Many groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.
Here in the aftermath of Easter with all our fancy words like catechumen, mystogogia, neophyte, regeneration, etc, I muse on our overall tendency to “church-speak. To some degree, we need these words and should educate God’s faithful as to their meaning. But it is a source of some humor to ponder how arcane, how obscure our language can become.
For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?
I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.
Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!
Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).
Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”
During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.
Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined
At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.
The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.
Again, I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.
This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!
The Lord says, “My sheep hear my voice.” That’s right, He called us sheep. Get a little indignant with me here! The Lord is comparing us not to majestic eagles, beautiful gazelles, swift horses, mighty lions, or clever doges, but to sheep. While reality may hurt, the truth can liberate. Although sheep are considered somewhat lowly animals, they are valuable as well. Let’s consider some qualities of sheep that may help illustrate what He is teaching. Two are more negative, two are positive
Sheep are WAYWARD – They tend to wander off. A sheep will graze for a while and then look around and seem to wonder, “Where am I?” Dogs and cats can find their way home, horses can find the barn, but sheep can’t manage to find their way back without the shepherd and his sheepdogs leading and herding them. Without this, sheep are lost, they stand a chance. Too soon they fall in a hole, crevasse or ravine or are easily picked off by wolves.
Don’t tell me that doesn’t describe us! Like sheep, we have gone astray, each to his own way (Isaiah 53:6). Yes, we easily become lost. We need the sheepfold of the Church; we need Christ the Shepherd, ministering through Priests, bishops, religious sisters, parents and other leaders with He himself as our Chief Shepherd. But too many of us are wayward. Less than 20% of Catholics even go to Mass. And sure enough, wandering from the care of the Shepherd they fall into the holes and pitfalls of foolish errors, lies of the world and the devil, and are easy prey for the wolves of this world. Oh yes, we like sheep are very wayward and unless we stay in the care of the shepherd we don’t stand a chance.
Sheep are WEAK – Sheep have no way to protect themselves. Mules can kick, cats can scratch, dogs can bite, rabbits can run away, and skunks—well, you know what they can do—but without the care of the shepherd and the help of sheepdogs, sheep are doomed! The wolf comes and all they can do is stand there get devoured. The only safe place is in the sheepfold, in the fenced in pasture with the Shepherd himself as the gatekeeper. Inside are green and safe pastures, outside, all bets are off; just presume They’ll be picked off by the wolf.
So it is with us. If it were not for the care of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we’d be cornered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. If it were not for the Lord and the power of His grace, we would be toast!
We like to think we’re strong; we have armies, political power, monetary power, and star power that can feed that illusion. Then at the slightest temptation we fall! We need the Lord and His grace and mercy, or we don’t stand a chance. We are weak and prone to sin.
Only inside, the defending walls of God’s Commandments and the safety of the Kingdom do we stand a chance. We need to get there and stay there. Choosing any other place is just dumb.
Sheep are WORTHWHILE – In Jesus’ day, many a man counted his wealth by the number of sheep he owned. Shepherds made many sacrifices to breed, herd, and protect these valuable animals, which provided meat, milk, and wool. So it is with us. At times we may not feel worthy, but apparently we were worth saving because the Lord paid the price of our redemption. He knew the price and paid it all—not with silver and gold but with His own precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Sheep are WARY – In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:11-14).
Sheep have the remarkable quality of knowing their master’s voice and of instinctively fearing any other.
In this matter, sheep are smarter than most of us, for we do not flee voices contrary to Christ’s. Instead, we draw close to those voices and ask, “Tell me more.” In fact, we spend a lot of time and money to listen to those other voices. We buy televisions so that the enemy’s voice can influence us and our children. We spend large amounts of time watching television, listening to the radio, and perusing the Internet.
Yes, we can so easily be drawn to the enemy’s voice. Not only do we not flee from it, we feast upon it! Instead of rebuking it, we rebuke the voice of God. We put His Word on trial instead of putting the world on trial. How dumb is that!
We must be more wary, like sheep, and respond only to one voice: that of the Lord speaking though His Church. We must flee every other voice.
Pay attention, my fellow sheep: do not stray from the Shepherd. The protection of the Lord is only for those who desire and freely choose such protection. He can protect you, but not if you live a double life or open the door to your heart to Satan. The Lord is not a slave owner; He is a lover who invites us to freely accept His offer of new life rooted in a loving and trusting relationship with Him.
Do you know His voice? Do you know only His voice? Do you run form every voice contrary to His, or do you seek counselors who tell you what your itching ears want to hear? (cf2 Tim 4:3) If you remain true, you have the protection of the Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing will ever harm you (Luke 10:19)—but if you stray, be not surprised at the presence of wolves.
N.B. There is a video version of this homily below
In today’s Gospel we encounter two discouraged and broken men making their way to Emmaus. The text describes them as “downcast.” That is to say, their eyes are cast on the ground, their heads are hung low. Their Lord and Messiah has been killed, the one they had thought would finally liberate Israel. Some women had claimed that He was alive, but these disciples have discredited those reports and are now leaving Jerusalem. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is sinking low.
They are also moving in the wrong direction, West, away from Jerusalem, away form the resurrection. They have their backs to the Lord, rising in the East.
The men cannot see or understand God’s plan. They cannot “see” that He must be alive, just as they were told. They are quite blind as to the glorious things that happened hours before. In this, they are much like us, who also struggle to see and understand that we have already won the victory. Too easily our eyes are cast downward in depression rather than upward in faith.
How will the Lord give them vision? How will He reorient them, turn them in the right direction? How will He enable them to see His risen glory? How will He encourage them to look up from their downward focus and behold new life?
If you are prepared to “see” it, the Lord will celebrate Holy Mass with them. In the context of a sacred meal we call the Mass, He will open their eyes and they will recognize Him; they will see glory and new life.
