Saturday, April 25, 2009

Risen Into Our Midst

(3rd Sunday of Easter, B)

Brothers and sisters, if the resurrected Jesus seems a little hard to understand, you’re not alone. The Lord, upon encountering his disciples in the gospel we hear today, sees immediately that they are troubled and have questions in their hearts. It’s easy to understand why, really. Who is this Jesus who died and rose? On the one hand, the evangelist goes to great lengths to make sure we know that the risen Jesus is not a ghost or a simply spiritual presence. We also saw this last week when Jesus challenged Thomas to touch him. Today Jesus again invites the disciples to touch him, to see that he has flesh and bones. Jesus even eats! No ghost or spirit can do that.

So when we are talking about the risen Lord Jesus—at least in the time in between the Resurrection and Ascension—we affirm that he has a physical presence which is at least something like the physical body we have, and is continuous with the physical body he was for us in his earthly life.

But it’s not as easy as all that, brothers and sisters. Though the Lord Jesus rose from the dead in the flesh—as we affirm in the Roman Canon during the Easter Octave—his physical presence and his resurrected body are not exactly like the physical bodies that we are during our earthly pilgrimage. The Presence of the risen Jesus comes and goes instantaneously. He arrives in the midst of his disciples when they are hiding behind locked doors. Unlike us, he is not bounded by space and time.

So it seems like the risen Lord is a curious reality. Like a purely spiritual being, his presence and movement are not hampered by space, time, or physical barriers. But on the other hand, like a physical being, he can be touched, has real flesh, and even eats with his disciples. Sound far out? Well, it shouldn’t. This shouldn’t sound too strange for us Catholic Christians, because we see precisely the same thing in the first and foremost way the risen Lord is present with us now: the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

At the Last Supper, Jesus broke the bread and identified it with his own body, soon to be broken on the Cross. He offered the cup of wine, identifying it with his own blood, soon to be poured out in his sorrowful Passion. As we carry out his command to keep the commemoration of his own self-offering, we believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the Real Presence of the risen Jesus among us. At Mass we find ourselves in the same joyful situation as the disciples in the gospel today: Jesus comes into our midst, blesses us with his peace, and is present in such a real way that we can really touch him and even eat with him in our Holy Communion. But though we touch and taste the real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood, we know that this Presence that is still mysterious. Like the risen Lord with the disciples, it is a Presence not bound by time or place. That’s why we adore the one and undivided Body of Christ present here and in all the tabernacles through the world.

So as we gather here to know the Real Presence of the risen Jesus among us, and we receive his greeting and blessing of peace, let us be “amazed” like the disciples in the gospel today. Even if we still don’t know quite how to believe in something so sublime and wonderful as the real Body of Christ risen into the bread and wine of the Eucharist, let us not be doubtful in a sad way, but joyful before the mystery of Jesus risen into our midst.

P.s. This is the 100th post to Praise and Bless. Thanks to all who have prayed for me and encouraged me in this ministry. May the Lord reward your devotion to the Word of God.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Believing Thomas

(2nd Sunday of Easter, B)

Every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear this Gospel because it relates a scene of the disciples gathered on the Sunday after the Sunday of the Resurrection. So this is one of those special moments when the situation of the people in the Scriptures matches our own pretty closely. The disciples were gathered on the Sunday following the Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead, just as we as disciples of the Lord gather together on this second Sunday of Easter.

In this scene we meet the famous Thomas. He gets a kind of bad rap in the tradition, and on a certain reading of this gospel he earned the awful nickname of ‘doubting Thomas.’ But is that fair? All he wanted was to see what the others had seen the Sunday before when he was absent. And he wanted to know that this person that they had seen was really and truly the Jesus that he had known in his earthly life; that’s why Thomas demands to touch Jesus in the wounds of his Passion.

So, as the Gospel relates, when the disciples are gathered on that second Sunday, Thomas is now with them. And just as on the first Sunday, “Jesus came” and “stood in their midst,” greeting the disciples again with peace. Now the history of art has left us with the image of Thomas putting his hands and fingers into the Lord’s wounds, but the gospel doesn’t indicate that this ever happened. Instead, as soon as Thomas sees Jesus he bursts out with the most perfect Christian confession of faith and exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

After Thomas’s confession, and this is the climactic conclusion of St. John’s gospel, Jesus gives Thomas a challenge right back. Jesus asks him if he believes because he has seen, and then Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who believe without having seen. That’s us, brothers and sisters. We are the ones upon whom the Risen Jesus gives his special blessing: those who have not seen, but have believed.

