Reflections on the Fifth Week of Easter:
May 23, 2019
A letter from prison
Easter faith is proclaimed by the risks we take in living it, by Gabe Huck
Other homilies in this series have dealt, as this one does, with the Easter season and may be helpful in mystagogical preaching during the Easter season in 2006. The homily below is for the Ascension of the Lord, celebrated in most dioceses of the United States on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2006. Note that the text presumes the assembly has heard Ephesians 4, the reading for Year B, and not the second reading from Year A, which the Lectionary allows in any year of the cycle. The statistic on life sentences is from Human Rights Watch (NYC) and was given in the January 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Page 11.
Years ago, but not all that many, there were two church organists who loved the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, for it brought a twinkle to their eyes. One of them, playing during the collection, would subtly work in just a little bit of a then-popular song whose words included “Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon.” The other, more of a traditionalist perhaps, would play something meditative after Communion, but those who listened closely on Ascension Day would detect here and there the melody of the old song “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” One saw Jesus taking off from the earth. The other saw Jesus going home. Both made people smile, as did the homilist who would always bring to this day’s sermon the wonderful quote from the escaped slave named Sojourner Truth. Once asked about death, she had answered: “Die? I ain’t gonna die! I’m going home like a shooting star!”
“He ascended into heaven,” or so we claim in our recitation of the creed. We generally don’t let it bother us that the different accounts of Jesus’ ascension in our Bible are not only quite different, but at odds with one another. Yet the story is the story and of course there will be different ways to tell it after so many years. And the geography? Sure, we modern people know that heaven isn’t “up,” and what’s more, in a universe of suns and planets and galaxies and who knows what, even “up” isn’t up and “down” isn’t down. The Easter stories bring their reminders of how little all this has to do with physics: “Do not cling to me,” Jesus tells Mary of Magdala. “Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed,” he says to doubting Thomas. So while we may well begin the scripture reading today with the very first verses from the Book of Acts, even there the last words are a rebuke to the literal-minded disciples: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” The poor disciples still didn’t understand. And neither do we most of the time.
All of Easter’s days and Sundays with their scriptures and their songs, their sprinkling of blessed water and their honoring of the great candle lighted at the Vigil liturgy, all of this has brought us to these last days of Ascension and then Pentecost. Stories of Jesus talking with and eating with disciples after the crucifixion fill the early weeks of Easter season. We are every Easter striving to know: What does it mean that we have died and come to new life in the waters of baptism, this year or years ago the same? What does it mean that we have put on Christ? What does it mean that we have come through those waters and now on the Lord’s Day we seek out that conversation with the Lord, that table companionship with the Lord? What does it mean that we do this not as individuals but only as the church, this very assembly?
As the Fifty Days of Easter continued, we moved from those stories of meals and conversations to some beloved texts like the Good Shepherd and to puzzling, hard texts — a little vague perhaps — about vines and branches, about the commandment to love one another as the sum and substance of it all. And in the first readings each Sunday we’ve been hearing snippets from how the church remembers its infancy and tells it in the book of Acts. We never hide the fact that even in the beginning it was a mess, as it still is today. We heard, for example, of Paul’s early days as a Christian. Newly baptized in Damascus and now come to Jerusalem, both cities under the heel of the Romans, he gets introduced to Peter and others who wonder what this ball-of-fire and their former enemy is up to. And we heard another story about Peter and how his own views had to change when he saw that God’s Holy Spirit wasn’t bound by Peter’s very convenient way of fencing in the church. It is an old story but we need to tell it again and again.
So we have come again into these final days of the Easter season. A late Easter this year has put us already at the end of May, Memorial Day weekend, when we finally tell of the Ascension. In the second reading, we heard a paragraph of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, a city in what is now the nation of Turkey. That reading, the one that had nothing to say about skies and clouds and angels, is today sandwiched between the stories of Jesus’ ascension. The writer of the letter wasn’t expecting Jesus to come back any time soon. The writer wanted the church to come to grips with what it might mean to live day by day and year by year, a whole lifetime, as a baptized person.
