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THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – April 30, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 2:14, 22-33
A reading from the first Letter of St. Peter 1:17-21
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 24:13-35

Dear Reader,

Have you ever noticed that the beginnings of faith often have to do with letting go of suppositions about Jesus?  As you started out you might have had to let go of so much as you dealt with disappointment.  Perhaps you thought you believed only to have an epiphany, as it were that told you that you had no idea.  Or better, you discovered that your preconceptions centered on such a limited portion of the truth and often involved misconceptions.  We are dealing with Mystery, after all, so, when you think about it why should that have been a surprise?

Today’s Gospel passages are among my favorites. I pray with it at least weekly.  Each time I find something new that is a marvel.  I turn to the passage in times of desolation.  I rest in it in times of elation.  I have come to accept that to be a believer means to journey with Jesus on the way.

Think about it.  When and where did your faith life begin?  What sustains it?

The two people on their way to Emmaus are introduced to us as disciples.  That designation means that they had made their decisions to follow, i.e., to be with Jesus.  These two are different from those who made up the crowds that milled around Jesus, listening to him, observing him in action, but remaining uncommitted.  We are given a hint about what the two thought about Jesus.  He was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.  His powerful preaching impressed them, and even more so by how his preaching translated into action.   They may well have concluded that there had never been another as wonderful as Jesus who could give them reason to hope during the oppressive times in which they were living.  Remember, they lived in a time of domination by Roman rule.  Jesus seemed to fit so many of the qualities that they expected to see exhibited in the one who would redeem Israel, that is, the one who would set Israel free from the oppressors.

What had gone wrong?  The two are conversing and debating about their Jesus experience.  Some things he said and did fit their preconceptions of the Messiah.  The poor did have the Good News preached to them.  It had been thrilling to see multitudes rapt in attention to his every word.  Some wanted to touch his clothes, believing in the power of contact with him.  There had been reports of miracles.  But then came the condemnation and crucifixion that seemed to reduce him to the status of a common criminal.  That was a concept not associated with the Messiah.

When you began to believe, what did you imagine Jesus would do for you?  There are not a few today who promote a Jesus who will bring wealth and power to those who turn their lives over to him.  Did such thought draw you to Jesus in the beginning?

The stranger that joins the two on their way to Emmaus invites them to go deeper into their disappointments.  He gives them an opportunity to acknowledge their grief, even as he invites them to let go of their assumptions and enter the new Way.  Don’t miss the important statement that their eyes were prevented from recognizing (Jesus).  It happens in Luke and John’s Gospels that disciples do not recognize the Resurrected One in their first encounters with him.  What is happening is, these disciples are coming to see him for the first time with insights that alter all their previous experiences of him.  Invariable there is much they must let go of.  Is it not curious that the two have heard the astounding news reported by some of the women in the group?  The empty tomb.  Angels announcing that he is alive.  Amazing news, yes, but not enough to convince them.

Hang on now.  There is an abrupt transition.  The Stranger does not mince words.  How foolish you are.  How slow of heart to believe!  They have missed the whole point of the mission and message.  The Jesus moment was one of God’s entering into the human experience, inviting people to live a new life.  It was as if God were saying again, in the words found in Hebrew Scriptures, Let me be your God and you will be my people.  God wants to live in a union that you could never have dreamed or imagined, if only you will not be embarrassed by this different kind of Messiah, different from your expectations.  This is the Christ who walks with you in faith.  Here is the shocking transition that, if accepted, alters forever the meaning and role of suffering in life.

The common belief regarding suffering was, and for many continues today to be, that suffering was a punishment for sin, either for one’s own sins or those of one’s ancestors.  The crucifixion was horrible, but worse was the obvious meaning assumed by many that God punished Jesus on the cross through the hands of those who drove in the nails and crowned him with thorns.  How foolish you are.  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?

Chew on that for a moment.  Unfortunately, we hear texts over and over again.  A Gospel is proclaimed.  We hear the opening words, know the rest of the story, and muse off about something else until the proclamation is over.  I remember looking out at the Assembly while reading the Gospel that spoke of Jesus’ calming the wind and the waves.   A woman yawned.  That startled me.  How could someone hear about the calming of gales and yawn?

So here, too.  What should shock us each time we hear it is, in a simple turn of phrase, suffering, far from being a punishment for sin, becomes a means of entering into glory.  Christ is a suffering Messiah.

Then what about disciples?  What comes to them if they follow Jesus?  The challenge is that Jesus must be all in all for them.  I wonder if the two disciples remembered that Jesus had warned that if they would be his disciples they would have to take up the cross every day and follow him.  Had they been present for the encounter between Jesus and the rich person who desired salvation?  That person had followed all the commandments from youth.  What more had to be done?  Go sell what you have and give to the poor.  Then come and follow me.  That person went away sad.  Giving up his wealth and becoming one with the poor was more than he could do.

