Sunday, April 28, 2013

Love One Another

            5th Sunday of Easter

Jan VanEyck: Arnolfini Wedding

In today's first reading we continue to follow Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. Last week we saw that after meeting opposition in the Jewish community in Antioch, a seaport in what is now Turkey, they decided to take their message to the Gentiles or non-Jews. In fact Paul now realizes that the mission of the Jews has always been to bring the God of Israel to the Gentiles.

It's hard for us to understand the need for this missionary activity. We do not realize  how much fear ruled the world in which Paul and Barnabas traveled. When we read of Greek and Roman philosophers and poets, we fail to realize that they were few and far between. For the most part the Gentiles were consumed by fear of the gods. Here's a few examples.

In the ancient world families had to produce heirs to carry on the worship of the ancestral gods. Superstition led people to attribute any bad luck to a failure to properly carry out the rites and sacrifices for the dead family gods. Women, therefore, were little more than child bearing machines. If they couldn't bear children, Roman law required that their husbands divorce them. In most cases the very idea of love between husband and wife was unimaginable. Girls as young as 12 were given in marriage to men much older. If a woman bore a daughter, her husband could order her to kill the infant girl and try again. Infanticide was a common practice among the Romans.

Sacrifices were continually offered to idols in order to appease the gods. These were not harmless practices. Plague, famine, every stroke of bad luck was caused by some god who had been angered by failure to follow the proper rituals. I recently read a letter from a young missionary nurse in Thailand who reported how fear of the gods could ruin the life of an entire family. Even today when a child becomes ill a poor family will not seek medical help but will offer up a chicken to the gods. When the child's condition worsens, they then offer their cow only to find that doesn't work either. The child dies anyway but now the family faces financial ruin and starvation.

Of course, we know of other civilizations where human sacrifice was the accepted way to appease the gods. In today's gospel reading we have something new. The scene is at the Last Supper where Jesus predicts his own sacrifice for us. He says to the Apostles,

            I give you a new commandment: love one another.
            As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
            This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
            if you have love for one another.

This command to the Apostles will have a profound influence in the ancient world. The Christians like their Jewish brethren cannot practice abortion or infanticide. They must welcome their children and love them, even their daughters. In fact, many of the conversions in the early Church occurred because pagan men could not find pagan wives. They married Christian girls who brought their husbands to the faith as so many still do today.

In a well-known passage St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives. We don't realize after 2000 years of Christianity how shocking or abnormal this must have appeared in the ancient world. After all, what does love mean? Jesus gave us plenty of examples. At the Last Supper He stooped to wash the feet of his disciples. No self respecting Gentile would ever consider serving his wife in this manner. The next day He gave his life on the Cross as an example to us. From that day on every Christian man and woman had the responsibility to lay down his or her life for each other.

We are going to see over the next few weeks that this love was intended to extend beyond our own family, village, tribe, and nation. In today's gospel Jesus did not ask us to love Him, He commanded us to love one another. It's sad to think how little progress we've made in the last 2000 years. All the fears and horrors that Paul and Barnabas found in the ancient world still exist today. We only have to pick up today's newspaper to see the evidence.

Today's second reading is from the Book of Revelation. St. John had a vision, a dream of "a new heaven and a new earth." God, he says, will be with his people.

            He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
            and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
            for the old order has passed away.

Today, more than ever it seems like just a dream. But what can we do? How does it help to give up on faith, hope, or charity? We have our command, our marching orders. There is nothing stopping us from embarking on our own missionary journey. Maybe we don't have the gift of preaching but we can give a good example to our neighbors. "Paul and Barnabas opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." We can open the door so that Love can walk right in.

            This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
            if you have love for one another.

Years ago George and Ira Gershwin wrote a beautiful romantic ballad whose words could easily fit today's readings. Here is a link to the Hilltoppers' version, or just click below.

Reading 1. Acts 14: 21-27
Reading II. Revelation 21: 1-5a
Gospel. John 13:31-33a, 34-35 (love one another).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Father and I are One

            4th Sunday of Easter

Jesus Ascends to the Father
Assumption church, Fairfield, CT*
(click on image to enlarge)

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."

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).

*Photo image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Feed My Sheep

                                    3rd Sunday of Easter

"Do you love Me?
Assumption Church window
Fairfield, CT*

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.

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

* Image by Melissa DeStefano. click to enlarge.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Doubting Thomas

         2nd Sunday of Easter
Doubting Thomas
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.  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."

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

*Image by Melissa DeStefano