Now here we are at a subtle point. Obviously we have not seen the Lord in the same way that the first disciples did. But the life to which Jesus was raised is eternal life, and as we say in the Creed, he is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” This means, because the Resurrection is a matter of eternity, it is a mystery that is, in a very real sense, just as present to us as it was to the disciples in the gospel we hear today.

This is why we who are the most recently converted disciples of the Lord continue the apostolic tradition of gathering on the first day of the week to commemorate the Resurrection and wait for the Risen Lord to appear and give us his peace. In fact, everything we do here at Sunday Mass is meant to make us attentive to the presence of the Risen Jesus. We proclaim the Sacred Scriptures, the Word of God. Since we believe that Jesus is the Word, the Speech of God made incarnate, then we know that everything we hear in Scripture refers to the mystery of Christ. Then we offer the commemoration of his own self-sacrifice which Jesus commanded us to make. We allow his Presence to be risen into the bread and wine of this Eucharist, which communicates, by our Communion, the presence of his Risen Life to us. And so by our Holy Communion, we allow the gift of the Resurrection to rise into our lives and our bodies, so that we might be the presence of Jesus for each other and for the world. This is what it means, in the words of the first letter of John in the second reading, to be “begotten of God,” to be born again into the life of grace and Resurrection.

So as we stand in awe before these sacred mysteries, let us exclaim with our brother, believing Thomas, “My Lord, and my God.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Have Given You a Model to Follow

(Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord's Supper)

Tonight, brothers and sisters, we encounter one of the great twists of the Sacred Scriptures. In St. John’s account of the Last Supper, we find no explicit account of the institution of the Eucharist. This is perhaps surprising because the Gospel of John is wholly permeated by the truth of Jesus’ identification with the Eucharistic food we receive in this sacrament. After all, it is in John that Jesus proclaims himself “the bread of life,” and proclaims to his astonished hearers that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

So how come when St. John comes to the Last Supper, there is no explicit Eucharist, but this funny business about washing feet instead? Certainly John knew about the institution of the Eucharist; St. Paul, writing at least a generation before the Gospel of John, recounts the tradition quite clearly in the second reading we hear tonight. And yet, after all the build up of the famous “Bread of Life Discourse” in the Gospel of John, and the “hard saying” that we must eat Christ’s body and drink his blood if we are to have eternal life within us, we get this touching account of the washing of the feet instead of the explicit tradition of Jesus forever identifying himself with the bread and wine transubstantiated through his divine blessing.

John the Evangelist is writing perhaps sixty or seventy years after Jesus’ Passion and death. Our Christian faith was between its second and third generation. The celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of the eucharistized bread and wine were well established among Christians; this much is clear from the tradition we heard from Paul tonight. They knew that Jesus himself had become their saving Passover; just as the Hebrews were saved when the blood of the paschal sacrifice was seen on the doorposts of their houses, so Christians are saved by the blood of Christ on their lips.

So John, knowing that he doesn’t have to spell out a tradition that his readers would have already known well, offers another emphasis to help them understand more deeply what it is they were already doing. And it’s the same for us, brothers and sisters. We know the Eucharist very well; it is the center and source of our life as Catholic Christians. The Gospel we hear tonight invites us into a deeper reflection on what the Eucharist means for us and what it calls us too.

Jesus, in washing the feet of his disciples, takes the place of the servant among them. He who is teacher and Lord among them, puts himself humbly below his disciples—literally and spiritually—as one who washes and cleanses. The good news of tonight, brothers and sisters, is that in the blessed Eucharist and in the Holy Communion we receive, Jesus continues to do this humble ministry of washing us.

In the ancient world, when someone arrived from the dusty world to be seated at table for a supper, his feet had to be washed of the dirt and grime of the outside world. And so it is with us. Each time we come together for the Lord’s Supper in the Mass, we arrive with every part of our soul that touches the world just a little dusty and obscured by the sin and confusion of the world around us. But when we gather around this altar, Jesus again stoops down and places himself below us. He offers himself as our nourishment, and when we become one with him in the Holy Communion we receive he washes our feet once more. We receive his own divine life into our very bodies and we are cleansed of our sins, our anxieties, and our depressions, having our spiritual feet, the parts of us that touch the difficulties and problems of this world cleansed by the humble God who makes himself our servant.

So let us turn our attention again to this altar. Let us kneel in adoration before the Lord who kneels before us as a servant. And let us go forth from this place with renewed desire to imitate the sublime humility we receive. Let us renew our resolve to become humble servants of each other and of all who are weary or discouraged in this world. Let us become the Body of Christ we receive, the presence of Jesus that places himself at the feet of others so that he might cleanse and renew them.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Palm Sunday

Since the rubrics this weekend only call for a brevis homilia to be given pro opportunitate, I don't go through my whole composition process for Passion Sunday. But I do have a short reflection posted here.