THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD – May 24, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians  1:17-23
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 28:16-20

Dear Friends in Christ,

My heart stirs each time I read the opening verse of the Acts of the Apostles.  In my first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up.  Theophilus.  Acts, as was Luke’s Gospel, is addressed to Theophilus.  Who is he?  There are various theories – that he was a Roman on the way to conversion, a catechumen, perhaps.  Or was he a wealthy Christian who paid for the publication of the Gospel and would do the same for Acts.  No one knows for sure.  We can take comfort in another and stronger theory.  The name Theophilus comes from two words, theos, the word for God, and philio, that means to love.  God lover.  Perhaps Acts is addressed to one person who loved God; but better, I think, Luke and Acts are written to you and me, and to every other person who seeks and strives to love God.  The books support that that love that comes to us in Jesus.

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven.  The Easter Season will conclude next Sunday with the Feast of Pentecost.  In reality it will not be a conclusion at all.  Nothing in our faith ever concludes.  Everything is present and ever beginning.  In a sense, a cycle is completed with the Ascension, a cycle that began when, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the Incarnation is proclaimed, the Word descending from Heaven to take on flesh and be born a baby in Bethlehem.  Luke’s Gospel deals with all that Jesus did and taught, the signs that indicated to those who believe who and what Jesus is, Messiah and Lord.  Acts opens with the completion of the cycle, that is, with Jesus going back up to heaven to the Father’s right hand in glory.  This is not an ending, a final scene or chapter.  It is a beginning.

Those in attendance think it is over and the work completed.  Any moment now the kingdom will be restored to Israel.  The foreign rule of the Romans will be driven out – maybe tomorrow.  That is what they think.  That is what they hope for.  Their thinking and hoping shows how much they have to learn and how far they have to go.  They are mired in the here and now with its temporal rewards.  They have yet to begin to see what God’s Kingdom is about and the part they must play in bringing about that reign.  They have to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit who will give them power to act in Jesus’ name – whatever that will mean.  They will understand when the Spirit comes.

Paul anticipates that understanding and reality in the second reading from his Letter to the Ephesians.  It is all about living what Jesus accomplishes in his dying and rising.  May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.  Just when they (we) might have been tempted to think that Christ’s call is one that entails temporal power and glory, to say nothing of a grand share of the wealth this world has to offer, Paul says that the call is to live as Jesus lived and to do what Jesus did.  It is all about humility – that is, seeing one’s self as s/he is before God and seeing everyone else in that same light.  It is about gentleness, patience, and supporting one another through love.  Remember the words?  A new commandment I give you.  Love one another as I have loved you.  And, in another place,  Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.  That is what it means to love as Jesus loves.

What we have in this passage is a brilliant outline of Church, the ideal we, as members, are called to live.  When others look at the Church this is what they should see, a community that is one body in Christ, sharing one Baptism, one faith, experiencing one Lord who is God and Father of us all.  That unity is celebrated in the One Bread that is shared and the One Cup that is poured out.  The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the action of the Church.  The table fellowship that is practiced proclaims that all are welcome here.  The scandal will be division and excommunication.  The clarion call will be to all: Taste and see that the Lord is good.  Taste.  See.  Stay and believe.  Take up the challenge to live the reality until all have been nourished and are alive in Christ.

All are called to serve the needs of the rest.  Vatican Council II put before the church the reality of The Priesthood of the Baptized.  It is a priesthood that is practiced through service.  Those who are baptized gather with the Ordained Priesthood around the One Table to co-celebrate the Mysteries and then be sent to be priests in the world at large.  Not everyone has the same gift or gifts.  But in this one community that is Church, all gifts come from God.  It is the responsibility of the Church to support those gifts and thereby help each other and the world experience the One Christ.  The Spirit will empower those who submit to the Spirit’s empowering to practice in such a way that the world will see the Church’s constant exercising of the fundamental option for the poor.  The poor have primacy of place in the Assembly.  Those with the most power and authority in the Assembly must be the servants of the poor.  They are called to be the poorest of the poor.

Pope Francis, from the moment he stepped onto the balcony as the Bishop of Rome, has been urging the Church to embrace this calling.  He put aside all the trappings of grandeur that had dressed previous popes.  He lives in a humble street level apartment.  He walks among the poor and invites them to break bread with him.  His word to the bishops as shepherds is that they should shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even smell like the sheep.  This challenge has been rejected by some of the ordained and of the laity.  We should not be surprised that there are are those who reject the call to service of the poor.  The apostles struggled with Jesus’ teaching and from time to time rebuked him when he spoke of his impending death following his rejection because he welcomed sinners and ate with them.