Note that the entire gospel, not just the last part, is in the form of a Mass. There is a gathering, a penitential rite, a Liturgy of the Word, intercessory prayers, a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and an ite missa est. In this manner of a whole Mass, they have their eyes opened to Him and to glory. They will fulfill the psalm that says, Taste, and see, the goodness of the Lord (Psalm 34:8).
Let’s examine this Mass, which opens their eyes, and ponder how we also taste and see in every Mass.
Stage One: Gathering Rite – The curtain rises on this Mass with two disciples having gathered together on a journey: Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus (Lk 24:13). We have already discussed above that they are in the midst of a serious struggle and are downcast. We only know one of them by name, Cleopas. Who is the other? If you are prepared to accept it, the other is you. So, they have gathered. This is what we do as the preliminary act of every Mass. We who are pilgrims on a journey come together on our journey.
It so happens for these two disciples that Jesus joins them:And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them (Luke 24:15). The text goes on to tell us that they did not recognize Jesus yet.
The Lord walks with us, too. It is essential to acknowledge by faith that when we gather together at Mass the Lord Jesus is with us. Scripture says, For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). For many of us, too, although Jesus is present we do not recognize Him. Yet he is no less among us than He was present to these two disciples who fail to recognize Him.
Liturgically, we acknowledge the presence of the Lord at the beginning of the Mass in two ways. First, as the priest processes down the aisle the congregation sings a hymn of praise. It is not “Fr. Jones” they praise; it is Jesus, whom “Fr. Jones” represents. Once at the chair the celebrant (who is really Christ) says, “The Lord be with you.” In so doing He announces the presence of Christ among us promised by the Scriptures.
The Mass has now begun and our two disciples are gathered; the Lord is with them. So, too, for us at every Mass. The two disciples still struggle to see the Lord, to experience new life, and to realize that the victory has already been won. So, too, do some of us who gather for Mass. The fact that these disciples are gathered is already the beginning of the solution. Mass has begun. Help is on the way!
Stage Two: Penitential Rite – The two disciples seem troubled and the Lord inquires of them the source of their distress: What are you discussing as you walk along? (Lk 24:17). In effect, the Lord invites them to speak with Him about what is troubling them. It may also be a gentle rebuke from the Lord that the two of them are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the site of the resurrection.
Clearly their sorrow and distress are governing their behavior. Even though they have already heard evidence of Jesus’ resurrection (cf 24:22-24), they seem hopeless and have turned away from this good news.
Thus the Lord engages them in a kind of gentle penitential rite, engages them about their negativity.
So, too, for us at Mass. The penitential rite is a moment when the celebrant (who is really Christ) invites us to lay down our burdens and sins before the Lord, who alone can heal us. We, too, often enter the presence of God looking downcast and carrying many burdens and sins. Like these disciples, we may be walking in the wrong direction. In effect, the Lord says to us, “What are thinking about and doing as you walk along? Where are you going with your life?”
The Lord asks them to articulate their struggles. This calling to mind of struggles, for them that day and for us in the penitential rite, is a first step to healing and recovery of sight.
Again, we see in this story about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Mass that is so familiar to us.
Stage Three: Liturgy of the Word – In response to their concerns and struggles, the Lord breaks open the Word of God, the Scriptures: Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).
Not only does the Lord refer to Scripture, He interprets it for them. Hence the Word is not merely read; there is a homily, an explanation and application of the Scripture to the men’s struggles. The homily must have been a good one, too, for the disciples later remark, Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32)
So, too, for us at Mass. Whatever struggles we may have brought, the Lord bids us to listen to His Word as the Scriptures are proclaimed. Then the homilist (who is really Christ) interprets and applies the Word to our life. Although the Lord works through a weak human agent (the priest or deacon), He can write straight with crooked lines. As long as the homilist is orthodox, it is Christ who speaks. Pray for your homilist to be an obedient and useful instrument for Christ at the homily moment.
Notice, too, that although the disciples do not yet fully see, their downcast attitude is gone; their hearts are now on fire. Pray God, that it will be so for us who come to Mass each week and hear from God that the victory is already ours in Christ Jesus. God reminds us, through Scripture passages that repeat every three years, that although the cross is part of our life, the resurrection surely is, too. We are carrying our crosses to an eternal Easter victory. If we are faithful to listening to God’s Word, hope and joy build within our hearts and we come, through being transformed by Christ in the Liturgy, to be men and women of hope and confidence.
Stage Four: Intercessory Prayers – After the homily, we usually make prayers and requests of Christ. We do this based on the hope, provided by His Word, that He lives, loves us, and is able. So it is that we also see these two disciples request of Christ, Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over (Luke 24:29).
Is this not what we are doing when we say, in so many words, “Stay with us, Lord, for it is sometimes dark in our lives and the shadows are growing long. Stay with us, Lord, and with those we love, so that we will not be alone in the dark. In our darkest hours, be to us a light, O Lord, a light that never fades away”?
Indeed, it is already getting brighter, for we are already more than halfway through the Mass!
Stage Five: Liturgy of the Eucharist – Christ does stay with them. Then come the lines that no Catholic could miss: And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them (Luke 24:30). Yes, it is the Mass to be sure. All the basic actions of the Eucharist are there: He took, blessed, broke, and gave. They are the same actions that took place at the Last Supper and that we repeat at every Mass. Later, the two disciples refer back to this moment as the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35), a clear biblical reference to the Holy Eucharist.
The words of Mass immediately come to mind: “While they were at supper, He took the bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples, and said, “Take this all of you and eat it. This is my Body, which will be given up for you.”
A fascinating thing then occurs: With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:31).
It is the very act of consecration that opens their eyes. Is this not what Holy Communion is to do for us? Are we not to learn to recognize Christ by the very mysteries we celebrate? Are we not to “taste and see”?
The liturgy and the sacraments are not mere rituals; they are encounters with Jesus Christ. Through our repeated celebration of the holy mysteries, our eyes are increasingly opened, if we are faithful. We learn to see and hear Christ in the liturgy, to experience his ministry to us.
