There is something very interesting about the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. We begin with what appears to be unity: “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together.” It was a particular kind of unity, though. The apostles, Mary the mother of Jesus, “his brothers,” and “some women” were all gathered together in the Upper Room. Likely they were very afraid (see John 20:19). Beyond fear, they were united in a common culture and language. They had shared experiences with Jesus, both before and after the resurrection. And they all had been given a great commission. The disciples, on many levels, were indeed united.
I am suspicious of unity sometimes, aren’t you? I worry that it’s a simulacrum, a comfortable sense of togetherness, but not the unity Jesus spoke of when he prayed “That they may all be one” (John 17:21, NABRE). Do you know what I mean? Aren’t there times when we feel pressure towards uniformity instead of genuine unity? Times when nobody wants to rock the boat and when voices get stifled? Aren’t there also times when the unity we feel is insulated from the larger world with all its needs, as if my family or my church is a fortress against the cruel forces out there? We don’t even realize that we are in our own Upper Rooms with the doors locked. It’s cozy there after all. We know everyone. We all speak the same language and share the same culture. We understand each other.
And then the wind begins to howl! “And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.” Just as in Genesis, a wind indicates the Spirit. We know that something new is being created. And then, “there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…” The Spirit of God cannot be satisfied with the enclaved unity in the Upper Room. The Spirit is effecting the will of Christ and the Father, that “all may be one” without boundaries, without borders, without locked doors. The Spirit burns like a fire within us, compelling us to go out and to set the world ablaze.
This is where I think things get most interesting. God is always surprising us! What seemed like unity in the Upper Room gets disrupted by the Spirit. Now, they “began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” With power and boldness, they went out and began to announce the Good News of salvation, and people of all languages understood. We are taught to see this as a reversal of the situation at the Tower of Babel (even the readings at the vigil Mass make the connection). There, hubris led to the division of languages and peoples. Here, humble submission to the Spirit allows for unity. But there is a critical difference. The Spirit did not restore us to uniformity of language. We did not return to a pre-Babel existence. The Spirit creates something new! The Spirit destroys the comfortable unity of the Upper Room and creates diversity capable of speaking to every person in every tongue. The Church is born, and from the start it will be “catholic,” a word James Joyce said means, “Here comes everybody!”
In our Church and world today, what are the many “languages” that are spoken? They are the various cultures in which the Gospel takes root, wouldn’t you agree? They are the differences in ritual, in music, in theological approaches, and in spiritualities. If you’re like me, you probably have a “home” in one particular “language.” Pentecost helps me to accept the great diversity that is the Church—united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5, NABRE)—even when it makes me uncomfortable. The Spirit is blowing up a storm, after all, and is raising up disciples who speak every language on earth. Out of these differences and diversity—like the Trinity itself, which is Unity in Diversity—the Spirit is creating something new, the eschatological unity Jesus prayed for, the very Reign of God.
Today is Mother’s Day, and perhaps I should write a sweet tribute. I would be careful to remember that stories about mothers are more complicated than the Hallmark cards admit. There are absent mothers and alcoholic mothers and abusive mothers. There are women who wanted to be mothers but who could not conceive or who remain single. There are mothers who lost their pregnancies, sometimes multiple times. There are also women who are foster mothers, godmothers, step-mothers, or who just step up and play the role of mother. Some of us have lost their mothers and still grieve. My own mother is still with us, and I am grateful for her love. Mothers of all sorts, at their best, remind us of God: life-giving, unconditionally loving, never giving up on us, and making sacrifices for our well-being. It is not a surprise that the Bible has feminine and maternal imagery for God, even though we default to the masculine. We are diminished when we do that.
I want to take this reflection in a difficult direction. I want to talk about mothers and martyrdom. Tertullian famously noted that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Martyrs, then, are a kind of mother, and I want to use this Mother’s Day to honor the martyrs of our time.
Today’s first reading focuses on the martyrdom of St. Stephen. He is portrayed as Christ-like in his death, saying as they stoned him, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” It is such a beautiful story of faith that I almost forget the violence.
His story comes alive, though, when we think about the martyrs whose deaths prompted Rome to light up the Trevi Fountain in red last week. We are living in the age of martyrs, and the violence is real and gut-wrenching. How do we hold onto our faith in the midst of such evil?
