Pondering Some of the Teachings of the Easter Vigil in its Afterglow

The Easter Vigil so recently celebrated provides a rich fare for reflection. Alas, its memories pass so quickly. The shadowy yet wonderful Easter Vigil is the greatest and most elaborate liturgy of the Church year.

Due to its length and late hour, many Catholics have never rejoiced in the somber glow of its initial moments or in the blaze of glory and sacraments that follow. It features a presentation of the dramatic battle between darkness and light; the light wins, it always wins and the darkness is scattered.

The Easter Vigil is the manifestation of what St. John wrote in the prologue of his Gospel: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Psalm 20 says, Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Ps 30:5). Peter wrote, And we have the more certain prophetic word, to which you do well taking heed, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until this day shall have dawned and the morning star shall have arisen in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

As the paschal candle enters the Church, the cries go up: “Jesus is the Light of the world and this Light shall never be extinguished!”

Rather than allow the liturgy of the Easter Vigil pass unremarked, let’s consider some of its details and the teachings that its solemn richness bestows. The following are but a few observations and teachings from its opening moments.

1. Pillar of fire and cloud – After the Easter fire is blessed, the paschal candle is lit. The candle is an image of Christ our Light. In the Book of Exodus, we are taught how Christ was mystically present in the Exodus.

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night (Exodus 13:21). Christ is the true light who led them.

These two images of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire come together in the Easter Vigil. Although we begin outside, we are led into the Church first by the pillar of cloud (symbolized by the incense at the head of the procession) and followed by the pillar of fire (the paschal candle). Just as the ancient Israelites went forth in the Exodus out of slavery into freedom, so do we.

The pillar of fire illuminates our night and the pillar of cloud keeps our enemies, the demons, at bay. As many exorcists attest, Satan and his minions hate blessed incense.

Scripture says, The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night (Ex 14:19-20). For us, holy incense enshrouds us on the night of the Easter Vigil and separates us from our ancient foe and his fallen angels, just as the pillar of cloud did in the first Exodus.

And of the pillar of Fire there came a critical moment in the Exodus, which Scripture describes: At the morning watch, the LORD cast a glance on the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud and brought the army of the Egyptians into confusion (Ex 14:24). So too, the light of Christ scatters and confuses the satanic powers in our time as well.

All of this comes to mind as the incense (the pillar of cloud) and the Easter candle (the pillar of fire) go into the Church before us and the incense surrounds us and acts like a rear guard.

2. A Picture of the New Covenant But there is still more meaning in the incense and the paschal candle. In Genesis 15, we are told that God made a covenant with Abraham:

The LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half… As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. … When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram (Gen 15:9-18).

Thus the smoking fire pot of the incense thurible and the pillar of fire that is the Easter candle also announce the New Covenant that the Lord offers on this night, when the once-for-all paschal mystery is made present to us.

Yes, all of this from incense and the Easter candle! (These insights are developed well by The Liturgy Guys, an excellent podcast that I highly recommend.)

3. Clothed in Light As the flame of the paschal candle is shared, a darkened Church is clothed in light. The Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, is read or sung by the deacon or priest at the arrival of the candle in the sanctuary. One part is as follows: Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory.

Yes, just as in Heaven we will not be arrayed in garments of mere cloth but of light, Mother Church now see herself clothed in light, the Lord’s light. As the Book of Revelation says, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and celebrate and give Him the glory. For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. She was given clothing of fine linen, linen bright and pure.” For the “fine linen” she wears is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:6-8). On this most holy night, Christ the Bridegroom comes and says to His bride the Church, Awake O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (Eph 5:14).

Further along in the Exsultet, the deacon or priest reads or sings, Therefore, dearest friends, standing in the awesome glory of this holy light, invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty, that he, who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy among the Levites, may pour into me his light unshadowed, that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.

Thus we are clothed in the light of Christ, who alone enlightens us.

4. An undiminishable light Of the Light of Christ, of the paschal candle, the Exsultet says, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light. It is a flame divided but undimmed. We live in a world marked by the fear that in sharing with others we will have less. But of love this is not so! Just as the sharing of the Easter light among so many candles does not dim it in the least, neither does the sharing of love or truth diminish it; rather it multiplies. We do well to remember this lesson and stop being so stingy, fearful, and withdrawn. The Easter candle is no less dimmed by being spread. No, it is brighter than ever; the more it is shared the brighter this world gets!

5. A daring and dangerous notion The Exsultet boldly proclaims, O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer. Only saints can talk or write so boldly.

To speak of our sin as “necessary” and “happy” can only be done as a sort of hyperbolic flourish within the context of God’s providence. Joseph said to his brothers regarding their great crime against him in selling him into slavery, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Gen 50:20).

Yes, God can write straight with our crooked lines and make a way out of no way. The Exsultet comments, O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

There is so much more to say of the Easter Vigil, but let this be enough for now. Particularly if you have never attended the Easter Vigil, please be sure to go next year! Where it is celebrated faithfully, the Easter Vigil is the true summit of the liturgical year and a feast whose riches can never be fully savored.

The Journey of Mary Magdalene to Resurrection Faith

All of the resurrection stories depict the Apostles and other disciples on a journey of sorts to understand the resurrection. A completely new reality was breaking into their world and challenging their understanding. Far from depicting the disciples as credulous, the texts describe them as shocked, troubled, and even quite dubious. These were not men and women prone to naiveté or to concocting stories to assuage their grief. They are quite stunned by a new reality and struggling to get their minds around something they do not fully understand.

A beautiful example of a journey to resurrection faith is that of Mary Magdalene, who begins her journey on resurrection with the intention of finalizing burial rituals for the corpse of Jesus, and ends by acknowledging that she has seen “the Lord.” Let’s examine her journey as described in the Gospel of John, and see what it has to teach us about our own journey.

By way of background, recall that Mary had gone to the tomb very early, “when it was still dark,” and found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. She ran and got Peter and John, who then investigated. Although John believed, there was no conclusion announced after their investigation. Peter and John leave and Mary Magdalene is left at the tomb by herself, at least temporarily (for we know from other Gospels that other women were near at hand). Here is where the text picks up:

Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20:10-18).

Mary Magdalene makes a journey in this passage from fear to faith. Let’s prayerfully examine her journey of faith.

I. Her Fearful Fretting Mary Magdalene is looking for a corpse. She’d come out to the tomb that morning for one purpose: to finish the prescribed burial customs for Jesus. His body had been placed in the tomb hurriedly on Friday evening, for it was almost sundown and the Passover feast was near. Now the Passover and Sabbath were complete; it was time to anoint the body and finish all the usual customs.