It isn’t clear whether Paul himself wrote this letter or if it was some disciple of Paul’s. Today we heard this opening line: “I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received.” A prisoner for the Lord. Whether Paul wrote the letter or not, the writer almost casually indicates that being held in prison by the powers-that-be, as Paul was, is not unusual for a follower of Jesus, but also is not without importance. Reminding the readers of the letter that it comes from a prison cell should have told them as it does us: There should be nothing surprising to any of us about a follower of Christ being in jail. Nothing surprising, but still something to be pondered. Fifty years ago Christian preachers in America often went on and on about how Christians were being put in prison in communist nations. Then one day the leaders of America’s Christian churches were forcefully addressed by a letter written to them by Martin Luther King Jr. not from a prison in Russia but from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. Don’t you see, he was saying, that doing what the Gospel tells us right here will likely get us locked up?
In the life’s work of a Christian, one occupational hazard is being sent off to prison. In this very year, in this very nation, there are Christians who are prisoners for the Lord, locked up for months or years, like Paul and like Martin. Some of these prisoners for the Lord today are doing time for trespassing. They walked across some forbidden lines and denounced the deeds that are being done there. Some have trespassed where our government stores our weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or chemical. Some have trespassed where our government teaches effective ways of repression and even torture. These prisoners for the Lord challenge the rest of us as Paul challenged the early churches and Martin challenged the church in the 1950s and 1960s: What is your baptism about? What are your Sunday assemblies doing? Are we building up the body of Christ when we close our eyes and close our mouths and accept so quietly the way the world is being militarized and the very life of planet earth threatened so that a tiny minority — ourselves among them — can continue to live in the present manner?
There is such irony in Easter. Will we proclaim that Christ burst the bonds of death and trampled on the powers of evil? Will we then strive, as Paul writes today, to ourselves achieve together as church “the full stature of Christ”? What is that stature? What does that Christ look like? The bonds of death are still pretty strong around the world. The powers of evil try to work out of sight, but really it isn’t so hard to see what’s going on if we tear away the distractions they toss daily in our paths. What we renounced at baptism is not the stuff of fairy tales. We renounced, every one of us, the everyday ways that evil pokes through our lives, the everyday ways we so easily get used to taking care of our own agendas and comforts and barely notice what violence has to be done to keep the food on our shelves, the gas in our cars, the electricity in our appliances, the clothes on our backs.
When this church assembles on the Lord’s Day, what is to become of us as we do our work here? What can hearing and pondering the scripture week-in and week-out make of us? What happens to a church that pours its whole energy into intercession? What becomes of a church — that is, ourselves — that gives loud and intense thanks to God whose love was found in the crucified Jesus, whose mercy is manifest in every new morning? What sort of people are we then when at last we eat and drink at this table one cup and one bread, this food and drink, this body broken for us and this blood poured out for us? Are we still standing here gazing up into the heavens, without a clue?
Let us bring ourselves down to earth and look at just one of so many needs that summon us to get about the tasks we accepted when we were baptized.
We heard today from Paul in his prison. Have we thought about, prayed for, written to, listened to those in prison now, not just those like Paul or Martin who went there for the Gospel, but those who went there because our society has made prison an industry, because we have decided to keep two million people there day after day and punish them? Do we accept responsibility for being the nation that keeps in prison a larger part of the population by far than any other nation in the world? Here is one of many numbers we could ponder: In the United States there are 2,225 persons serving sentences of life in prison for crimes committed while they were juveniles. Live all your life in prison and then die? In all the rest of the world, where 19 out of 20 people on earth live, there are a total of 12 persons serving sentences like this.
What is to become of us? We ask that as we try to see what it would mean to live in the Easter mercy of God. What is to become of us? We ask that as we open our eyes to see for ourselves what deeds are being done around us and even in our name. If this ascension story has one simple meaning it must be that Christ leaves us here to do the Gospel work. No wonder that the church constantly cries out: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
May 22, 2019
The Lord himself has taught us how to pray, by J. Michael McMahon
Perhaps there is no prayer uttered more often by Christians than the Our Father. And there is good reason for this frequency, because Jesus himself taught it to his disciples when they asked him how they were to pray (see Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).