One suggestion is to look at the stories of mothers. I have been reading recent reports about the atrocities that ISIS has committed against Christians (here is a link, but be advised, the stories are exceedingly gruesome and painful to read). One mother in Mosul, for example, endured holding her dying daughter in her arms after ISIS set the house on fire, a horrid modern day Pietà. The girl’s last words were, “Forgive them.”
We hear something similar from the surviving nun at one of Mother Teresa’s homes in Yemen. Many of you will remember that four Missionaries of Charity were murdered: Sisters Judith, Reginette, Anselm, and Marguerite. What is less known is that Sr. Sally, the superior, escaped detection. So here we have another type of mother, another Pietà, and another witness to the faith. In response to the violence, Sr. Sally “said to pray that their blood will be the seeds for peace in the Middle East and to stop the ISIS.”
I am somewhat desensitized to the martyrdom story of St. Stephen, and perhaps even to the vicious brutality of the Cross; but stories of these modern martyrs make it all very real. Martyrdom is brutal and bloody and sickening. The evil is palpable. Those who murder and rape do not even seem human or worthy of our prayers. How can we possibly forgive the perpetrators of such evils? Yet, Christ did, and St. Stephen did, and that dying girl in Mosul did.
My mother, far removed from the violence of terrorism, has her own wisdom to share. She would jump in between her sons if we began to fight, saying, “Hit me! When you’re hitting your brother it’s hurting me, so go ahead, hit me!” The fighting always stopped (and no one ever dared hit her!) We are all brothers and sisters. To pray for the conversion of those who are fighting us, torturing us, raping and killing us, is a supreme act of love for our God, who, like my mother, is “hurt” by our violence. To forgive is to recognize God’s love even for the terrorist and to participate in that love for the sake of all that God holds dear. Like a perfect Mother, God wants peace among all her children. The violence should not provoke us to hatred and vengeance. Martyrs, like mothers, give life. Their words are forgiveness and peace. Despite the violence, their witness is not to death, for they have “wash[ed] their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life.” Have you been a mother in this way, bringing life and love, forgiveness and peace into the world? Happy Mother’s Day!
Watching Congress this last number of years has been like watching a streaming movie when you don’t have enough bandwidth. Just when you think it’s working and you’ll enjoy the show, everything comes to a halt. After some fits and starts, it all seems good again… until minutes later it freezes up. “Buffering” and “insufficient bandwidth” and what video gamers call “lag” can be infuriating.
The inability of Congress to take action on serious issues shouldn’t surprise us. Compromise is difficult, especially when the values at stake are deeply held. To compromise might seem like a betrayal, and it might not always be appropriate. We can’t be blown every which way by the cultural and political winds after all. We need to take a stand. Don’t we feel this kind of pressure in other aspects of our lives from time to time as well? It isn’t always easy to know when to take a strong stand and when to be willing to budge.
Contentious issues affect the Church too. In the reading from Acts, we hear the report from the Council of Jerusalem. St. Paul had inspired a heated debate about the Gentile converts. Did they have to follow Jewish dietary laws? Did the men have to be circumcised? In short, to become Christian, did one have to submit to Jewish law?
I imagine this council was not unlike other contentious meetings, especially because it dealt with religious values, which people hold most dear. This is what makes the reading from Acts so powerful. Despite the deeply held values and the religious nature of the laws, the apostles reached a compromise. We hear today one of the greatest lines in all of Scripture:
“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…”
This may, at first, seem like the greatest blasphemy—to call the compromise that was reached after such a contentious meeting the decision of the Holy Spirit—but really, our faith tells us that this is exactly the way the Spirit works. Through the messiness of debate and the willingness to compromise that can only come from really hearing one another—really listening, praying, and discerning—the Spirit joins us in making our decisions. The Spirit gives us wisdom to know when to take a stand and when to budge.
In Jerusalem, the Spirit guided the apostles to embrace their Jewish identity while also welcoming the Gentile converts and becoming, for the first time, truly “catholic,” meaning open to everyone. True to this first council, Pope Francis reminds us to, “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”
The Spirit guides the Church in a very unique way, of course, and Church councils are not the same as political debates or personal dilemmas by any means. But, perhaps we can learn from the Council of Jerusalem to entrust our decisions to the guidance of the Spirit.
