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THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – April 27, 2014

 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles: 2:42-47

A reading from the first Letter of Peter 1:3-9

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

 

Joshua sat in the church that was silent except for the sound of the water trickling from the raised bowl into the baptismal font below.  The last light of the setting sun set the stained-glass windows in the eastern clerestory shimmering with dapples of blue and red playing on the west wall.  The colors deepened as the rays flickered like candle flames in too strong a breeze.  The last of the worshipers from the evening mass had left moments before.  He wanted to cling to the moment, reluctant to step out of the mystery into the approaching night.

Father Thaddeus watched him for a few moments and felt irritation rise because he wanted to lock the church doors so he could get on with his evening.  Dinner waited.  He flicked the switches that extinguished the majority of the interior lights.  Surely, he thought, that should be a signal for the intruder on his time to recognize the indication that he should be on his way.  Father walked to the narthex and closed the doors noisily.  He turned the key in the locks to secure them.  Turning to start his way back up the aisle, he gazed over the font.  His jaws clenched as he noted that the man continued to sit stolidly in place.  He gave no evidence that he intended to respond to the audible signals that had been given so clearly.

The sound of each step the priest took on his way back toward the altar echoed through the nave.  When he reached the pew in which the man was sitting he stopped and turned toward him.  He could see that the young man’s gaze was fixed on the Easter Candle that stood adjacent to the ambo.  Tears glistened on his cheeks.  A twinge of conscience plucked at the priest and he sat a few feet away and watched.  The youth’s breathing seemed calm.  His arms rested in his lap.  Then suddenly he looked up at the pastor, his eyes wide and unblinking.

After an awkward pause, the priest asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?  Is everything okay?”

A trace of a smile appeared Joshua’s lips as he turned his attention back to the Candle and the Font.   “I was here a week ago tonight when you proclaimed Christ to be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  I saw you light the Candle from the Easter fire.  You carried the Candle into this dark church and proclaimed, Christ our Light!  I joined the others responding with Thanks be to God!  I think I meant it.  I was desperate and wanted to believe it.  I thrilled as one by one the candles the people held received light and flickered a moment before we passed the light on to a neighbor.  I could feel the darkness of the night yield as one by one the candles rejected it.

“We all sat in the candles’ light and listened to the story that began with the first separation of light and darkness.  We listened to Genesis and Exodus and the Prophet Isaiah.  The readings were long and continued in hypnotic cadence, like water cascading over rocks.  I struggled as with each reading I asked myself, Do I believe this?  I knew I wanted to, but my feelings were numb.  I didn’t feel anything.”

His tears continued to flow and fell from his chin to his shirtfront and onto his hands below.

“What’s your name?” the priest asked.

“Joshua.”

“Feeling and believing is not the same thing any more than seeing and believing is.”

Joshua’s hand wiped across his cheek to whisk tears away.

“I can see that you are upset.  Joshua, is it about this lack of feeling you have, or is there something more that is bothering you?”

The young man leaned back against the pew and sighed as he became aware of the scent of incense commingled with the aroma of the Easter lilies.  “I love the Easter Candle.  Several years ago I was told that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrected presence.  That’s what I heard when I was baptized.  What an awesome night that was.  The candle figured in every step along the course of the Vigil Service.  It was the first thing I saw when I came up from the water gasping.  Three times the water poured over me.”

The priest was not new to his vocation.  His experience led him to conclude that there must be something more that Joshua wanted to talk about.  His body language spoke of someone who had just heard of the death of a loved one.  His pastoral sense took over and he no longer felt compelled to urge Joshua on his way.  He was content to wait and listen.   Rather than stare at him, Thaddeus’s gaze focused on the Candle so simply decorated this year with the cross and five red spikes and a wax wrap colored to resemble marble.  Light of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

“I’m dying,” Joshua said in a flat voice.  “A few months from now I’ll find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence.  Right now I feel like darkness is suffocating me.  I hear the doctor’s words as he said how sorry he was to have to tell me that my headaches that I had been enduring are the result of an inoperable tumor in my brain.”  He turned toward Father Thaddeus to see how his news was accepted.  There was a pause, long, but shy of being awkward.  “Thank you for not saying something trite.  Thank you for not saying that you understand.  So many people have told me they understand my pain.”