On Friday, Mary had been through immense trauma, seeing her beloved Jesus, her Messiah, brutally tortured and slowly killed through crucifixion. It seemed as if things could not possibly get worse, yet they just did. It would appear, according to her, that grave robbers had broken in and stolen the body. Strangely, they had left the expensive linens behind. But never mind that, things were now a total disaster. Now it would seem that she could not even perform a final kindness for Jesus.

Because of her fearful fretting, Mary is not able to look at the information before her properly. Jesus had promised to rise from the dead, on the third day, and this was the third day. The empty tomb does not signify grave robbers; it manifests resurrection! In her fear and fretful grief, though, Mary draws only the most negative of conclusions.

This, of course, is our human condition. So many of us, on account of fear and perhaps past trauma, tend to place the most negative interpretations on the events of our daily life. We are quick to seize on bad news, and we dismiss good news too easily, or barely notice that every day most things go right. Instead, we focus on the few things that go wrong. So easily we are negative and forget that even in painful transitions, as certain doors close, others open. New possibilities often emerge even in painful circumstances.

Mary is about to encounter something astonishingly new, but for now, her grief has locked her into only the most negative of interpretations.

A. Rhetorical Question There comes to her, from the angels, a kind of rhetorical question: “Why do you weep?” A rhetorical question is really more of a statement in the form of a question. It is meant to provoke thought and to rebuke, or at least to invite reconsideration. The angels, it would seem, are inviting her to recall that this is the third day and Jesus promised to rise. Therefore, why would she weep over an empty tomb? Jesus, who had raised others from the dead, cast out blindness, calmed storms, and healed lepers, had said that He would rise on the third day. Why weep over an empty tomb? Rather, she should rejoice!

B. Rueful Response Mary will have none of it, and in her grief she does not take up the consideration offered her by the angels. She states flatly, “I’m looking for a corpse that they’ve taken away. Tell me where you put this corpse so I can continue to go to work.”

Grief does that. It takes away our capacity to see more clearly other possibilities, other interpretations. So easily we turn things into catastrophes in our mind; we assume the worst. Mary is at her lowest, locked into fearful fretting and colossal grief.

II. Her Faulty Finding The text says, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus speaks to her: Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? Mary thought it was the gardener and goes on speaking of Jesus as a corpse she is looking for.

Why does she not recognize Him? Has He changed his appearance? Or perhaps there were tears in her eyes and she could not see well. We cannot say, but either way, she’s looking right at Jesus but does not recognize Him.

Too often, this is our condition as well. The Lord is more present to us than we are to ourselves; He is more present than anyone or anything in this world. Yet we seem to see everyone and everything except Him. This is our spiritual blindness. We must make a journey in faith and learn to see Him. We must come to the normal Christian life, which is to be in living, conscious contact with Jesus at every moment of the day. Does the sun cease to be present simply because the blind man cannot see it? Of course not. Neither does the Lord cease to be present to us simply because we cannot see Him. We must make the journey of faith wherein our eyes are opened, the eyes of our faith to see God’s presence everywhere.

III. Her First Faith One of the paradoxes of our faith is that we learn to see by hearing. For Scripture says that faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), and faith is a way of knowing and seeing by way of that knowledge.

Jesus speaks and says “Mary.” With this, her faith is enlivened; her eyes are opened and she recognizes Jesus.

We, too, must allow the Lord to speak to us through His Word, so that we can learn to know Him and to see Him by faith, not by fleshly sight.

However, Mary’s faith is only a first faith, an initial faith. It needs maturing, as we shall see in the next point.

IV. Her Fuzzy Focus Having come to recognize the Lord Jesus, Mary initially wants to smother Him, to cling to Him. Her excess is not merely physical, but bespeaks a kind of clinging to the past. While it is true that the actual body of Jesus is risen and restored to her, the humanity that has been raised is a glorified humanity. There is something new that Mary must step back and behold.

A. Status quo ante – Thus Jesus says to her: Do not hold me. That is, “do not cling to me.” Mary’s gesture of embracing the Lord, and His reaction to it, suggest that something has changed that Mary has not yet fully understood. She clings to Him as He was. It’s as if to say, “Jesus, it’s you! Let’s pick up where we were before the crucifixion.” She thinks of Jesus of Nazareth alive again, but she must also now see the Lord of glory. His crucifixion has led to His glory. That is why Jesus speaks further of the fact that He is ascending to the Father.

We, too, must lay hold of a deeper understanding of Jesus as we make our journey. Or to put it in Jesus’ terms, we must let the Lord “ascend” in our own estimation. Scripture says elsewhere,

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-20).

B. Summons Mary is then given a summons by Jesus: Go to my brethren. Note that this is the first time that He ever called the Apostles “brethren.” It seems that it took the passion, death, and resurrection to accomplish this. Scripture says,

  1. I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! (Psalm 22:22-23)
  2. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren (Romans 8:29).
  3. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (Heb 2:101-3).

Mary is further told that she should say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to My God and your God.

V. Fullness of Faith In this last stage, Mary makes a significant step in her journey. She comes to a fuller faith based on this interaction with the Risen Jesus. How? When she goes to the apostles, she says, I have seen the Lord. She does not merely say, “I have seen Jesus.” She calls Him “the Lord.” It is true that the term “Lord” could simply be a term of respect like “Sir,” but there seems to be a shift in Mary’s understanding. She goes from using the term “Lord” to refer to a corpse that has been taken and put somewhere, to simply and authoritatively saying, “I have seen the Lord.” That is, “I have seen Jesus, who is Lord and God. He is risen and is ascending, and He has given me a word for you endowed with plenary authority.” This is resurrection faith: to see the glory of Jesus and understand that He is the Lord of glory and the Word who is God.

Here is true Easter faith. Not merely to see a corpse come back to life, but also to be able to see who He really is: “the Lord” (ton Kyrion). Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead. Scripture says elsewhere,

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5).

Mary Magdalene has made a journey from fear to faith. She began by looking for a corpse to anoint. She ends by making the mature Easter declaration: “I have seen the Lord.” It is truly Jesus who is risen in the self-same body. But He is glorified and now shows forth fully the refulgence of His glory as the eternal Son of God and Son of Man. To come to Easter faith is not only to see Jesus of Nazareth raised from the dead, but even more so to behold that He is the Lord of Glory.

Mary has made the journey. How about you?

A Meditation on the Hiddenness of the Resurrection

There is something of a hidden quality to the resurrection appearances that has always puzzled me. St. Peter gives voice to this when he says to Cornelius,

God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:41 to 42).

Note that Jesus did not appear openly to all but rather only to some. Why is this? It is so different from what most of us would do.