The fact that Jesus vanishes from their sight teaches us that He is no longer seen with the eyes of the flesh, but with the eyes of faith and the eyes of the heart. Although He is gone from our earthly, fleshly, carnal sight, He is now to be seen in the sacrament of the altar and experienced in the Liturgy and in other sacraments. The Mass has reached its pinnacle for these two disciples and for us. They have tasted and now they see.
Consider these two men who began this Gospel quite downcast. Their hearts are on fire and they now see. The Lord has celebrated Mass in order to get them to this point. So, too, for us: the Lord celebrates Mass in order to set our hearts on fire and open our eyes to glory. We need to taste in order to see.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. … Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:4-8).
Yes, blessed are we if we faithfully taste in order to see, every Sunday at Mass.
Stage Six: Ite Missa Est– Not able to contain their joy or hide their experience, the two disciples run seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell their brethren what has happened and how they encountered Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They want to, they must speak of the Christ they have encountered, what He said and what He did.
Note that this liturgy has reoriented them. They are now heading back east, toward the Risen Son.
How about us? At the end of every Mass, the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” This does not mean, “We’re done, go home and have nice day.” It means, “Go into the world and bring the Christ you have received to others. Tell them what you have seen and heard here, what you have experienced. Share with others the joy and hope that this Liturgy gives.”
Have you ever noticed that part of the word “mission” is in the word “dismissal”? You are being commissioned, sent on a mission to announce Christ to others.
Finally, the Lucan text says of these two disciples, So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them … Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:33,35). How about us? Does our Mass finish that well, that enthusiastically? Can you tell others that you have come to Christ in “the breaking of the bread,” in the Mass?
Jesus has used the Mass to drawn them from gloom to glory, from downcast to delighted, from darkness to light. It was the Mass. Do you “see” it there? It is the Mass. What else could it be?
After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples at certain places and times, but did not seem to stay with them continuously. On the first Easter Sunday, He appeared six times in rather rapid succession: first to Mary Magdalene, then to the women at the tomb, third as the women left the tomb, fourth to Peter, fifth to the two disciples going to Emmaus, and sixth to the ten Apostles in Jerusalem (when Thomas was not present).
In His public ministry, Jesus seemed to be with His disciples nearly all the time. However, after His Resurrection he would appear, converse, and teach, but then be absent from them bodily. For example, John 20:26 says that “after eight days” Christ appeared to the disciples, suggesting that He was not otherwise present to them during that period.
While it is true that we do not have an exact calendar of His appearances and not every appearance is necessary recorded, it seems apparent that the Lord was not constantly with the disciples during the forty days prior to His ascension.
Why is this?
St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on this question and offers two basic reasons. In so doing he does not propose an absolute explanation, but rather demonstrates why it was fitting that Christ was not with them continuously during the forty days prior to the ascension. St. Thomas writes,
Concerning the Resurrection two things had to be manifested to the disciples, namely, the truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Him who rose.
Now in order to manifest the truth of the Resurrection, it sufficed for Him to appear several times before them, to speak familiarly to them, to eat and drink, and let them touch Him. But in order to manifest the glory of the risen Christ, He was not desirous of living with them constantly as He had done before, lest it might seem that He rose unto the same life as before … [For as Bede says] “He had then risen in the same flesh, but was not in the same state of mortality as they.”
That Christ did not stay continually with the disciples was not because He deemed it more expedient to be elsewhere: but because He judged it to be more suitable for the apostles’ instruction that He should not abide continually with them, for the reason given above.
He appeared oftener on the first day, because the disciples were to be admonished by many proofs to accept the faith in His Resurrection from the very out set: but after they had once accepted it, they had no further need of being instructed by so many apparitions (Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 55, Art. 3).
While St. Thomas observes that there may well be appearances that were not recorded, he is inclined to hold that there were not a lot more of them. He writes,
One reads in the Gospel that after the first day He appeared again only five times. For, as Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. iii), after the first five apparitions “He came again a sixth time when Thomas saw Him; a seventh time was by the sea of Tiberias at the capture of the fishes; the eighth was on the mountain of Galilee, according to Matthew; the ninth occasion is expressed by Mark, ‘at length when they were at table,’ because no more were they going to eat with Him upon earth; the tenth was on the very day, when no longer upon the earth, but uplifted into the cloud, He was ascending into heaven. But, as John admits, not all things were written down. And He visited them frequently before He went up to heaven,” in order to comfort them. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:6-7) that “He was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once … after that He was seen by James”; of which apparitions no mention is made in the Gospels (ibid).
St. Thomas strikes a balance between the Lord’s need to instruct them and summon them to faith in the resurrection, and the need for them to grasp His risen glory. Christ did not merely resume His former life. The disciples were not to cling to their former understandings of Him as Rabbi and teacher; now they were to grasp more fully that He is Lord.
Though Thomas does not mention it here, I would add another reason for the Lord’s action of not abiding with them continuously: It was fitting for Him to do this to accustom them to the fact that they would no longer see Him as they had with their physical eyes. Once He ascended, they would see Him mystically in the Sacraments and in His Body the Church. Thus, as the Lord broke the Bread and gave it them in Emmaus, they recognized Him the Eucharist (Luke 24). Thereupon He vanished from them. It was as if to say, “You will no longer go on seeing me in the same manner. Now you will experience me mystically and in the Sacraments.”
We live in times in which mercy, like so many other things, has become a detached concept in people’s minds, separated from the things that really help us to understand it. For indeed, mercy makes sense and is necessary because we are sinners in desperate shape. Yet many today think it unkind and unmerciful to speak of sin as sin. Many think that mercy is a declaration that God doesn’t really care about sin, or that sin is not a relevant concept.
On the contrary, mercy means that sin does exist. Thanks be to God for the glory, the beauty, and the gift of His mercy! Without it, we don’t stand a chance. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly going to need boatloads of grace and mercy to make it. Only through grace and mercy can we be freed from sin and healed from its effects, or ever hope to enter the presence of God’s glory in Heaven, of which Scripture says, But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false (Rev 21:27). Somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!”
