2nd Sunday of Easter: Becoming a Community of the Resurrection

After the hectic days of Holy Week, the blog has been a bit quiet. But here we are at it again. As a summary of where we left it, in the blog and in the homily we ended up saying that the Resurrection is not only a dogma, or a historical fact, but something that we have to (1) make happen (we said the Resurrection is a mission) and (2) then experience.

As we did before Lent and during Lent, we are looking at the whole body of readings for the Sundays of Easter to come up with a general theme, like a thread that sews all these Sundays together. During Easter, we do not only focus on the gospel,  but also on the first readings. They are all from Acts of the Apostles, which is (like) another gospel: the second part of Luke’s gospel, which needs to be understood as a single work with two parts. The theme we propose—the one we will use at Sacred Heart—is Easter: Becoming a Community of the Resurrection. We had originally planned on using the word church, as in becoming a church of the Resurrection, but the Greek word used in the New Testament is Ekklesia, which means community, gathering, social body… even if Bible translators have too hastily translated it into “church” (it is an interesting topic, but outside of our goals, so let me just say that the equivalent word for church exists in Greek and it is only used twice in the New Testament).

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If the main idea from the gospel at the Vigil was that we have to make the Resurrection happen—by not being afraid; by understanding the Resurrection as a mission—something that we have to make happen; and by returning to Galilee (deal with the present with the energy of the beginnings)—the readings of the Second Sunday of Easter will remind us that the Resurrection happens in community (and I could have said to a community, through a community, etc.) both for those who were with Jesus, and for us. It is just a new reminder that our faith is personal but not private.

The gospel (John 20:19-31, which is the same for years A, B and C) shows the opposite of a community of the Resurrection—and the text gives so many clues. The disciples are locked down, retreated, for fear of the Jews. It is also a community where there is no unity—when the text says that Thomas was not with them when Jesus first appears it does not mean that he was at that time doing something else and not there. Thomas was not in communion, there is division in that first community, probably about the meaning and the implications of the Resurrection.  (Luke uses the story in the road to Emmaus to make the same point. These ‘disciples’ are leaving Jerusalem, abandoning the Community.)  A week goes by (and a week may mean a certain period of time,  not strictly seven days) and Jesus appears again, and while Thomas is with them this time, they are still locked down, the doors still closed; they are still in fear; and they have not been able to react to the command of Jesus to go out, “sent” once they have received the Holy Spirit.

What is the implication of this gospel for us? A Community (an ecclesia) of the Resurrection is a community without fear, willing to try new things, new ways to make church.  A Community of the Resurrection is “out there,” not locked down in our buildings and practices, waiting for people to come to us instead of going out and meeting those who are not with us. A Community of the Resurrection is a community diverse in opinions, political ideologies and backgrounds—but united in purpose: the proclamation, mainly by what we do, that Jesus—a person—is indeed back from the dead.

PS: There will be (if possible) a second post this week. For that, look at the first reading from Acts for Sunday (Acts 2:42-47), and see if you find something a bit surprising, perhaps incoherent, something out of place.

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Easter: A new beginning.

The opening line of the Vigil’s gospel, “As the first day of the week was dawning,” proclaims what we begin to celebrate tonight. The first day of the week is a reference to the Creation story of Genesis, which we read earlier in the evening. With Jesus’ Resurrection, a new era is dawned. A new beginning, a new creation, a new time begins for us. Jesus has been risen from the dead, overcoming the powerful forces of evil which, fed by fear, brought him to the Cross.

The women, who had been present at Jesus’ burial, are the first to witness the Resurrection. But, as the angel tells them, they are still looking for the Crucified, when they have to look for Jesus among the living. A similar process will have to happen to us during the Easter Season: we have to learn to identify the signs of the Risen Christ in our lives.

How? The gospel tonight shows us the way, by listening what the angel first, and Jesus himself later, tell to the women: “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said…Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”

First, the angel is telling the women to not be afraid. Fear, as we reflected on Good Friday, is what motivated all the characters in the Passion to participate in killing Jesus. Fear brings about violence, injustice, oppression, indifference. The first thing we need to do this Easter is to commit to lives without fear. Absence of fear will mean taking more risks, opening ourselves to people and situations outside of our narrow zones of comfort.