The Priesthood of the Baptized.  A challenge for the Church today, especially for some of the hierarchy and clergy, will be to recognize the vocations inspired in the baptized by the Spirit.  The gifts of the Spirit are called charisms.  The vocations come form Christ in the Spirit.  The Church must celebrate and endorse them.  The same is true of the lack of some of the gifts or charisms.  Edict cannot give a charism.  Banning will not kill a charism.  There is talk of married men being called to the priesthood.  Celibacy is a charism, a gift of the Spirit with no essential link to priesthood.  Talk must be engaged regarding the call of women to the diaconate.  The vocation of diaconate is a vocation to witness and be of service in the marketplace.  In the early church women exercised this charism.  Thought must be given to reestablishing the order.  We do, after all, believe that God is the giver of the gifts.

During this time of pandemic and imposed isolation, it has been inspiring to witness the pouring out of self in service by First Responders, the Doctors and Nurses, and the whole medical staff.  But it has been inspiring also to witness the service of people of every age as they reach out to their neighbors.  So many are making masks.  So many are grocery shopping.  So many are being present to loved ones in care facilities, even though windows separate them.  COVID-19 may be isolating us.  But service is reuniting us, helping us to recognize that we are all one in Christ, sisters and brothers in the Lord.  A new age of Church may be dawning.  New charisms are in evidence.  We will think about that next week as we celebrate Pentecost.

And so we come to the commissioning that concludes this week’s Gospel as Jesus ascends to the Father.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  It is to be a proclamation that is done primarily in action, expressed in the pouring out of self in service.  It is a duty that will continue until the end of the age.  Believers will preach and act and the Lord will work with them and through them and confirm the word through signs.

Many long for the day when this pandemic is over and we will be able to gather in sacred spaces to celebrate Eucharist and the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.  In the mean time, we should pay attention to the Church that is emerging through the action of the Spirit.  As I said, we will talk about that next week when we talk about Pentecost.  Now there was an event!  Nothing was the same after that fire.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – May 17, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8, 14-17
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 3:15-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:15-21

Dear Friends in Christ,

In the Book of Revelation, God has harsh words for the people.  I would you were hot or cold; but because you are lukewarm I will begin to spit you out of my mouth.  You may be familiar with the words, but perhaps you wonder what the Lord means.  If we apply the words to the present age, we might get the point.  Many moons ago there was a question inscribed on bumper stickers and posters: If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The Revelation text and this statement are closely linked.  Faith is supposed to be lived.  Do our decisions and actions betray us as Christ’s disciples?  Do we love as Jesus loves us?  It is, after all, as we have said before, supposed to be all about love.

We are near the conclusion of the Easter Season.  In normal years our Neophytes would have had these weeks to experience the reality of their new life in Christ, following their Baptism, in the midst of the Assembly gathered to celebrate Eucharist.  This year in most parishes, the Elect still wait and long for their Baptism.  The rest of the church, seasoned believers, has had time to reflect on Lent and their time of prayer and penance and yearn for the Liturgical celebration of Easter and the renewal of their Baptismal Promises around the Font.  We have been living in the shadow of COVIG-19.  Sheltering in place with no gatherings in excess of 20, this has become a prolonged stay in the desert, or a winter of discontent.  Will we reach the oasis?  Will there be a spring? 

Peter, in this week’s second reading, speaks words of comfort and support to Christians under siege.  They are on trial and could face death for being followers of Christ.  Their witness and their mode of living have been determined to be unacceptable by the civil authorities.  It has become evident that Christians no longer hope in Caesar.  Their hope is in Christ and Christ’s cross and Resurrection.  The jaws of lions loom.  Peter urges them to act with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.  Apparently the people Peter is addressing are not lukewarm in their faith response.  They are on fire with the Spirit in them.  Their actions speak loudly.  Christ lives in the hearts of the baptized.  Their actions, influenced by the Spirit, flow out and continue to scandalize.

