Sunday, April 30, 2017

Road to Emmaus

                                    3rd Sunday of Easter
                                   

Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus


In the Sundays after Easter the readings usually give us testimony or witness to the Resurrection of the Lord. Last Sunday, for example, we had the touching account of doubting Thomas. Remember our Lord's words to Thomas, "do not be unbelieving, but believe." These words were addressed not only to Thomas but to all of us. Today's readings are also addressed to us.

The scriptures are the Word of God. As such they are addressed to every generation not just to those living 2000 years ago. So when as in today's first reading Peter stands up in front of a congregation much like ours, we should consider that he is speaking to us. When he says, "You who are Jews,"... "You who are Israelites, hear these words," he means us.

In his oration Peter  gives witness to the life, death and Resurrection of the Lord.

Peter says about Jesus,

            This man...you killed, using lawless men to crucify Him.

At the famous church Council of Trent, held over 400 years ago, the Church fathers refused to blame the Jews for the death of Christ. They said that inasmuch as Christ died for all men's sins, then all of us are responsible for His death. This position was reiterated at the Second Vatican Council.

Nevertheless, He died for all of us and He was raised from the dead for all of us. Peter then quotes the great Jewish King David as foretelling the resurrection of Jesus. Now Peter was no scripture scholar or learned rabbi. Perhaps he got this reference to David from the disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

Some of us must remember that old series of movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope--with titles like "The Road to Morocco" and "The Road to Zanzibar." In each movie the two traveled usually by accident to some exotic locale where there comic adventures took place. Well, the road to Emmaus is a journey to the most exotic of all locations and it is a journey that all of us must take.

Today's gospel account is so familiar that sometimes it is easy to overlook what is really going on. As two of the disciples were walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus falls in with them but St. Luke tells us that "their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him."  They take him for a stranger. When He asks them what they had been discussing, they tell Him of the events since the Crucifixion and how some of the women had seen an angel who gave them the incredible news that Jesus was alive. The news astonished them and they found it difficult to believe.

The stranger scolds them,

            Oh, how foolish you are!
            How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke.

Scholars tell us that what follows is like a Mass or liturgy. Jesus reminds them of the scriptures which has referred to the Messiah beginning with Moses and continuing down through the prophets. As they approach Emmaus, the disciples ask the stranger to stay with them. He accepts and they sit down to share a meal. He then offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving or eucharist in the same way that He does at every Mass.

            he took bread, said the blessing,
            broke it, and gave it to them.

Finally, in the breaking of the bread they recognized Him. At every Mass we hear the Scriptures read. They tell us not only of the predictions of a Messiah, but of the actual words and deeds of the Messiah. Then after the readings we join Him at the altar table and He comes to us or we come to Him in the breaking of the bread.

In today's second reading St. Peter again speaks and reminds us of our journey. He says,

            conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning...

Peter uses a strange expression here. He says that we were "ransomed." Today we think of ransom as a payment made to free someone from kidnappers. In the ancient world slavery was much more common than it is today. Prisoners taken in battle or piracy were sold into slavery. Only if family or friends could raise enough money could the captive be bought back out of slavery. Obviously, if someone came up with the ransom to free you, you would be eternally grateful to that person. Moreover, once freed you would never want to return to slavery.


Isn't it obvious from reading the newspapers or watching TV that so many of us are enslaved to one harmful addiction or another. Has Easter made any real difference in our conduct or relationships? Now we are halfway through the Easter season. In the weeks to come we can discover the road to happiness. Our journey to Emmaus can begin today. We have heard the Scriptures. Now in a few minutes we will have the opportunity to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread.

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Reading 1. 2: 14, 22-33
Reading II. 1 Peter 1: 17-21
Gospel. Luke 24: 13-35 (road to Emmaus.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

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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* Image by Melissa DeStefano. (click on image to enlarge)

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection

                                    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?

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).