Sunday, April 29, 2007

4th Sunday in Easter

4th Sunday of Easter
C cycle

Reading 1. Acts 13:14, 43-52
Reading II. Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
Gospel. John 10: 27-30 (The Father and I are one).

In all the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost the first reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles as we follow them on their early missionary activity. Please note that even though we read these accounts now, they refer to the activity of the Apostles after Pentecost. Today the focus shifts from Peter to Paul, who called himself "the least of the Apostles."

In this cycle of readings we don't even get into the story of Paul's conversion. We'll have to wait for another day to hear the account of his meeting with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. By the time we pick up the story in today's reading Paul, the persecutor of Christians, has already been converted, baptized, and empowered to preach. From the hints in today's reading it seems clear that his mission was at first to the Jewish communities outside of the Holy Land.

By the time of Christ practically every city in what we would call the Near East had a prominent Jewish community of merchants and tradesmen. Although the Romans had conquered, it was Greek culture, language, thought and practices that predominated in this part of the ancient world. So when Paul speaks of Gentiles he is usually referring to the Greeks. Needless to say there was bound to be friction between Greek and Jew. Historians trace the origins of anti-Semitism to the rivalry between these Greek and Jewish communities long before the time of Christ.

On their part the Jews regarded the Greeks as unclean and preferred to live apart from them. The worship of idols and the offering of sacrifices to those idols was an abomination to the Jews. Just as serious were some practices among the Gentiles, like abortion and pornography, which disgusted the Jews.

Antioch, where we meet Paul today, was a flourishing Greek trading center. Obviously, Paul feels at home among the Jewish community there. Following normal Jewish practice Paul and Barnabas enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and take their seats. It seems clear from today's reading that Paul doesn't think that Jews have to stop being Jewish in order to follow Christ. In fact, the more we learn about Judaism in the time of Christ, the more we see the great similarity between Jew and Christian.

However, in the next few weeks we are going to see that there were fundamental differences. The most basic one had to do with the claim that Jesus makes in today's gospel account from St. John.

My sheep hear my voice;...
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish....
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,...
The Father and I are one.

Jesus identifies Himself with the God of Israel. We must realize that no one would ever think of the Holy Trinity unless Jesus had continually referred to Himself along with the Father and the Spirit. A reasonable person could conclude that there could only be one God. The Jews did and so would the Moslems 600 years after the time of Christ. The Moslems still regard Jesus and His Mother with great reverence. Mary, for example, is the only woman named in the Koran. Still, Jesus was only a good man or a great teacher. The claim that He is one with the Father is equally shocking to them as well as to the Jews. It was not logic or reason that led the early Church to reject heresies that claimed that Jesus was only a man. It was the words of Jesus, himself.

Why should we believe His words? Who wouldn't regard them as absurd or crazy? Although it's clear that Paul converted many Jews, we can sympathize with those who found his words shocking and threw him out of town. Indeed, whenever we see the Jews mentioned in scripture, we should put ourselves in their place. How many Christians today prefer to think of Jesus as just a good man or a fine teacher who went about doing good works? Even then we don't want Him running our affairs or interfering in our lives.

For Paul the reason for belief was the Resurrection. In another place, he said that "if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain." He personally witnessed the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He called himself the least of the Apostles because he had persecuted the Church and was the last to see the Lord. After his conversion Paul's eyes were opened and he saw that the God of Israel had become incarnate in Jesus. Things could never be the same.

Jesus came for all men. It was no longer possible for Jew and Greek to live apart, for all are brothers and sisters. Paul now believes that the mission of the Jews all along had been to save their despised enemy. He says to his Jewish brethren and to us,

I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.

In the reading from the Book of Revelation John has the same vision as Paul. He sees a multitude "from every nation, race, people and tongue" standing at the Heavenly throne before the Risen Lamb. The Lamb "will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."


Sunday, April 22, 2007

3rd Sunday of Easter

3rd Sunday of Easter
C cycle

Reading 1. Acts 5: 27b-32
Reading II. Revelation 5: 11-14
Gospel. John 21: 1-19 (Feed my sheep).

Today's three readings all deal with manifestations of the Risen Christ although in different ways. In the Acts of the Apostles we have an historical account of the first efforts of the Apostles to bring the message of Jesus to the world. In today's gospel we have another appearance of the Risen Lord to the Apostles--this time in Galilee on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias. Finally, the second reading from the Book of Revelation presents us with a prophetic vision of the Risen Christ at the Heavenly Altar.

In the first reading we find that the Apostles have been brought before the Jewish leaders for violating their command to stop teaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and the other Apostles explain why they cannot stop teaching, why they must show by their words and deeds the Risen Lord to the world. "We must obey God rather than men." Once again they bear witness to the Resurrection and its meaning.

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Today's reading skips over the immediate reaction of the members of the Sanhedrin to these shocking words. They are furious and want to slay the apostles but a very wise man, Gamaliel, urges them to proceed with more caution. He tells the assembly that if the apostles are not from God, their movement will soon falter and die. However, if they are of God nothing that men can do will stop them. In fact, opposing them might mean opposing God himself. So time or providence will tell. The leaders follow Gamaliel's advice and let the Apostles off with only a flogging and a warning "to stop teaching in the name of Jesus."