Whether in Church life, political life, or our personal lives, what is toxic is fear. In all these arenas, we must be the Home of the Brave. As we discern whether to take a strong stand or to be willing to compromise, a good indicator that we are open to the Spirit is that we are not motivated by fear. Scripture tells us,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NABRE).
We act only out of love, without any animosity towards those who hold different viewpoints. When we are tempted to fear by the possibility of change and by things that are unfamiliar to us, we should remember Jesus’ words promising an Advocate who will “teach you everything.” Believing we can welcome the Spirit to join us in our debates and decisions, we begin to trust. We prayerfully discern, in the company of the Church, like the apostles did, when it is okay to compromise (without fearing that we are compromising ourselves and our faith) and, on the other hand, when we must stand our ground. Our hearts, no longer “troubled or afraid,” are open to be filled with the gift Jesus promised: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” We can sit back and enjoy the movie again, instead of letting anger, fear, and suspicion create the gridlock and division that make everything into a dreaded “lag.”
In Japan and Ecuador this past week, terrible earthquakes took hundreds of lives and left many others injured, emotionally distraught, and faced with the burden of having to rebuild and start over. In response to such a tragedy, I find it easy to think that I am a good Christian. I am moved to compassion after all. I have kept the people who are suffering in my prayers, and I even donated to Catholic Relief Services to provide some assistance. At the heart of Christianity stand Jesus’ words to his disciples that we hear in John’s Gospel this Sunday:
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should also love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Surely I have done my duty. I have acted out of love. Let me pat myself on the back. Let me go back to my comfortable life.
It is this return to comfort that disturbs me and eats at my conscience. Did I do enough? Am I ever doing enough? Even when I act out of love, is it unselfish love? Is it sacrificial love? Is it the costly discipleship that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke about and exemplified? In short, am I really loving as Jesus loved? If only the commandment were “Don’t hate anyone.” That is far more manageable. I don’t think I really hate anyone.
Love, though—that’s a different story, especially to love as Jesus did. It means recognizing every person as a brother or a sister, and acting accordingly. If it were any one of my blood brothers who lost his house or his health in the earthquakes, I would not yet have moved on. I would never think that my small donation and a few prayers had met the requirements of love. I would put my own life on hold for the sake of my brother. I would go into debt for him. I would give all that I could and wouldn’t be satisfied until I saw that he was back on his feet again. Wouldn’t you do the same? And yet, when it comes to my brothers and sisters in Japan and Ecuador, I have already moved on. Apparently, “brothers and sisters” is just a phrase without meaning to me. I am not yet loving as Christ did.
Pope Francis has asked the world to reject the “globalization of indifference” and to foster a “culture of encounter.” It’s easy to move on, to be temporarily moved to pity and then to return to life as normal. It is much more difficult to stay, to really care. It interrupts my plans and makes demands on my time, energy, and resources. In other words, it forces me to become less focused on myself and my agenda. Without this displacement of the self, though, my “love” may be an imposter, an act of the ego with very little cost or investment. It takes time and commitment, after all, to “encounter” the people who are suffering so far away; but only in the encounter can I begin to see a brother or a sister. Only then will I begin to love as Jesus did. Only then can I honestly say, “Our Father.” I’m not there yet, but I know that’s where I want to be.
Who knew that the twelfth hole was going to be a killer? Throughout the Masters Tournament, the commentators were focused on young Jordan Spieth. He was the darling–the favorite—and he was way ahead of the pack. As his drive left the tee on that fateful hole, the gallery gasped. Then, when the ball went “sploosh” into the water, everything changed in an instant. Six strokes later Jordan was out of the running. He had choked and would not repeat as the champion.
Contemporary life is defined by rapid change. What is up today is down tomorrow. The phone I buy on Wednesday is obsolete by Friday. This week’s hero is next week’s goat. Changes seem so rapid–even sudden–that we all long for something rock steady and immutable. To find it, we often look back to the past with a sigh and wallow in the nostalgic misconception that “ way back then” everything was steady and reliable and unchanging.