The two disciples had to let go of their assumptions and preconceptions.  It is not an exaggeration to say that they had to go back to square one.  They had to read the scriptures in a new light.  They had to see that discipleship was not for self-aggrandizement but for imitating Jesus, loving as he loved.  There was so much that had to die if they were to live.  And there was the cross at the center of it all.

Isn’t it curious that with all the insights the Stranger shared with them, they still did not recognize him?  The recognition of the truth burning in their hearts did not remove the veil from their eyes.  That happened at the Table, not in the way that we might expect, but in how Christ’s abiding presence would be achieved.  The Brad is broken.  It is in the action of the Eucharist that they recognized the Risen One.  As soon as they did they are compelled to return to their community to tell the story and share the faith.

So it must be for us.  The Word lives in the proclamation.  As we are nourished at the table of the Word and our hearts burn with the recognition of the truth, we must go to the other Table and do Eucharist.  It is there we will recognize the Risen One and know his presence.  But it never stops there.  Celebrating Eucharist and sharing in that meal mean that we must then be sent to tell the Good News in word and action, loving others as we are loved.  And the Kingdom dawns.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – April 23, 2017

 

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

 

He sat in the silent church, silent except for the sound of the water trickling down from the raised bowl into the baptismal font below. The stained glass windows in the eastern clerestory shimmered as the setting sun’s blue and red rays danced on the west wall and 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. 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 as an indication that he should be on his way. I walked to the narthex and noisily closed the doors 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 jaw clenched as I noted that the man continued to sit stolidly in place, giving no evidence he intended to respond to the audible signals I so clearly had given.

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. 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. 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 back to the Candle? “I was here a week ago for the Vigil and heard you proclaim Christ to be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. You lit the Candle from the Easter fire and then entered this dark church to proclaim Christ our Light! I joined the others with Thanks be to God! I think I meant it. I desperately want to believe it. It was thrilling as one by one the candles we held received light and flickered a moment before the light was passed on to a neighbor. I remember the darkness of the night yielding as one by one the candles burned brighter.

“We all sat in the candles’ light and listened to the story from the beginning. The words rushed over us. Genesis. Exodus. Isaiah. On and on in hypnotic cadence the words washed over the people. I wondered, do I believe this? I want to the way I did a year ago when I entered the baptismal waters. I want to, 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 right hand flicked across his cheek, whisking tears away. “I can see that you are upset. It is about this lack of feeling you have, or is there something more?”

“I love the Easter Candle. When I was being prepared for my Baptism, I was told that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrection. When I was being baptized I kept my eyes fixed on it. What an awesome night that was. The Candle had figured in every step along the course of the service. It was the first thing I saw when I emerged from the water gasping. Three times the water poured over me.”

I thought that there must be something more that he wants to talk about. His body language spoke of someone who had just heard of the death of a loved one. My need to urge him on his way had subsided. I was content to wait and listen. Rather than stare at him, my gaze focused on the Candle, 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. “A few months from now and I will find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence. I feel like darkness is enveloping me. I keep hearing the doctor’s words. He was sorry 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. “Thank you for not saying something trite. Thank you for not saying that you understand. It is amazing how many people say they understand my pain.”

I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I searched for something to say. I knew that silence wasn’t enough. I reached over and took his hand. “I can pray,” I said. “I can try to support you with my prayers.”

“I don’t have anyone near by, any family. They are 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. He turned toward me and tightened his hold of my hand. “If I could only see something that would convince me. I’m like Didymus, maybe. Like him, if I could touch the wounds, even feel his breath, I know I could believe then.”

“You do believe. You are here. You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this Assembly. You were transformed more completely with them into the Body of Christ. 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.” I remember feeling that I was struggling, grasping for words, praying that something I would say would touch.

“Am I loved? Does Christ love me? Did God send this thing that is killing me to punish me for my sins? Maybe if my faith was stronger, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

“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 crowds and to the entire world it looked like defeat. Jesus proclaimed God’s faithfulness and love. He experienced darkness. He leapt into the void, believing that the Father would catch him in an embrace and raise him up.

“That’s what God will do with you. The Father loves you with the same love he has for Jesus. In fact, God might not be able to tell the two of you apart. Remember that white robe you put on after your Baptism. Remember what it symbolized? You have put on Christ.”

“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 enshrouding the casket reminded those gathered that at his Baptism he 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 Candle went before us as we made our way down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.