If I were God (and it is very good for you that I am not), I would rise from the dead very dramatically. Perhaps I would summon people to my tomb with trumpet blasts and then emerge amid great fanfare (including a multitude of angels), inspiring awe and striking fear in the hearts of the enemies who had killed me. Or maybe I would ride down on a lightning bolt right into the temple precincts and then go up to the high priest and tell him to seek other employment. Surely to accomplish such a feat would be an event that would never be forgotten! It would draw many to faith, would it not?

And yet the Lord does none of this! Not only did He appear only to some after His resurrection, but the actual dramatic moment of the resurrection itself seems to have been witnessed by no one at all. Instead of emerging from the tomb in broad daylight to the sound of trumpets, the Lord seems to have come forth before dawn to the sound of nothing but crickets chirping. Although St. Matthew mentions a great earthquake causing the rolling back of the stone and the guards stunned into unconsciousness, it seems that Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone was rolled back.

Such a hidden event! It was the greatest event the world has ever known, and yet it was hidden from human eyes. No, this is not our way at all; Cecil B. DeMille would not be pleased.

And then when the Lord does appear, it is only to some. Two of the appearances have often intrigued me because the details are so sparse; they are really mentioned only in passing.

One is the appearance to Peter. It would seem that the Lord appeared to Peter before appearing to the other apostles on that first resurrection evening, for when the two disciples return from Emmaus they are greeted with the acclamation, The Lord has truly been raised, he has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34). Shortly thereafter, the Lord appears to ten of the Apostles along with some of the disciples.

Why is there so little information about this appearance to Simon Peter? We are told in great detail about a conversation between Jesus and Peter two weeks later in Galilee (John 21), but of this first appearance in Jerusalem we hear only this passing reference.

In a certain sense it is a very significant appearance because it elevates the resurrection from just “some news” that the women were sharing, to the apostolic proclamation, the Lord has truly been raised. What moves it from rumor to fact? The difference is that he has appeared to Simon. Here is a kind of early and seminal act of the Petrine office and the Magisterium! But of this crucial apparition, no details are supplied.

The other appearance cloaked in obscurity is His appearance to the five hundred, which Paul relates here:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:5-6).

This is an amazing appearance; it’s not to just two or three, or even to a dozen, but to five hundred at once; yet no details are supplied. Where did it happen? When? For how long? What did the Lord say? What did He do? Silence.

And then there are the resurrection appearances that never happened (but to worldly minds should have): Jesus’ appearance to His accusers and persecutors, to Caiaphas, to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, and to all who jeered at Him as He hung on the cross. Surely they deserved a good dressing down—and they probably could’ve used it as well. Who knows, maybe they would have fallen to their knees and converted on the spot; maybe they would have worshiped Jesus.

Such are my thoughts on the strange and hidden quality of the resurrection. Why so hidden? Why so selective an audience? Ultimately, I can only venture a guess, a kind of theological hunch, if you will.

My speculation is rooted in the identity of God: God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Love is not merely something God does, nor is it just one of His many attributes. Scripture says that God is love. And it is the nature of true love (as opposed to lust) to inspire in the lover the desire to woo the beloved; to invite rather than overwhelm, importune, force, or coerce. The lover wants to be loved, but forcing the beloved to love or overwhelming the cherished into a fearful love would mean not receiving true love in return.

It is Satan’s nature to pressure, tempt, and overwhelm, in order to coerce us into sin. He is loud and loves to use fear as a motivator.

In contrast, God whispers. He calls us and gently draws us in. He provides evidence and supplies grace, but does not overwhelm us with fearsome or noisy events. He is the still, small voice that Elijah heard after the fire and the earthquake (1 Kings 19:12). He is the One who has written His name in our hearts and whispers there quietly: Seek always the face of the Lord (1 Chron 16:11). At times He does allow our life to be shaken a bit, but even then it is more often something that He allows rather than directly causes.

God is not interested in loud, flashy entrances or in humiliating His opponents. He does not have a big ego. Even if He chose to compel the Temple leadership to worship Him by using shock and awe, it is unlikely that their faith response would be genuine. Faith that needs to see isn’t really faith; one doesn’t need faith to believe what one can plainly see.

Thus the Lord does rise from the dead and He does supply evidence to witnesses who had faith—at least enough faith to be rewarded. He then sends these eyewitnesses, supplies His graces, and provides us with other evidence so that we can believe and love. None of this, however, is done in a way that overwhelms us or forces us to believe.

God is love and love seeks a free and faithful response. The hiddenness of the resurrection is an example of tender love. There’s only so much that the human person can take. So the Lord rises quietly and appears (but only briefly) to some and then seems to withdraw—almost as if respectfully giving them time to process what they have experienced. He gives them time to deepen their faith and to come to terms with what was, for them, a completely new reality, one that would change their lives forever.

How different this is from the way we operate! So many of us think in terms of power, fame, glory, vindication, and conquest. How different God is! He is so often tender, hidden, and whispering. He doesn’t need to get “credit” for everything He does. He doesn’t need to crush His enemies. Rather, ruing the day on which their “no” might become a forever “no,” He works to win their love, always hoping for their conversion. Until then, He is always calling, willing, and giving grace. His mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

Why was the resurrection so hidden? God is love, and love woos; it does not wound. It invites, it does not incite. It calls, it does not crush. It respects, it does not rule or seek revenge. Yes, God is love.

Of her glorious Groom, the Church and Bride says,

Listen! My beloved! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice … [He speaks to her and says], “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me” (Song 2:9-10).

Here’s how Cecil B. DeMille would do the Easter fire:

 

Back to the Future – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter

blog4.10Today’s Gospel is really quite remarkable. For despite the fact that the apostles have seen the resurrected Jesus several times now, they seem to be retreating into the past. They’re headed backwards and Jesus must summon them, if you’ll pardon the expression, “back to the future.”

They were going back to fishing but the Lord calls them away from fishing and points them to the future, a future that includes going to all the nations and summoning them to saving faith.

This is a critical Gospel that shows us Jesus summoning the apostles back to their crucial call, a call that has its focus not in the past but in the future. Indeed, fellow believers, if this Gospel had not gone right, your faith and mine might well have been in jeopardy. We are the future that Jesus sought to preserve. Our own coming to the faith depended on whether Jesus was able to summon Peter and the other apostles back to the future.

Let’s look at this gospel in four stages.

1. Regrettable Reversal – The text says, At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Peter had no business going back to fishing. The Lord had clearly called him away from fishing. For example: And he said to them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately, they left their nets and followed him (Mat 4:19).

But in today’s Gospel we see Peter going back to commercial fishing. This is not some sort of recreational fishing; the commercial nets are out. It is astonishing to think that after having encountered Jesus risen from the dead on at least two (and possibly more) occasions, he’s going back to fishing!

