Sunday, April 12, 2015

Homily for 2d Sunday of Easter

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Easter
John 20: 19-31

This Sunday (April 12, 2015) I celebrated a vigil Mass for Boy Scouts in Putnam Valley, N.Y., and a morning Mass for the patients at St. Vincent Hospital in Harrison, N.Y., using the epistle (1 John), the gospel, and the collect for my texts but without a written text. So, as per my custom, here's an oldie--which evidently has been recycled once already!

April 22, 1979
OL of Prompt Succor, Westwego, La.
April 18, 1982
DBT, Paterson, N.J.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

One of my junior religion students tells me he feels at a disadvantage because he doesn’t see and hear Jesus the way the people of the 1st-century Palestine did.  I sense that a lot of his schoolmates agree with him.  Wouldn’t our faith be stronger if we could see Jesus, raised from the dead, as Thomas did?

Incredulity of St. Thomas by Guercino
This student and many of us probably experience occasional doubts about God, about salvation, about resurrection, about eternal life, about miracles.  We say, “If only I were able to see Jesus, then all my doubts would be cleared away.”

Such doubting is not wrong.  It is part of a process of reflecting on our belief.  Religion is not something to be taken forever exactly the way we first heard it.  We all face a time when we question Santa Claus, and that time perhaps marks the transition from childhood into adolescence.  Linus, of Peanuts fame, will remain a child as long as he accepts unquestioningly his belief in the Great Pumpkin and his need for that security blanket.  Of course, we all know Linus is right in one matter:  there really is an Easter beagle.

So a maturing faith must face doubts and ask questions.  The great theologians of the Middle Ages—St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and others—described their work as “faith seeking understanding.”  It was a process of questioning and of careful consideration of as many options as their minds could devise.  St. Augustine struggled with his beliefs and his way of living for 20 years before coming to the truth and accepting the Christian faith.

Our age is more skeptical than earlier centuries.  We ask the most basic questions:  Is there a God?  Does he care about us?  Can we know good from evil?  Does anything make any difference?  Is there life after death?  Did Jesus really rise?  Is the Church really God’s instrument of salvation?  How do I know the Bible is true?

To ask those questions, or ones like them, is almost a necessity for us.  The apostle Thomas was as ordinary a person as we are.  We need to face the questions, not to run away from them, not to say Christians have no doubts.  Every virtue, including faith, grows thru struggle and temptation.  We can depend on God only when we recognize our own weakness.

The 4th-century monks of Egypt tell a little story about a certain abbot named John the Dwarf.  He “had prayed to the Lord and the Lord had taken away all his passions, so that he became [impassive].  And in this condition he went to one of the elders and said:  You see before you a man who is completely at rest and has no more temptations.  The elder said:  Go and pray to the Lord to command some struggle and be stirred up in you, for the soul is matured only in battles.  And when the temptations started up again he did not pray that the struggle be taken away from him, but only said:  Lord, give me strength to get through the fight.”[1]

So, be not disturbed if you have doubts of faith, or any other temptation for that matter.  Be disturbed if you don’t.

We might for a moment consider that other point:  If I could see Jesus….  Remember that Jesus preached to thousands, but his followers were few.  The chief priests and scribes witnessed his miracles as well as the ones the apostles did after the resurrection, but they didn’t come to faith.  It was one of his closest followers who betrayed him.  The 1st-century Jew had no advantage in faith over us at all.

How, then, did some recognize Jesus for who he was—our Lord and God, in Thomas’s words?  The key is in his word.  He is the Word of life.  We hear what he says, and God’s Holy Spirit moves us to believe in his word and in him.  We know God speaks thru him because the message of truth strikes to our hearts and invites us to be converted and to give ourselves to God.

A concluding story may serve as an illustration of the power of God’s word addressed to us and asking for our faith.  It’s a bit long, but it’s true.

Around the year 385, a young pagan scholar from North Africa, seeking fame and fortune, took a teaching position at the Roman emperor’s court in Milan.  There he came under the influence of St. Ambrose, the noble and learned bishop of Milan.  He was amazed at Ambrose’s celibacy and also at his eloquence.  He began going to Mass to hear Ambrose preach.

At the same time, he continued his ambitious, vain, and pleasure-seeking ways, all the while recognizing the emptiness of his life.  He began to question that meaningless life and the selfish self who led it, but he could not break with it.  He couldn’t leave behind the very evil he was beginning to detest.

He read some of the pagan philosophers and came to understand the existence of a spiritual world.  He saw evil as a distortion of a man’s spirit.  But still he couldn’t bring himself to change his own self-centered and lustful life.

Then this man discovered the Scriptures, especially St. Paul, with their message of deliverance from the flesh and from worldliness in Jesus Christ.  But still he couldn’t bring himself to change, to act on what he saw as good and right.

The influence of Ambrose weighed on his soul.  The holiness of life of his mother, St. Monica, spoke to his heart.  Yet he couldn’t bring himself to make the sacrifices that practicing chastity and renouncing fame and money would require of him.  He resolved to begin, but did not; tried to begin, but could not.

One day, meditating in his misery and on the example of earlier Christian heroes who had once been like him, he heard a child’s voice, chanting again and again from next door, “Take up and read; take up and read.”  Realizing that such words belonged to no children’s game he knew of, he saw in them a sign from heaven and went to the Scriptures.  He opened the volume and read the first paragraph he saw:  “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in debauchery and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:13-14).  With a word of Scripture personally addressed to him, all the gloom of doubt and hesitancy vanished away.  At the age of 30, St. Augustine, future bishop and doctor of the Church, was converted to Christ.

St. Augustine
(Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, Turin)
In the same way does Christ speak personally to us, to our needs, to our doubts, to our fears, to our desires.  He is still alive and speaking to us today.  You will meet your Lord and your God in the Scriptures and in the sacraments, personally inviting you to faith, as he did Thomas and Augustine.

     [1] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, xci.

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