From the early days of the church, the Lord’s Prayer has occupied a special place in the life of Christians. The second-century Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament, commanded that the Our Father should be said by Christians three times a day, an imitation of the Jewish practice of reciting the Shema Israel three times daily.
By the fourth century, the Our Father was included before Communion in the liturgies of both East and West. In the baptismal documents of the fourth and fifth centuries we find that the both the creed and the Lord’s Prayer were formally presented to catechumens near the end of their formation, not only because these two texts are foundational prayers of the community, but also to prepare them directly for their baptism and first sharing in Communion.
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples has deep connections to the eucharistic celebration, and still today finds a natural place in the rites not only of Catholics but of nearly all Christian churches. An entire book could be devoted to the significance of the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, but here are some key dimensions of its importance:
It’s our prayer. The Lord’s Prayer, like the eucharistic liturgy itself, is fundamentally communal, the prayer of brothers and sisters of Jesus, people of common origin who dare to address God as “Abba.”
It looks forward to the “supper of the Lamb.” The Eucharist is itself a foretaste of the eternal banquet that awaits us in the coming reign of God. The Lord’s Prayer is strongly oriented to the fulfillment of all things and the coming of God’s reign as we pray, “Your kingdom come” and “Save us from the time of trial.”
We pray for “daily bread.” From early times, Christians connected this petition of the Lord’s Prayer not only to ordinary sustenance but to the eucharistic feast. In our prayer for daily bread, we express our utter dependence on God.
We seek and offer forgiveness. In the Eucharist we remember the Paschal Mystery of Christ, by which he has brought about reconciliation. As we prepare to approach the holy table, we express our need for forgiveness and pledge ourselves to share in the work of reconciliation.
Because the Lord’s Prayer is so familiar, it is easily sung by all, especially when the music is also accessible. The 2011 edition of The Roman Missal for the United States retained the setting by Robert J. Snow that has been widely sung in this country since the introduction of vernacular liturgy in 1964 and which many, if not most, English-speaking American Catholics can sing by heart. Other musical settings may be used as well, of course.
Singing helps assemblies to pray the words without rushing through them and underlines the communal nature of the prayer in the unity of voices joining in a simple melody.
During the Mass, the biblical text of the Lord’s Prayer continues with a prayer of the priest, called the embolism, and concludes with a doxology (“For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours …”) sung by the entire assembly. Priests can find a helpful recording of the embolism at www.npm.org.
Even if the priest does not sing the embolism, however, the assembly should sing the doxology when the Lord’s Prayer itself has been sung in order to maintain the unity of the prayer.
At events such as weddings and funerals, where there are likely to be many ecumenical visitors, it might be helpful to recite rather than sing the Our Father so that all Christians present may join easily in this prayer we all hold in common.
On these occasions, as at every celebration of the Eucharist, we pray for and eagerly anticipate that day when all will be one at the wedding banquet of God’s reign.
May 21, 2019
From God in the flesh to God in the spirit
The transitional weeks between Easter and Pentecost, by Dawn Annette Mills
We have celebrated the paschal mystery. Holy Week is over. We have journeyed through salvation history with the Easter Vigil and stand now in the light of the risen One. The purple vestments are put away until Advent. The basins and pitchers and the tools for the Easter fire are put away until needed next year. After the marathon that is Holy Week, it is no surprise that we would like time to collect ourselves, catch our breath and put our feet up for just a little while.
But that is not what the church has in mind for us. Having experienced the power of the paschal mystery, we are called to enter more deeply into the Christ-life that we are given to share. It is the Easter season, the time of mystagogia, a time to expand our understanding of our faith. For those who have come into the church at Easter, this is the final part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. For those of us who have long been part of the church, this is our time to prepare for rekindling the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The days before Pentecost
We are used to looking at these 50 days as days after Easter. What if we began to look at them as the days before Pentecost? These are the days when the church moves from the experience of Jesus among us in the flesh as a human being to the time when God’s presence among is experienced through the Holy Spirit. This Spirit dwells with us, among us and within us. These 50 days give us time to transition our focus from the Christ who leads us and teaches us to the Spirit who leads us and teaches us.