Second, by telling the women to quickly go and announce the Resurrection to the disciples, the angel is telling the women, and reminding us, that the Resurrection is a mission that has been entrusted to us. We are charged with the mission to be heralds of the Resurrection, instead of partaking in the negativity and the pessimism that surrounds our lives.

Third, the angel first and Jesus himself afterwards tell the women to go back to Galilee. Galilee is not a geographical place, but a place of the heart. It is in Galilee where everything began, when the disciples met Jesus for the first time—way before they treaded the dusty road to Jerusalem, before the fights with the Pharisees, before the betrayals and before the extreme violence of the Cross. Galilee is the beginning, and we all have one. Galilee for us is where our vocations began: my vocation to the priesthood; the vocation of those who are married; the vocation of those who are parents… There is a Galilee for everyone.

So often in my priesthood I feel despair, increasingly under the weight of the years of ministry—Pope Francis preached about it at the Chrism Mass on Thursday. When I feel this way, I can always go back to my Galilee, the place where, the time when, the reasons why, I decided to become a priest.

If a mother is struggling with her teenage daughter, she can go back to her own Galilee, and remember the first time she held her in her arms. It may not make all the problems disappear, but the discussion will certainly be a different one.

A husband and a wife who struggle in the present…they can always go back to their Galilee, to the time when they first fell in love. Again, not every problem will suddenly disappear, but I am sure it would bring a new perspective for both of them.

To go back to Galilee is not an unrealistic act of melancholy. It is not about ignoring the present, but it is about dealing with the difficulties of the present time with the strength, the passion, the energy of the beginnings.

Baptism is the Galilee of our faith. Thus, during Easter we will be reminded often of our baptismal nature. United in a common baptism, without fear, with a sense of a mission, and with the strength of the beginning, we can make the Resurrection happen.

Happy Easter, everyone!

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Good Friday: A Cross Of Fear

I believe the Sacred Liturgy is there to “get us in the mood”—and that’s especially true during Holy Week. Today, the way to get in the mood is to forget—only for today—that there is a Resurrection. Only then can we understand Jesus’ agony in the garden—which we reflected upon on Palm Sunday. Jesus did not want to die, but he submitted to God’s plan out of love for God and out of love for his disciples. This is why early in today’s reading of the Passion according to John, Jesus will say, “So if you are looking for me, let these go.” Yes, we construct a whole theology of Jesus dying on the Cross for our salvation. And that is true, but historically Jesus died so he could save those he loved. Love under fire, love as the opposite of fear.

Despite being the one who should be afraid, because he is absolutely aware of what is going to happen to him–“knowing everything that was going to happen to him”–Jesus is the only character in the Passion who is not moved by fear. Fear motivates everyone else. The reflection we propose today is that fear keeps us from being authentic disciples of Jesus, from living life fully.

There is fear in Judas, disappointed that Jesus has not fulfilled his expectations, and fear makes him get “a band of soldiers and guards” to go to encounter Jesus–the non-violent–armed with weapons.

It is out of fear that Peter denies Jesus three times—which in gospel language means a total, absolute denial. Notice that what Peter is asked is whether he is a disciple. And he actually answers with the truth, because then and there he is not. Fear has gotten in the way of his being a disciple. Fear has moved him to an act of violence when Jesus is arrested in the garden. He had indeed begun to deny Jesus way before he actually does it with words—and we see so often violence as a consequence of fear.

Fear keeps Pontius Pilate from doing the right thing—the text indicates clearly that he was utterly convinced of what was the right thing to do but “he became even more afraid”. Fear of losing control and power, fear of the Jewish authorities and fear of the crowds, fear that the incident will undermine his reputation. He tries to find a way out, find a compromise, but compromise is often the child of fear. In fear he simply does not come through on behalf of the innocent.

Fear of losing power and control also drives the High Priest and the authorities of the time. In their conspiracy-driven minds they know—and there are right—that Jesus means an end to the corruption, the oppression and the hypocrisy that has become their way of life. They had built a religion of fear, and Jesus would not fit in that construction.

Fear also drives the crowds, who a few days earlier were receiving Jesus in the Holy City with hosannas, but who today call out, “Crucify him!,” playing a decisive part in killing Jesus. Fear makes us often part of anonymous crowds who contribute to injustice.