Mercy does not mean there is no judgment; mercy exists because there is a day of judgment. Mercy does not mean there is no Hell; mercy exists because Hell does. Somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!” Without mercy we are lost. With it we stand a chance, but only if we accept our need for it. Mercy, Lord, have mercy!
Oh, thanks be to God for mercy! So let’s consider the glory and the gift of mercy on this Sunday of divine mercy. The Gospel for today’s Mass speaks both to the need for mercy and the glory of it. Let’s look at four teachings on mercy, God’s perfect mercy.
I. The Prelude to Mercy – There is an old saying that if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. And thus as this Gospel opens we enter a room where ten Apostles are gathered in fear; the doors are locked. These are broken, troubled, and disturbed men. All of them but John had fled, deserting the Lord. One of them had denied even knowing Jesus, not once but three times. Here they are, humiliated, downcast, and sinfully without faith. Never mind that Jesus had told them on numerous occasions that He would rise on the third day. Even though several women and two disciples from Emmaus had said they had seen Him alive, on this the third day, these men persist in sinfully rejecting this news that conformed to His promise. Yes, we enter a locked room of fearful men who are downcast, disgraced, and disbelieving.
But it is here that we find the prelude to mercy! They are about to blessed and to experience profound mercy. But don’t miss this prelude. Again, if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news; so don’t miss this picture.
One of the great errors of our day is the proclamation of mercy without repentance, without reference to our sinful condition. So many pulpits have gone silent on sin! And therefore are silent on the true glory of mercy and the astonishing gift that it is! Ah, mercy! Divine mercy! Perfect mercy!
But the point of mercy is not to go out and tell others how terrible they are, but rather to tell them about the forgiveness of sin! Now this is why we need a mercy Sunday. On the one hand we’re living in rebellious times, times in which many are dismissive of sin and have refashioned God into just a nice fellow who doesn’t really care all that much about sin (despite what His own scriptures say to the contrary), reducing mercy is to mere kindness and a sort of blindness on God’s part.
On the other hand these are also times when many are scared and angry with God, rejecting His judgments and glorious moral vision. A lot of people know that their lives are in disorder: their families are broken; they are confused; greed, materialism, lust, and other sinful drives are taking a heavy toll. Many are angry with the Church because deep down they know we are right; they don’t like being reminded that people don’t have any business calling good what God calls sinful.
But most of all, many are confused and angry because they don’t know forgiveness. Consider what Psalm 32 says so beautifully:
Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is forgiven, to whom the Lord imputes no guilt! … As long as I would not speak of my sin, my bones wasted away and your hand was heavy upon me. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I did not hide, and you took away the guilt of my sin!
You see, the key to having this blessed state is the acknowledgement of sin.
The Lord said to St. Faustina,
You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).
Now some reading this sort of text think, “There goes that Catholic guilt thing again.” But let’s be honest, it’s not really an exaggeration. The truth is that most of us can be thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, un-prayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And even if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many of them do. In addition, even that long list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital ‘S’ and we need serious help.
And thus, just as Psalm 32 says, the glory of mercy is unlocked by the acknowledgment of sin. Jesus said further to St. Faustina,
My love and my mercy [for you] know no bounds! … The graces I grant are not for you alone, but for a great number of other souls as well. … The greater the sinner the greater the right he has to my mercy (Diary II.723).
Do not forget this necessary prelude to mercy: the acknowledgement of our sin. If you don’t know the bad news, the good new is no news.
II. The Peace of mercy – Into this upper room filled with men who are dejected, disgraced, doubting, humiliated, hurt, sinful, and sorrowful, the Lord came. The text says, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
Do you see the glory and the gift of this moment? The Lord says to them, “Peace be with you.” Now I don’t know about you, but if I had been hiding out, denying Him, and running from responsibility at the critical moment, and then suddenly the Lord whom I had let down and offended appeared, I might be a little nervous! But what does the Lord say to these embarrassed and dejected men? “Peace be with you!”
What is peace? It is more than the absence of conflict or division. Peace is the presence in a relationship of all that should be there: justice, integrity, reciprocity, mutuality, and so forth. The Greek word used is eirḗnē, which is from the root eirō meaning “to join or tie together into a whole.” So it means wholeness, a state in which all essential parts are joined together. Peace is God’s gift of wholeness.
Do you see the glory of this moment? The Lord does not merely say, “I will not punish you for what you have done.” He says, “Between you and my Father there is now peace, there is wholeness, there is completeness, there is present in the relationship all that should be there, there is justice.” The Lord does not merely overlook what a mess we are, He makes us whole and pleasing to His Father.
All is well, all is complete, all that is necessary is supplied by my atoning death and resurrection!
Such mercy, such a grace, such a gift!
In English, the text says that they rejoiced. But here, too, the English translation does not capture the richness of the Greek word ἐχάρησαν (echarēsan), which means to delight in God’s grace. It means to powerfully experience God’s grace (favor), to be conscious of and astonished by (glad for) His grace! This is no mere passing happiness. This is abiding astonishment at the sheer gift of God’s mercy and grace. The Apostles do not just get happy for a moment; they are given the gift of stable, serene, confident joy at the unfathomable gift of God’s mercy and goodness. They had sinned and yielded to fear; they had run from the Lord and ignored His teaching; but the Lord stands before them and says “Shalom, Peace be with you. May the full favor of the Lord be with you. May you experience that God is pleased that you are well and seeks to draw you more deeply into His love.”
Here is mercy; sweet, beautiful, soul-saving mercy; and astonishing and unexpected grace! There is shalom; there is peace; there is deep, abiding, and confident mercy. It is a joy and mercy that is unmerited. It is stable because it is rooted in the stable and abiding love of God.
III. The Priesthood of Mercy – The text says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
There is not time here to develop a full apologetic of the Sacrament of Confession entrusted to the Church. But to those who say, “I don’t have tell my sins to any priest, I can just go straight to God,” the Lord Jesus never got your little memo. He gave the power to forgive sins to the Apostles and their successors. That is clear in this passage. The Lord does not do pointless, foolish things; what He says here is to be taken seriously. He tells these imperfect men, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
There is something deeply personal, even if imperfect (on account of the imperfection of priests), in the way the Lord wants us to experience his mercy. But the emphasis is on the personal.
There is a beautiful story of St. John Paul and a fallen bishop. The bishop had fallen from grace; he had had an affair with a woman, and although he ended it, the story came out later and he resigned. Some months later he was called to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul. As he waited to see the Pope, he was nervous. Had the Pope called him to rebuke him? He sat alone, waiting for the Pope to enter. The door opened and the sainted pope walked across the room and greeted the fallen bishop. “I have one question to ask you,” said Pope John Paul. “Are you at peace?” “Yes,” he replied. “Thanks be to God!” said Pope John Paul. The fallen bishop took the joy of that mercy into the remainder of his life and went on to care quietly for the spiritual needs of religious who were underserved in a certain part of this country. He never forgot the mercy he experienced and the story was told at his funeral, for he himself told it often.
There is just nothing that surpasses the way the Lord can convey his mercy in the deeply personal way of the confessional. There is nothing more precious than those words that conclude every confession: “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace. Thanks be to God!”
The Lord did not want his mercy to depend on some self-generated notion that mercy was extended. He wanted us, for whom faith comes by hearing, to hear those precious words: “I absolve you from your sins … Go in peace.” There is nothing more wonderful and certain than those words spoken by the Lord through His priests.
IV. The Prerequisite of Mercy– But one of the Apostles, Thomas, was missing. Here was the most wounded of all the Apostles, so wounded that he drew back from the only place mercy could be found, for where two or three were gathered the risen Lord appeared in the midst of them. In drawing back, Thomas blocked his blessings.
The point is this: the Lord unfailingly offers His mercy. He says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).
The question is, will we call on him? There is only this one need, this one requirement for mercy: that we ask for it. Jesus says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). The door to our heart and to repentance must be opened from the inside. The Lord will not force His mercy. This is why there is a Hell. Without God’s mercy we are doomed; we don’t stand a chance. His mercy is free except for this price: we must surrender our pride, admit our need, and open the door.
Thanks be to God that St. Thomas did not persist in his impenitent stance, but instead rejoined the community where mercy and the Lord were to be found. Sure enough, where two or three were gathered the Lord appeared once again and St. Thomas found mercy. The Lord rebuked Thomas’ lack of faith but rewarded his penitence.
St. Thomas opened the door from the inside of his heart. The Lord lovingly entered and built up his faith so that never again would Thomas think that he could find the Lord on his own terms. Rather, Thomas would seek the Lord where He could be found: in the Church, among those gathered in His name. Mercy is found where God is found. He knocks but it is we who must open the door and receive Him into our hearts on His terms not ours.
St. Thomas fell to his knees, astonished by the Lord’s mercy; such mercy, such a glorious gift. “My Lord and my God!” The Lord never stopped calling Thomas. The Lord did not give up but waited until Thomas answered the door. “Peace, Shalom, Thomas. I am glad you are here. Now never again stop believing in my mercy and love for you. Never again draw back thinking I am lost to you. I love you with an everlasting Love. I have called you and you are mine. Peace to you, and mercy, Thomas.”
Mercy! So great, so divine, so perfect. It is a mercy that does not deny the need for its own existence. When humbly received, it conveys peace through the priesthood that Christ Himself established. It is a mercy which, as a prerequisite, respectfully knocks and waits for our “yes.” Lord, give us your perfect mercy.
I have it on the best of authority that Thomas sang a song later that night, a song that sang of the Lord’s mercy and persistence, of His abiding call when we would give up. Yes, I have it on the best of authority that he sang,
I almost let go; I felt like I just couldn’t take life any more. My problems had me bound; Depression weighed me down; But God held me close so I wouldn’t let go. God’s mercy kept me; so I wouldn’t let go
I almost gave up; I was right at the edge of a break through, but couldn’t see it. The devil really had me, but Jesus came and grabbed me, and He held me close, so I wouldn’t let go. God’s mercy kept me, so I wouldn’t let go.
So I’m here to day because God kept me I’m A live today only because of His grace Oh He kept me, God kept me God’s mercy kept me, so I wouldn’t let go
As the Easter Octave unfolds, we have in the Gospel this enigmatic statement of Our Lord Jesus to Mary Magdalene:
Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God” (John 20:17).
There is much to ponder and distinguish here.
First, we should set aside certain previous translations that rendered “Do not cling to me” as “Do not touch me.”
The latter sounds almost rude. The Greek expression Μή μου ἅπτου (Me mou haptou) is best rendered, “Do not go on clinging to me” because haptou is a verb in the middle voice.
The middle voice is one that English lacks. It is midway between the active and passive voices and indicates that the subject of the verb (in this case, Mary) both acts and is acted upon. Mary lays hold of the Lord but needs to do so because something is different. Something deeper is being shown to her and she is missing that. Mary actively sees Jesus but passively needs to receive something new about Him. This is the middle voice, containing elements of both the active and the passive.
Further, as Strong’s Greek dictionary sets forth, ἅπτω (haptou) means “to fasten to,” “to adhere to,” or “to cling to.” What the Lord asks of Mary is that she not merely cling to what is familiar but step back and see what is new. Jesus is no longer a mere rabbi or teacher. He is not merely the Jesus she knew; He is Lord and He is risen.
Second, we must ponder what Jesus means when He says that He is ascending.
St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom on the meaning of the Lord’s ascending:
[Augustine says] “… Jesus would have us to believe in Him, i.e., to touch Him spiritually, as being Himself one with the Father. For to that man’s innermost perceptions He is, in some sort, ascended unto the Father, who has become so far proficient in Him, as to recognize in Him the equal with the Father … whereas she as yet believed in Him but carnally, since she wept for Him as for a man.” Or as Chrysostom says (Hom. lxxxvi in Joan.): “This woman wanted to converse with Christ just as before the Passion, and out of joy was thinking of nothing great, although Christ’s flesh had become much nobler by rising again.” And therefore He said: “I have not yet ascended to My Father”; as if to say: “Do not suppose I am leading an earthly life; for if you see Me upon earth, it is because I have not yet ascended to My Father, but I am going to ascend shortly.” Hence He goes on to say: “I ascend to My Father, and to your Father” (Summa Theologiae III, Q. 55, Art. 6, Reply to Obj. 3).
In other words, Jesus’ ascent must take place in Mary (and in every other follower). He is far more than a man resuming mortal nature. He is more; He is Lord. We must come to see Him as Lord and God. He must ascend in our sight. We must see Him at a higher level and in a higher way. He is no mere sage or rabbi; He is Lord and God! He must ascend in this way, in our understanding.
In Jesus’ public ministry, Mary had rightly reverenced Jesus as teacher and rabbi, but Jesus the Lord is doing more now than merely leading an earthly life and fitting into earthly categories.
In effect, Jesus is saying to Mary, “Don’t go on clinging to what in Me is familiar to you. Step back, take a good look, and then go tell my brothers what you see.”
When Mary Magdalene has done this, she runs to the apostles and says, “I have seen the LORD” (Jn 20:18). I show the word “LORD” in uppercase in this quote because up until this point, Mary used the word “Lord” as a title of human respect. She said, “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have put Him.” Of course, one doesn’t take Him and put Him anywhere! He is LORD, and He does as He pleases. No longer clinging to Him in merely a familiar way, Mary now says, “I have seen the LORD,” meaning it in a plenary and divine sense.
For Mary, the Lord is ascending. She is seeing Him in a higher way. The Lord has ascended for Mary Magdalene. Has He ascended for you?
Finally, what of the Lord’s expression that He is ascending to “My Father and your Father, to My God and your God”?
In English, we can use the word “and” in either an equivalent or a comparative sense. I could say to someone, “You are my brother and my friend.” This uses the “and of equivalence” because it indicates that you are both a brother and a friend to me in the same or in an equivalent way.
Other uses of the word “and” indicate a more comparative sense. When we say that Jesus is Son of God and Son of Mary, we mean that He is the Son of His Father in a different way than He is Son of Mary. He is the Son of both but in very different ways. In the liturgy, when the priest says, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father,” he indicates that while his sacrifice and the sacrifice of the people are both sacrifices, they are sacrifices in different ways. The priest acts in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head), while the faithful act as members of the body. Both are rightly called sacrifices, but they are so in different ways.
Thus, when Jesus says that He is ascending to “My Father and your Father,” He does not use the “and of equivalence” but the “and of comparison.” As a man, Jesus can speak of God as His Father, but His human nature is hypostatically united to His divine nature as God, the Second Person of the Trinity. So, although God is our Father and Christ’s Father, He is Christ’s Father in a far richer and more profound way.
Jesus says, “My God and your God” not by way of equivalence, but by way of comparison.
In all these ways, the Lord Jesus must ascend in our understanding. He will do that provided we do not go on clinging to Him in a merely human and familiar way.
One option for Easter Sunday morning’s Mass is from the Gospel of John (20:1-8). (I have written before on the Matthean Gospel option (here)). Like most of the resurrection accounts, John’s version paints a portrait of a journey that some of the early disciples have to make: out of fear and into faith. It shows the need to experience the resurrection and then come to understand it more deeply. While the Gospel account begins with Mary Magdalene, the focus quickly shifts to St. John; let’s study his journey.
I. Reaction Mode – The text begins by describing everyone as being in reaction mode, quite literally running about in a panic! On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”
The text describes the opening moments as “still dark.” John is likely trying to do more than tell us the time of day. The deeper point is that there is still a darkness that envelops everyone’s mind. The darkness makes it difficult for us to see; our fears and sorrows can blind us.
Mary Magdalene sees direct evidence of the resurrection but presumes the worst: that grave robbers have snatched the Lord’s body! It doesn’t even occur to her to remember that Jesus had said that He would rise on the third day and that this was that very third day. She goes immediately into reaction mode instead of reflection mode. Her mind jumps to the worst conclusion; by reacting and failing to reflect, she looks right at the blessing and sees a curse.
We also tend to do this. We look at our life and see only the burdens instead of the blessings.
I clutch my blanket and growl when the alarm goes off instead of thinking, “Thank you, Lord, that I can hear; there are many who are deaf. Thank you that I have the strength to rise; there are many who do not.”
Even though the first hour of the day may be hectic: socks are lost, toast is burned, tempers are short, and the children are loud; we ought to be thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for my family; there are many who are lonely.”
We can even be thankful for the taxes we pay because it means we’re employed, for the clothes that fit a little too snugly because it means we have enough to eat, for the heating bill because it means we are warm, for the weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day because it means we have been productive.
Every day millions of things go right and only a handful go wrong. What will we focus on? Will we look right at the signs of our blessings and call them burdens or will we thank the Lord? Do we live lives that are reactive and negative or do we live reflectively, remembering that the Lord says that even our burdens are gifts in strange packages? And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Do we know this, or are we like the disciples on that early morning when it was still dark, looking right at the blessings but drawing only negative conclusions, reacting and failing to reflect?
II. Recovery mode – The text goes on to describe a certain subtle move from reaction to reflection. So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
Mary Magdalene’s anxiety is contagious. She comes running to the disciples, all out of breath, and says that “they” (whoever “they” are) have taken the Lord (she speaks of Him as a corpse) and “we” (she and the other women who were with her) don’t know where they put Him (again, she speaks of Him as an inanimate corpse). Mary’s panic triggers that same reaction in the disciples. Now they’re all running! The mad dash to the tomb has begun.