Father Thaddeus felt his pulse accelerate as he searched for something to say.  He knew silence was not enough.  In stead, he moved closer to Joshua and put his hand on Joshua’s shoulder.  “I can pray,” he said.  “I can try to support you with my prayer.”

“I don’t have anyone near by, any family.  They are all in the Midwest.  I’m not married or even engaged.”  He paused a moment.  “But you have to die alone anyway, I guess.  I hate darkness.  I love light.”

The tears had stopped.  He looked at Father Thaddeus who tightened his grip on Joshua’s shoulder.  “I’m like Didymus, maybe, like Doubting Thomas.  If I could only see something that would convince me.  If I could touch the wounds, even feel his breath, I know I could believe then.”

“You do believe.  You’re here in this church.  You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this assembly of seekers.  With them you were transformed more completely into the Body of Christ.  The union in the Body is closer than that of a family.  The bond is love – Christ’s love for you.  Your love for Christ.  The Assembly’s love for one another.”  Father Thaddeus swallowed hard, feeling that he was struggling, grasping for words, floundering, praying that something he said would touch the aching heart.

“Am I loved?  Does Christ love me?  Why did God send this thing that is killing me?  Is this punishment for my sins?  Maybe if I believed more firmly this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

Father Thaddeus hesitated to speak, fearing that his voice would sound strangled, cracking with emotion.  “Hear me,” he 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 cancer the way Jesus carried the Cross.  To all the world it looks like defeat.  Jesus had proclaimed God’s faithfulness and love.  Yet he experienced darkness.  He leapt into the void believing that God would catch him in an embrace and raise him up.

“That’s what God will do with you.  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 now.  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, the voice of one who loves you.  I will remind you that God loves you and that Jesus waits to take you home.”

* * * *

Wisps of smoke clung to his casket before ascending as Father Thaddeus incensed Joshua’s body as the funeral concluded.  The pall draped over the casket reminded those gathered that at his Baptism Joshua was clothed in Christ.  The mourners stood in testimony to the truth that he had lived in Christ, died with Christ, and now lived in Christ forever.

The lighted Candle went before them as the assembled followed the casket down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.

 

 

EASTER SUNDAY – 2014

 Acts 10:34A, 37-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 167-17, 22-23
John 20:1-9

I overheard the woman’s rant as she made her way out of the church that Easter Sunday morning.  “They read the wrong Gospel!”

“How’s that?” her friend responded in a low voice, probably hoping the irate one would tone her voice down too.

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

Are there many that feel that same disappointment at the end of the Gospel for Easter Sunday?  It is quite likely that many come hoping to hear about the Body and leave feeling as empty as the tomb.  Easter is that kind of feast.  Churches fill to overflowing, the way they do after a disaster.  People come to Mass 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 tag along for the morning ritual, all the while thinking of the super breakfast that will follow when they return home.  Then there are the angry regulars resenting that a stranger has taken their place in the pew.  Let’s hope that their anger isn’t so intense that they are prevented from hearing the proclamation of the Good News.

Easter should be the feast that shores up challenged faith. I would wager that every year there are those that come into the celebration hoping against hope.  This Feast is especially important for those who are new to mourning: parents that have lost a child; brothers and sisters who have lost a sibling or a parent; a man or woman who has lost a spouse.  Depending on the intensity of the grief, the mourner can wonder if there is reason to hope, reason to go on living.

The one who sees does not believe.  If I see another face-to-face I do not have to believe that s/he exists.  There is no faith in heaven, no hope, only love.  Those in glory do not have to believe.  They are in the presence.

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

It is not a bad idea to try to imagine what thoughts raced through the heads of Peter and the Beloved One as they raced to the Tomb.  Peter remains burdened by the memory of having denied that he was a disciple or that he even knew Jesus.  Moments of panic can surface scores of memories.  He could have been experiencing kaleidoscopic images of the first meeting on the seashore and the mountaintop Transfiguration.  He might have been feeling still the tug of the net teeming with fish caught at Jesus’ direction to cast the nets again after a night of fruitless labor.  Perhaps he saw Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm, remembering how he sank when Jesus had bidden him to come.  There is the possibility that he shivered, remembering the gaze that passed between them during that final encounter following Peter’s third denial.