But how could they after they had experienced the Risen Lord and received His Spirit? Today's gospel gives us St. John's account of the third appearance of Jesus to the Apostles at the shore of Lake Tiberias in Galilee. Remember that when our Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene on the first Easter Sunday, He told her to tell the Apostles to return to Galilee. Well, here they are back where they started from. He had called them from their fishing boats at the start of His career, and now they return to them.

After a night of fruitless effort a stranger appears on the shore at dawn and asks them if they've had any luck. When they answer, "No," He tells them to cast their nets in again and the result is incredible--the famous "miraculous draught of fish." They then realize that the stranger is the Lord and Peter, impetuous as always, jumps into the water and swims to shore. The others finally bring the heavily laden boat in and they all sit down to breakfast with Jesus. Apparently He had made a fire and was cooking. For breakfast He gave them bread and fish in the same way that He had fed the multitude.

Readers of this part of John's gospel have seen all sorts of sacred symbolism. However, I would like to focus on the conversation between Jesus and Peter after the meal was over. Peter gets his chance to atone for denying the Lord three times. Three times our Lord asks "do you love Me?" Each time when Peter answers "Yes, Lord," Jesus diverts or redirects his love. "Feed my lambs." "Tend my sheep." "Feed my sheep." Jesus had called Himself "the Good Shepherd" and now He turns over the shepherd's staff to Peter.

He is also turning something over to us. There is an old story about a man who loved mankind in general but hated every man he ever met. Sadly, there are many people whose so-called love for Jesus gets in the way of their love for their neighbor. Jesus is telling Peter and us that it can't work that way. Christians cannot sacrifice their children to the gods. Christians cannot let their neighbor go hungry or homeless. In the early days of the Church the pagans marveled not just at miraculous healings but at the behavior of ordinary Christians.

For example, when plagues would strike Roman cities, the citizens would flee leaving behind the sick and the dying to fend for themselves. Often, only the Christians would stay behind to care not only for their own brethren but for the pagans as well. Sometimes basic nursing care was all that it took to restore the sick to health. This love for neighbor marked the Christians out as different and was a major factor in the growth of the early Church.

In the weeks after Easter the second reading is taken from the "Book of Revelation." There we hear of St. John's vision of the Risen Christ, the Lamb of God, sitting at a throne or "heavenly altar" and receiving praise and thanksgiving from "every creature in heaven and on earth." It is the scene of the last days when the sheep will be separated from the goats. It is the time when Jesus will ask us, "Do you love me?"

St. Matthew depicts this same scene in his gospel. There, in chapter 25 our Lord, the king, is welcoming the just into the kingdom and praising them for their faithful service to Him. But they fail to understand:

Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee; or thirsty, and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and take thee in; or naked, and clothe thee?
Or when did we see thee sick, or in prison, and come to thee?

Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethern, you did it for Me.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

2nd Sunday of Easter
C cycle

Reading 1.Acts 5: 12-16
Reading II. Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19
Gospel. John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas).

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. In today's reading we see that the apostles were able to cure the "sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits."

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 brethern 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."

Only about 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, we believe that at every Mass Christ, Himself, comes into this place and gives us His blessing. "Peace be with you."

"Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday
C cycle

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).

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 words 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.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. Luke 22: 14-23:56 (Passion)
Gospel at the Procession. Luke 19: 28-40.

At the blessing of the palm branches before Mass began today we heard the famous account of the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Luke uses words similar to those which he had used to announce the birth of Jesus. The crowd proclaims:

Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.

It's hard not to wish that the story had ended here. The hero rides into town after preaching his wonderful message, healing the sick, and even raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead, and then receives a hero's welcome. We can all live happily ever after. Why does He have to go though with the Passion? Why does there have to be a "Passion of the Christ?"

In our society today we spend billions of dollars every year trying to make our lives free of pain and suffering. Our drugstore aisles are full of painkillers; we go to Florida in the winter to avoid the cold; we would not think of buying a house or car without all the latest labor saving devices. We try to dull our psychological pain with drugs, both legal and illegal. We also shrink from spiritual pain.

For example, many regard Jesus primarily as a teacher, a good man whose words provide valuable advice for all whether religious or otherwise. Others see him as a kind of social worker who as St. Peter said, "went around doing good works." They see Him as providing an example for all in His care for the poor and the downtrodden. However, we can not regard Jesus as a loving teacher and caring brother and then shrink from the Jesus that is presented to us in today's readings.

As we enter into Passion week we will have to face the "suffering servant" presented to us in today's first reading from Isaiah:

I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

We heard in the reading of the Passion that Jesus found it necessary to take up his Cross. He had warned us of this a few weeks ago at the Transfiguration, and told us that we would also have to take up our own crosses. Today's reading starts with the account of the Last Supper. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the Apostles, and said,

This is my body, which will be given for you;
do this in memory of me."

Then he took the cup and said:

This cup is the new covenant in my blood'
which will be shed for you."

His Body and Blood will be shed for us. From day one Christians believed that this sacrifice was the central part of their faith. Almost immediately after His death and resurrection they began to come together to bless the Bread and Wine and remember him. They believed as we still do today that the same sacrifice He offered on Calvary is still offered in every Mass. Of course, we don't believe that our Lord suffers over and over again. We believe that the Mass that we offer today is one and the same with the sacrifice He offered on Calvary. This is why we fill our churches with reminders of His Passion. Look at the Stations, the Windows and see the symbols of his journey to Calvary.

St. Paul always said that he preached "Christ crucified." In today's second reading he says that our Lord "humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." The teaching of our Lord and the example He set is this--without suffering, there is no resurrection.