Fear of what they know they do not understand moves the Roman soldiers to mock Jesus—as so often mocking, bullying, abusing is simply the result of fear, especially fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different than us.

Fear keeps most of the disciples—especially the men—away from the Cross. Judas betrayed, and Peter denied, but the rest stayed at a distance when Jesus agonizes on the Cross–only the women are at the foot of the Cross.

We cannot understand the Cross if we do not realize that Jesus is still nailed to a Cross made out of fear. Fear can also run our lives, keeping us from living fully, as human beings and as disciples. Good Friday becomes a prayer that we will not be a fearful people, but that we will have to courage to live fully, siding with the neglected, the victim, the innocent. Only if we remove fear from our lives we can bring Jesus down from the Cross on which he is still hanging today.

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Holy Thursday: A Celebration of our Common Discipleship

As I explained in previous posts, this year I have been greatly surprised with Matthew’s gospel. Like in many other places, at Sacred Heart we have been reflecting a lot about the meaning of discipleship. Inspired by a couple of books, we thought that our parish should focus on being a place where we make and grow disciples. During the weeks before Lent, we had the opportunity to reflect a lot about discipleship because it now seems very clear to us that this is the focus of Matthew’s gospel. Accordingly, this blog has discussed discipleship a lot. Lent became for us a journey in growth in the faith of a disciple–a faith that matters.

Why this introduction? I believe Holy Thursday is a celebration of discipleship. It is that simple. To get there, we have to discuss first the biblical roots of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper—the “official” name of Holy Thursday. According to the synoptics (Mark, Matthew and Luke), Jesus and his disciples are celebrating the Passover meal. John proposes a different chronology, but the supper still has a strong Passover background.

What’s on the table on a Passover meal? Lamb; unleavened bread; four cups of wine. What is being celebrated? What God has done for the people of Israel in the past, especially celebrating the experience of Exodus: the passing from the slavery of Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. Thus, the first reading at Mass will remind us of that story (Exodus 12:1-8; 11-14.) Jesus is about to accomplish the last stage of his own Exodus, his own passing from the slavery of death to the freedom of the Resurrection.

On Holy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. The most important thing that God has done for us is to give us Jesus, and in the Eucharist we make Jesus present in a very special and real way, in the midst of a community (faith is personal, but not private) of disciples. The Jewish celebration of the beginning of Passover is the model in which our own Eucharist is based. But how many of our parishioners know that? Jesus is the New Lamb of the Covenant, the host is unleavened bread, and the cup is a symbol and a participation in the reality of the commitment we make to accept Jesus’ challenge to become like him. We, too, celebrate what God has done for us, especially in the person of Jesus, who calls us again to authentic discipleship.

Interestingly enough, the gospel for Holy Thursday is taken from John, who does not have an institution of the Eucharist. Here, at Sacred Heart, when we sat down and tried to summarize what are the features that define a disciple we came up with the following list: a disciple is someone who prays, learns, gives generously, serves, and calls others to the adventure of discipleship. Holy Thursday emphasizes the dimension of service: we read the passage on the Washing of Feet and then we re-create it; and, as many other places do, we have a collection for the poor—here at Sacred Heart in two ways: what we always do (a collection for St. Vincent DePaul) and a collection of the white boxes we gave on Ash Wednesday for Lent (we told our parishioners that we had to give up things for Lent in two levels, one spiritual—and ask someone who loved them to tell them what to give up—and at a material level. But we should calculate the monetary value of what we give up materially—like coffee or desert, as many do—and this money should be given to the poor—which was the origin of these Lenten penances, and without it the meaning of helping others, especially the poor, gets easily lost).

This blog is about the lectionary, so now into the gospel text (John 13:1-15). For me, what is important is to emphasize that what Jesus does is to transform a ritual of cleansing and purification into an act of service, in the same way that in his first Sign (John calls miracles signs) at the wedding in Cana, Jesus had transformed the water of purification into the wine of celebration. Despite the way we have manipulated him, Jesus is not that much about purification (he had the Pharisees for that), rather about celebrating our common commitment to service. We do not need so much purification, but to develop together a greater sensitivity to the other—especially those most in need.