Scandalize?  We might forget that Jesus gave scandal.  We might be tempted to soft-pedal those charges related in the Gospels.  Hear them clearly.  This man welcomes sinners and shares table with them.  In our hearing, those sinners may well become sanitized.  Surely Jesus would not have broken bread with real sinners.  Surely they weren’t really prostitutes, tax collectors, and others judged by the community to be reprobates.  It is fine to see Jesus comfortable among the poor.  We are consoled that he approached lepers.  That must be what the Gospel text means by sinners.

Then again, maybe not.  Sinners are sinners.  They were in Jesus’ day.  They are in ours.  Some were prostitutes.  Think of the woman who shocked and scandalized when she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Some of them were tax collectors.  That translates as cohorts with Roman suppression.  They extorted from their neighbors by adding to their tax bills.  Think of Matthew here.  You name the vice and representatives could be found in Jesus’ company.  He was comfortable with them.  Then add the poor and any other off scouring of society and you will have a digest of Jesus’ table fellows.  Jesus ministers to them unconditionally.  He loves them as they are for who they are.  There is no indication that all of them changed their ways and became disciples.  Jesus is living the reality that God loves unconditionally and eternally.

What is my point?  Prior to the shutting down of the churches because of the pandemic, Sunday Mass attendance across the country was in decline.  The same can be said for attendance around the world.  Ireland is no longer considered a Catholic country.  Yes, the clergy sexual abuse scandal has something to do with it.  But that is not the only reason.  Some people call themselves Recovering Catholics.  The second largest denomination in this country is Former Catholics.  I have listened to many and have heard a recurring story.  In a nutshell, they left because they were not hearing the Gospel preached in the homilies.  They did not hear an invitation to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  Rather, they felt reduced to being passive spectators. They experienced the Church as too elite and antiseptic in the practice of the faith; our Assemblies, too homogenous.  

Now we hear the Spirit rushing through the church calling for reform.  The Spirit speaks through the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis as he calls for the church to be a poorer church, serving the needs of the poor.  Some judge him harshly for the company he keeps, for those with whom he breaks bread.  Prison inmates.  Atheists.  He is comfortable with them.  He invites street people to share breakfast with him.  It is clear that he welcomes all.  And that he proclaims God’s love for them all.

During this time of the pandemic, churches are closed.  We must fast from the Eucharist, as it were.  We reflect on who and what we are as church.  What will we be like when we re-emerge?

I betray my age when I say I can remember the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I remember the announcement of his assassination.  One could see the Spirit empowering those marchers in the streets of Alabama.  Numbers of people, vulnerable to batons and fire hoses and dogs’ teeth, witnesses to the need for change.  They were willing to lay down their lives for justice.  No wonder some thought Dr. King had to die.  What if society changed?  Some followed King’s example in Alabama and Mississippi and elsewhere.  They demonstrated and sought to get Black sisters and brothers registered to vote.  Some died in those trenches.  Some demonstrations turned riotous.  Think of Watts and Chicago and Detroit and the fires that raged there.  Witnessing sometimes gets messy.

Those were heady times that coincided with the close of Vatican Council II.  There was upheaval as always as happens amidst birth pangs.  Something new and wonderful was being brought forth.  The renewed Church was being born.  Think of Archbishop, now St. Oscar Romero as he left the serenity of the Bishop’s manor to go out into the streets to stand as shepherd in the midst of the poor.  He called for justice for the people in El Salvador.

Dom Helder Camara was another bright light.  He witnessed to absolute solidarity with the poor and became a precursor to the controversial Liberation Theology linked to Archbishop Romero.  Even though he was an Archbishop, he lived in poverty among the poor.  Camara said: When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a Communist.  At the time of the Viet Nam War he wrote The Cycle of Violence in which he challenged the young people to break the cycle of violence to which previous generations have become addicted.

Romero and Camara were precursors to Pope Francis’s calling the faithful to these same values.  He comes out of the same South America that produced Romero and Camara.  The three seem to be of the same mind.  The violence of those times, now distant, should not lull us into complacency in our own time.  Pope Francis speaks out for the poor and calls for a fairer distribution of wealth because poverty remains rampant.  There are homeless people living on the streets now.  We have all seen the long lines of cars waiting at food banks, the drivers hungry and unable to provide food for their families.  Millions of people are unemployed.  People are still discriminated because of their sexual orientation.  There is human trafficking and other abuses of humankind.  And we watch and pray as people suffer and die in the pandemic. 