 

 

 

BLESSINGS ON EASTER SUNDAY – April 16, 2017

Dear Reader,

It is springtime in the desert.  The night air is fragrant with the scent of citrus and cactus blossoms.  I sat on my patio and watched the Easter moon cast its glow that caused the surroundings to shimmer.  A mourning dove perched on the wall near me, sang to its partner in the sky.  Strange how all those elements came together to remind me of Mystery.

We are people of faith.  The challenge for us is to live in Mystery and say boldly to the world that there is more than what the senses can behold.  There is something more important than what is tangible, more important than youth, or beauty, or wealth, or power.  We are dared to trust that darkness will not triumph, nor will war, or hatred, or prejudice, nor any of the powers that threaten human kind and bring us to our knees in near despair.  There is something that can only be experienced when all else has failed and the powers of darkness have done their worst.  We must never forget that darkness enveloped Jesus in the last moments of his dying.  He felt abandoned as he cried out to Abba, Father, and asked, “Why have you forsaken me?”

The Lenten journey is that kind of walk, that time of being alone with Jesus, a time when we are invited to enter into the darkness and experience the worst that can befall us.  Every year the season begins with the Temptations in the Desert.  Look at them closely and you will recognize that they sum up all the temptations we can suffer in life, as what dazzles and distracts might make us wonder if God ought to have primacy of place in our lives.  Gold, position, power, these just might seem more important than we realize.  The powers of darkness might make us wonder if God will triumph.  Will we hear God’s plea, “Let me be your God.  You will be my people.”

Easter, in the northern hemisphere at least, comes in springtime.  Winter has done its worst and we have survived.  There have been ample signs of the power of darkness.  Horror stories of wars, famine, disease, exploitation of the weak and the poor, global horrors that have been put before us in the nightly news.

Some experienced estrangement from a loved one, the severing of a relationship thought to have been life long.  Some have kept the lonely vigil by the deathbed and watched and wondered how life would ever be endurable without the loved one.  Some might know the bitterest blow of betrayal by someone loved and trusted.  Some might have been brought to their knees by all of those things that tempt us to think in terms of tragedy – the ultimate defeat.

Is there something in our nature that demands the experience of betrayal, or loss, or defeat, before we can know the hope that is rooted in faith?  I believe that at this point on my faith journey I have a much keener understanding of Jesus’ Passion than I did before my long dark night began.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass me by; yet not my will but yours be done.”  “Do you betray me with a kiss?”  “Crucify him.  Crucify him!”  Then there was light – and with the light came forgiveness and freedom, resurrection, if you will.

Jesus commands us, if we would be his disciples, to take up the cross every day and follow him.  I used to think we were to choose the cross.  Now I know that Jesus didn’t choose his and neither do we.  Jesus’ was thrust on him.  And so will ours be.  When we embrace the cross then we know what discipleship means; but I don’t think we do before that embrace.

Pope Francis, from the first moments as pope, has urged the church to pick up the cross, to throw of the trappings of splendor and majesty and become a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  The shepherds are to shepherd in the midst of the sheep and smell like them.  Shocking declarations for those who saw the church as a means out of poverty to positions of power and authority.  What happens to authority if there are many paths to God, if even atheists can find their way to heaven?

The cross that Francis urges us to embrace is compassion.  Compassion means to suffer with.  It is when we suffer with the suffering that we meet Jesus, or rather, that we know Jesus.

The passage in all of Scripture that is dearest to my heart is the Emmaus story.  The two travelers’ s faith has been shattered by their witnessing Jesus’ destruction on the Cross.  “We had thought he was the one who would set Israel free.”  The mysterious Stranger that walked with them invited them to revisit what they had experienced and this time view it through the prism of faith: “Did not the Son of Man have to suffer these things and so enter into his glory?”   And after they had pressed the Stranger to stay with them and he, in Eucharistic language had taken the bread, blessed and broken it and given it to them, and when he had vanished from their sight, they remembered that they recognized him in the Breaking of the Bread.  They knew it was the Lord and that their hearts had been burning as they walked with him On The Way and he invited them to share in the new perspective.

The Emmaus story is important for us to remember.  Notice that the Lord did not revise recent history for the two.  He did not take away the horror of the passion and death.  They had happened.  But the Good Friday the two had witnessed was not about defeat, but about victory.  Easter dares us to trust the story and believe in the Mystery.  Maybe Easter can only hold sway in our lives when we have been brought to our lowest point, when our strength has been depleted, when everything else has failed us, and we are still alive.  The cross is still the cross and it can be horrible.  But in the light of Easter, it is also a sign of hope and promised victory.  “Behold, I make all things new!”

A favorite quote from a favorite saint, Thomas More, seems apt by way of conclusion: “Pray for me as I will for thee, that we meet merrily in heaven!”  I promise to do that.  Will you?

Sincerely,

Didymus