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Palm Sunday: the Prayer at Gethsemane

This Sunday we begin Holy Week. Mass will begin with the blessing of Palms, and both the reading at the blessing and the Passion are taken this year from Matthew (Mt 21:1-11; Mt 26:14-27:66.) The Passion is a very powerful text, one that offers so much to preach about. It will be important to focus on one section or topic in particular. We also need to keep in mind that Holy Week is a whole and a spiritual journey, so there should be a continuity between what is preached on Palm Sunday and during the rest of the Triduum.

Trying to read a text that we have read so many times is not easy. We have to keep an open attitude to see what “jumps from the text.” It may result in the homily or not, but this time what jumped immediately at me was the section at Gethsemane. After the Passover meal, in which Jesus has announced that the betrayal will come from his own inner circle, Jesus prays in a garden. In a garden like the one in which Creation began; in a garden like the one in which he will experience interment and resurrection, Jesus prays.

Interestingly enough, Jesus takes with him the same three disciples that had witnessed the Transfiguration. If, then, they saw the glorious Jesus, now they witness a man feeling “sorrow and distress.” Either we understand the very human anxiety of Jesus as he is about to experience torture and death, or we really miss the meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

From the depths of that very intense pain, Jesus pronounces the most beautiful of prayers, a prayer in which he shows his Father “where” he is in the midst of his ordeal: If possible, take this cup away from me—but your will be done. The text indicates that Jesus prays it three times. It is really a reduced version of the way Jesus had taught his disciples to pray, the Lord’s prayer.

The way Jesus prays is so different than the way we pray. We pray for something to happen or not to happen, but we forget to tell God “where” we are, how we feel. If you allow me the expression, Jesus puts the cards on the table. He does not want to suffer and leave behind those he loves—and he shows his Father his anxiety. But with the same determination with which he overcame the Temptations, he accepts his identity and mission, and becomes an instrument of God’s will. In approaching his ominous death, Jesus keeps teaching us how to be a child of God. It is the ideal prayer as we begin Holy Week—showing God who we are, and how we feel; with the courage to accept and present our deep pains and anxieties—but we are also determined to overcome temptation and become gentle instruments for God’s plan.

May God bless us as we begin to accompany Jesus through the memory of his Passover journey.

Fifth Sunday of Lent: From Death into Life

The lectionary for the Fifth (and last) Sunday of Lent presents us with the powerful gospel of the Resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). John’s gospel is highly symbolic, and because of its theological complexity, it can be interpreted in multiple ways. This gospel needs to be considered along with the two other gospels we have read on the last two Sundays: the Samaritan Woman and the Healing of the Man Born Blind. These texts from John are about growth and transformation: the woman and the blind man become disciples upon meeting Jesus.

However, unlike these two, the third text is not really about Lazarus, who is a silent (dead) character. Rather, it is about Jesus and the reaction to his teaching. Jesus, who knows his own death is imminent (after this episode, the gospel says that the High Priests and the Pharisees decided to kill him), keeps preaching about life, but he is surrounded by the death-like negativity of those around him: his disciples, his friends (represented by Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary), and the anonymous crowd that—like vultures—is seemingly rejoicing at witnessing death.

Like nowhere else in the whole of the gospels, the text says that Jesus, at seeing Mary “weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping” became “perturbed and deeply troubled.” There is no way in any language to better describe profound disappointment: perturbed and deeply troubled. But Jesus is not perturbed at Lazarus’ death, as he knows he is going to raise him. Jesus is profoundly disturbed at the lack of faith and understanding of his disciples, the sisters, the crowd—just when he is to face his own death, only equipped with the promise of the resurrection—and no wonder why he will go to the cross alone.

What does this gospel mean for us? We have reflected about Lent being a process of growth. This is the definitive stretch: growth based in believing in Jesus will bring us back to life. Our life will continue being a slow death if we keep allowing the powerful forces of selfishness, fear, indifference and hopelessness to rule over us. This has been our Lenten journey: an intentional process through which we begin to leave behind everything that keeps us tied down to structures of death—our personal tombs—so that we can, like Lazarus, hear the voice of Jesus ordering us to “come out.”

This is a great gospel to prepare for the upcoming celebration of Holy Week. Despite the appearance of death, Jesus teaches us in the Cross about living fully. The Cross of Christ is not a Cross of death, but Jesus’ ultimate self-giving gift of full life for us.