Even when we indulge these thoughts, we know they are so much baloney. Everything changes and has always been changing. The universe has evolved, as has life on earth. From the very beginning, the cycle of birth, growth, and death has been the fate of all living things. Seeds fall to the earth and die. From them plants rise to produce seeds, and the life cycle goes on.
Every human life is one constant experience of change. Five centuries before Christ, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s principle observation was simply “Everything is in a state of flux.” As he expressed it, “You never step into the same river twice.”
You don’t need me to catalog change for you. It doesn’t take too many trips to the mirror to chart the progress of your own change. Yesterday you were clear-skinned and wide-eyed. Today the person staring back at you is graying and a bit wrinkled. Parents are dying, and children are leaving home. The life you hold so dear slips through your fingers. It makes you want to stamp your feet and demand that time stand still because change can be intimidating, even frightening. Yet change goes on.
The inevitability of change sometimes wreaks havoc on our spirits. We begin to resist change and try to conserve the past and condemn as “modern nonsense” the pressure of the future.
In no area of life is this unwillingness to celebrate change more evident than in our life of faith. We want our faith to be a safe harbor from change. We don’t want anybody to mess with its rituals and structures. Yet answering the call of faith is answering the call to change. Christians are fond of the word metanoia—conversion. What is conversion if not a change of heart and mind? Conversion, however, is not a one-time event. It is a state of mind. Every day is an opportunity to grow and to renew.
Christians are pilgrims who are journeying through life. On a journey the scenery is always changing. It is also quite important to remember that the Christian pilgrimage is not a solo flight. We are together on the journey. On the pilgrimage of faith, there are no outcasts. Christians don’t kick any people to the curb to leave them stranded on the roadside.
On the pilgrimage, each of us needs to raise our arms in a grand beckoning gesture so that everyone in earshot hears the words of this coming Sunday’s reading from Revelation:
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
We know that there are many water hazards and sand traps on life’s course, and sometimes we find ourselves in the rough. We have, however, the assurance that with God’s grace and mercy and with the support of the pilgrim community no mistake takes us out of the running. Our goal is in the future not in the past, and we face the rapid changes in our world with our eyes fixed on a shepherd’s promise.
I am the good shepherd, says the Lord;
I know my sheep, and mine know me.
My sheep hear my voice;
I know them and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
John 10:14, 27-28
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Loss—everyone experiences it. Every loss has its own level of emotion. There is the trivial yet no less emotional loss like that felt by the whole state of North Carolina when Kris Jenkins’s three-point shot beat the buzzer and wrested the national champion championship from their grasp and gave it to Villanova.
The losses I am writing about, however, are the personal losses experienced when loved ones die or relationships end badly. The tightening of the chest and the moistening of the eyes when we wrap our arms around the dying form of a faithful pet is also an experience of personal loss.
Apartment fires that harvest human life and destroy property in a random fashion or a tornado that rakes through a town destroying everything it its path deliver crushing losses in an instant. No one is exempt from loss. Admittedly, many losses are caused by the evil and violent actions of others.
Losing seems to be more a part of life than winning. People lose jobs. People lose assets. And there is no more despairing human sentiment than “all is lost!”
People handle their losses in many ways. Some folks find solace in the bottom of a bottle or in the medicine cabinet. Others find hope after loss in the company of friends and family. Prayer and silence are also aids in coping with the profound feelings that accompany loss.
At a time of communal loss, some folks show their mourning with somewhat ostentatious displays of sentiment such as piling flowers, notes, and stuffed animals at the site of a tragedy. We often see a little shrine appear at the roadside to mark the spot where a young couple died in a car crash. How may times have we witnessed the tears streaming down parents’ faces as they learn of the shooting death of their innocent children? What cosmic losses are the result of wars and insurrections, of ethnic cleansing and pogroms, of persecutions and exile?
Social media and 24/7 news cycles expand everyone’s participation in the losses of others. We stop in our tracks, and with fists clenched tightly to our lips, we watch the unfolding of an airline disaster or a train derailment. I would venture to say that not a single day goes by when we do not participate in a loss of our own or grieve with others who have come to know loss.
