Sunday, April 27, 2014

Doubting Thomas



                                    2nd Sunday of Easter  Divine Mercy Sunday
                                  
 
Doubting Thomas
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 teaching...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."

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, for us we believe that at every Mass Christ, Himself, comes into this room and gives us His blessing. "Peace be with you." As Peter said in today's second reading:

            Although you have not seen Him you love Him;
            even though you do not see Him now yet believe in Him,
            you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
            as you attain the goals of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

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Reading 1. Acts 2: 42-47
Reading II. 1 Peter 1: 3-9
Gospel. John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas).

* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter


                        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 visible...to 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?

Caravaggio: Peter's Denial

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, or 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 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.

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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).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion




                                    

 
Agony in the Garden
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


Today's  reading of the Passion of our Lord is one of the highlights of the Church year. This year we heard St. Matthew's account of the Passion. Next year we will hear St. Mark's account and the year after we will have St. Luke's account. Of course, on Good Friday we always have the Passion according to St. John. Although each of the Evangelists approaches the life of Christ in a different way, they draw very close to each other when it comes to the Passion.

The narrative of the Passion seems like a great drama with a cast of characters with whom we can all identify. If we could be in the drama, what role would we play? Would we be like the disciples who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane? or would we be part of the crowd who mocked and taunted Jesus only a short time after cheering Him and waiving palm branches?

Maybe we would like a more important role. We could be Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus, or Peter who denied Him, or even Judas who betrayed Him. Still, it is clear from today's readings that we are supposed to play the part of Jesus, Himself. The Church has always recognized that in His Passion and Death our Lord gave us an example which we must follow. Many times during His time on Earth Jesus said, "Follow Me”. Many times He urged us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Today's readings show that it is through the practice of humility and self sacrifice that we come to follow the Lord. Matthew begins his account of the Passion at the Last Supper. There Jesus told the disciples that He would give up His body and blood for us all, and that they should share in this sacrifice. When He asks us at every Mass to eat His Body and drink His Blood, he is also asking us to share in His sacrifice on Calvary.

Today's first reading is about humility and self sacrifice.

            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.

St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians says that Jesus "humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

This is the point of all of our little sacrifices during Lent. Everything that we gave up or did was to remind ourselves that we do not live just for ourselves.  Humility means giving up our own pride and ambition for the sake of others. Didn't our Lord say that we must deny ourselves in order to save ourselves? that we must lose our life in order to find it?

Our Lord was a great teacher but the Passion shows us that He taught by example.

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Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. Matthew 26: 14--27: 66 (the Passion).

* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Raising of Lazarus



                                    5th Sunday of Lent
                                    

 
Giotto: Raising of Lazarus
Scrovegni Chapel, Padua



Today’s first reading is from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is an unusual prophet because his words are spoken in a land far away from Jerusalem or Judea. He along with the remains of the Jewish nation had been taken captive and enslaved after their homeland had been conquered and destroyed by foreigners. In a way Ezekiel and his fellow captives were the lucky ones since many of their people had died in the invasion.

Today’s reading is part of one of the most famous passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet has a vision of a vast, dry, desert valley filled with bones. Suddenly at the word of the Lord the bones arise and are covered with flesh, and the Spirit of the Lord breathes life into them. Scholars tell us that Ezekiel is speaking of a future time when his people as a nation will rise and return to their homeland. The Lord says, “I will put my spirit in you that you may live.’

Is it any wonder that the Church uses this prophecy to introduce today’s gospel account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead? The gospel of St. John is filled with signs. Last week we saw that our Lord gave sight to the beggar, blind from birth, to indicate that He was the Light of the world. We saw how as a result of this great miracle, the leaders of the people began to plot against Jesus. He was forced to leave Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, when Jesus hears that his dear friend, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is ill, He decides to return to Judea. On the way He realizes that Lazarus has died, but resolves to perform the greatest of His signs.

He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep,but I am going to awaken him.”

As they say, the rest of the story is history. Not only did Jesus come to bring ‘light’ to the world, the raising of Lazarus was a sign that He came to bring ‘life’ to the world.

I am the resurrection and the life;whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

He went to the tomb and cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” St. John tells us that after this incredible sign many came to believe but when Jesus gave new life to Lazarus, he sealed His own death warrant. He came to give life but now those who cannot believe plot to kill Him. Next week on Palm Sunday we will hear the story of His Passion and Death.

In this last week of Lent it might be good for us to consider the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading. He says, “Those who are “in the flesh cannot please God.” By “in the flesh,” St. Paul means living in a kind of captivity such as experienced by those Israelites who had been enslaved along with Ezekiel. In another place Paul describes the works of the flesh as ‘immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.”

Paul contrasts those works with the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Isn’t it obvious that any of us who could be freed from the captivity of the “flesh” and who could enter into the life of the Spirit would have been raised from the dead?

But if Christ is in you, Although the body is dead because of sin, The spirit is alive because of righteousness.


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Reading 1. Ezekiel 37: 12-14
Reading II. Romans 8: 8-11
Gospel. John 11: 1-45 (raising of Lazarus).