The other disciple, the one Jesus loved, what was he thinking as he raced ahead of the older Peter.  Beloved.  That is his designation, one denoting a special relationship.  At the final meal he had reclined at table next to Jesus and had leaned into his embrace to ask Jesus which one would betray him.  He had stood at the cross on that terrible day only to hear Jesus entrust his mother to the Beloved One’s care.  But notice that his eagerness to see for himself did not keep him from deferring to Peter, allowing him to enter the Tomb first.  Imagine the heart pounding within his breast as he waited at the entrance, storing up the signs, wondering what they meant.

In the end the Gospel is about faith that results from the confrontation of signs.  When Peter arrives, he enters and sees the burial cloths.  A curious detail is added.  The cloth that had covered the body’s face was 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, drinks in the signs and seeing, he believes.

Of course it is possible that both Peter and the Beloved disciple believed in that moment.  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 is not a fault.  It is a reminder that faith is a gift that comes when grace empowers 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.  But that should not make us conclude that resurrection is resuscitation as it is depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  If you ever have the opportunity, view Pier Paolo Pasolini’s brilliant The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  Pasolini got it right.  You’ll catch the difference immediately.

To confuse resurrection and resuscitation is to limit the Mystery and contain it.  Jesus resuscitated Lazarus; but remember that Lazarus had to die again.

So, we come to Easter variously burdened.  Perhaps we are seasoned believers, aging as did Peter.  Perhaps we are newly aware of being sinners as Pope Francis declared himself to be.  There will be those who come to the celebration burden with a new diagnosis of a terminal disease.  The neophytes in their white robes stand as the Beloved Disciple, drinking in the signs, pondering as they rejoice in their newfound faith.  We all come with cares needing to have signs contradicted.  The betrayed and the shunned 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?

Maybe we will limp in with all the others, those familiar to us and those strangers.  All of us bearing scars of another year’s wounds we encountered on the way.  But if, burdened by them, we move from the Table of the Word and stand with them at the Table of the Eucharist we will remember and recognize Him in the Breaking of the Bread.  Sharing in the meal, we will know the Presence.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE PASCHAL TRIDUUM – ONE FEAST OVER THREE DAYS

Some will think of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday as three separate and distinct feasts.  Perhaps you have thought of them that way.  The truth is that what has come to be thought of as three feasts, in reality comprise one feast that continues over three days.  The Paschal Triduum (the word means three days) does not have three distinct liturgies.  Rather we enter one Liturgical journey during those three days that comprise the most important celebration of our faith in the Church’s Year.  It saddens me to think that so many have never allowed themselves to enter into the experience.

I remember a letter I received some years ago from a senior woman parishioner.  She had been a life-long Catholic and had always practiced her faith.  Only illness had ever kept her from Sunday Mass.  She told me that that year, because of something I had said, she had made the complete Triduum for the first time.  In prior years she had been content to celebrate Easter Sunday.  True, occasionally she had attended Holy Thursday, but rarely Good Friday, and never the Holy Saturday Vigil.  She wrote lamenting that fact because this year the Triduum had proved a moment of faith that she would never forget.  She wrote on Wednesday of Easter Week and said that already she found herself looking forward to next year’s Triduum.  She said that she even liked to use the word, Triduum now that she knew what it meant.  Witnessing the adult emersion Baptisms filled her with awe.  She had never seen the like.  So rich was the moment she found herself wishing she could be baptized again the way these neophytes had been.

We are a very busy people.  So who can be expected to devote three days to a religious observance?  It’s true that each part usually lasts over an hour.  Rumors about the length of the Vigil abound even with many pastors reducing the number of readings to three.  As pastor, I always incorporated all seven readings, with seven different lectors, in the dark, the only light coming from the Easter Candle and candles that had been lit from the Easter Candle, held by the Assembly.  So, some would say, the combined length is too much to ask of anybody.  Or, is it?