Notice, though, that they are hurrying so that they can verify the grave robbery, not the resurrection. Like Mary, they didn’t take the time to reflect and perhaps remember that the Lord had said He would rise on the third day and that this was the third day. Instead, they also panic, rushing forth to try to confirm their worst fears.
But note a subtlety: John runs faster than Peter. Some scholars say it indicates merely that John was the younger man. I would argue, however, that it signals hope. The Holy Spirit, speaking through John, is not likely interested in passing things like youth. Some of the Fathers of the Church see a greater truth at work in the love and mystical tradition that John symbolizes. He was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the disciple who knew and experienced that love of God. Love often sees what knowledge and authority can only appreciate and later affirm. Love gets there first.
There is a different verse in Scripture that I believe explains John’s strength (manifested in his speed):
But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Is 40:31).
Perhaps John runs faster because he begins to move from reaction to reflection and remembrance. When you run quickly it’s hard to talk, so you tend to recede alone into your thoughts. There is something about love that enlightens, that recalls what the beloved has said. Perhaps John begins to think, to reflect and consider these things:
Didn’t Jesus say He’d rise three days later and isn’t this that day?
Didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel?
Didn’t He deliver Noah from the flood?
Didn’t He deliver Joseph from the hands of his brothers and from the deep dungeon?
Didn’t He deliver Moses and the people from Egypt?
Didn’t He deliver David from Goliath and Saul?
Didn’t He deliver Jonah from the whale?
Didn’t He deliver Queen Esther and the people from wicked men?
Didn’t He deliver Susanna from her false accusers?
Didn’t He deliver Judith from Holofernes?
Didn’t Jesus raise the dead?
Didn’t God promise to deliver the just from all their trials?
As for me, I know that my redeemer liveth!
Something started to happen inside John. I have it on the best of authority that he began to sing this song in his heart as he ran:
“I don’t feel no ways tired. Come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”
Yes, John is in recovery now. He has moved from reaction to reflection. He is starting to regain his faith.
The text says that John looked in and saw the burial cloths, but waited for Peter. Mystics and lovers may get there first, but the Church has a Magisterium that must be respected, too.
III. Reassessment mode – In life we must often reassess our initial reactions as further evidence comes in. Peter and John must take a fresh look at the evidence from their own perspective. The text says, When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths [lying] there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Mary Magdalene’s assessment was that grave robbers must have struck, but the evidence for that seems weak. Grave robbers typically sought the fine linens in which the dead were buried. Yet here are the linens while the body is gone. If they were going to take the body, why not also take the valuable grave linens? The Greek text describes the clothes as κείμενα (keimena)—lying stretched out in place, in order. It is almost as if the clothes simply “deflated” in place when the body they covered disappeared. Finally, the most expensive cloth of all, the σουδάριον (soudarion), lies folded (rolled up, in some translations) in a separate place. Grave robbers would not leave the most valuable things behind. And surely, even if for some strange reason they wanted the body rather than the linens, they would not have bothered to carefully unwrap and fold things, leaving them all stretched out in an orderly way. Robbers work quickly; they snatch things and leave disarray in their wake.
Life is like this: you can’t simply accept the first interpretation of things. Every reporter knows that “in the fog of war” the first reports are often wrong. We have to be careful not to jump to conclusions just because someone else is worried about something. Sometimes we need to take a fresh look at the evidence and interpret it as people of faith and hope, as men and women who know that although God may test us He will not forsake us.
John is now looking at the same evidence that Mary Magdalene did, but his faith and hope give him a different vision. His capacity to move beyond fearful reaction to faithful reflection is changing the picture.
We know little of the reaction of Peter or Mary Magdalene at this point; the focus is on John. And the focus is on you. What do you see in life? Do you see grave robbers, or are you willing to reconsider and move from knee-jerk fear to reflective faith?
Does your resurrection faith make you ready to reassess the bad news you receive and look for blessings, even in crosses?
IV. Resurrection Mode – Somewhat cryptically, the text now focuses on the reaction and mindset of St. John. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
On one level the text says that St. John saw and believed. Does this mean merely that he now believed Mary Magdalene’s story that the body was gone? As is almost always the case with John’s Gospel, there is both a plain meaning and a deeper one. The text says that he ἐπίστευσεν (episteusen); he “believed.” The verb here is in the aorist tense, a tense that generally portrays a situation as simple or undivided, that is, as having a perfective (completed) aspect. In other words, something has come to fruition in him.
Yet the text also seems to qualify, saying, they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. It is as if to say that John came to believe that Jesus had risen but had not yet come to fully understand all the scriptural connections and how this had to be. He only knew in his heart by love and through this evidence that Jesus was risen. Deeper understanding would have to come later.
For our purposes, let us observe that St. John has gone from fear to faith. He has not yet seen Jesus alive, but he believes based on the evidence and on what his own heart and mind tell him.
At this moment John is like us. He has not seen but he believes. Neither have we seen, but we believe. John would see him alive soon enough and so will we!
We may not have an advanced degree in Scripture, but through love we too can know that He lives. Why and how? Because of the same evidence:
The grave clothes of my old life are strewn before me.
I am rising to new life.
I am experiencing greater victory over sin.
Old sins and my old Adam are being put to death.
The life of the new Adam, Christ, is coming alive.
I am being set free and have hope and confidence, new life and new gifts.
I have increasing gratitude, courage, and a deep peace that tells me that everything is all right.
The grave clothes of my old way of life lie stretched out before me and I now wear a new robe of righteousness.
I am not what I want to be but I am not what I used to be.
So we, like John, see. We do not see the risen Lord—not yet anyway, but we see the evidence and we believe.
St. John leaves this scene as a believer. His faith may not be the fully perfected faith that it will become, but he does believe. John has gone from fear to faith, from reaction to reflection, from panic to peace.