We still discern with the community of faith, the church, to test the spirit and be sure that we follow God’s Spirit and not the spirit of another sort. But each of us has a share of that Spirit and the gifts given to us by God for the good of the body, the church. Let’s look at the weeks of Easter in the light of this renewal of the Spirit in our lives.
The first stirrings of hope
On Easter Sunday, we sense the first stirrings of hope as Jesus’ followers glimpse what he meant about rising from the dead. This is the purpose of the entire Easter octave. The Second Sunday of Easter is known as Divine Mercy Sunday. We are each called to forgive because we have been forgiven. During the daily readings, we consider anew the mystery of baptism, recognizing how our membership in the body of Christ and our priesthood as believers began with this sacrament.
On the Third Sunday of Easter, we hear about the disciples fishing and Jesus on the shore making breakfast. We look again at the God who feeds us. In this season, we go from partaking of fish by the breakfast fire to manna in the wilderness, from five loaves and two fish to the bread of life. This is the meal of bread and wine, true flesh and true blood, the bread of everlasting life.
That brings us to the Fourth Sunday of Easter, often called Good Shepherd Sunday. “Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me’ ” (John 10:27).
John the Baptist saw Jesus and he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Jesus tells us the “Lamb of God” is also the “Good Shepherd.” As a lamb, Jesus knows how to follow the will of another. He knows hunger and thirst; he knows a need for safety. He knows that the world around him is filled with predators. As a shepherd, he knows how to find green pasture and still waters and how to protect his flock. He knows how to tell when the sheep are tired or ill or frightened and how to care for them in their vulnerability.
What does it mean to us to have a shepherd God? The sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. They know their shepherd by sight and sound. They remember shepherds who abuse them and those who care for them. They willingly follow one they trust. We begin to learn how to be shepherds who care for others in the flock of God’s people.
Love one another
The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter is about love.
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)
We are truly, madly, deeply loved by God! Yet it is hard to believe that God loves us as we are. God doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, to have all our faults eliminated and our virtues polished. God loves us, warts and all. Sometimes, we think that to be good Christians we should be doing something constructive. Well, we are. We are learning how to love.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19). But what is love worth unless we have truly learned to love ourselves, not in some self-centered or indulgent manner, but in a God-centered manner? “As I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). We experience Jesus’ love for us and so learn to love ourselves. Then, we can learn to love others as Jesus has loved us. Still, later, Jesus ups the ante one more time by saying, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9). We are learning to be loved with the same love the Father bestowed on Jesus who pours it out on us. It is this love that we in turn are called to pour out on one another.
In the Gospel on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, we read about love dwelling in us and our dwelling in love.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23)
The hardest prayer to learn is to allow ourselves to be loved. We want to dress our souls up all neat and tidy before we pray. We bring our best selves into the divine presence. But God has the welcome mat out for our worst selves. That is the part of ourselves that is most welcome in the holy presence, as it is the part of us that most needs the transforming power of God’s love.
Preach to all nations
The Gospel for the Ascension of the Lord is from Luke. In keeping with Luke’s concern for the universal nature of Christ’s message, we hear the mission to preach to all the nations.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46–47)
All of us are called to preach to all the nations. St. Francis is supposed to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” We preach more by our actions and our attitudes than we do with words. Perhaps we preach more honestly non-verbally.
Note the content of the message that Jesus asks us to preach: repentance and the promise of forgiveness. In Luke, it is often the sinner who becomes the disciple. Those thought to be outsiders become intimate followers. It is Luke who tells the story of the sinful woman who came and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. In Luke, Jesus says, “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
In the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Jesus again prepares his disciples for what is ahead. He offers his prayer for them and for all of us who follow him. Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus says, “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17: 20–21).
The witness we give
We are reminded that the primary sign of Jesus’ continued presence in the world is our love for one another and for all the children of God. Our care for each other, our care for the poor, the neglected or abandoned, and the least and the lost. This is the witness that we are meant to be to the world.
