of what was foretold in the Scriptures as the Messiah who would suffer and so change radically the image of Messiah that they had cherished and longed for.  With that acceptance your sins may be wiped away.  They are not left to wallow in guilt, but are invited to conversion, forgiveness and new hope.

The second reading from John’s first Letter places us all under that umbrella as sinners once forgiven, but who know what it means to relapse into sinning again.  Notice that John does not pummel us.  Rather he accepts the fact of human weakness and rushes on to remind us that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.  He is expiation for our sins and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.  At the same time, John does not tell us to sin with abandon.  If we believe, if we profess to know Jesus and have him in our lives, then we will strive after the perfection that God has in mind for us.  It is God’s work.  It is Jesus who accomplishes it.  It is grace that empowers.

Today’s Gospel begins with the conclusion of the Emmaus story and the two disciples who recognized Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread.  They returned to Jerusalem and to the other disciples to recount what had happened on the Road.  Our own experience is recapped in their story.  Remember when they said that their hearts burned as the Risen One explained the Scriptures to them?  Someone brought each one of us to Jesus by telling us about him.  Our hearts burned in the recognition.  Then we came to know Jesus in the Scriptures and in the celebration of the Sacraments, in Baptism and Eucharist.  Now we see him, come face to face with him through his presence in the Assembly, those with whom we gather in Eucharist.  That’s a whole other area we can discuss sometime, how Jesus is present in a threefold way when we gather to celebrate Mass – in the Word, in the Bread and Wine, and in the Assembly.  Do not miss that means a presence in each one of us.

Savor the words the Risen Christ speaks to us at the conclusion of today’s Gospel: 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 nation, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.

You and I are witnesses of these things.  We are witnesses because we know what it means to sin, what it means to repent, and what it means to be forgiven.  We are growing in our understanding of what it means to be on the Way with the Risen One.  With all that in mind, do you see now why every Eucharist we celebrate concludes the same way – with our being sent to witness?  If we believe, then we must translate what we celebrate into action and thereby make it possible for others to recognize Christ, to experience his mercy and forgiveness through his love manifested in our acts of Charity.

So, do you see why it doesn’t make sense that we Catholics have the reputation for walking under the cloud of perpetual guilt?  What makes much more sense would be our growing reputation for welcoming all and inviting all to know the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus, the hope that all who come to him will live with him forever.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus

 

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – B – April 08, 2018

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35
A reading from the first Letter of Saint John 5:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

Dear Reader,

I woke with a start and his name flashed through my mind, a name I hadn’t thought of for over thirty-five years.  I remembered the shock that trembled through me when I heard the news that he had been murdered by a shotgun blast as he peered from his front door on a snowy January night in 1969.  He was a black man who had lived in a mostly white neighborhood and an activist for racial equality.  The killers had thrown a snowball against his living room window.  A second one against their bedroom window alarmed his wife.  She peered through the window and saw the intruders hiding behind her husband’s car in the carport.  He had gone to the front door to investigate.  She cried out, but too late, to alert him to the danger.  She heard the blast that instantly killed him.

In those years assassinations were frequent.  Violence ran rampant in the country.  Riots and demonstrations on college campuses and in city streets demanded that race relations and war be reconsidered.  President John Kennedy’s slaying in Dallas in 1963 ushered in an era of change the way in the same year that Vatican Council II began to open windows and let the wind of renewal and change rush through the Church.  Then Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were gunned down.  Watts, Detroit, Selma, and other cities found new fame as places where citizens banded together and stood in community in the face of police batons, snarling dogs, and the rush of water from fire hoses.  Kent State and other campuses experienced sit-ins and student demonstrations led to violence and bloodshed.  Pictures of anguished students crying out in the camera’s eye haunted all who saw them.  So did the picture of the naked and napalm seared young girl running down a Vietnamese street shriek of the horrors of war.

Those years are distant now.  They were the years of my formation and the beginning of my priestly ministry.  It seemed that the Church for which I was prepared in the seminary years ceased to be with the Council’s closing and the issuing of new foundational documents called Constitutions that called the Church, the People of God, to a new springtime.  We transitioned through a long Lenten period to a new and bright and wonderful Easter.  From this vantage point those days following the Lord’s Resurrection seem the most apt analogy.

Think of the Gospel for this Sunday.  The violent death Jesus suffered filled his disciples with dread and terror that they would suffer a similar fate were their discipleship made known.  Locked in the Upper Room of the Last Supper, they suddenly became aware of the Risen One who wished them Peace.  Death had not triumphed.  Yes, the wounds in his hands, feet and side remained, but he is alive.  They had to learn the implications for them that came with belief in him.

Looking back on those years and remembering the violence in the streets and the upheaval in the Church, I believe the world experienced that same transition from dying to new life.  Pentecost that clarified the vision for the disciples was the rush of the Spirit in the winds of change in the Church.  Nothing would ever be the same for the disciples.  Nothing would ever be the same for the Church no matter how nostalgically some would come to look at pre-conciliar days.

Those times may have seemed safer with people kept in their proper places in an established hierarchy, and with roles carefully defined according to sex and race.  The evils of sexism and racism wore sanitized masks.  But the violence tore away those masks and Justice and Equality became the new catchwords that came to define the new era.  In the early days of the church a profound sense of community emerged.  The call to renew that awareness emerged from the council.  Some of the disciples may have longed for the old days when they could sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him.  But now he lived in them and they had the responsibility to reveal him to others through doing what he had done.  They were transformed.  And so were we who matured in the 1960s and experienced the new Rising of the Church.

That brings me back to the man whose name came to me in the night those many years after his murder.  We had appeared on a panel together to address the question of racial equality.  The Church in the Modern World called for us to be involved in societal change and to be engaged in the cry for justice.  Speaking on that panel before an all-white audience seemed like the right thing to do.  It was a packed house.  My co-panelist was the only black person in the room.  Several of us spoke in turn of our desire to see this new era of justice emerge and to see the crime of racism cease.  I can no longer remember my speech; but I am sure it was safe and sanitized.  I was new to speaking out, new to the Church’s role as an implement of change in society.  I did not want to rankle the assembled.  Polite applause followed my remarks.  Then he spoke last.  I remember sitting in stunned attention as he lashed out at the establishment and at the Church for tolerating the abuses against which he now spoke.  It seemed like a call to anarchy for which I had not been warned.

He finished his speech and called for an intermission.  To this day I do not know what possessed me.  Without forethought, I reached over and pulled the microphone back to myself and asked everyone to remain seated for a moment.  Then I turned to the speaker and acknowledged his pain, admitted that I could not understand it because I had not walked in his shoes.  But I also said that anarchy was not the answer.  We, he, those like him, and the Church, all of us must work together.  Together we could be a leaven for the change he longed for.  Apart and at odds, hostility and chaos would be the only results.  Together a new awareness of our unity as part of God’s family could emerge.  And I pledged to work with him and never be complacent with the status quo.  There was loud applause.

I remember our conversation during the break.  He apologized for what I took to be a broadsiding.  I pledged my support of his cause.  We promised each other that we would remain in contact and parted as friends that night.

Three weeks later, Edwin Pratt was shot to death in a snowy night in the neighborhood we shared.  It had been years since I had thought about him when his name came to me in the night.

Now I remember and in these times wonder how far have we come.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus