Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – May 01, 2011

The Acts of the Apostles: 2:42-47

The First Letter of Peter 1:3-9

The Gospel of John 20:19-31

He sat in the church that was silent now except for the sound of the water from the raised bowl trickling into the font below.  The last light of the setting sun shimmered through the stained glass windows in the western clerestory and dapples of blue and red on the east will deepened as the rays flickered like candle flames in too strong a breeze.  The last of the worshipers had left moments before.  The man 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 lock the doors and get on with my evening.  I flicked the switches that extinguished the majority of the interior lights thinking that this surely would be a signal the man would recognize that he should be on his way.  I walked to the narthex and closed the doors noisily and turned the key in their locks to secure them.  Turning to start my way back up the aisle, I gazed over the font.  My jaws clenched as I noted that the man continued to sit stolidly in place giving no evidence of an intension to respond to the audible and visual signals I had given so clearly.

The sound of each step I took on my way back down the aisle echoed through the nave.  When I reached the pew in which he was sitting I stopped and turned toward him.  I could see that his gaze was fixed on the Easter Candle that stood adjacent to the ambo.  Tears glistened 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.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.

Was there a hint of a smile on his lips as he turned his attention aback to the Candle?  “I was here a week ago tonight when you proclaimed Christ the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  I watched you light the Candle from the Easter fire.  You entered the dark church to proclaim Christ our Light! I joined my voice with that of the others and we sang Thanks be to God! I think I meant it.  I desperately wanted to believe what was happening.  I thrilled as one by one the candles we held received light and flickered a moment before the light was passed on to a neighbor.  Gradually the whole interior began to shimmer as all the hand-held candles were lit.

“We all sat in the candles’ light and listened to the story from the beginning of creation.  The words rushed over us.  Genesis.  Exodus.  Isaiah.  On and on in hypnotic cadence the words cascaded over the assembled, and I wondered, do I believe this?  I want to, but I don’t feel anything.”

His tears continued to flow, falling from his chin to his shirtfront and onto his hands below.  “Feeling and believing aren’t the same thing,” I said, “anymore than seeing and believing are.”  His right hand flicked across his cheek whisking tears away.  “I can see that you are upset.  Is it about this lack of feeling you have or is there something more?”

He leaned back against the pew and heaved a sigh.  I smelled the scent of incense commingled with the aroma of the Easter lilies.

“I love the Easter Candle and the whole Easter Vigil service.  I was told several years ago that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrection.  I heard that when I was baptized.  What an awesome night that was.  The Candle figured in every step along the course of the service.  It was the first thing I saw when I came up gasping from under the water.  Three times the water rushed over me.”

I remember thinking that there must be something more that he wants to talk about other than reminiscing about his baptism.  His body language was that of someone who had just heard of the death of a loved one.  The need to urge him on his way had subsided within me.  I became content to wait and listen.  Rather than stare at him, my gaze focused on the Candle that was simply decorated this year with the 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 too long before I find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence.  Now I feel like darkness is enveloping me.  I am not of an age that is associated with dying.  I should have years ahead of me to fall in love and marry, to have children and watch them grow.  The doctor said how sorry he was to have to tell me that the headaches I have been enduring are the result of an inoperable tumor in my brain.”  He turned toward me to see how his news registered on my face.  There was a pause, long but not awkward, appropriate to let what had been shared to settle.

“Thank you for not saying something trite,” he said.  “Especially I thank you for not saying that you understand.  It’s amazing how many people say they understand my pain.  How can they unless they have gone through something similar to what is happening to me?”

I felt my stomach knotting as I searched for something to say.  I knew that silence wasn’t enough.  In stead, I reached over and took his hand.  “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 we all have to die, don’t we?  It’s hard for me to think about dying alone.  I hate darkness.  I love light.”

His tears had stopped.  He turned toward me tightening his hold of my hand.  “If I could only see something that would convince me.  I’m like Didymus, maybe.  If I could touch the wounds, even feel his breath, I know I could believe then.”

“You do believe.  You’re here.  All these signs and symbols that surround you resonate in your heart.  You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this assembly and were transformed more completely with them into the Body of Christ.  The union in Christ’s Body is closer than family.  The bond is love – Christ’s love for you.  Your love for Christ and one another.”  I remember feeling that I was struggling, grasping for words, praying that something I would say would touch and heal his breaking heart.

“Am I loved?  Does Christ love me?  Then why did God send this think that is killing me?  Am I being punished for my sins?  Maybe if I believed stronger this wouldn’t have happened, or Christ would drive the tumor out of me as he did the evil spirits that possessed people.”

“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 growing tumor the way Jesus carried the Cross.  To all the world what happened to Jesus looked like his defeat.  Jesus proclaimed God’s faithfulness and love.  He experienced darkness.  He cried out in that darkness as he leapt into the void believing that God would catch him up in an embrace and raise him up.

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.”

“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.  And I’ll wager that the last sound you hear on this side will be his voice as he reaches out a hand to you and invites you to come and inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

* * *

Puffs of smoke seemed to cling to his casket before ascending as I reverenced his body at the funeral’s conclusion.  The pall that shrouded his casket reminded those gathered that at his baptism he had put on Christ.  The mourners stood in testimony to the truth that he had lived in Christ, died with Christ, and now lived in Christ forever.

Maybe someday I’ll tell you about his final moments.  For now, know that the Candle went before us as we made our way down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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ON THE WINGS OF EAGLES

It was years before I heard from Caleb again.  Frequently in prayer the image would come to mind of the young boy getting out of my car and then running up the path to his front door.  As he got to the front porch, he stopped and turned back to wave goodbye.  That look of peace on his face burned its way into my consciousness and remembering it always brought me joy.

My phone rang in the night.  It was Caleb, and he began by apologizing for waking me if I had been asleep.  He said sleep wouldn’t come to him and he felt the need to talk.  Did I mind?  He was no longer the little boy I had watched that day those years ago.  He had been to college and to war and was now in hospital.  “I’m scared,” he said.  “I’m afraid of the night and the silence.

“Cancer is part of my life now.  They’re going to cut into me tomorrow and if I survive I’ll never be the same again.  If I survive….”

I told him that I wished I could be with him, but his family surrounding him must be a comfort to him.  He said they were but they were also a burden because he knew the pain that his own suffering caused them.  No matter how he tried to reassure them, he knew his parents felt guilty for what was happening to him.  Then there were his unexpected bursts of anger, diffuse, unfocused.  This cancer shouldn’t be happening to him.  He had tried to be a good person.  He believed in Jesus and had tried to pattern his life after the Lord and to the best of his ability to live the Beatitudes.

He thanked me for wanting to be with him, but what he really needed was to know that someone was praying for him.  He laughed about that long ago night of terror and hot chocolate.  He said he often had thought about that night because it hadn’t been planned.  When he had rung the rectory doorbell and then sat on the steps, he hadn’t expected anyone to answer.

“I think I was crying when you opened the door and asked me how you could help.  When you saw my tears you invited me to come inside.  Then we went straight into the kitchen and you made me hot chocolate and sat with me while I drank it and I blurted out what had sent me panicked into the evening.  No need to go into all of that again now, but your assurance surprised me.  The chocolate was a comfort.”

His life had been like that, full of surprises and twists and turns for which he could never have prepared.  No matter what happened after that, he said, thinking back and remembering that night helped him to hope.  He thought it odd that he had never dwelt on the pain of his early childhood.  His own parents abandoned him in infancy and he had been shuttled from foster home to foster home until the ones he thinks of as Mom and Dad finally adopted him.  Their love countered those painful memories.  He prided himself in being able to move beyond pain to recovery.  He thought it was like Jesus on Easter.  Jesus still had nail marks in his hands and feet and a pierced side, but also there was victory and the knowledge that the nails could never hurt him again.

Each time some hardship came his way he thought of it in terms of the cross and knew that he would get through it because of the resurrection.  And sure enough, that’s what happened.

“Will Jesus take me with him?” he asked.

The question jarred me and a lump formed in my throat.  I couldn’t answer for so long that he finally asked me if I were still there.  “Caleb,” I said, “of course Jesus will take you with him.  That peace is in your heart, that confident assurance that nothing can separate you from the love of God, which is what the word peace means.  No one or no thing can take that peace from you, even cancer.”

“I wish I could have seen him.  It would be easier if I could have touched him and traced the nail marks.  But I have sensed his presence.  I didn’t hear a voice.  No one whispered in my ear.  Once in the battlefield I was terrified and was convinced that the next explosion would take me out.  Tears flowed because I didn’t want to die, not then so far away as I was from those I love.  All I could do was to keep saying ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’  And in an instant a calm settled over me like the one that came with that hot chocolate.  Would you believe that all of a sudden it didn’t matter what happened to me?  If a bomb ended it all for me, I knew Jesus was with me.

“I had a visitor this afternoon.  By coincidence she lives not far from here.  She heard that I was in hospital and came and talked to me about long-ago things.  We were foster children together.  Somehow we have maintained a lifelong friendship.  We laughed about the way we used to be.  We talked about our First Communion day and our graduations days and people we knew and the good times we had.

“Then she said something that made me wonder.  As she got out of her car to come into the hospital she looked up.  There circling around above the hospital were three eagles.  She watched them for a long time.  Twice she heard a high-pitched call from one of them as they continued to circle.

“I need to ask you something.  Eagles are great birds.  When they circle like that, are they an omen, too?”

Sincerely,

Didymus

EASTER SUNDAY – April 24, 2011

Easter Readings

I remember being accosted by an angry woman on her way out from Easter morning mass.  “You read the wrong gospel!” she snapped.

“How is that?” I asked.

“I wanted to hear about the Risen Jesus and all I heard about was an empty tomb!”

How many feel that disappointment at the end of the gospel for Easter Sunday morning?  How many come to mass hoping to hear about the Body and are left feeling as empty as the tomb?  Easter is that kind of feast.  The churches fill to overflowing.  Perhaps people come who have not been to church for months.  Some may not have been inside the doors for years, but because they are visiting parents for the holiday, they go along for the morning ritual.  And then there are the angry regulars who resent that a stranger is in their places in the pew.  Let’s hope that their anger isn’t so intense that they are not able to hear the message.

Easter is the feast that shores us challenged faith.  Some come into the celebration hoping against hope.  It is an especially important feast for those who are new to mourning, parents who have lost a child, brothers and sisters who have lost a sibling or a parent, a man or woman who has lost a spouse.  The griever may be wondering if there is reason to hope, to believe, to go on living.

The one who sees does not believe.  If we see each other face-to-face we do not have to believe that the other exists.  There is no faith in heaven; there is only love.  Those in glory do not have to believe.  They are in the presence and in Paul’s words, know even as they are known.

The wrong gospel is the important one to hear.  It is about grief-stricken people who wonder if anything worse can possibly happen.  Mary of Magdala is distraught when, upon arrival at the tomb and expecting to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial, she finds the stone rolled back, the tomb empty.  She runs back and reports to Peter and the Beloved Disciple, They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him. It is important to hear that Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross in witness to his execution did not break her faith that Jesus is Lord.  But her faith will need to take another step in order to believe that He is risen!

We can only imagine what thoughts raced through the heads of Peter and the Beloved One as they raced to the tomb.  Peter, the seasoned one, still burdened by his having denied that he knew Jesus – what were his thoughts?  Moments of panic can accommodate scores of memories.  Were there kaleidoscopic images of the first meeting and the gathering for the mountaintop Transfiguration?  Did he feel the tug of the net teeming with fish caught because he followed Jesus’ direction after a night of fruitless labor?  Did he see Jesus again, walking on the water even as he had sunk when Jesus had bidden him to walk on the water, too?  Did he remember the look in Jesus’ eyes, as he looked at Peter in that final encounter following the third denial of knowing Jesus?

We don’t know the thoughts of the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, as he raced ahead of the older Peter.  Beloved.  That is his designation.  Obviously a special relationship is denoted.  At the final meal he had reclined at table next to Jesus and had leaned into him to ask Jesus which one would betray him.  He had stood at the cross during the terrible torment only to hear Jesus entrust his mother to the Beloved One’s care.  His eagerness to see for himself did not keep him from deferring to Peter, allowing him to enter first.  Imagine the heart pounding within his breast as he wondered and waited for Peter.

An interesting side note: some commentators say that the Beloved Disciple represents the new convert to the faith, new and therefore fragile.  Others say the Disciple is John, the Evangelist.  Either one is possible.  Neither is problematic.  But I am moved by the thought that we are witnessing incipient faith in action on this Easter Sunday morning.  Some of those baptized last night and still in their white robes may be among us as they hear about the first one to arrive at the tomb.

In the end it is about faith that results from the confrontation of signs.  Peter enters and sees the burial cloths.  A curious detail is added.  The cloth that had covered the body’s head is folded and placed apart from the other cloths.  Peter drank in the visuals.  But the pericope does not speak of Peter’s response.  The Beloved Disciple follows Peter into the tomb and absorbs the same sights.  He sees and believes.

It is possible that both Peter and the Beloved Disciple believed in that moment.  But the gospel doesn’t say that.  It is also possible that it took Peter longer to believe just as it had taken him longer to arrive at the tomb.  That’s not a fault.  It is a reminder that faith is a gift that comes when grace enables belief.  If only we could have been party to their discussion as the two walked home again.

So, on this morning we are confronted by the Empty Tomb and are invited to see the signs.  The wrappings of death rolled up and put aside tell us that death is not forever.  That should not make us conclude that resurrection in resuscitation the way that some religious epic films do.  Think of Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ.  The glimpse given us is that of a revived Jesus whose flesh is firm and young again.  If that were Resurrection, why would the disciples struggle to recognize him in those post Easter encounters?  If you have the opportunity, view Pier Paolo Pasolini’s brilliant The Gospel According to St. Matthew. You’ll catch the difference immediately and I hope you will be thrilled.  To confuse resurrection and resuscitation is to limit the Mystery and contain it.  We can understand resuscitation.  Lazarus was resuscitated. But he would have to die again at the end of his life.  The Resurrected One will never die again.

So we come to Easter variously burdened.  Perhaps we are seasoned believer, aging as did Peter.  Perhaps we are newer to faith as might have been the case with the Beloved Disciple.  Each one comes with his/her cares needing to have signs of contradiction.  Some may come hoping against hope, needing to have their wounds anointed and to find some reason to go on believing.  Will love ever triumph?  Will there ever be one human family?  Will we ever live in peace and experience God’s reign?

Perhaps we will limp in with all the others, some familiar to us, others strangers.  All of us bearing the scars of another year’s wounds acquired on the Way.  If we move with them from the Table of the Word and stand with them at the Table of the Eucharist, then we will remember and recognize Him in the Breaking of the Bread and, eating, know the Presence.

Of course, once we have encountered the empty tomb, and have seen and believed, we will have to run back and tell the others: The Lord is risen.  Alleluia.  Alleluia.  Alleluia.

Sincerely,

Didymus