Seventh Sunday in Easter: Praying for the True Gift

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ACTS 1:12-14; PS 27: 1, 4, 7-8; 1 PT 4:13-16; JN 17:1-11a

This Sunday’s readings put us squarely into the Pentecost novena: the nine days of prayer between when Jesus goes up to heaven and when the Holy Spirit comes down.

The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, simply gives us the narrative. “After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem. . . . They went to the upper room where they were staying . . . . All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus . . . .”

This is the ultimate image of the Church at prayer. Jesus has gone to heaven. They pray for the Holy Spirit. It’s the Apostles, and it’s Mary.

This is the original novena. Latter-day Catholicism has many nine-day prayers. But from this novena we can learn what prayer is really all about. What do they pray for? They pray for the ultimate gift of God most high (as one of the ancient hymns for Pentecost says), the Holy Spirit.

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The Gospel, from John 17, takes us to Jesus’s words when he prayed in the upper room in Jerusalem, the night before he died. Words the Apostles must have remembered as they prayed.

There are three key words in this reading. The first is “glory,” which is shared. “Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.” “I glorified you” (notice that he both has glorified, and will glorify) “. . . now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” And “I have been glorified in them,” his disciples.

John 17 is all about communion – it is, indeed, John’s way of taking us deeper into the mystery of the Eucharistic communion at the heart of the Last Supper. The Father and the Son are in deepest communion. They share one another’s glory. And they invite us into that sharing. Nothing less.

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The second key word is “eternal life.” “Now this is eternal life,” Jesus says, “that they should know you, the only true God” – and of course, in the mystery of communion – “and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”

Eternal life is not about a really long time. It is not later, after “this life.” It is not a whole bunch of neat stuff, or a really comfortable place. It is not, in fact, incompatible with suffering, as our reading from First Peter will remind us in a minute.

“This is eternal life, that they should know . . . the only true God.” That’s it. To know him is to have eternal life. Yes, it will make us life forever. Even more importantly, it will be something worth filling forever with – an eternal beach would get old. But it begins now, when we know him.

This is what Jesus came for. This is what the Holy Spirit gives, what the Holy Spirit IS. This is what, forty-some after the Last Supper, the Apostles and Mary pray their first novena for. Just to know him.

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The last key word is “name.” “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.” We have looked before at this key word, “name.” It’s at the heart, and the height, of the Our Father: “hallowed be thy name.” For now, let us just say, it is personal. For eternal life to be nothing but “knowledge” might sound cold and dry. Who wants knowledge? But this is true, deepest, personal knowledge. He invites us into the personal relationship which is the inner life of God.

What is the name? Well, that’s what we mean by gifts of the Holy Spirit. The “name,” personal knowledge, of God is not something you can write down. It’s something only known when God’s own Spirit brings us into the glory of his inner life. We don’t pray for a slip of paper with his name written on it. We pray for the Holy Spirit.

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The reading from First Peter is short, but takes us a little more deeply in – and into the situation of the Apostles who pray, still in this world, for the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t take them out of the world, he gives them his Spirit in the world.

And so the key line is, “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed, but glorify God because of the name.” If we know “the name” – if we know him, by his Spirit living in our hearts – even suffering is pure joy.

Do we ask God for the wrong gifts?

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Being The Body of Christ

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ACTS 8:5-8, 14-17; PS66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 PT 3:15-18; JN 14:15-21

“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

Our readings this Sunday take us deeper into what Scripture means by calling the Church the Body of Christ. We are truly identified with Christ, so that those who hear us hear him, when his Spirit penetrates our hearts.

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The reading from Acts tells of the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations. The deacon Philip goes down to Samaria, to Jerusalem’s closest non-Jewish neighbors. He proclaims Christ, and “the crowds paid attention to him.” Notice already: he points to Christ, and the crowds receive him as Christ.

Philip has the power to bring life to lifeless bodies, to heal what is broken. Here we go beyond him just being a clever preacher or a nice example. Christ has given Philip a share in his divinity, he has given him the power to do what only God can do.

He heals souls, too: “unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people.” Philip shares in the divine authority of Christ. It is as if Jesus himself is present in Philip.

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He then gives the people to whom he has preached a share in this divine power. Actually, the deacon calls for the Apostles, Peter and John, “who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit . . . . They laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

This is one of the clearest Scriptural testimonies to Confirmation (see CCC 1288). “They had only been baptized,” but the Apostles had another gift to impart.

First notice that, though it is unclear what exactly this “receiving the Holy Spirit” means, it is a big deal. The Holy Spirit has already brought them to conversion, but now they receive a share in his power, somehow parallel to the power Philip himself has.

Second, notice that it is conferred in a hierarchical way. The key point here is that they aren’t just individuals with spiritual power. They are part of an ordered community, the Church, where all share in the divinity of Christ, but the whole is constituted by the distinct vocations of the members. All receive Confirmation, but only the Apostles can give it, thus binding the Church into one instead of dispersing it into spiritual individualism.

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Our reading from First Peter is “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Ah yes, very nice, we should be educated, and practiced in apologetics, right?

Well, not exactly. Actually, Peter describes the approach to this apostolic “readiness”: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” Again it is like Philip. They didn’t listen to Philip because he was such a practiced preacher. They listened to him because Christ was present in him. He shared in the authority, and the divinity of Christ.

Thus Peter says to “do it with gentleness and reverence,” and “good conduct in Christ.” Then he puts a point on it: “It is better to suffer . . . For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, . . . he was brought to life in the Spirit.”

This “readiness to give an explanation” is simply an identification of the whole person with Christ, most pointedly in redemptive suffering. We can preach because Christ is present with us.

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Or, as John never tires of saying, and repeats again in our reading this Sunday, “you are in me and I in you.”

John speaks of this in a divine way: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth.” This is pure Trinitarian invocation, shooting as high as he can shoot, and his claim is that the life of the Trinity comes to dwell in us. We can bear witness to the Gospel because the Gospel itself dwells in us, “the Spirit of truth.” “You know him, because he remains in you, and will be in you.”

But John also speaks of this in a mundane way, at the beginning and end of our reading: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. . . . Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” The commandments are as high and as lowly as this: to love Jesus, and let him dwell in us.

***

Do you ever let other “methods” of speaking the Gospel replace simply intimacy with Christ and his Spirit?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Built on Christ

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ACTS 6:1-7; PS 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 PT 2:4-9; JN 14:1-12

“Come to him, a living stone . . . . Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices.”

Our reading this Sunday from the First Letter of St. Peter launches us into the theme of all the readings. Peter is mixing metaphors, but in a useful way.

First, he talks about a house being built up. Even here the metaphor gets a little mixed, because it’s not clear whether we’re building up or down. Psalm 118’s “cornerstone,” which Peter cites later in our reading, is literally, both in Greek and in Hebrew, “the head of the angle.” It might be more helpful to think of the keystone in an arch: without it, the arch collapses.

But if you want to think about the cornerstone on a building, realize that the first stone you lay determines where every other stone will be – so you’d better be careful where you put it! Still, I like the structural importance of the keystone better: without it, the whole building collapses.

The point is that the building stands or falls in its relation to Jesus.

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Peter’s second metaphor, however, is a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices. We could say that the cornerstone gives the means, but this metaphor gives the end, the goal. Christ builds us up – so that we can worship. Like any mixed metaphor, this one limps a little, but the point is that Christ gives us access to true worship.

And this is active. It’s not that he does the worship for us. He makes us worshipers. He makes us the priests – all of us. In fact, the ordained priesthood is there precisely as a sign of Christ making true prayer available to all God’s people. The ordained allow us to participate in the worship of the whole Church.

The cornerstone is a stumbling block, finally – to mix one more metaphor in – in the sense that without Christ, we lack that full access to the Father. We need him.

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Jesus talks about the same thing in our reading from John’s Gospel. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” There’s actually a double conferral of grace here. First, Jesus himself has access only because it has been given to him – but, because it is given, he truly has access to the Father. He receives everything.

Then he gives it to us. And in this second link in the chain, again we have only because we have received – but then we truly have it. Jesus makes us a royal priesthood, or a “holy temple,” and thus we really are. Because he gives us access to the depths of prayer, we really can pray.

This is what he means when he says he is the way – through him we can actually get to the Father. And it’s what he means when he says he prepares a place for us: through him, we can really be there, with the Father.

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But what does this look like, practically? All of this mystical theology pops its head up into the real world in Acts, where we see what the early Church looked like.

There is a dispute, because the Apostles are busy with “prayer and the ministry of the word,” and they don’t have time for “the daily distribution” to the widows. Do you see the two poles? There is prayer and service, our relationship with God and its expression in our relationship with our neighbor.

I think it’s a very sad thing that with the modern restoration of the diaconate we have set them up as mini-priests, also committed to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Traditionally and biblically, the whole point of the diaconate is that, though priestly work is essential, and in a certain sense it is highest, there is other work that is essential too. The prominence of deacons is supposed to remind us of the diversity of vocations, and of the importance of both what we do in Church and what we do outside.

Being built into a “royal priesthood” also means becoming a “holy nation,” marked for how we behave in relation to our neighbors. That’s why the deacon stands by the altar: because his service to the poor is just as essential as the priest’s service at the altar, and flows from it.

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“Of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full,” says our Psalm. Transformed by Christ, we live out that kindness in the world.

How could we more intensely live the connection between the altar and the poor, between our union with Christ and our love of neighbor?

Fourth Sunday of Easter: The Gate

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ACTS 2:14a, 36-41; PS 23:1-2a, 3b-4, 5, 6; 1PT 2:20b-25; JN 10:1-10

This Sunday’s readings present Jesus to us as the Good Shepherd and as the gate to the sheepfold.

The reading from Acts is short, the end of Peter’s preaching on Pentecost and the people’s reply. The people ask him, “What are we to do?” Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

At the Easter Vigil we heard Paul say, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:2-4).

Peter tells them that the proper response to his preaching is to be plunged into the death of Christ.

The conclusion of his preaching, by which “they were cut to the heart,” said, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” Last week, too, we saw that he began his preaching by saying, “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.” You killed him!

But for Peter, this is not just accusation. It is a call to repentance. The people repent, and he says, if you have repented, then be plunged into his death. His death becomes your healing.

He says, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children.” You who have crucified him, you to whom he gave himself to be crucified, are the ones he promises to raise. The Cross becomes the tree of life. Christ comes so near that our sin becomes the place of our repentance and our being reborn with him.

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The reading from Second Peter gives a practical view of the same mystery. “By his wounds you have been healed” because “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross.” It is his very closeness to our sin, his willingness to suffer from our sin, to meet us while we are yet sinners, that makes him the place of our rebirth.

Perhaps the key is when Peter says, “When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten” – and so he tells us, too, “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.” It is in our recognition of sin that we find the way out. We repent – and are baptized, entering into Christ’s total vulnerability, his willingness to stay with us no matter what, and always to be willing to suffer for doing good. It is only in this total identification with Christ – even to the receiving of his own spirit – that we can be freed.

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The Gospel tells us about the Good Shepherd and his sheep. “The sheep follow him, because they know his voice.” This is the heart of the sheep analogy, throughout Scripture. What differentiates sheep from the other animals is above all that they follow. Their obedience is a kind of intelligence. “They recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger.”

But this week the main analogy is not that Jesus is the shepherd – that comes later in the tenth chapter of John, and elsewhere in the Lectionary. Here he says, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The identification goes deeper than just obedience. We are called to enter into Jesus. To be plunged into his Baptism. To be identified with him. That’s the real point of hearing his voice: not just blind obedience, but being so identified with him that we go where he goes, and are driven, not, like cows, by sticks, but by his Spirit, and the sheep’s love for its master.

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The Psalm is “The Lord is my shepherd.” But now we can see more deeply into it. I shall not want. He refreshes my soul. When the three thousand repented and were baptized at Pentecost, they saw that Jesus offers everything. There is no need to be the persecutor, because to die with Jesus is to possess everything. He may lead us into the dark valley, he may correct us with rod and staff, he may set a table for us in the sight of our enemies, but our cup overflows.

Do we really trust that dwelling in the house of Jesus will satisfy us?

The Easter Joy of Our Lady 

Christ appears to his Mother, Rogier van der  Weyden

Christ appears to his Mother, Rogier van der Weyden

Queen of Heaven rejoice: alleluia!
For he whom you merited to bear: alleluia!
Has risen as he said: alleluia!
Pray for us to God: alleluia!
Rejoice and be glad, Virgin Mary: alleluia!
For the Lord is truly risen: alleluia!

During the Easter Season, the Church turns us to the joy of Mary.

It is said that St. John XXIII’s favorite part of being Patriarch of Venice, before he was elected Pope, was an Easter morning tradition.  At daybreak, an old Monsignor would enter the Archbishop’s apartment and announce, “Christ is risen, our Lady rejoices!  Let us go to Mary to share in her joy!”  Then they would go to the altar of Our Lady in the Cathedral of St. Mark and pray to enter into Mary’s joy.

On one level, this is just a pious meditation.  It’s a way of thinking more seriously about the resurrection.  The resurrection is no abstraction.  Christ was a real human being, something nowhere more evident to us than in thinking about his mother, who was naturally most deeply attached to that humanity.

His dying was real sadness, and so we join Our Lady of Sorrows in thinking about that sadness.  But his rising was real joy, and it’s hard to think of a better imaginative way to enter into that joy than to think of how his mother’s heart would have pounded when she saw him alive again.  These are things that happened in his humanity, and it is right to experience the human emotions of sorrow and joy by meditating on his human mother’s responses.

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But of course this goes deeper than just a pious imagination, because it points to the reality of the Incarnation, to hard doctrinal truths.  In 431, the Council of Ephesus, the third great ecumenical Council, proclaimed that you cannot embrace the truth of who and what Christ really is without actively embracing the truth that Mary is Mother of God.

These pious meditations help us enter into the reality of his humanity.  This is no illusion, no vague idea.  It is a real man, with a real mother, who died and rose again.  “If Christ has not been raised,” says Paul, really, truly raised, in the flesh, the real humanity born of Mary, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14) – because if his flesh cannot be raised, neither can ours.  Death would still be the end for us.

Pious meditations on Mary’s Easter joy help us think seriously about the reality of the incarnation and the resurrection.

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But in fact it is even more important to come to grips with Mary’s joy.  Without joy, life without end is no good news.  The truth of the Gospel is not just that we will rise from the dead.  The heart of the Gospel is joy itself.

Always there are these two poles: the truth about Jesus, and the truth about what Jesus does for us.  The deeper resurrection is not the resurrection of the body.  The deeper resurrection is the resurrection of the soul: the restoration of friendship, of love of God and neighbor.  In heaven we will have bodies, yes, but this is the least of heaven’s joys.  In heaven we will also have risen from the death of sin, and of all that impedes love and joy.

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The Hail Mary takes us into the roots of this joy.  “Hail,” remember, means rejoice.  It is good, especially in this Easter season, to dig into that word, to spend a few seconds now and then lingering on Mary’s joy: “Rejoice, Mary!”

And then to let those opening words lead us through the rest of the prayer.  Hail, rejoice!  Because you are full of God’s grace: because he has healed you, and lifted you up, and made you all beautiful.  Because he has filled you with his presence: the Lord is with you, and you are with him!  Rejoice!

You are blessed, blessed as an ordinary woman, but also lifted up by his grace, above the ordinary.  You are blessed as he is blessed.  And how blessed is he, the fruit of your womb!  How blessed is that life that has been united to yours!

Holy Mary, so close to God, pray for us, that we too may enter in that joy.

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This is the joy that carries Mary – and us – even through the Cross.  But it is good to linger in it in this season of Easter joy.

 

 

Third Sunday of Easter: “In accordance with the Scriptures”

grunewaldchrisreDear Readers: Sometimes work takes over. A major issue arose Thursday night and kept me busy all Friday. My apologies for the delay on this post.

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ACTS 2:14, 22-33; PS 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11;  1PT 1:17-21; LK 24:13-35

The readings during Easter introduce us to the Acts of the Apostles and the Apostolic preaching. We find a driving concern with Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

Our first reading is Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. He preaches on the Psalms – on Psalm 16, which will be our responsory Psalm this Sunday. He finds that this beautiful Psalm of trust is only fulfilled in Jesus.

The Psalms speak of their original situation, sometimes that of David. But they are also prophecies of Jesus, the Son of David. And so too they can speak of us, members of Christ’s Body and conformed to Christ.

When the Psalm says “You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,” Peter says, “David died and was buried . . . . But since he was a prophet, and knew that God had sworn an oath to him, that he would set one of his descendents upon the throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ.”

This prophetic strand in the Old Testament reminds us of “the set plan and foreknowledge of God,” and that “God worked through Jesus.” All is in the Father’s hands.

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Our short second reading, from the second letter of the same Apostle Peter, makes the same point. What was “revealed in the final time for you” is what “was known before the foundation of the world.” It’s all in God’s hands.

Peter also gives us a key for thinking about the Old Testament, one we find also in the Gospels. We might miss it if we don’t know our Bible. It’s always good to look at the footnotes!

Peter begins, “If you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one’s works.” He is quoting Deuteronomy, the last of the first five books of the Bible, and the central book of promises for the people of Israel. We invoke as Father the God of the Old Testament.

We are “ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors.” The key problem, then, is that they didn’t do what the Old Testament taught them.

But the solution is that we are “ransomed” or “redeemed” – “with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” That’s a reference to Passover. Christ, the “Lamb of God,” is our true passover, the one who sets us free from Pharoah and brings us to the promised land, the land of true worship, of God’s provision, and of life according to God’s law.

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The Gospel is Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus. It’s such a beautiful reading, there are many things we can draw from it. For now, let’s stick with our theme.

The two disciples are fleeing Jerusalem, and they speak of what happened there, in David’s city. When Jesus asks them what has been happening, they say, “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel”: the long-awaited, the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

After listening to them, Jesus says, “How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary” that all these things happen. He says, yes, it all happened exactly according to prophecy!

“Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” Moses speaks about Christ. The Prophets speak about Christ. They reveal what really happened. They give us the way to interpret both his experience and ours.

Later, “he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” This is a reference, obviously, to the Eucharist. But it is also a deeply Jewish action, a fulfillment of the Passover. And it leads the disciples to say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” The Eucharist does not replace Scripture, it opens it up, fulfills it, leads them back into it. The Old Testament should make our hearts burn for Jesus.

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We can take away two key points from this discovery of Jesus in the Old Testament.

First, we learn that God is master over history. This teaches us about both God and history. God is wise, and provident, and powerful, the one kind of being who can plan out history itself. And history – every detail of human history – is in his provident hands. Even the worst things are somehow part of his plan.

Second, we learn that the Old Testament is food for prayer. For the Apostles and the Catholic tradition, all of Scripture is a privileged meeting place with Jesus. We should seek him where he can be found.

Divine Mercy Sunday: True Mercy

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ACTS 2:42-47; PS 118: 2-4, 13-14, 22-24; 1 PT 1:3-9; JN 20:19-31

John Paul II, who died on this Sunday nine years ago and will be canonized on it this year, dedicated the Sunday after Easter to a meditation on Divine Mercy. The readings show us what a rich conception of mercy Easter gives us.

Perhaps we equate mercy with leniency, not holding people accountable. But this is far too passive. The Latin word for mercy means “a heart for the suffering.” The Greek word is related to almsgiving. True mercy doesn’t just let people go. It embraces them, and heals them.

***

The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows us mercy in action in the early Church. They shared “all things in common” and “divided them among all according to each one’s need.” But the heart of this sharing is the word “common,” from the root word koinonia, or communion. They shared because they were in communion with one another.

“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life [literally, to koinonia, communion], to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” Their communion was fruit of common faith: belief and trust in a common Lord. It led them to Eucharistic communion, “the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

The early Church – and real Catholic doctrine, from the Eucharistic theology of the Fathers and of Thomas Aquinas to the theology of the “people of God” in Vatican II – has an intense sense that union with God creates union with one another. In the ecclesial politics of the late twentieth century, people devised an opposition between seeing the Mass as “table fellowship” and seeing it as “sacrifice.” That’s just a false opposition. It is table fellowship because it is sacrifice: to be in union with God is to be in intense union with all those to whom he unites himself.

“They devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” As much as they could, they still participated in the Temple, the common worship of Israel. That union of a nation gathered in worship meant much to them – and to the Church’s continual understanding of itself as the true Israel, the holy nation.

But it led them even more deeply to the Eucharist, “breaking bread in their homes.” Note again the double union of the Eucharist: it was in their homes, first, because Jesus had given an even more intense communion than that of the Temple. They wanted more, beyond even the intense common worship of the Temple. But in a second sense, their homes were a place of fellowship, of union also with one another.

Union with God makes union in the Church. This is the heart of mercy.

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Divine-MercyOur reading from the First Epistle of St Peter takes us deeper into the Christological roots of this communion. “In his great mercy he gave us a new birth to a living hope . . . an inheritance . . . kept in heaven. . . . . In this you rejoice.”

In his intense love, his intense mercy, God didn’t just leave them alone, he poured his joy out for them. The root of the the apostle’s communion is an intense joy, that looks to heaven. They can be patient with one another because of this overflowing joy.

“You may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith” may be proved. The real question in both suffering and acts of mercy is where our joy is. The apostles shared with one another, and were willing to suffer persecution, because in having God, they had everything. They feared no loss. Mercy is rooted in joy.

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Our reading from St John’s Gospel takes us even deeper into the heavenly roots of this joy, by taking us to the person of Christ.

“On the evening of that first day of the week,” Easter Sunday, “when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”

Peace is the fruit of Jesus standing in our midst. Jesus settles their fears. Jesus joins them together.

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says, “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” – actually, “sent away from them.” Jesus is mercy because Jesus is an overflowing goodness, and a joy, and a communion infinitely beyond our stupid divisions. Where Jesus is there is peace, and mercy, and forgiveness, because where Jesus is there is communion, the communion of the Father and the Son, and the communion of the Body of Christ, the Church.

***

Think of a place where you have trouble being merciful. Can the joy of Jesus overcome that?

John Paul II, who died on this Sunday nine years ago and will be canonized on it this year, dedicated the Sunday after Easter to a meditation on Divine Mercy. The readings show us what a rich conception of mercy Easter gives us.

Perhaps we equate mercy with leniency, not holding people accountable. But this is far too passive. The Latin word for mercy means “a heart for the suffering.” The Greek word is related to almsgiving. True mercy doesn’t just let people go. It embraces them, and heals them.

***

The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows us mercy in action in the early Church. They shared “all things in common” and “divided them among all according to each one’s need.” But the heart of this sharing is the word “common,” from the root word koinonia, or communion. They shared because they were in communion with one another.

“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life [literally, to koinonia, communion], to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” Their communion was fruit of common faith: belief and trust in a common Lord. It led them to Eucharistic communion, “the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

The early Church – and real Catholic doctrine, from the Eucharistic theology of the Fathers and of Thomas Aquinas to the theology of the “people of God” in Vatican II – has an intense sense that union with God creates union with one another. In the ecclesial politics of the late twentieth century, people devised an opposition between seeing the Mass as “table fellowship” and seeing it as “sacrifice.” That’s just a false opposition. It is table fellowship because it is sacrifice: to be in union with God is to be in intense union with all those to whom he unites himself.

“They devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” As much as they could, they still participated in the Temple, the common worship of Israel. That union of a nation gathered in worship meant much to them – and to the Church’s continual understanding of itself as the true Israel, the holy nation.

But it led them even more deeply to the Eucharist, “breaking bread in their homes.” Note again the double union of the Eucharist: it was in their homes, first, because Jesus had given an even more intense communion than that of the Temple. They wanted more, beyond even the intense common worship of the Temple. But in a second sense, their homes were a place of fellowship, of union also with one another.

Union with God makes union in the Church. This is the heart of mercy.

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Our reading from the First Epistle of St Peter takes us deeper into the Christological roots of this communion. “In his great mercy he gave us a new birth to a living hope . . . an inheritance . . . kept in heaven. . . . . In this you rejoice.”

In his intense love, his intense mercy, God didn’t just leave them alone, he poured his joy out for them. The root of the the apostle’s communion is an intense joy, that looks to heaven. They can be patient with one another because of this overflowing joy.

“You may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuiness of your faith” may be proved. The real question in both suffering and acts of mercy is where our joy is. The apostles shared with one another, and were willing to suffer persecution, because in having God, they had everything. They feared no loss. Mercy is rooted in joy.

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Our reading from St John’s Gospel takes us even deeper into the heavenly roots of this joy, by taking us to the person of Christ.

“On the evening of that first day of the week,” Easter Sunday, “when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”

Peace is the fruit of Jesus standing in our midst. Jesus settles their fears. Jesus joins them together.

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says, “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” – actually, “sent away from them.” Jesus is mercy because Jesus is an overflowing goodness, and a joy, and a communion infinitely beyond our stupid divisions. Where Jesus is there is peace, and mercy, and forgiveness, because where Jesus is there is communion, the communion of the Father and the Son, and the communion of the Body of Christ, the Church.

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Think of a place where you have trouble being merciful. Can the joy of Jesus overcome that?

Good Friday and Easter Sunday: Dead to Sin

San-DomROM 6:3-11

As we remember Good Friday today and look forward to Easter tomorrow night, let us pause to consider what the Cross and Resurrection means for us. There are so many readings the next three days, but for today, let’s just look at the reading from Romans 6 at the Easter Vigil. This is the reading introduced by the Gloria. Everything else leads up to it. The story of the Resurrection in the Gospel is, of course, the central action – but the Gloria frames the reading from Romans as the real proclamation of the good news, and it nicely explains both of these great days.

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Paul begins by reminding us that “we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Baptism is above all the first sacrament, the sacrament of entrance into the Christian life. To say that we are baptized into his death is to say that our entire Christian life is rooted not just in the death of Christ, but in our entrance into that death. Good Friday is the beginning and center of the whole Christian life.

Paul next says, “we were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” Here he says two important things.

First, the death of Christ is important precisely because it is the place where God’s power over death is manifested. Death is not the last word, life is. But death is where we discover that true life comes from God. It is not that we are just fine, and have life within us. We desperately need God’s power to raise us up.

Second, Paul quickly moves from physical death and resurrection to spiritual resurrection. We are raised not just by the power of God, but “by the glory of the Father,” and we are raised not just to physical life, but to “newness of life.”

God’s power over physical life points to a much deeper power. It is his glory, our encounter with the goodness and the beauty of God, that brings new life to our soul. This is moral life, to be sure. But even deeper, it is spiritual life. This is what we are meant to encounter in the death and resurrection of Christ: the passover from Egypt to the promised land, from sin to the spiritual life.

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Next Paul says, “If we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” Easter is not about a transaction at a distance. It is about union.

Christ dies to be close to our death. He subjects himself to our sin, to the suffering we inflict on him, to be close to us while we are yet sinners, even when we refuse him. And he subjects himself to suffering, the suffering we experience, so that even our suffering can be a place of closeness to him.

He comes close so that he can raise us with him into newness of life. He became poor so that we could become rich. He unites himself to our humanity so that we can be united to his divinity. He comes to rescue us in our cruciform life so that he can draw us out of this life of suffering, the suffering we inflict and the suffering we experience, into a life where God is all in all, and all is peace.

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And he calls us to be close to him. He does it all, in one sense – but he calls us to do it all, as well. His coming close does not work by magic. We have to cling to him.

We have to cling to him in our suffering. Rather than fleeing suffering, we must embrace it as the place where Christ is near. We must be near to those who are suffering. The Cross is where we profess our trust in God. If we run from suffering, our own and our neighbors’, we proclaim that we don’t think he’s worth meeting there.

But the Resurrection is where we profess the goodness of God. We must also cling to this. We must embrace the goodness of life, and above all the goodness of God, “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

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How could you better live union with Christ crucified in your everyday Christian life?