The Gospel for vigil Mass of Pentecost is also from John:
Jesus stood up and exclaimed, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.” He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37–39)
I will pour out water; I will pour out my Spirit
Water is a powerful image for a desert people, which is what the Israelite people were. God is a fountain of living water for them (Jeremiah 2:13). Yet they abandoned him to dig leaky cisterns for themselves that held no water. The restoration of the people was presented as the return of the gift of water in the desert. In Isaiah, we see this water identified with the spirit of the Lord: “I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring, my blessing upon your descendants. They shall spring forth amid grass like poplars beside flowing waters” (Isaiah 44:3-4).
We are born from the waters of the womb. We are reborn in the waters of baptism. We are refreshed and renewed with the Spirit welling up in us like a fountain of living water welling up to eternal life. It is important for us to take time to allow that water to pool in our hearts and rise up within us. We need to stay spiritually hydrated and not let our hearts whither from dryness. Then, we can be sources of refreshment to our companions on the journey.
The power of Pentecost
The feast of Pentecost has two options for the Gospel reading, both from the Gospel of John. In the first, we are taken back to the very beginning of the Easter season, the evening after the Resurrection.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. 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.” (John 20:21–22)
Jesus breathes on his disciples, yet they are not clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit until Pentecost. We are born of the Spirit when we are born into Christ. Yet there is a moment when we celebrate the power of that Spirit at work within us to do and be as God calls us. This lets us reflect on a mystery that is too great to take in all at once.
The other Gospel option has Jesus appearing in the upper room after his resurrection and giving this promise: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26).
Here, we see the Spirit as the Advocate or Paraclete. The word paraclete literally means “one who answers the cry,” usually one who hears the cry of the poor, one who knows their need. We often translate it as lawyer, one who seeks justice for another, one who can find the words to defend and protect. The Spirit comes as our defender, our helper, our adviser and our teacher reminding us of what we have already learned. The Spirit also comes as gift giver and activator of the gifts we have received. We are told in the Letter to the Ephesians that these gifts are given “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).
The God who is three
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity follows Pentecost. The Gospel reading is again from John.
Jesus said to his disciples: “… the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12–15)
We celebrate one God who is three. We celebrate a community that is also a unity. This is not something we understand. Rather, we gaze upon it with the eyes filled with awe and wonder. God is always bigger than our minds can hold. That is a good thing, otherwise our fears would seem overwhelming. With a God so big, our troubles can only be smaller by comparison. We celebrate the greatness of our God.
Jesus makes it enough
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ comes next. Luke tells the story of the feeding of the multitude. It had been a long day of preaching. The people were hungry. There was no place nearby to find food for the crowd. Jesus told the disciples to feed them anyway. They had among them only five loaves and a couple of fish. Jesus made it enough. The Gospel reading from Luke for this feast tells us:
Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. They all ate and were satisfied. And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets. (Luke 9:16-17)
The great verbs of the Eucharist
Take, bless, break, give — these are the four great verbs of the Eucharist. They are the actions God performs with the bread. They are also the actions God takes in the lives of Christians.
Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples to distribute. The mystery we are contemplating here is that Christ continues to serve Christ. After we receive the body of Christ in Communion, we are sent to be the body of Christ in the world. We are not sent empty-handed, we are sent with the Holy Spirit and all the gifts the Spirit provides.
May 20, 2019
Becoming a new creation
Reconciliation and the risen Christ, by Joseph Nassal
The appearances of Jesus following his resurrection reveal how the risen Christ restores relationships by reconnecting with those who followed him. This is the work of reconciliation that begins with the forgiveness of sins.
In these Easter encounters, whether in the upper room or on the road to Emmaus, in the garden or on the beach, Jesus makes connections about everything in the scriptures, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” who referred to him (Luke 24:44). As he told them before he died, he reminds them again now that he is raised from the dead, that “the Christ is to suffer death and rise from the dead on the third day” and that “in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be preached to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). The purpose of his pardon is not simply to erase the slate of sin but to engage his disciples in becoming a new creation.