How will the church respond to Pope Francis’s call for a poor church serving the poor.  Some in the clergy and hierarchy reject him – but not the poor, not the disenfranchised, and not the little ones.  So, will shepherds be found who will shepherd in the midst of the sheep and smell the same as the sheep?

I believe that were these values to become evident in the church as we emerge from the pandemic and are able to assemble again and celebrate Eucharist, some of those who have wandered away will return.  When they feel welcomed, when they feel encouraged to exercise their Priesthood of the Baptized the church will, like the Phoenix, rise from the ashes.  It will happen when they hearth call to live the Gospel, to be the continuation of Christ’s presence in the world.

If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  That is what our elect waiting to be baptized must ask themselves.  That is what we seasoned Catholics must ask ourselves.  Jesus says to us in the Gospel this Sunday: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  Which ones?  There are really only two.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Stated another way: Love one another as I have loved you.  That love must be practical.  It is in the act of loving that we come to know Jesus and to love him and in turn come to know that we are loved by the Father and loved by Jesus.  Most wonderful of all, Jesus will reveal himself to those who so love.

Imagine what could happen on Pentecost.  Just hear the wind that could blow then, and see the fire.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus  

THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – May 10, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 6:1-7
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 2:4-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:1-12

Dear Friends,

Did you notice that this Sunday is called the Fifth Sunday of Easter?  This is not the Fifth Sunday after Easter.  It is important for us to remember what is happening during these weeks.  We could miss the point because we have been in the Easter Season nearly as long as we were in Lent.  We live in the dawning reality with its implications of the moment that changed everything forever.

Sad but true, we might see Lent as more fitting to be a season than Easter.  Holy Week comes and we make the Passion and Death journey.  We witness defeat.  We looked on and saw Jesus betrayed, rejected and broken.  Except for three, the disciples fled in sadness and left Jesus to die on the cross.  They had hoped Jesus would be the one to set Israel free.

We do not live in the past.  The mysteries of Jesus’ dying and rising are timeless.  Through the proclamation of the Liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we recognize their continuation in the events of our times and our entry into them. During this COVID-19 pandemic with the terrible stories of sickness, suffering and death; during this time of living in isolation, something amazing is also happening, the grace of the moment, if you will.  There is an emerging recognition that we all are one human family, each person created in the image and likeness of God.  In the heroic, self-sacrificing service of the First Responders and the Doctors, Nurses, and ER Staffs, we recognize God’s love and our destiny to live in that love for all eternity.

Today’s gospel is the proclamation of the primacy of self.  What are the goals today’s children were taught to set for themselves?  To be number one.  To be powerful.  To be wealthy.  There was little sense of social conscience – that we have a responsibility to seek justice for the poor and the down trodden.  Wars rage.  Millions flee seeking refuge.  The novel virus surged from shore to shore across our country.  Millions are unemployed.  The street people are a vulnerable population.  We must recognize our responsibility for each other.  We recognize Jesus in the suffering.  There may be imposed isolation, but there seems to be also an ever clearer recognition that we are one family.  You have heard it  said  over and over.  It is true.  We will get through this together.

Many have walked away from the church.  The message being proclaimed was not resonating with the masses.  Now churches and synagogues and mosques have been shut down.  There can be no gatherings over 20.  For the first Holy Week and Easter in ages we could not gather and celebrate Eucharist.  Some, not a few, experience a holy longing.  Again, there is grace in this moment.  If only it will be recognized and accepted.  If there had been more evidence of the bishops, clergy and faithful living the Social Gospel, if there had been a clearer proclamation of that gospel many of those might not have left.  Now it must be clear that the church is present to those suffering and grieving.  

Faith in Christ has been found wanting because some of those who witnessed to it professionally have been found wanting.  There are scars physical and emotional that attest to tyranny.  Pope Francis preaches a poor church serving the needs of the poor.  Some in the church do not want to hear that message.  They do not want to smell like the sheep, or serve in the midst of the sheep.  How many aspire to be feet washers of Muslims and Jews, and convicted mafia members?

We must remember what happened this Easter Sunday.  All around the world churches that should have filled to overflowing for Sunday Mass and other religious services stood empty. The Great Vigil, during which the Elect would be baptized, didn’t happen.  Easter may remain the day people gather, hoping against hope.  But not this year.  Now more than ever, the Good News must be proclaimed clearly so that those nearly broken ones caught up in the wave of scandal and defeat can be renewed in Spirit and be reminded of who they are in Christ and the hope that is theirs in Him.

