The only sound in the church was the splashing of the water as it cascaded into the Baptismal Font. In the early evening, the sun, deep in the western sky turned the stained-glass windows into prisms of light as the penetrating rays dappled the walls in reds and blues. It was my custom to sit near the font for vespers, the evening prayer to end the day. Light played on the water’s surface as the tower bells tolled the Regina Coeli. These waters are your tomb and your mother. One of the early Fathers of the Church coined that phrase that continues to fascinate me as it did the first time I heard it.
Some may say that the phrase is an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory terms that the mind struggles to wrap itself around and to reconcile. Some, failing to do that will dismiss one part of the phrase and retain the other. My choice is to ponder and plumb the depths for meaning. Sometimes that can be a scary course that surfaces implications difficult and demanding, sometimes 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 and embraced me. Maybe being born is passive, too; but the implications are phenomenal and the ensuing responsibilities are tremendous.
In the early Church, when adults were adults were baptized in the course of the Easter Vigil. The Elect came to the Font’s edge and shed their clothes, symbolizing their ridding 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. Then they rose from the depths and crossed over to the other side where they emerged to be 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 to be lived is Christ’s own. The love bond that results in 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. Perhaps there can be passivity in accepting this new identity; we cannot be passive in living out what the identity means. The baptized are called to do what Jesus does, called to act in, with, and through Christ, to do all in his name thus living the Priesthood of the Baptized. 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 not by his own power but 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 today’s Gospel. 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 that is 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. Then hear the conclusion to the declaration: I will lay down my life for the sheep.
Again, not to belabor the issue, but be careful not to be comforted knowing we are sheep. Not the brightest of God’s creatures, I’m told, sheep cannot possibly have much of a burden of conscience or responsibility. They simply follow. That is not the case here. Being identified with Christ means taking on the responsibility of shepherding and of knowing the sheep, thus at one being both sheep and shepherds.
The language begins to limp. So let’s 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 a call to embrace passivity. The Church, the parish is a communal reality; all members share responsibility. The faith resides in them. Members must know each other, just as the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father. The caring for each other 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, not mere passive spectators. They are called to full, active, and conscious participation. Passive attendance won’t cut it, if you will.
When you gather with your parish community, is the love so strong that you know the others would lay down their lives for you just as you would for them?
Francis, the Bishop of Rome, as he prefers to be known, from his first moments as pope, calls the church to be a servant church, a church that ministers to the poor, whose shepherds walk in the midst of the sheep, even smelling like them, and getting mud on their shoes. His vision of church is not one of some lording it over others, ruling, as it were, as monarchs or princes. As Francis said, he serves next to, not over others. Just notice the type of people whose feet he washes in the Holy Thursday context. That says much.
There’s more. Jesus says: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. Jesus’ call is universal. His desire is that there be the realization that there is one human family, that we are all brothers and sisters in the human experience. And realizing that, our sense of responsibility must be universal, too. No one is outside the pale. Kenyans and Ugandans are our brothers and sisters. So, too, are Israelis, Iraqis, and Iranians. 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.
Every time we gather to celebrate Eucharist it is be more fully transformed into the Body of Christ so that having shared in the meal we may be sent forth to be that presence in the world until all have been fed and all have been embraced by the love of God that comes to us through Christ.
The Gospel concludes with Jesus’ being confident as he moves toward the crucifixion. Notice that he is the actor and not the passive recipient of impending execution. 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. 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. And remembering I find the courage to go on.
I used to think it strange that Catholics had the reputation for being overly guilt laden. Certainly to have a sense of guilt, one must have a sense of sin and a belief that there is such a thing as acting contrary to the way God would have one act. Becoming aware of sin, Catholics could rejoice in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The ritual of Saturday Confession was akin to the Saturday bath. Both prepared for Sunday Mass and Communion. Catholics are not different, we used to say, they’re just forgiven. Unfortunately, if the voices of some in the church are heard, the message doesn’t seem to be so much one of forgiveness, but of judgment and condemnation and the denial of access to the Table. You might wonder how St. Augustine would have done in today’s church. Late have I loved you, might not have resulted in his attaining the lofty position today that he did in the earlier church.
Would that the heralding of forgiveness, reconciliation, and welcome might return. It’s hard to find shunning in the Lord’s mind or in the Gospel.
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 has 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. There they died to sin and rose to be identified with Jesus. They donned their white robes and began to walk with the Christ on the Way. They, like we are now fourteen days into this Easter journey. That is long enough for some of the perhaps naïve enthusiasm 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, for that enthusiasm to wane. That Night we might have thought we were through with sin forever.
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 continue to exercise some 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. Yes, there may be evidence of growth, but there continues to be 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, our guilt in 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 people. Rejoicing in forgiveness may be a bit simplistic, but forgiveness is the truth Easter announces.
In the first reading, Peter accosts 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 renewed hope.
The second reading from John’s first Letter places us all under that umbrella as sinners once forgiven but who may know what it means to relapse into sin 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 Jesus is, knowing that God’s grace through Jesus will bring us to the perfection that God has in mind for us. It’s 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 of the two disciples who recognized Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread. They returned to Jerusalem 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 us to Jesus in the Scriptures and in the celebration of the Sacraments, in Baptism and Eucharist. We see him, come fact to face with him through his presence in the Assembly, those with whom we gather, and 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. (Unfortunately some are attempting to downplay the latter these days, but that too is for discussion at another time.)
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 nations, 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. The clearer we hear Pope Francis remind the church that it is all about love, love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self, the clearer we will see why every Eucharist we celebrate concludes the same way – with our being sent to witness. If we believe than 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 Christ’s love manifested in our acts of love.