The power of this forgiveness to forge a new relationship in the risen Christ is captured by Alice Walker in her poem “Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning.”
Reflecting on the farewell her mother spoke “without tears … but with civility” at her father’s funeral, and aware of all he had put her mother through during their many years of marriage, Walker writes, “It was then I knew the healing of all wounds is forgiveness that permits a promise of our return at the end.”
It is God’s forgiveness shown to us in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus that paves the way for our return to God. As St. Paul reminds us, “We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. … If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him” (Rom 6:6-9).
Reclaiming our identity
The Easter season celebrates Christ’s victory over the grave by choosing reconciliation over revenge. By daring to forgive those who put him to death, by choosing to die rather than seek vengeance on those who tortured and executed him, Jesus shows us how our God is a God of life and how the fullness of life is found in forgiveness.
This journey of life that leads to becoming a new creation begins by tracing our story of salvation in the nine readings proclaimed at the Easter Vigil. In the Book of Genesis, we hear how God looked upon the earth when it “was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss” and boldly proclaimed, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). The creative nature of God is reflected in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the beauty that surrounds us in trees and tulips, in rocks and rivers, flowers and fields, snow-capped mountains and green-clad fields, and in all creatures.
God saw how good it all was, but the crowning touch of God’s creative power is found in the creation of human beings in the divine image: “In the image of God he created us, male and female God created us” (Gen 1:27). This is at the heart of the process of forgiveness and the challenge of becoming a new creation. When we forget who we are, when we forget that we are made in God’s image and likeness, we are less likely to forgive. When we forget that the one who has hurt us, or who holds something against us, is also made in God’s image and likeness, we will fail to forgive.
But when we remember who we are and whose image we bear, and that we carry within us the very breath of God, we will gather the courage and dare to forgive.
The upper reconciliation room
We feel this breath of God when Jesus appears to his followers, hiding out and huddled in fear in the upper room (John 20:19-29). Remember that the doors were locked because of their fear of the authorities. When Jesus appears, he does two things that reflect the sacred connection between resurrection and reconciliation: He breathes on them, and he shows them his scars. “Peace be with you,” he says. The wounds of the crucifixion are visible on the body of Christ. His hands and feet bear the marks where the nails punctured the flesh; the terrible wound on his side shows where the soldier pushed the spear to see if Jesus was dead.
What do these wounds on the resurrected body of Christ say to us? In a world and a church where covering the scars of our sins and hiding the wounds has caused untold suffering, the image of the risen but scarred Christ shouts that reconciliation is impossible until truth is told. This is not an easy image. Most institutions and individuals prefer the approach of Rhett Butler to that of the risen Lord. In the famous scene at the end of Gone with the Wind, when Rhett explains to Scarlett why their relationship is over, he says, “I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was good as new. What is broken is broken — and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived.”
Fortunately, the resurrected Jesus does not think along the same lines as Rhett Butler. In his appearances to his disciples, who are still trying to put their broken hearts back together, Jesus doesn’t present himself as “good as new.” Though his grace is infinitely powerful, he does not use it to mend their broken dreams and fragmented faith.
Instead, Jesus’ resurrected body bears the wounds of his crucifixion. Jesus seems to be telling his frightened followers who are still trying to make sense out of his death— even as they encounter this ghost-like figure before them — that the resurrection is not about putting the pieces of our shattered lives, our broken relationships and our wounded world back together to make our former lives “good as new.” Rather, Easter is about picking up those broken pieces and holding them up to the light of the risen Christ in order to see how we might become a new creation.
Through the open wound in the side of Christ, God opens the door for all to experience divine mercy and compassion. The signs of water and blood flowing from his side (John 19:34) reveal how baptism and Eucharist are the primary sacraments of reconciliation that make peace.
Jesus breathes upon his disciples and commissions them to be ambassadors of reconciliation to the world. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Peace comes through the wounded body of Christ. Being in touch with our scars humbles us, makes us more open, more understanding and less self-serving. Thomas Reynolds, in his book Vulnerable Communion, writes: “In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his disciples … the resurrected savior calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation.”