The Easter season provides a ritual antidote to loss. The one lesson of Easter is that there is hope for us all. Easter does not just commemorate one instance of resurrection over two centuries ago. Easter celebrates the new life that happens after all the little deaths and losses we experience. Easter is an everyday promise that we can pick up and move on after. Easter also urges us to be there for others in their losses as well. Our extended hands to those who have suffered losses and who have to cope with tragedy is our way of communicating the promise of Easter. Every time I show mercy and compassion to someone who is experiencing feelings of loss, I give witness to that life-giving moment when Jesus shattered the bonds of death.
In this Sunday’s liturgy, I am reminded of how some of Jesus’ disciples coped with their confusion and feelings of loss and even abandonment by going fishing. No matter that their luck was bad and there were no fish to be had. A compelling voice from the beach urged them to try another spot where they made a great catch of fish.
When they climbed out on shore,
they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.”
So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore
full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.
Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.”
And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”
because they realized it was the Lord.
Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them,
and in like manner the fish.
Sometimes the simplest of human gestures can be the most effective help to those feeling loss. Jesus helped his friends cope by preparing breakfast. Our greatest moments of evangelization can come when we reach out in simple kindness to others who are bent by the burden of loss.
The suffering of loss is often accompanied by the feeling that we too are somehow lost and adrift and alone. The personal experience of Easter is found in the words of John Newton’s classic hymn: “I once was lost, but now I am found.”
This Sunday’s psalm gives us words of hope, and also challenges us to minister to those who suffer loss:
Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me;
O LORD, be my helper.
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.
Easter is an attitude that no loss is forever and
that every sadness can be turned to joy.
It occurs to me that the wheels of society need a unique source of lubrication. The smooth running of society demands a certain level of doubt. One might think that faith, trust, and mutual respect are much better lubricants. Certainly they are constituent elements of a good society, but without a healthy dose of doubt, citizens are at risk of “being had” or at least of sacrificing reasoned participation on the altar of conformity.
Every totalitarian state, every dictatorship, every radical or reactionary movement, demand complete orthodoxy and blind certainty of its members. Even in democracies, political parties fear any deviation from a party platform. In the most radical of oppressive regimes or organizations, doubt and deviation can be punished by exile and even death.
Religion and spirituality are not exempt from trying to stamp out doubt and install certainty in its place. I used to think that the spiritual work of mercy designated as “counseling the doubtful” was an exercise in apologetics. A clear explanation of the fine points of doctrine would assuredly lift the shadow of doubt and ease the doubtful person’s struggle. But I was wrong.
We decry the blind faith demanded by jihadists or of radical groups holed up on a ranch
somewhere trying to fend off society. We are appalled by a person so possessed of a religious fervor and certainty that he or she would strap on a bomb and self-immolate to further a cause. Yet we often don’t see the problem with organizations that want us to leave our minds at the door when we seek to belong.
Businesses, banks, credit card companies, online vendors, and the like all woo us with proclamations of their trustworthiness. Their protestations of security are designed to cast away our lingering doubts. Thieves, hackers, and charlatans then jump in to prey on those who choose faith in vague promises or feigned dangers over reasoned skepticism.
This coming Sunday’s liturgy celebrates the greatest of all doubters—the man who has bestowed his very name on doubt—the Apostle Thomas. Even to this day, nobody wants to be labeled a “doubting Thomas.” We tend to look down our noses at poor Thomas just because—faced as he was by an unbelievable assertion that his murdered friend was now alive—wanted a little proof. History has been much harder on Thomas than Jesus himself was.
Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
John 20: 28-30
Doubt is a companion of faith not faith’s enemy. Rejection, disbelief, and certainty are the true enemies of faith. An attitude of genuine mercy understands that everyone struggles with faith. It is that very struggle—laced as it is with doubt—that helps to deepen faith. Trying to stamp out doubt does not give witness to the truth. Instead suppressing doubt in oneself or chastising doubts in others stifles the very human dynamic that enables growth in faith, in hope, and ultimately in love.
How often have I said the words “seeing is believing?” But in matters of faith as well as in matters of society what does that mean? For me it means that I depend on the witness of others. For example, I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus because I have seen Jesus in the flesh. I am, however, surrounded by those who witness to that resurrection. Their lives and their actions give testimony to their beliefs. Their witness does not relieve me of my doubts, but that witness helps me move beyond my doubts.
For me, the Apostle Thomas is the very image of faith. He should also teach us to be very, very suspicious when anyone demands that we gum up the wheels by forfeiting the shadow of doubt.