We often think that if only we were to see a miracle our faith would be strong, but there is very little evidence for this. Many who see signs and wonders, ponder whether what they have seen can be topped. Their fascination is engaged but not their faith. Ultimately, faith produces miracles; miracles do not produce faith.

Peter’s return to fishing is not only regrettable, it is scandalous. For in so doing it leads others say to him, “We will also go with you.” When we backslide we often bring others with us. Looking at it more positively, when we grow in holiness we also bring others with us. Sadly, Peter has regressed and others follow him. But as we shall see, the Lord will not abandon his church.

While we may wonder at St. Peter’s relapse, we should recognize that we, too, easily do the same. We praise Jesus with the same mouth that sometimes spews curses and gossip. We claim that we belong to Christ and are one body with Him, that we are a Temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet with that same body often comes forth fornication and other sexual impurity. We say that God is love, and yet from us too easily comes anger, hatred, and a lack of love for the poor and troubled.

We too easily run back to the things from which we have been called away. The Lord points us forward but we run backward.

Just as He did with the apostles in this Gospel, the Lord must stand on the shore of our baptismal waters, and call us out of the past and back into the future, a future of holiness and perfection. Too easily, we run from this. Yes, the Lord is faithful and stands on the shore calling us back. Would that we could say, in the words of an old gospel song, “Goodbye world, I stay no longer with you, goodbye pleasures of sin, I stayed along with you! I’ve made up my mind to go God’s way the rest of my life!” Another gospel song from the 1940s says, “No more, no more! I’ll never turn back no more! I’m going to keep on crossing till I reach the other shore. Rains may come, floods may roar, storms may race, and winds may blow, but I’ll never turn back, no more!”

Would that this were the case! But the Lord keeps calling us, calling from the shore, out across the waves of our discontent.

2. Redeeming Reminder – The text says, When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.

The Lord stands on the shore and does again for them what he had some three years earlier, when he called them from fishing to evangelizing. He does not excoriate them; He does not call them fools or some other epithet. He calls out to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” And rather than rebuke them, He asks them to assess the situation, to consider whether the course of action they have chosen has yielded anything at all. They admit that they’ve caught nothing.

And yet, strangely, this whole incident seems familiar. The Lord tells him that if they cast the net over the other side of the boat they will find something. Suddenly the nets are full! Oh, how this spoke to their hearts; it was just what happened three years ago! Scripture says,

And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:4ff).

In today’s Gospel, John draws the obvious conclusion, “It is the Lord!”  The Lord has given them a redeeming reminder. He does not rebuke them; he only reminds them. In effect, He says “Come out of the past! Remember the future to which I have summoned you, a future of going forth to the nations and announcing the Gospel for all to hear. Your life is not about fish; it is about humanity!”

What reminders has the Lord put into your life? How has He stood on the shore and called to you with some reminder? Perhaps it was a tattered old Bible, or maybe an old hymn that you heard. Perhaps it was your grandmother’s old rosary beads stored away in a dresser drawer. Perhaps you are summoned to a funeral or wedding.

In moments like these, the Lord stands on the shore of life and calls to you. He reminds you of your call, and asks you to consider whether your present course is doing anything for you whatsoever. Usually, it has not. Perhaps there is fleeting wealth or momentary popularity, but otherwise there is little else to show for it.

And thus the Lord calls. He calls us back to the future, a future (and a present) oriented toward Heaven. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, rather than the earth below (Colossians 3:1).

In the words of a popular hymn, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. See on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me; Come home, come home! Ye who are weary come home! Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling oh sinner come home!”

Here, then, is a redeeming reminder that Jesus is calling, softly and tenderly: “Come out of the past. Come away from commercial fishing. Look to the future, the future of saving souls!”

III. Reorienting Repast – The text says, When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Notice three basic elements whereby the Lord uses a meal to reorient them. To reorient (re (again) + oriens (East)) literally means to turn someone back to the East, back toward the rising of the sun (Son), back toward the light and away from the darkness.

FISH – The fish are in, and their number is plentiful. The specific number, 153, has significance more for humanity than for fish. While much ink has been spilled on the significance of this number, the most likely explanation seems to be that this was the number of known nations at the time. And hence, that exactly 153 fish are caught seems to be the Lord’s way of saying, “…not fish, but humanity: all the nations!” We see that God can use even our backsliding, our sins, and use them to call us away from them. Yes, He can use our sins to be a teachable moment.

FIRE – As Peter comes ashore, he sees a fire. And though the text is silent on this, surely it must have unnerved him! For here was a charcoal fire, the same sort of fire that was in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest where Peter had denied the Lord (Jn 18:18). Hurt, and unnerved by what he had done—or rather failed to do—Peter felt unworthy. Yes, this fire reminded him of his denial of the Lord.

And yet even Peter’s repentance is somewhat egocentric. It would seem that he wonders, “How could I have done this, I, who promised the Lord to be with Him even if all should rage against Him!” But in moment of cowardice, Peter denied the Lord. Oh yes, this fire, this charcoal fire, is bothersome indeed! The Lord stands next to the fire and looks at Peter much as he had in the courtyard of Caiaphas when, after Peter had denied Him for the third time, Jesus turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). How this fire bothered him!

FRANKNESS – But now comes a tender, poignant, and powerful conversation. To us who read the text in English, the conversation focuses on the fact that three times, the Lord asked Peter, “Do you love me?” But in Greek, there are subtleties that do not come through in the English translation.

In the English translation, the Lord asks Peter simply, “Do you love me?” And Peter answers, “Yes Lord, I love you.” The Greek text, however, is more subtle and more specific. In Greek, the Lord asks, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων? (Simon Joannou agapas me pleon touton? – Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?). Jesus has asked about “agape” love. But Peter replies, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. (Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se. – Lord, you know that I have brotherly (philo) love for you.)

The Lord asked for agape love, the highest love, wherein we love God above all things and above all people, including ourselves. But Peter does not answer with agape love. Rather he replies that he loves the Lord in a brotherly (philo) way. This is far short of what the Lord asked. (I realize that there are debates about the Greek used in this passage, but I am convinced that the use of the two different verbs is significant. You can read more on this topic here: Agape vs Philo in John 21).

But in spite of Peter’s response of imperfect love, the Lord still has something important for St. Peter to do: Feed my lambs.

A second time, the same dialogue sets up wherein the Lord asks PeterΣίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με (Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me? Peter responds, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε (Lord you know that I have brotherly (philo) love for you. Again, the Lord has asked for unconditional, ultimate love. But Peter can only return a lesser love, a brotherly love, a sort of affection. Yet again, the Lord does not reject Peter. He accepts what Peter says and tells him, Tend my sheep.