During the last decade, our belief in the church as the wounded, scarred body of Christ has deepened. When people of faith embrace the grace of being a humble church that lives with our doubts and is willing to confront our fears as we keep our eyes focused on the presence of the scarred and risen Christ among us, we become a safe place for healing and hope.
Living inside hope
Barbara Kingsolver noted in her book Animal Dreams: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is to live inside that hope.” Our Easter hope is founded on the forgiveness of sins and our willingness as a forgiven and redeemed people to be ministers of reconciliation in our wounded world.
In his book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield relates a story about a ritual practiced by the Babemba tribe of South Africa that reveals the kind of reconciliation that leads to a new creation by taking us back to our first creation. When a person “acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length.”
The ritual is just the opposite of the old “chapter of faults” practiced in many religious communities, or the catalogue of catastrophic failures many of us recite when celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. The purpose of this ritual of reconciliation is to remember who we truly are at our core: children of a living and loving God.
During the Easter season, we are once again given a chance to remember who we are and to act out of our best selves. When we do this, we express our identity as people of life, not of death.
When Jesus shows his disciples the scars of his crucifixion, he is not only saying to them, “See, it really is me,” he is also reminding them that he was a victim of torture who has triumphed over evil and set us on the path to a new creation. We live inside the hope that true peace can only come through the scars on the resurrected body of Christ. Easter envisions how we, with our blemishes, bruises, scars and wounds, can become that new person the risen Christ creates in us. We do this by making forgiveness not the exception, but the rule; not a special import from the divine, but a daily export from our very human lives.
Whenever people of faith celebrate Eucharist, they are engaging in the primary sacrament of reconciliation. In communion we confirm our desire to be ambassadors of reconciliation by being a new creation.
May 19, 2019
St. Paul goes to the movies
Reflecting on the great apostle this Easter through film, by Sr. Rose Pacatte
In the Easter Vigil reading from Romans, Paul writes:
“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-11).
Ever since Pope Benedict XVI declared this Pauline Year (June 2008-June 2009), I have immersed myself in learning about the man who is arguably the most influential disciple of Jesus, or apostle as he liked to call himself, of all time. Paul is also the patron saint of my religious community, the Daughters of St. Paul. All of a sudden, I cannot get enough of him. And now at Easter, the person of Paul is even more interesting, as a man full of fire, love, hope and faith.
I began my study of Paul by listening to Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s lectures on CD: The Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation (www.catalog.americancatholic.org ). For Rohr, Paul was the great “integrator”; he continually sought to bring authentic faith and real life into unity for himself and for those with whom he shared faith. Paul’s vision of the human person in relation to God is seamless and whole.
Because of my ministry as a film reviewer, as the Pauline year unfolded I began to receive requests from catechists and clergy for lists of films that reflected Pauline themes. I quickly posted something to my blog because I believe that Paul is all over the movies (http://sisterrose.wordpress.com/).
This article amplifies and deepens those initial ideas by proposing to correlate some of the themes of St. Paul’s life, ministry and letters with contemporary film in the context of the Easter season.
Film stories create a space, a table around which we can gather to share faith and create community that extends an invitation to transformation and even mysticism — especially in the Easter season.
Amid dark economic times, news commentators have noted that one of the industries that survived the Great Depression in healthy shape was “Hollywood.” From the Shirley Temple tap-dancing franchise of the 1930s to Irving Pichel’s 1950 comedy “The Great Rupert,” whose subtext urged people to take their money from their mattresses and trust the banks again, movies have provided entertainment, comfort and even a safe place for the weary soul to encounter the face of God.
With the threat of industry strikes, some insiders are worried that film will not be as meaningful now as it was then. Perhaps bloated budgets and salaries will need to be downsized, lifestyles adjusted so that a new creativity can flourish. But story, in word, image and sound, is so deeply a part of the human experience that the movies may help save us once again.