Think back remembering the Lent we just completed.  What were we doing through those six weeks?  The Church encouraged us to fast, to pray, and to give alms.  Why?  We are better for each practice, and giving ourselves over to all three can renew and transform us and have an impact not only on our faith lives, but also on our relationship with the entire Church, and therefore with Jesus Christ.  Certainly Pope Francis’s messages through this Lent would support that concept, as he prays for a poorer Church serving the needs of the poor; and for a more obviously servant Church.

Experiencing hunger, we recognize an emptiness that only Christ can fill.  Sitting in and being enveloped by silence, we can find ourselves open to the God who longs for us to let him be our God just as God longs for us to be God’s people.  Giving ourselves in service and sharing our wealth, we can come to identify with those in need and see Christ in them.  Perhaps, in the process we can come to understand why Lent is a penitential season.  If we do penance, we turn away from whatever separates us from the love of God in order to give ourselves more completely to God.  Having completed the forty-day journey with Jesus in the desert, do we now experience a holy longing to give ourselves to the Triduum, a need to be there with the Church of which we are parts, and celebrate the core mysteries of our faith?  The Church doesn’t make the Triduum obligatory, as in holy days of obligation.  The urgency to join in the celebration should come from within, just as the urge to celebrate Sunday Eucharist does.

So we come together in the worship space on Holy Thursday evening.  Two things we should notice as we enter.  Lent is over and gone is the purple of that season.  White vestments and hangings are the order and flowers may adorn the space.  Second, as you pass the reservation chapel, you will notice that the tabernacle is open and empty.  There should be no reserved consecrated Bread.

The Assembly of sisters and brothers gathers in the evening just as Jesus did with his disciples on the night before he died.  We gather and we listen to the Word proclaimed reminding us that we are involved in Passover as we remember that Jesus is our Passover Lamb of Sacrifice.  Paul instructs us that when we gather we renew what Jesus did when during that night he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, inviting them to eat his body.  And he invited them to drink from the cup of his blood.  We are to continue to do that each Lord’s Day until Christ comes again in glory.

You might expect that the Gospel proclaimed would be about the institution of the Eucharist, too.  In stead, we hear John’s Last Supper narrative about Jesus the foot washer.  (People still remember those whose feet Pope Francis washed last Holy Thursday.  Some were scandalized by what he did.)  The fact is, the reading is a complement to the Institution Narrative.  We are challenged to live what we hear.  Jesus speaks to us here and now.  When he finished washing their feet, Jesus said to them: What I have done for your, so you should do for one another.  If we share in the meal we must realize that the result will be our being sent to do what Jesus did, not only to wash feet, but also to minister to our sisters and brothers within and outside the community.  Tonight you might be invited to be a foot washer.  Or, you might be invited to have your feet washed.  In either role, chances are you will feel uncomfortable.  Either role is humbling.  But don’t miss the important symbol that is being proclaimed.  This ritual of feet washing is what the Church ought to be about – always.  We are a servant Church.  We are not about splendor and aggrandizement.  It shouldn’t be only the pope who is called to be the servant of the servants of God.  So also should we be.  Is that why the new pope signs his name simply: Francisco?  No pp. in front.  Just his name, pure and simple.  I say, Wow!

After the feet washing is completed, we move on to the celebration of the Eucharist, giving thanks to God for the life we live in Christ.  We receive Christ’s Body and Blood.  We are one with Christ and one with each other in Christ as Church.

The Liturgy of Holy Thursday has no conclusion or dismissal.  Instead, the Communion Bread will be processed to the reservation chapel.  We will be invited to stay, to watch and to pray as we await the next segment of our Triduum celebration – Good Friday.

It is clear that the Liturgy of Good Friday is a continuation of and not separate from the Liturgy of Holy Thursday.  There is no entrance rite.  Instead, once we have reassembled in the worship space we pause for a moment of silent reflection to ponder the solemnity of this night of the Lord’s Passion and to pray that we will be open to entering into the Liturgy of the Word.  We hear the Prophet Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who seemed in the view of the foolish, to be punished by God.  In reality, the Servant is God’s beloved.  Then the Writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering.  The implication is obvious; so will we through ours.  We can approach our Great High Priest with confidence because Christ is our perfect representative and intercessor before God.  Because Christ, in spite of his struggles and temptations to the contrary, embraced his suffering and death, he has become the source of eternal salvation for all.  The result is that we can live in hope regardless of how dire the circumstances surrounding us might be.  The prize, if you will, has been won for us.