So, it doesn’t make sense that Catholics should be told to walk under the cloud of perpetual guilt. What makes much more sense would be our growing reputation for welcoming back those who have felt broken, and welcoming all, inviting all to know the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus, the hope that is ours and for all who come to him to live with him forever.
He sat in the church that was silent except for the sound of the water splashing from the raised bowl into the font below. The fading light of the setting sun shimmered in the stained glass windows of the eastern clerestory. Dapples of red and blue deepened and shimmered like candle flames in a gentle breeze. The last of the worshipers had left moments before. A young man sitting adjacent to the font seemed unwilling to let go of the moment, reluctant to step out of the mystery into the approaching night.
I watched him for a few moments and felt irritation rise because I wanted to laock the doors of the church and get on with my evening. I flicked the switches that put out the majority of the interior lights. I thought surely that would be a sufficient signal for him to recognize that he should be on his way. I walked to the narthex and noisily closed the doors, turning the key in the locks to secure them. Turning to start my way back up the aisle, I looked over the font. My jaws clenched in irritation that the man continued to sit where he was and gave no indication that he intended to respond to what I thought was a clear and audible signal.
The sound of each step I took on my way back down the aisle echoed through the nave. When I reached the pew where he was sitting I stopped and turned toward him. I now saw that his gaze was fixed on the Easter Candle that stood adjacent to the ambo. I saw tears on his cheeks. I sat a few feet away from him and watched. His breathing was calm and his arms rested in his lap. Then he was looking at me, his eyes wide and unblinking.
“How can I help?” I asked.
There seemed to be a hint of a smile on his lips as he returned his attention to the Candle. “I was here a week ago when you sang about Christ being the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. You probably didn’t notice me standing nearby as you lit the Candle from the fire. I followed in the procession as you entered the dark church, raised the candle and sang, “Christ our Light! My voice cracked as I joined the others with “Thanks be to God! I think I meant it and desperately wanted to believe it.
“It was thrilling to watch as one by one the candles we held received light for the Easter Candle and in turn was passed on to a neighbor’s candle. It wasn’t long before candles twinkled throughout the whole church.
“Listening to the Scripture readings that began with Genesis and the dawn of creation and continued through Exodus and Isaiah was hypnotic as the words washed over us. As I said, I wondered if I believed this. I want to, you know, but I don’t feel anything.”
His tears continued to flow and fell from his chin to his shirtfront. “Feeling and believing aren’t the same thing any more than seeing and believing are,” I said. His hand flicked across his cheek, whisking tears away. “It’s obvious that you are upset,” I said. “Is it about this lack of feeling you have, or is there something more that is happening?”
He leaned back against the pew and sighed. “I love the Easter Candle. When I was baptized a few years ago, I was told that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrection. That was an awesome night. My attention fixed on it all through the Vigil Service. And it was the first thing I saw when I came up from the water gasping. Three times I was plunged into the water and three times I saw the Candle.”
With the tears and the slump of his shoulders, he seemed to me to be one who had just heard difficult news. The need I had to urge him on his way subsided. Now I was content to wait and listen. Rather than stare at him, I too, focused on the Candle that was simply decorated that year with a cross and five red spikes and a wrap of marbled wax. Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.
“I’m dying,” he said. “It won’t be long until I find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence. I feel like darkness is enveloping me. There is so much that I want to do, but I keep hearing the doctor’s words, how sorry he was to tell me that the headaches I have are the result of an inoperable tumor in my brain.”
He turned toward me to see how his news registered with me. There was silence, long, but, curiously, not awkward. “Thank you for not saying something trite. Thank you for not saying that you understand. I’m amazed at how many people say they understand my pain.”
It was a relief to know that he couldn’t sense my heart pounding in my chest as I searched for something to say. Silence wasn’t enough. I put a hand on his shoulder. “I can pray,” I said. “I can try to support you with my prayer.”
“I don’t have anyone near by, any family. They’re in the Midwest. I’m not married or even engaged. But you have to die alone anyway, I guess. I hate darkness. I love light.”
His tears had stopped. “If I only I could see something that would convince me. I’m like Didymus in the Gospel tonight. If I could touch the wounds, even feel the breath, I know I could believe then.”
“You do believe. You are here. You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this Assembly and your transformation with them into the Body of Christ continued. The union in the Body is closer than family. The bond is love – Christ’s love for you. Your love for Christ and one another.” Was I struggling for words, grasping for words that would cut through his pain? Please, Lord, I thought, give me something to say that touches him.
“Am I loved? Does Christ love me? Did God send this thing that is killing me to punish me for my sins? Maybe if I believed stronger this wouldn’t have happened to me. Or maybe stronger faith would make it go away.”
“Hear me,” I said. “God does not send you this terrible cancer. But God does rush in to support you with love during your illness. You walk with this illness the way Jesus carried the Cross. To the entire world it looked like defeat and abandonment. Jesus proclaimed God’s faithfulness and love and he experienced darkness. In the end, he leapt into the void believing that God would catch him in an embrace and raise him up.
“I believe that’s what God will do with you because God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus. In fact, God might not even be able to tell the two of you apart since you put on Christ when you were baptized.”
“Do you mean that? Is that true for me? Can I believe that?”
“I’ll tell you more. Hear me again. If you want it, when the time comes, I’ll be with you. You will feel my hand holding yours. You will hear my voice. I will remind you that God loves you and that Jesus waits to take you home.”
Puffs of smoke seemed to cling to his casket before ascending as I incensed his body at the funeral’s conclusion. The pall reminded those gathered that at his Baptism he was clothed in Christ. The Assembly stood in testimony to the truth that he had lived in Christ, died with Christ, and now lived in Christ forever.
The Candle went before us as we made our way down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.