We do well to ponder the whys and wherefores of the Passion of Our Lord. St. Thomas Aquinas presents the premise that God does nothing in an arbitrary way, but rather as Lord of History sets forth everything in fitting ways and at appropriate places and times. Every detail has something to teach us.
Let’s consider why Christ suffered in Jerusalem (but outside its walls) in a place called “the skull.” St. Thomas covered these matters in his Summa Theologiae, Part III, Question 46, Article 10. His words are in bold, black italics; my inferior comments are shown in plain red text.
Christ died most appropriately in Jerusalem. First of all, because Jerusalem was God’s chosen place for the offering of sacrifices to Himself: and these figurative sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s Passion
For the Jewish people of that time, there was only one place to offer sacrifices to the Lord: Jerusalem. Although towns had synagogues, only Jerusalem had the Temple, and one had to go there to offer sacrifices to the Lord.
This rule had become quite firm. Indeed, even when Temple sacrifices were interrupted during the Babylonian captivity (the Temple was destroyed in in 587 B.C. and not rebuilt until about 70 years later), rather than relocate the place for sacrifice, the people lamented, We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you (Daniel 3:38).
Therefore, because salvation is from the Jews (Jn 4:22), it was fitting that Christ, our Paschal Lamb and perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, was sacrificed in the only acceptable place.
Secondly, because the virtue of His Passion was to be spread over the whole world, He wished to suffer in the center of the habitable world–that is, in Jerusalem. Accordingly, it is written, “But God is our King before ages: He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth” (Psalm 73:12)—that is, in Jerusalem, which is called “the navel of the earth.”
A glimpse at a map shows that Jerusalem is arguably at the very intersection of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Psalm 48:2 reads, Mount Zion, true pole of the earth, the Great King’s city!
Thirdly, because it was specially in keeping with His humility: that, as He chose the most shameful manner of death, so likewise it was part of His humility that He did not refuse to suffer in so celebrated a place.
Not only was Christ’s humiliation very public, it occurred when Jerusalem was packed for the Passover feast!
Fourthly, He willed to suffer in Jerusalem, where the chief priests dwelt, to show that the wickedness of His slayers arose from the chiefs of the Jewish people.
Jerusalem had the reputation of being the place where prophets suffered the most and where most of them went to die. This is likely because it was there that faith and power intersected. Human beings seldom negotiate that intersection well and the scale is tipped more to power than to faith.
Jesus said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling. Look, your house is left to you desolate. And I tell you, you will not see Me again until you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:34-35).
Jesus said, Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.” Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. (Luke 11:47-51).
Stephen added, You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:51-53).
These teachings, fitting though they are, give rise to these questions: If Jerusalem was the appropriate place, why was Jesus not sacrificed on the Temple mount, inside the city? Why was He instead sacrificed outside the city gates? St. Thomas answers this as follows:
For three reasons Christ suffered outside the gate, and not in the Temple nor in the city. First of all, that the truth might correspond with the figure. For the calf and the goat which were offered in most solemn sacrifice for expiation on behalf of the entire multitude were burnt outside the camp, as commanded in Leviticus 16:27.
Note the distinction between the sacrifice of an individual family (which was offered at the temple and burnt on the altar there) and the sacrifice offered on behalf of all the people on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:27 says, The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. Therefore, it is fitting that Christ, who died for all, should be sacrificed outside the gate (“outside the camp,” as it were).
Secondly, to set us the example of shunning worldly conversation. Accordingly, the passage continues: “Let us go forth therefore to Him without the camp, bearing His reproach.”
Out worldly categories and notions cannot contain Christ. In His time there were at least three political and religious groups: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Zealots. Jesus walked with none of them; neither did He simply parrot their views. There was only one thing the groups could agree on—Jesus had to go. Thus, fitting nowhere, Christ was crucified outside the camp.
Thirdly, as Chrysostom says in a sermon on the Passion (Hom. i De Cruce et Latrone): “The Lord was not willing to suffer under a roof, nor in the Jewish Temple…lest you might think He was offered for that people only. Consequently, it was beyond the city and outside the walls, that you may learn it was a universal sacrifice, an oblation for the whole world, a cleansing for all.”
He suffered once and for all. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (Jn 4:21-24).
St. Thomas presents two additional reasons that Jesus was crucified where He was, noting especially the name of the place: Golgotha. Although Aquinas described both reasons, he concluded that only one is correct.
According to Jerome, in his commentary on Matthew 27:33, someone explained “the place of Calvary” as being the place where Adam was buried; and that it was so called because the skull of the first man was buried there. A pleasing interpretation indeed, and one suited to catch the ear of the people, but, still, not the true one. … [For] Adam was buried close by Hebron and Arbe, as we read in the book of Jesus Ben Nave.
To this day, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there is a small opening or cave at the base of Golgotha that is venerated by some as the tomb of Adam. One can stop in there prior to climbing the stairs to Calvary. Legend has it that the Blood of Christ dripped though the opening and touched the bones of Adam, causing him to get up and dance a jig.
St. Thomas was not impressed with such legends or even with the teaching of St. Jerome; instead, he offered another interpretation.
For the spots where the condemned are beheaded are outside the city and beyond the gates, deriving thence the name of Calvary—that is, of the beheaded. Jesus, accordingly, was crucified there, that the standards of martyrdom might be uplifted over what was formerly the place of the condemned. … [So] Jesus was to be crucified in the common spot of the condemned rather than beside Adam’s sepulcher, to make it manifest that Christ’s cross was the remedy, not only for Adam’s personal sin, but also for the sin of the entire world.
Martyrs die for Christ, not as mere condemned criminals. And though Christ did die for all, not just for Adam, the primordial sin was Adam’s.
It is curious to me that St. Thomas, writing in a style somewhat out of keeping with his usually reserved way, so forcefully set aside St. Jerome’s interpretation. Perhaps we can learn something from both views! This is especially the case because the location of Adam’s burial remains a matter of dispute to this day, with many continuing to venerate the site beneath Calvary.