2d Sunday of Easter
April 18, 2004
John 20: 19-31
Nativity, Brandon, Fla.
St. Clement, Plant City, Fla.
Troop 40's intended camping trip this weekend was cancelled, leaving me without a Mass assignment or a homily to complete (I had started outlining one based on the Collect). So here's one a dozen years old, on the gospel reading.
“Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 2: 21).
The Church concludes its 8-day-long celebration of the day of the Lord’s resurrection on this 8th day or octave day of Easter. For another 6 weeks—until Pentecost—we’ll continue to celebrate, but in a slightly lower key than in these 8 days.
Today we hear how Jesus appeared to his disciples on the same day that he rose from the grave, following their discovery that the tomb was empty, following his appearance to Mary Magdalene near the tomb (Jn 20:11-18), and, according to St. Paul (1 Cor 15:5), following also an appearance to Peter that isn’t otherwise attested. We hear, further, how Jesus appeared again a week later, which would coincide with today, and so convinced doubting Thomas that he was truly risen, that he is truly our Lord and our God (20:28).
|Thomas acknowledges Jesus as Lord and God|
That Jesus is our Lord and our God is awesome, literally. That a man could be raised from the dead and live immortal is awesome. The power of God is the only explanation for such a fact. Our faith affirms the fact, on the testimony of Peter, Thomas, and the rest of the apostles; for we are those to whom St. John writes, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (20:29).
Our faith, tho, can ask why. Why has Jesus, our Lord and our God, been raised from the grave? Why has he returned to his cowardly, faithless disciples?
In 2 words: for us. St. John quotes Jesus earlier in the gospel proclaiming that he came in order that we might have life, and have it in abundance (10:10). And so the 1st words he speaks to his not so reliable friends are, “Peace be with you” (20:19,21). While this was a conventional Jewish greeting—shalom—it takes on a new meaning for Christians hearing it from their risen Lord: you are now at peace, in harmony, reconciled with God. What Adam did, what you have done personally by your sins, has been undone, atoned for, forgiven. The world is made new and made whole again.
The octave day of Easter has come to be designated Divine Mercy Sunday. God’s mercy toward us sinners is indeed offered to us in Christ’s bestowal of peace. Jesus makes possible the endless renewal of that peace be giving to his disciples—to the nascent Church—the commission to go forth in his name: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He sends them with the Holy Spirit—this is John’s version of Pentecost, quite different from Luke’s in timing and external display, but the same in effect. And thru that Holy Spirit they are to carry on Jesus’ own mission of reconciliation and mercy, forgiving sins—and also “retaining sins” (20:23), i.e., not forgiving them. To the Church Jesus is giving his own power of spiritual healing and forgiveness, a power exercised by admission to Baptism and to Penance; as well as the duty to deny these sacraments of mercy to people who aren’t truly repentant, aren’t willing to commit their lives to following Jesus in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Certainly it’s merciful of God to give people a chance to repent, a chance to respond to the Gospel thru the Church’s preaching and to commit ourselves to Christ and to Christ-like behavior by being baptized. In Evangelical Christians terms, this is accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.
Early in her history Holy Mother Church realized that a lot of people don’t make a once-and-for-all commitment to Christ, an irrevocable self-giving. That’s one reason why the Church so highly regards martyrdom, which obviously is a total self-offering to God in Jesus’ name. “No one has greater love,” Jesus himself said, “than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13)—for our friend Jesus, in the case of Christian martyrs.
But in the face of arrest and the confiscation of one’s home, lands, and wealth, of torture and death, many Christians chickened out before the Roman courts and burned incense before the pagan gods. In the Nazi death camps some Catholics were beaten to death or shot for refusing to trample upon a crucifix or a rosary. How many of their fellow inmates did stomp on a sign of their faith to avoid a beating?
|Blessed Joseph Kowalski, SDB, in his Auschwitz prisoner's ID|
He was executed on July 4, 1942, for refusing to trample on his rosary.
Last week’s Our Sunday Visitor had a story about a 19-year-old Russian soldier named Yevgent Rodionov—Orthodox, not Catholic—who was captured by Chechan rebels in 1996. The Chechans are Moslem, and some are as fanatical as Hamas and Al Quaeda. These noticed the cross the young private was wearing and demanded he take it off and renounce his faith. He refused. They beheaded him. Now he’s widely, if unofficially, venerated in Russia as a saint. How many of his comrades would have done the same? How many of us would have said, “Yes,” like 17-year-old Cassie Bernall, an Evangelical Christian, when one of the Columbine killers pointed a gun at her in the school library and asked her whether she believed in God? She said yes, and he shot her.
Of course many Christians’ faithfulness falters not when they’re threatened but when they’re tempted: a ruler or a soldier to murderous behavior, a spouse to adultery, a CEO to larceny, an inner-city youth to pushing drugs, a distraught young woman to abortion.
And so the Church understood by the end of the 3d century, after considerable debate and soul-searching, that even baptized Christians, people who’ve eaten of Christ’s body and drunk his blood, are capable of serious failure, of mortal sin. And in her exercise of the Lord’s mercy—of carrying out Christ’s commission to bring peace to humanity, the Church developed a ritual of public penance. This was a severe ritual for major sins like murder, adultery, and apostasy, and it was offered only once after Baptism. If Baptism was one’s 1st chance at God’s mercy, public penance was the 2d and last. Christianity was perhaps the 1st edition of 3 strikes and you’re out.
Public penance meant confessing one’s failure in public before the bishop and being given 5, 7, 10, or more years of hard penance—e.g., fasting on bread and water 3 times a week, making a long and dangerous pilgrimage; in the worst cases, a lifetime of penance, with reconciliation and holy communion available only on one’s deathbed. Until the requisite time was fulfilled, the penitent was treated like a catechumen and had to leave the liturgy after the homily; he was cut off from praying with the faithful and from the Eucharist. Well, naturally, that wasn’t very inviting. People postponed Baptism till late in life, risking a sudden and unprovided death, rather than risk serious sin after Baptism, and its consequences.
Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995) recounts how the Irish preserved the learning of the ancient world and of Christianity in their monasteries during the so-called Dark Ages, then returned that learning to Continental Europe. I doubt that it’s part of Cahill’s story, but the Irish monks also saved Christian penance. Apparently out of the monks’ practice of spiritual direction, including the confession of their faults, a practice of private confession and forgiveness developed—and, as you might expect, it proved wildly popular outside the monasteries, too, in contrast with the ritual of public penance. And so it seems our familiar sacrament of Reconciliation evolved. The main point of it, of course, is that it exercises the compassion, the mercy, the forgiveness of Christ for us weak and sinful believers—continuing his mission from the Father to restore us to divine peace.
Blessed are those who believe Jesus our Lord is risen, who know his mercy, and who “have life in his name” (20:31).