The blurred visions of shattered glass and clearing smoke announced yet another slaughter of the innocent. I stared blankly at the wave of human fear racing from a bombed out departure lounge and struggling to climb to the surface from a crumpled subway station. Images flashed by of the victims–those dead and those barely alive some of whose severed limbs were tastefully blurred from view. The accompanying soundtrack was the terrified wailing of a single child. “Oh, God, not again!” was my thought and my prayer.
This is turning out to be no ordinary Holy Week. Woven together with the remembrance of Jesus final journey are the scenes of destruction and the violent and sometimes vile reactions to those scenes. I think it is essential that those of us who struggle to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth do indeed see the celebrations of this week as intimately connected not just to our daily lives, but also to the events in our world.
The liturgical backdrop of the Sacred Triduum provides a score for great human symphony whose passages contain strains of what is best and what is worst in each of us and in society as a whole. This symphony has five movements.
The first of these movements is celebrated this Holy Thursday. Gathered for a meal, Jesus takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and kneels to wash the feet of his friends and disciples. His great teaching of this day is not about individual piety or self-perfection. Rather it is about a vine and branches. It is about a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you!” It is consecrated with a new communal meal, “Do this in my memory.”
The second movement of the symphony is filled with dark notes of abandonment and betrayal. Sleepy disciples cannot watch and pray for one hour. Jesus is given up with a friend’s kiss, and his vicar denies ever having known him. For the sake of his mission, Jesus sacrifices all and enters into a final agony that is sealed with humiliation and torture. All this is sanctified by Jesus’ loving resolve.
Movement three is ominous and thunderous death—death as a criminal. It is a death that is witnessed by a small clutch of faithful friends, avoided by disciples who have fled in fear, and jeered by a mocking crowd. The cruel conception of an execution by nailing squirming bodies to wooden beams takes on a new meaning as Jesus demonstrates the “greater love” that is willing to die a horrible death so that others might live. The movement ends with Jesus being laid to rest in a borrowed grave.
After this darkest of movements, the symphony plays out the dawning strains of a new world. As the cadences rise, the brightening skies witness an empty tomb. Darkness turns to light. “He is risen! He is not here. Go tell the others.”
The symphony ends with a celebration of new life. Death has been defeated, and the promise has been fulfilled. It is Easter, and with blessed fire, sanctified water, and lilting alleluias, we are left with nothing to fear.
As the notes and images of Holy Week and Easter fade away, we just have to notice that our mission is to be a community of love. Our pervasive witness in the face of the shards of broken glass and jumbles of bloodied bodies is to join together and to draw others to the kingdom by our love and sacrifice—by being agents of light and life.
We cannot waste Easter by listening to those who would ostracize and persecute whole groups of people in the name of security. Our paschal celebration–played out as it is in a society that seems to reward belligerence and cultivate vengeance as paths to justice–must remind us of our most dearly held belief. Because of the death and resurrection of the Christ, we treasure life and cannot and will not let death be victorious.
At the Great Vigil, we listen to the singing of the Easter Proclamation:
Rejoice, heavenly powers!
Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen.
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King.
Christ has conquered!
Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes forever!
My Easter wish is for you to hear the symphony and for us together to rededicate ourselves to the kingdom of peace and justice and love that the mysteries of this holy season proclaim.
Christ has risen! He has truly risen!
It was a disturbing scene to the Pharisees. They asked Jesus to rebuke his disciples and stop all the nonsense. Jesus’ reply was terse and to the point. “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”
Over the past few weeks, we have been witnesses to several mob scenes with people shouting praise or derision for one or the other demagogue (sometimes disguised as a political candidate). In the ensuing scuffles with epithets flying like a hail of bullets, at least one of these candidates nourished the basest instincts of the crowd with promises designed to appeal to the worst demons and greatest fears of the audience. No mind that these promises would never be kept.
Jesus did not arrive at the city on a jumbo jet, but seated on an ass, the foal of a beast of burden. His triumphant entry was the proclamation and the symbol of a new kind of kingdom. As it turns out, however, what the crowd really wanted was a king who would take on the oppressive Roman emperor for them, not a spiritual ruler who was inviting them to a kingdom of peace and justice. By the end of the week the shouts of praise turned to cries of condemnation.
If there was a need for the proclamation of a kingdom of justice and peace in the first century, there is a great need today. Many people around the globe are in silent agony. In most of the developed world and even in the United States those who suffer most seem to be deprived of their voice.
I think on this Palm Sunday 2016, the stones are crying out for those who are silenced. Are the stones crying out for us to wall people out? Are they crying for us to create a new caste system where only the wealthiest among us count? Are they crying out for the sanctity of human life to be disdained? Are they crying out to demonize others?
I don’t think so.
The stones are crying out for the sacredness of human life and the dignity of all people. They are crying out with a call to family, community, and the right for everyone to participate in society and to seek the common good.
The stones are crying out to protect human rights and for us all to take responsibility for one another. They are crying out for us all to protect the poor and the vulnerable, the displaced and the weak, and those who are rejected and isolated in society.
The stones are shouting to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers so that the economy serves the people and not the other way around.
The stones are shouting to get above the din of the crowd and remind us that we are one human family—brothers and sisters—and that loving our neighbor has a global dimension.
And the stones are crying out for us all to respect the work of creation and to care for the earth and to realize that such care is a requirement of the kingdom that Jesus rode into Jerusalem to proclaim.
In this Sunday’s New Testament reading, we hear the message from Philippians about Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice everything personal to proclaim the reign of God:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Holy Week is a time to line up our own attitudes, hopes, and wishes for the future with the entire Gospel message not just tidbits. We won’t measure up—to be sure. But we need to know that we are hearing the cries of the whole human family and not just the noise of the few.
[By the way, I read a great reflection on Palm Sunday written by Patrick Carolan, the Executive Director of Franciscan Action Network. Take a minute to follow the link and make it part of your meditation to start off the week. WHAT IF?]
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
As Lenten penance nears its end and Easter joy is in sight, I find that two of my predominant emotions are anger and bewilderment. I am not very happy with the state of the world today. Among the things I am most angered by is a culture of condemnation. What I mean by a culture of condemnation is the almost universal need to play personal judge and jury especially to those in most need of mercy and redemption.
It isn’t hard to play the judgment game. We do it all the time. I am not talking about the judgment levied by courts on criminals. I am talking about my judgment of anybody who looks, acts, thinks, or believes differently from me. I am talking about the judgment that makes no room for diversity, personal freedom, or differences of opinion.
What bewilders me a great deal and is what I call the judgment of denial. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, but when opinions run counter to facts and the opinions win, that is the judgment of denial.
There is also the judgment that takes place in an atmosphere of “he said—she said” journalism that replaces a search for truth with a series of counterbalanced personal opinions on both sides of an issue. Instead of trying to discover what really happened, we read more random opinions related as fact. Instead of understanding reality, judgment becomes a matter of taking sides.
Absent grace, mercy, and truth, the culture of condemnation and the judgment of denial seem most active during a political season, and this political season is filled to the brim with both. They are not limited to politics, however, and they are manifest in aspects of interpersonal relationships from bullying to racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual bias. It seems sometimes that folks walk around feeling the heft of a rock in their hands and are all too ready to cast the first stone.
Come Sunday, the Eucharistic liturgy features another great Gospel of mercy—the tale of the woman taken in adultery. The story is clear. A trap is set for Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees dragged a woman caught in the act of adultery before him. The Law said she should be stoned to death for this crime. If Jesus shows her mercy, he breaks the Law. If he agrees to her stoning, he shows his true colors and all his love and acceptance of others would be severely undermined.
Jesus evaded the trap by offering mercy to both sides. After doodling mysteriously on the ground, Jesus said:
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
Jesus did not deny the woman’s sin. But in place of execution he offered mercy and the challenge to change and avoid future sin. He also gave the scribes and Pharisees the chance to acknowledge their own sin and wrongdoing and to walk quietly away with Jesus’ graciousness and mercy following them home.
The challenge of the Jubilee of Mercy, it seems to me, is to have that mind in us that is also in Christ Jesus to be gracious and merciful. We need to look at what the Lord has done for us. We need to put down those stones and fight the culture of condemnation and the judgment of denial. And the result will be true Easter joy!
As the responsorial psalm says: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”