Pope Francis clearly proclaims a primacy of place for the poor.  The hierarchy is challenged to live more simply.  Francis does.  A rabbi is among his closest friends.  He has meaningful conversations with a newspaper editor who is an atheist.  He breakfasts with street people.  Many will long remember the images of Pope Francis preaching in the empty square and in the empty St. Peter’s Basilica this Holy Week.  And his messages resonated calling all to live responsibly, to care for each other and this planet on which we live.

Easter is a Feast of fifty days.  The message proclaimed is that Christ has triumphed over everything humankind fears.  Death no longer has power over us.  The little ones in Christ are the beloveds of God.  If we as church live the message, throngs will be strengthened and will rejoice in the Word, just as they did in light of the first Easter.

Hear what is happening in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  The Twelve are busy about proclaiming the good News.  Many listen, respond, and are baptized.  The numbers grow.  As they do, some essential services do not happen.  Some needy ones are neglected.  So, some good and faithful ones become official servants of the poor, thereby allowing the Twelve to be faithful to their charisms as preachers and teachers.  That is how the Order of Deacon came about.  What we witness is the realization of mutual responsibility for each other among the faithful.  The Priesthood of the Baptized emerges.

Forgive me if I keep referring to Pope Francis.  His witness inspires me.  He stands and serves among people shocked by what is happening in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and around the world.  People struggle to reconcile church bells and alleluias with the AIDS epidemic, with COVID-19, and starvation and malaria and sleeping sickness and human trafficking all ravaging Africa and other parts of our world.  How can the triumph being celebrated be reconciled with the horrors unless they are identified with the cross?  Reason for hope is found in our sharing in Christ’s triumph over sin, suffering and death.  Imagine what can happen when the faithful accept again that they share in that triumph and therefore can inspire hope in those who falter.

If we follow Christ in Resurrection, suffering should not surprise us.  Yes, the battle is done.  Yes, the triumph is won.  And we must remember that Christ’s Victory remains a work in progress that will continue to the end of time.  “Behold I am with you always until the end of time.:

If we recognize Christ in his rising, we must be open to Christ’s help to see all reality in a new light.  Then sometimes what seems like victory to others will be recognized as defeat.  What seems like triumph will be seen as failure.  We struggle on to say no to sin, to the temptations subtle and otherwise to lord it over others and to see ourselves as superior to others.  In Christ’s Victory we are called to be servants of the servants of God.

That is what St. Peter reminds us of in today’s second reading.  Christ is the living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God.  So are we in Christ.  Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  Those words resonate and remind us of the call of the Second Vatican Council in which it was declared that the Church is the People of God.  The faithful are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  We share in the Priesthood of the Baptized.  As Peter says: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of (Christ’s) own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Do you believe that?  Can you live in that reality?  Do you feel the support of your local parish to live that priesthood?

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks to the disciples during the Last Supper of his impending death.  They cannot begin to comprehend what he means that even though he dies he will be with them forever.  He returns to the Father who sent him, there to prepare a place for them.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.  Our journey of faith leads to that eternal union.  There is one way to accomplish that goal.  We must know Christ and imitate him in word and action.  I am the way and the truth and the life….Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.

Do you see why it takes time to celebrate the reality of Easter and to drink in the implications?  This Easter Season we fast from the Eucharist.  Yet we live as a Eucharistic people who give thanks to God through the renewing of Christ’s dying and rising.  We see Christ broken and poured out for all.  We experience his resurrection.  We are sent to do what Jesus continues to do through his living stones.  As the faithful, we love others as we are loved.  That includes our enemies, by the way, again as Jesus taught.  It is all about love.  But this is not a love that prompts us to take anything to ourselves.  This is love that empowers us to empty ourselves in service.  We go out to wash feet the way Jesus did.  In the midst of all that seems to spell the defeat of Christianity, we live in the triumph of the cross as we emerge the new creation begotten in Baptism.  Just as the numbers of faithful grew so rapidly in that first Easter Light, I will wager that if the faithful heed Pope Francis’s invitation to become recommitted to imitation of Christ, the numbers will flourish again.

This pandemic may go on for a time.  But I believe we will emerge from it renewed and recommitted to being Christ’s continuing presence.  It will happen.  We have Christ’s promise that it will until he comes again.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus