Sunday, April 15, 2018

Repentance and Forgiveness

                                    3rd Sunday of Easter

Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles introduces not only the theme of the other readings but also the very reason for the mission of Jesus. A crowd of people had assembled after Peter and John had cured a lame man. The crowd was amazed to see the man walk but Peter insists that neither he nor John possessed any special power or holiness. They had healed the man through the name of Jesus. 

Yes, the man was healed by the same Jesus that they had handed over to the Romans to be put to death. Peter says,

You denied the Holy and Righteous One
And asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
But God raised him from the dead, of this we are witnesses.

Nevertheless, Peter does not blame the Jews for they and their leaders had acted “out of ignorance.” They were mere unwitting accomplices in the Divine plan. The Christ would suffer to atone for the sins of man. Why did such a good person like Jesus have to die for the sins of man?

Today’s gospel also deals with atonement or forgiveness of sins. Last week’s gospel was St. John’s account of the appearance of Jesus to the doubting Apostle Thomas. In today’s gospel, St. Luke describes what happened the week before when the resurrected Lord first appeared to the Apostles.

Two disciples had returned to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles about their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. While they were conversing, Jesus appears to all of them. He shows them the signs of his wounds and assures them that he is not a ghost. He even eats some food to prove it. He then explained to them the whole meaning of his mission on earth.

Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.

We do not like to use the words “sin” or “sinner” anymore. Today, people will say “my bad” when they admit they have made a mistake. Modern parents will scold their misbehaving children by saying that their conduct is “inappropriate.” Sin and Bad are old English words that are very blunt in their simplicity. The Latin word for sin is “peccata” which means spot or stain. It is like a blot on an otherwise clean page.

In theological terms good and evil are opposites. Good implies perfection while evil implies imperfection. When we say that God is good, we also say that God is perfect. Even if we don’t like to say we are sinners, none of us would claim to be perfect. We are all imperfect. No matter what we call it, we cannot help to see the almost overwhelming presence of evil in our world today. We just have to look at the headlines in our newspaper or favorite electronic device to see it.

Sin and evil are so prevalent in the world that it makes you wonder how we can stand it. How can we put up with the awful stories from near and far that bombard us every day? I like to think that God built into us a kind of immune system that keeps us safe from such terrible stories. Only when it hits close to home is our spiritual immune system penetrated. A million people can be massacred in Asia or Africa but it means less to us than the suffering of a member of our own family.

When we look at sin or evil in this way, we must wonder how anyone could atone for even a fraction of the bad that humankind has done? Who could possibly atone for us? In today’s second reading from the first letter of John, we find the answer.

But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
And not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.

In that first meeting with the Apostles, Jesus told them and us not only to preach a gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins but also to practice it in our own lives. “But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.”


Reading 1. Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19
Reading II. I John 2: 1-5a
Gospel. Luke 24: 35-48 (forgiveness of sins)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Doubting Thomas

                                    2nd Sunday of Easter  Divine Mercy Sunday

Stained glass window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

In the Sundays after Easter the Church gives us a little history lesson. For the next few weeks the first reading will be taken from the Acts of the Apostles, and not from the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We are going to see the young Church growing through the "signs and wonders" worked by the Apostles in the Name of the Risen Christ.  They devoted themselves to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. 

Today's gospel, however, shows us another manifestation of the Risen Lord. It is the traditional and touching story of "doubting Thomas," from St. John's gospel. Before Vatican II this gospel was always used for the first Sunday after Easter. Even though we now have three cycles of gospel readings, the story of our Lord's appearance to the Apostles and to Thomas is used in each cycle.

Remember that last week we heard how in the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene had found the tomb empty. Then St. John tells us that he and Peter ran to the tomb and also found it empty with the burial cloths neatly rolled up. When the two men went back to tell the others, Mary Magdalene stayed by the tomb. Jesus appears to her and asks her why she's weeping. At first she fails to recognize Him but when He speaks her name she believes. We can imagine her throwing her arms around Him but He cautions her not to touch Him, "for I have not yet ascended to my Father." He tells her to tell His brethren what she has seen. She returns to the disciples and says, " I have seen the Lord." Immediately, after this episode John's gospel jumps right to the incident in today's gospel reading.

On the evening of that day Jesus comes to the disciples despite the locked doors of the house. He "stood in their midst” and said to them "Peace be with you." He shows them His hands and His side and they all rejoice. Again He says, "Peace be with you," and tells them of their mission. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  All were present except Thomas and when he returns, he can't believe it.

            Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
            and put my finger into the nailmarks
            and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.

A week goes by and Jesus appears to them again. Again He says, "Peace be with you." This time Thomas is there and in that unforgettable scene, Jesus tells him to examine his wounds. "Do not be unbelieving but believe." We can picture Thomas dropping to his knees and saying, "my Lord and my God."

More than a century ago Pope Pius X, who would later be canonized as St. Pius X was trying to encourage frequent reception of Communion. It was part of the effort of this great Pope to restore all things to Christ. It's hard to believe but for centuries most Catholics did not receive Communion at Mass. Not only did Pius X encourage adults to receive, he also lowered the age for the reception of first Communion so that children could receive. As part of this effort Pius X encouraged Catholics to look at the Host when it was elevated and repeat the words of Thomas. "My Lord and my God."

The Pope also initiated a great liturgical reform movement. He was the first to grant permission for the words of the Mass to be printed in everyday language alongside the traditional Latin. Older Catholics will remember the Latin-English Missals of their youth. His reforms led to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of those reforms has particular relevance to today's reading.

How many times in today's gospel did our Lord say, "Peace be with you?" In the traditional Latin Mass it seemed like the priest was always kissing the altar and then turning to the people to say "Pax Vobiscum", "Peace be with you." The altar represented Christ. The priest would receive the Kiss of Peace from Christ and then pass it on to the deacon, who in turn would go into the congregation and bring Christ's Kiss of Peace to all. Since Vatican II the Church has given new emphasis to this practice.

Later in the Mass the priest will give us the Kiss of Peace and ask us to pass it on to our neighbor. He will ask us to give much more than a simple handshake. He will ask us to repeat the same words that our Lord used in today's gospel and give Christ's blessing to our neighbor. A blessing is a real thing. It is meant to heal. We are being asked to bring Christ to our neighbor just as the Apostles did. After the Apostles believed, they were able to work "signs and wonders," they were able to heal the sick in both body and soul.

People will travel thousands of miles to receive the blessing of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. Yet, for us we believe that at every Mass Christ, Himself, comes into this room and gives us His blessing. "Peace be with you." As St. John says in today’s second reading,

            His commandments are not burdensome,
            For whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
            And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.


* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Acts 4: 32-35
Reading II. 1 John 5:1-6 
Gospel. John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas).

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter 2018

                                    Easter Sunday

The Church uses many different readings on Easter. The Vigil Mass has seven readings from the Old Testament; St. Paul's famous letter to the Romans--"Christ raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him;" and St. Mark's account of the empty tomb. In the afternoon Mass we will have the account of the risen Lord's appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

This morning's Mass, however, begins with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching. Remember how prominently Peter appeared in the readings during Holy Week. Last Sunday he told Jesus that he would follow Him to prison, even to death. But our Lord predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crows. Peter's subsequent denial is one of the few things reported in all four gospels.

Today it's a different Peter. He gives as good an account of the life and work of Jesus as you will find anywhere. Then he bears witness to His Resurrection,

            This man God raised on the third day and granted
            that He be us,...
            who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.

Finally, he makes the claim "that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name."

However, it's easy to imagine that Peter might have felt differently after the death of Jesus. He didn't know how the story was going to come out. What was there to believe? As St. John says in today's gospel, "they did not yet understand the Scripture that He had to rise from the dead." Not only had his Lord been brutally tortured and killed, but Peter had also turned his back on Jesus. He especially could have no hope of a resurrection or new day.  Wouldn't Peter think that his own sin, his own lack of faith, could never be forgiven?

Then Mary Magdalene comes rushing in on the first Easter Sunday morning to tell them that the tomb is empty. Fearing that the Lord's body had been stolen Peter and John race to the tomb only to find the burial cloths neatly rolled up with no evidence of foul play. St. John tells us that "he saw and believed." St. Luke tells us that Peter was "amazed." 

Is this why we're all here today on this Easter Sunday morning? Are we all here today to peer inside the empty tomb? The empty tomb itself means nothing. As St. Mark said last night, "He has been raised; he is not here." It's His appearances that matter. Over the next fifty days we'll hear about all of His appearances. He'll appear to Mary Magdalene in the garden; to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; to the Apostles in the upper room; to doubting Thomas; to the fishermen in Galilee; and to countless other witnesses. Finally, His Holy Spirit will come upon them at Pentecost..

As we listen to these witnesses we'll have to examine our own belief. After all, St. Paul said that "if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain." In other word, if Christ is not risen, there will be no resurrection for us. However, maybe some of us feel like we're in the same position as Peter. Maybe doubts have crept in, maybe we're too secure, maybe something has caused us to deny our Lord and turn our backs on Him.

The only way to rekindle our faith is to act differently. We have to realize that like the Apostles we are called to be witnesses of the Risen Christ. St. Paul calls us the "yeast" that leavens the dough. In our own little way each of us is called to bring Christ to each other. Last week during the reading of the Passion, our Lord said to Peter;

            Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded
            to sift all of you like wheat,
            but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail;
            and once you have turned back,
            you must strengthen your brothers.

The little Albanian nun who became Mother Teresa did not wait for someone else to pick up that little deserted child in the street and bathe his sores. She saw the Risen Christ in him and in all the others she helped. Did the young Polish priest who became John Paul II ever imagine when he took his first vows that he would bring the Risen Christ to more people than all the previous Popes put together?

The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples use the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or Passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. And so, as St. Paul says,

            let us celebrate the feast,
            not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
            but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.


Reading 1.Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Reading II. Colossians 3: 1-4 or 
1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8
Gospel. John 20: 1-9 (Easter).