On the third occasion, Jesus accepts what Peter is able to offer and asks him, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; (Simon, son of John, do you have brotherly affection (phileis) for me? The third question, which strikes Peter to the heart, causes him to exclaim that he (only) has brotherly love. Yet again, the Lord does not reject Peter, but rather assigns him a task, saying once again, Feed my lambs.

This is perhaps one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looks with love to a disciple and asks him for the highest love; that disciple honestly answers that he has only imperfect love to offer. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter is being absolutely honest. There is no more posing, no more bragging—only an honest answer, borne out of sober appreciation of his human lapses. There is nothing more beautiful than honest prayer, for honesty is a prelude to healing. Jesus accepts what Peter is able to offer, and as we shall see, promises him that his heart will expand so that one day he will love the Lord totally, unconditionally, above all things, and above all people.

How about you? Are you honest with the Lord? Have you experienced His love in spite of your sin? Do you know that He can use you even in your weakness if you are willing to be honest with Him?

IV–Required Remedy – The text says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

In this whole conversation, the Lord’s purpose is not to stalk Peter or to badger him. Rather, it is to lead him toward a necessary remedy, to point him back toward the future, a future filled with evangelical fervor and sacrificial love. Peter is weak now, but the Lord will give him strength. Within ten days after His Ascension, the Holy Spirit will come and Peter will be quickened, strengthened in the faith.

But even then, the work the Lord needs to do is not finished, for the Lord speaks of the day when Peter will finally have the grace to accept martyrdom. It will be a day when someone will tie him fast and lead him off to where he would rather not go. But Peter will go. And he will die for Christ.

In the end, Peter will be able to say, without any simulation or exaggeration, “I love you, Lord, totally, with agape love. I love you above all things, above all people, and above even my own life.”

For now, though, Peter is not ready. But the Lord will lead him by stages and get him ready.

How will Peter get there? How will we get there?  The Lord simply says, Follow me.

So, fellow disciples, the Lord is leading you to a deeper love, an unconditional love, a love above all other loves. Only the Lord can do this. He did it for Peter—a hard case, actually—and He can do it for you!

For now, though, He is standing on the shore and calling us to a richer future:

The Book of Revelation Is a Sure Guide to What Is Really Going On

easter4.4In the Office of Readings this Easter season, we are reading from the Book of Revelation. This choice might seem surprising, but there are good reasons for it.

While many suppose that the Book of Revelation is merely about the end of the world, it is about far more; it is also about what is happening right now. It was not written only for the end of the ages but for all ages. It is a book of glory that discloses the victory that Jesus has already won. Don’t get lost in lots of exotic theories; Revelation is a book of glory that prophetically declares what is really going on.

Its title in Greek is Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Apokalupsis Jesou Christou), which literally means “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” It is as if Jesus is pulling back the veil to show us what is really going on. He shows us the great drama of history and tells us that He has already won the victory. He declares that we should not to lose heart while the dust settles, while the wheat is separated from the chaff and the harvest is brought in.

We are too easily mesmerized or terrified by our limited view of history. We think that life depends on which political party wins, or whether a cure is found for some disease, or whether world leaders can reach rapprochement. But the battle is far higher and deeper than our little sliver of the early 21st century. It is far deadlier and is about more dramatic issues than what will happen to the GNP of the U.S. or which of the latest political theories will prevail.

This is a great drama between good and evil. It concerns the far more fundamental issue of where you will spend eternity. Yes, there is a great and cosmic battle in which we are all caught up; it is happening all around us. St. Paul says,

For we do not contend against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the high places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph 6:11-13).

The Book of Revelation is speaking to the same reality. It unveils the true and cosmic battle. In so doing, it declares without ambiguity who the victor is: Jesus Christ our King, who has already won. There are only two kingdoms, two armies, two sides. You must decide whom you will serve: the prince of this world or the King and Lord of all creation.

Revelation opens with a vision of the glory of Jesus the Great Lord and Son of Man:

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev 1: 10-17).

Yes, here is our Lord Jesus in His resurrected and conquering glory! At the name of Jesus every knee shall bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).

Yes, Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:5-7).

The second part of the Book of Revelation calls the Church and us as individuals to repentance and perseverance. The cosmic battle reaches the Church and individual disciples. The battle is in the Church and in the heart of every person. Thus, the letters to the seven churches. We are not to lose the love we had at first. We must be willing to endure hardship and persecution. We are to reject the fornicators and all those who propose any sort of sexual immorality. We are to resist syncretism and every form of false religion. We must resist all of the deep secrets of Satan; we must not be in any agreement with his ways. We must resist sloth and not fall back. We must resist lukewarmness and every sort of pride and self-satisfaction. The Church, clergy, and laity must fight the good fight, must persevere. We must endure hardship and always keep in mind the reward that awaits the courageous and the eternal disgrace that is coming to cowards and to all embrace the world, the flesh, and the devil.

John is then caught up into Heaven to see the glory of God and the heavenly liturgy. He has revealed to him what must take place soon. Historically, the Book of Revelation pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the end of an era. Down through the ages, empires and nations have crumbled; eras and epochs have come and gone; only God’s Kingdom, as proclaimed and made sacramentally present by the Church, has or will survive.

Today we are arguably at the end of another era and epoch. The West is crumbling and decadence abounds. Confusion about basic reality is so widespread that our current cultural situation can credibly be described as a lunatic asylum. Even within the Church, voices that should speak out prophetically are silenced by fear and infected by worldliness. There is among Church leaders, clergy, and laity a widespread softness and a feeling that the risk of speaking out is too great.

The message of the Book of Revelation is a strong antidote to times like these as well as to times that have gone before and may well come after. The message is clear: be strong, be prepared, and be willing to suffer, realizing that no matter how powerful and glamorous evil may seem, Jesus is the victor. We must persevere and realize that we are swept up into a cosmic battle that is much larger than our current situation, but which reaches us nonetheless. We must choose sides. Don’t think that you can sit on the fence. Satan owns the fence and he is coming for you and will say, “You belong to me.”

The seals, the bowls, and the trumpets of Revelation are but a further description of the cosmic battle and the wretched defeats that ultimately come upon the defiant and disobedient. God will not leave unpunished those who despise His Kingdom and His holy ones. These seven ordeals times three are a call to repentance to those who survive. They are also a manifestation of God’s justice and ultimate authority over history.

A crucial battle comes in Revelation 12, when the red dragon with seven heads and ten horns besets Mother Mary, who is also an image of the Church. But note this: the devil cannot prevail in the war that breaks out in Heaven. He is hurled to the earth, where he unsuccessfully pursues the woman (who is Mary and the Church). He is a big loser, and in a rage he continues to pursue us.

For the time being, the cosmic battle continues. But Satan rages, for he knows his time is short. He is a big loser.

But even losers still have an odd ability to dupe and impress foolish, gullible people. And so Satan still flashes the cash, makes empty promises, and dangles passing pleasures before us. Sadly, many of the worldly and unspiritual foolishly fall prey to his pomp and lies. Mysteriously, God permits this until the full number of the elect are gathered in.

And then comes the end:

And fire came down from heaven and devoured Satan and his armies and followers. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new.” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev 20:9-21:5).

Yes, it is good that we read the Book of Revelation. It is a pulling back of the veil, wherein the Lord tells us what is really going on and what the outcome shall be. He is telling us not to lose heart. “In this world you shall have tribulation, but have courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Be not dismayed, fellow Christians. Do not be fearful of what is coming upon this world. Even if it is the end of the era or epoch, the Church has endured such sea changes before. Christ has already won the victory and has promised that the Church will remain indefectible. When the current foolishness has runs its course, we will still be here preaching the Gospel, even if we have become a small remnant and are preaching from jail!

Do not be fearful. Do not be a coward. Preach boldly and with love. Continue to shine the light of the Gospel in the darkness. The Gospel will win; it always wins.

Don’t get lost in all the details about the Book of Revelation and miss its message. The message is one of victory in the midst of persecution and trial. It is a call to persevere. It is a pulling back of the veil to show us what the end shall be! Be strong, be courageous, be certain. Jesus has already won the great victory in the cosmic battle. The dust is still settling. But know for certain that Jesus has won and if you choose Him, so will you!

He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev 21:7-8).

Regardless of what you think is going on, this is what is really going on. Choose sides. I urge you to choose Christ with courage. Don’t look back. Come what may, Viva Christo Rey!

Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

3-31blogThe gospels of the Easter Octave describe not just an event, but even more so, a journey. We are tempted to think that the disciples and apostles, having seen the risen Lord, were immediately confirmed in their faith and stripped of all doubt.

But that is not the case. Nearly all of the resurrection accounts make it clear that although seeing the risen Lord was “mind-blowing,” it was still only a beginning. As it is with any human experience, no matter how intense, encountering the risen Lord was something that the disciples needed to process. They needed to come to live its implications in stages.

This description of a journey, of a coming to resurrection faith in stages, is presented in the resurrection accounts. We notice that the first awareness occurred “when it was still dark” and “at the rising of the sun.” But as we know, it does not suddenly become fully light at dawn. Rather, the light manifests itself and increases over time. And so it is with the awareness of the resurrection. It begins to “dawn” on the disciples that He is Risen, truly; He has appeared to Simon.

The first reports are murky and there is a lot of running around: Mary Magdalene to Peter and John, Peter and John to the tomb, the women to the rest of the apostles. Yes, there is an awful lot of running about! It is still dark and the “cobwebs” of recent sleep aren’t completely gone; the light is just dawning, not at full-noon strength.

The disciples wonder what it all means and how it has changed/will change their lives. The answers to questions like this will require a journey; they are not to be answered in a mere moment.

In one Gospel there is a beautiful line that describes the experience well:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed (Matt 28:8).

Yes, such a beautiful description: fearful yet overjoyed (φόβου καὶ χαρᾶς μεγάλης (phobou kai charas megans = fearful and of great joy))!

What is one to make of all this? He is alive! Yet what does this mean? One’s life is changed, but how? One is filled with joy, yet draws back in a kind of reverential fear at the unknown, the unexperienced.

And so we see the women, encountering the risen Jesus on the road and they are fearful yet overjoyed. And again, while we might suppose that such an appearance would “seal the deal,” it is not that simple. Consider the following occurrences in the aftermath of the resurrection appearances and notice that a journey of sorts is required to make sense of it all.

  1. Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize Jesus at first, but has to have her eyes adjusted by the faith that comes from hearing—in this case hearing her name, Mary, spoken by Jesus.
  2. She also has to make the journey from merely clinging to Jesus as “Rabboni” and running to others to proclaim Him by saying, “I have seen The LORD.”
  3. The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus at all until their eyes are opened in the Breaking of the Bread.
  4. When the Apostles first see Jesus they draw back and think that they are seeing a ghost. He has to reassure them and clarify things for them.
  5. Simon Peter, even after seeing the Lord several times, falls away from his mission and announces to the others that he is going back to fishing. The Lord has to stand on the shore and call him anew from his commercial nets to the sacred shepherding of the Petrine Ministry.
  6. Even after witnessing forty days of appearances by Jesus and having been summoned to the mountain of the ascension, some see and believe but others still doubt.
  7. And after the ascension, the day of Pentecost still finds the apostles and disciples huddled behind closed doors. Only after the coming of the Holy Spirit are they really empowered to go forth.

Yes, there is more to experiencing the resurrection than mere sight. Faith comes by hearing and deepens by experience. They have to make a journey to resurrection life and so must we.

Even for us, who were born in the teaching of the resurrection, the truer and deeper meaning of it all is not something that can be supplied simply by the reading the Catechism; it is grasped through a journey we must make.

As a priest and disciple, I have both observed and experienced that Good Friday is powerful and moving for many people. Most of us know the cross; we have experienced its blows and its presence is quite real and plain to us. On Good Friday there are often tears at the Stations of the Cross, the Trae Horae, and the evening service of the Lord’s Passion.

But come Easter Sunday morning the experience seems less certain. People are joyful, but somewhat unsure of why or how. The joy of Easter seems more remote than the brooding presence of Good Friday or the gloomy silence of Holy Saturday. Though those days are unpleasant, they are familiar. But Easter Sunday is different. What does it mean to rise from the dead? What are we to do in response? During Lent we fasted and undertook practices to focus us. But Easter is more open and vacuous: Joy! Alleluia! Now what?

It remains for us to lay hold of this new life that the Lord is offering to us. It is not enough to think of or see the resurrection as an event of two millennia ago. It is that, but it is so much more. It is new life for us. We rise with Christ.

How and what does this mean? That is discovered through the journey. It is the deeper and more personal experience of the historical event that the Lord accomplished for us. He has raised us to new life.

In my own journey I have had to move from the event itself to a deeper, personal, true experience of that event. I have come to experience the new life that Jesus died and rose to give me. I have seen sins put death and new graces come alive. I am more chaste, generous, joyful, hopeful, serene, and zealous. My mind is clearer; it is new. My priorities are in better order and I have clearer vision. My heart is more spacious. I have learned more deeply of God’s love and mercy for me, and can thus show it more to others.

Yes, this is the journey to the new life that the Lord died and rose to give me. Good Friday and the cross are rather obvious to most of us, but Easter Sunday takes more time to fully comprehend. It requires a journey through which we, like the early disciples, progress from fear to faith, from darkness to light, from the sleepiness of the early morning to the alert faith of midday.

It is the journey toward a true and lasting Easter. We never cease to be overjoyed, but our awe deepens from one that is bewildered in the face of the unknown to one that bespeaks knowing wonder at what the risen Lord is doing in our life. Our previously cringing fear becomes the holier fear of reverence and love.

Yes, Easter is an event, but it is also a journey. The faint light of early dawn gives way in stages to ever brighter awareness as we lay hold of the new life that Christ died and rose to give us. There is a beautiful line in the King James translation of the Bible that captures Simon Peter’s journey, which at that time was only just beginning:

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulcher; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass (Luke 24:12).

Peter now knows, even as he is known. For you and me, the journey of wonder, awe, and experience continues to unfold. I know more today than ever before (thank you, Lord), but so much more needs to unfold. It will, by God’s grace and in God’s time.

Why Was the Resurrection Such a Hidden Event?

easterThere is something of a hidden quality to the resurrection appearances that has always puzzled me. St. Peter gives voice to this when he says to Cornelius,

God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:41 to 42).

Note that Jesus did not appear openly to all but rather only to some. Why is this? It is so different from what most of us would do.

If I were God (and it is very good for you that I am not), I would rise from the dead very dramatically. Perhaps I would summon people to my tomb with trumpet blasts and then emerge amid great fanfare (including a multitude of angels), inspiring awe and striking fear in the hearts of the enemies who had killed me. Or maybe I would ride down on a lightning bolt right into the temple precincts and then go up to the high priest and tell him to seek other employment. Surely to accomplish such a feat would be an event that would never be forgotten! It would draw many to faith, would it not?

And yet the Lord does none of this! Not only did He appear only to some after His resurrection, but the actual dramatic moment of the resurrection itself seems to have been witnessed by no one at all. Instead of emerging from the tomb in broad daylight to the sound of trumpets, the Lord seems to have come forth before dawn to the sound of nothing but crickets chirping. Although St. Matthew mentions a great earthquake causing the rolling back of the stone and the guards stunned into unconsciousness, it seems that Jesus had already risen from the dead before the stone was rolled back.

Such a hidden event! It was the greatest event the world has ever known, and yet it was hidden from human eyes. No, this is not our way at all; Cecil B. DeMille would not be pleased.

And then when the Lord does appear, it is only to some. Two of the appearances have often intrigued me because the details are so sparse; they are really mentioned only in passing:

One is the appearance to Peter. It would seem that the Lord appeared to Peter before appearing to the other apostles on that first resurrection evening. For when the two disciples return from Emmaus they are greeted with the acclamation, The Lord has truly been raised, he has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34). Shortly thereafter, the Lord appears to ten of the apostles, along with some of the disciples.

Why is there so little information about this appearance to Simon Peter? We are told in great detail about a conversation between Jesus and Peter two weeks later in Galilee (John 21), but of this first appearance in Jerusalem we get only this passing reference.

In a certain sense it is a very significant appearance because it elevates the resurrection from just “some news” that the women were sharing, to the apostolic proclamation, the Lord has truly been raised. What moves it from rumor to fact? The difference is that he has appeared to Simon. Here is a kind of early and seminal act of the Petrine office and the Magisterium! But of this crucial apparition, no details are supplied.

The other appearance cloaked in obscurity is His appearance to the five hundred, which Paul relates here:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:5-6).

This is an amazing appearance; it’s not to two or three, or even to a dozen, but to five hundred at once. And yet no details are supplied. Where did it happen? When? For how long? What did the Lord say? What did He do? Silence.

And then there are the resurrection appearances that never happened (but to worldly minds should have): Jesus’ appearance to His accusers and persecutors, to Caiaphas, to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, and to all who jeered at Him as He hung on the cross. Surely they deserved a good dressing down—and they probably could’ve used it. Who knows, maybe they would have fallen to their knees and converted on the spot; maybe they would have worshiped Jesus.

Such are my thoughts on the strange and hidden quality of the resurrection. Why so hidden, why so selective an audience? Ultimately, I cannot say why; I can only venture a guess, a kind of theological hunch, if you will.

My speculation is rooted in the identity of God: God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Love is not merely something God does, nor is it just one of His many attributes. Scripture says that God is love. And it is the nature of true love (as opposed to lust) to woo the beloved, to invite rather than overwhelm, importune, force, or coerce. The lover wants to be loved, but to force the beloved to love or to overwhelm the cherished into a fearful love would mean not receiving true love in return.

It is in the nature of Satan to pressure, tempt, and overwhelm, in order to coerce us into sin. Satan is loud and loves to use fear as a motivator.

By contrast, God whispers. He calls us and gently draws us in. He supplies grace and evidence but does not overwhelm us with fearsome or noisy events. He is the still, small voice that Elijah heard after the fire and the earthquake (1 Kings 19:12). He is the One who has written His name in our hearts and whispers there quietly: Seek always the face of the Lord (1 Chron 16:11). At times He does allow our life to be shaken a bit, but even then it is more often something that He allows rather than directly causes.

God is not interested in loud, flashy entrances or in humiliating His opponents. He does not have a big ego. Even if He chose to compel the Temple leadership to worship Him by using shock and awe, it is unlikely that their faith response would be genuine. Faith that needs to see isn’t really faith; one doesn’t need faith to believe what he can plainly see with his own eyes.

Thus the Lord does rise from the dead and He does supply evidence to witnesses who had faith—at least enough faith to be rewarded. He then sends these eyewitnesses, supplies His graces, and gives us other evidence so that we can believe and love. But none of this is done in a way that overwhelms us or forces us to believe.

God is love, and love seeks a free and faithful response. The hiddenness of the resurrection is an example of tender love. There’s only so much that the human person can take. So the Lord rises quietly and appears (but only briefly) to some and then seems to withdraw—almost as if respectfully giving them time to process what they have experienced. He gives them time to deepen their faith and to come to terms with what was, for them, a completely new reality, one that would change their lives forever.

How different this is from the way we operate! So many of us think in terms of power, fame, glory, vindication, conquest, and so forth. How different God is! He is so often tender, hidden, and whispering. He doesn’t need to get “credit” for everything He does. He doesn’t need to crush His enemies. Rather, ruing the day on which their “no” might become a forever “no,” He works to win their love, always hoping for their conversion. Until then, He is always calling, willing, and giving grace. His mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

Why was the resurrection so hidden? God is love. And love woos, it does not wound. It invites, it does not incite. It calls, it does not crush. It respects, it does not rule or seek revenge. Yes, God is love.

Of her glorious Groom, the Church and Bride says,

Listen! My beloved! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice … [He speaks to her and says], “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me” (Song 2:9-10).

Here’s how Cecil B. DeMille would do the Easter fire:

My Way Gets Brighter, My Load Gets Lighter – A Homily on the Easter Emmaus Gospel

easter2016There are four different Gospels proposed by the Church for Easter Sunday. Here I offer a homily on the Lucan account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. I have written sermons and commentaries on two of the other Gospels; they are available here:

  1. John 20:1-8 The Journey from Fear to Faith
  2. Matt 28:1-10 Jesus is Real – The Journey to Easter Faith

In this homily I reflect on the Emmaus Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) as a resurrection account, focusing on the journey of the two disciples out of darkness and into Easter light. (It is also clear that this whole Gospel account is a Mass, through and through, and I reflected on that aspect in another homily, available here: The Not-so-hidden Mass on the Road to Emmaus).

But on this Easter day, let’s focus on the journey of these two disciples in four stages, watching how their journey gets lighter and brighter as they go.

I. Despair That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!”

As the gospel scene opens, we see two people: one named Cleopas and the other not named. Perhaps the other disciple is you.

Though it may be midday, they are experiencing a great darkness. Let’s consider their condition in four ways.

  1. They are Unfocused – As the curtain rises, we see these two, dejected and literally disoriented (they are traveling in the wrong direction, away from Jerusalem). It’s never a good idea to have Jerusalem behind you. Jerusalem is spiritual East, (oriens is the Latin word for east). Hence they are “dis-oriens,” disoriented; their focus is wrong. They are turned toward the west, toward darkness, away from the light and the resurrection.

So, too, for some (perhaps many) today whose focus is worldly and westward, rather than heavenly and eastward, toward spiritual Jerusalem. The second reading today says, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

  1. They are Unaware Jesus joins them and walks along with them. But the text says that their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. We too quickly assume that it is the Lord who is preventing them. More likely, however, it is their sorrow or lack of faith that prevents them. The text describes them as looking downcast. This may speak to their sorrow, but it also indicates a certain lack of awareness and attention.

Sometimes we are so busy looking down that we forget to look up and remember the heavenly glory that should ever be our true focus. Psalm 121:1 says, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Were they to lift their eyes from their downcast state, they might become aware of who it is that is speaking to them! Instead, they are downcast and hence unaware of the saving presence of the very Lord they lament.

  1. They are Unbelieving – They are well aware of the testimony of many in the Church that Jesus was alive, risen from the dead. They also know that this is the third day, for they refer to it as such. But they are sinfully stubborn in that they disregard the news of His resurrection (from the women and the apostles) and are leaving town. This is despite Jesus’ repeated promises that He would rise on the third day, the very day they are departing Jerusalem. Yes, they are unbelieving; they disregard the evidence of the very thing promised. Too easily we can do the same, collapsing at the slightest misfortune despite the countless blessings of the Lord.
  2. They are uninstructed – And thus the Lord rebukes them as foolish for being slow to believe what the prophets had written. The Lord likely does not use the word “foolish” to mean stupid or bumbling (today’s connotation). Rather, He is probably using the meaning common at the time: uninstructed in biblical wisdom. Foolish usually meant unwise, out of touch with or uninstructed in the wisdom of God. Thus the Lord rebukes their forgetfulness of God’s wisdom, as set forth in the Holy Scriptures. They are thinking as men think, not as God (cf Mat 16:23) thinks; they are thinking in worldly ways not in the ways of wisdom. We, too, can easily fall prey to worldly thinking if we neglect the biblical texts and are slow of heart to believe what God teaches us therein.

II. Decoding “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.

The Lord decodes the recent events by teaching them, from the Word of God, what had been set forth about the Messiah.

What is Scripture? Scripture is the prophetic declaration of reality. It says, “This is what is really going on, no matter what you or others might think.”

And thus Jesus the Christ was fulfilling God’s plan. Nothing had gone wrong; nothing was out of control. The pride of Satan was defeated by the humble suffering of Christ; the disobedience of man was now replaced by the obedience of the God Man, Jesus. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.

And for us who are too easily dismayed by the apparent (and short-term) triumph of evil and injustice comes the decoding of history: the cross wins; it always wins. Although it remains a cross, for down through the ages the faithful experience suffering and injustice, it always wins. Sunday always comes and an eternal Sunday dawns one day for all of the faithful.

No matter what you think is happening, this is what is really happening. The Paschal mystery decodes all history: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—this what is really happening. We are always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies (2 Cor 4:10). Jesus is the resurrection and the life and all who believe in Him will live.

III. Disclosure As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.

Despite the evening hour, it is gradually getting brighter. Their hearts have been stirred by this walk with the Lord, who though hidden, has addressed their burdens, given them hope, and supplied meaning to the recent painful events.

The words of an old hymn come to mind: “My load gets lighter; my way gets brighter; walking up the King’s highway.” Something tells them that this must continue, that it must grow ever deeper. They ask the hidden Lord to stay.

Meals in the ancient world were about more than food; they were also about relationships. Meals were both a sign and a cause of greater intimacy and depth in relationships. And this is to be no ordinary meal.

Clearly this entire pericope has been a Mass, from the gathering of two or three, to the presence of the Lord, to the instruction in His Word, and now to the celebration of the Eucharist. The Lord took the bread, blessed it and broke and gave it to them. No Catholic can fail to hear the words of this familiar action and not realize that this is the Eucharist.

And for us the purpose is the same: that our load gets lighter, that our way gets brighter, and that we grow more deeply related to the Lord, who saves us. It is in this context that the Lord’s fundamental disclosure Lord takes place. Their eyes are opened and they recognize Him in “the breaking of the Bread,” the ancient Christian description of the Holy Eucharist.

Two sad and downcast disciples journey with the Lord. As their load gets lighter and their way gets brighter, they can finally the Lord, who has never abandoned them is now disclosed to them by faith, the Word of God, and the Sacrament. Is this how you experience the Mass and your Christian walk?

IV. Declaration Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.

No one goes away from Jesus unchanged. These men, having experienced the Lord profoundly, are now changed. They reverse course; they are “reoriented.” They return to Jerusalem and to the Church, gathered. There, they share with the others the joy that they have experienced. Is this how you leave Mass each Sunday?

Though it is now late in the evening, the spiritual darkness has cleared; the night is as bright as the day. Jesus is risen; they have seen the Lord. The declaration of the Church is clear: “The Lord has been truly raised!” If the Church ever stops being able to experience and declare this, we will no longer be the Church. But as it is, Christ has been raised, and this has been our declaration to an often skeptical, sad world.

It is Easter and we have seen the journey of these two disciples out of darkness and into light. One was named Cleopas; are you the other unnamed disciple? How? What is your story?