If you are able, stand for the proclamation of John’s account of Christ’s Passion.  If the proclaimer is accomplished, resist the temptation to follow along with a printed text.  Let the words wash over you and catch you up in the wonder of what is unfolding.  Notice that in John’s account, Jesus remains Lord, with full knowledge He carries the cross to Calvary.  Notice that he mounts the cross as a king would his throne.  Christ reigns from the Cross and pours himself out to the shedding of the last drops of blood and water from his side.  It is finished.  With those words, Jesus proclaims that he has accomplished all that the Father gave him to do.  And he breathes forth his spirit in peace.

The Gospel passage concludes with the body of Jesus being wrapped in burial cloths, similar to the swaddling clothes he had worn as an infant when he lay in the manger.  The body is laid in the tomb in which no other person had ever been buried.  It is finished.  Yes, but the beginning is not long away.

Following the proclamation of the Passion we will gather around the altar, this time not to celebrate Eucharist, but to pray for the renewal of the whole world and all its inhabitants that the original order planned by God at the beginning of time might be restored and all might come to know God’s love and peace.  I hope the prayers won’t be rushed or that you will become impatient.  There is much to ponder as sectors of society are put before us and as intercessory prayer is offered for them.  Lord knows, and so should we, there is much to pray about in these times, many signs of the ongoing Passion of Christ being lived in those who suffer.  Remember, too, the intercessor is Christ in, with, and through whom we pray.

A short Communion Service concludes this part of the Liturgy.  In former times, Good Friday was the one day Eucharist was not celebrated and Communion not offered.  We fasted on Good Friday even from the Lord’s Body and Blood.  In some ways, I wish it were that way still.  We should experience emptiness at this point in the Liturgy and a holy longing for Christ to come and fill it.  Certainly it would place all our other needs in perspective and our wealth, too.

The Easter Vigil is THE celebration of Easter.  Sunday will be the First Sunday of Easter, continuing what began in the celebration of the Vigil.  It is meant to be celebrated in the night and can be timed to end at dawn’s first light.  Monasteries can do it that way.  Only a few parishes will be able to.  But the symbolism is rich and powerful as it begins in darkness.  Fire symbolically consumes all that was as the old order passes away.  And out of the fire comes the spark that lights the Easter Candle, the principal symbol of the Risen Christ.  It is that Light that will scatter the darkness.  I pray your fire will be of sufficient size to merit the name fire.  A can of flickering Sterno leaves much to be desired.

As the burning Candle is carried into the dark church, Christ, our Light is proclaimed.  The Assembly responds: Thanks be to God.  Three times the dialog is exchanged and flickering candles lit from the one Candle announce the spread of the faith in the Risen One.  The Exultet is sung, calling on all of creation and all women and men to rejoice in what is happening this night.

By the Light of the Candle, lectors will proclaim the various readings that in reality make up a recap of Salvation’s history.  We begin with the Creation narrative and conclude with the Resurrection narrative and the empty tomb.  Many places will eliminate several readings.  It that is the case where you celebrate, I hope you will take the time to read the missing selections for yourself.  You deserve the whole story.

I have already taxed your patience here, so I will be brief with the remaining commentary.  Following the return of the Glory to God and the ringing of the bells and the singing of the Alleluia, in full light, the Gospel is proclaimed.  Then it is time for the Elect to be baptized.  They will be presented to the Assembly who in turn, in union with all the saints in the Litany will pray for the Elect as they journey to the Font.  The Assembly has prayed for the Elect all through the Lenten Season.  Now they pray as the Elect are initiated through the Waters of Baptism and are anointed with Chrism.  Then they are brought to the Table for their first participation in the Eucharist.  There may well be tears, but they will be tears of joy for the wonder that Christ is accomplishing in them through his dying and rising.

And the Easter Season begins.  May you be blessed and renewed in the faith we celebrate here.  And may you be a sign always of the presence of the Risen One as you imitate Christ in Service.

Happy Easter!

Sincerely,

Didymus