Among several key theological themes of Paul that Rohr identifies, four stood out for me: the experience of God, transformation, life as participation, and Christ as the new creation through his death and resurrection. They overlap and share characteristics with other themes that Rohr explores: sin, death, grace, justification, law, the folly of the cross, and spirit as one’s true self. All of these elements considered alone or in combination coupled with opposing ideas, and given life through people, can form the basis of a really good story.
Holy moments, Incarnation and the face of God
In Richard Linklater’s 2001 animated film “Waking Life,” a young man goes on an existential journey in a dream-like state. He visits a theater and witnesses an interview between a journalist and the film director Caveh Zahedi. Zahedi talks about the narrativity of film and how cinema’s many layers can bring us to a “holy moment.”. Though Zahedi’s theology is somewhat confused, his explanation of the Incarnation and cinema is awesome:
“And you know, [Andre] Bazin [1918-1958, a famous French film critic who was a Catholic] is a Christian. … So what film is actually capturing is like God incarnate, creating… And this very moment, God is manifesting as this. And what the film would capture if it was filming us right now would be like God as this table, and God as you, and God as me, and God looking the way we look right now, and saying and thinking what we’re thinking right now, because we are all God manifest in that sense. So film is actually like a record of God, or the face of God, or the ever changing face of God.”
Pauline theological themes and film
To consider cinema and Pauline themes from Paul’s letters in the Easter season is a challenge because after Easter Sunday, the first and second readings of the Sunday liturgies are from other New Testament writings. Saul doesn’t show up in the Acts of the Apostles until the Fifth Sunday, Cycle B (Acts 9:26).
Although the apostles were afraid of him, Barnabas spoke for him, telling how Paul had seen the Lord — the most important Pauline theme of all, because all else surges from this moment. The subsequent themes of transformation, participation and the Christ in whom we, and the cosmos, are a new creation, lead us to savor how Paul helps us live fully in Christ.
Paul’s experience of God, that is, his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, his mystical experiences and his understanding of incarnation and redemption.
For Paul, everything in his life, every decision and action, every relationship, was rooted in that life-changing Damascus experience, the ultimate, human “holy moment” when Paul beheld the face of God, and God looked into his.
Many films, either fictional or based on real events, deal explicitly with God’s intervention in human affairs and the human response:
“Millions” is a 2005 British film directed by Danny Boyle about a little boy who has a unique relationship with the saints as he tries to find a way to use some unexpected cash, “a gift from God,” to do good to others.
In “The Third Miracle” (1999), Ed Harris plays a Chicago priest in the midst of a crisis of faith as he investigates miracles attributed to a local woman.
Brideshead Revisited is British author Evelyn Waugh’s tale of a wealthy but dysfunctional Catholic family in the 1930s told through the eyes of an unbeliever. Faith and grace quietly triumph in both the 1981 BBC miniseries and the 2008 feature film directed by Julian Jarrold.
Others: “The Mission” (1982), “The Song of Bernadette” (1943) and “Therese” (1986).
In his letters Paul does not speak of his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus as a conversion from sin or from being Jewish to becoming a Christian, but as a total transformation, an “extreme makeover” to be one with Christ.
Again, Rohr explains in his lecture series (op. cit.) that Paul did not need a moral conversion because Paul was already an observant Jew; he obeyed all the laws. Thus his transformation by Christ was a fundamental change in his worldview, in his way of being in the believing community and the world. Paul’s gaze was no longer confined to self but lifted to embrace the cosmos. After all, where do we go in our relationship with God once we have obeyed all the rules?
This encounter with Christ opened the way for Paul to enter into a mystical relationship with God.
Some films that focus on the theme of transformation by Christ or God’s action through the art of cinematic storytelling with moments that are indeed mystical and transcendent are:
“Ratatouille” (2007): An Academy Award-winning animated gem in which the memory of his mother’s love expressed through her preparation of the dish ratatouille transforms the heart of an unhappy, grumpy food critic.
“The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006): This Oscar-winner tells of a Stasi agent who is transformed by art when he overhears the man he is spying on say to his girlfriend Christa-Marie, “How can anyone who has heard this music [“Sonata for a Good Man”], I mean really heard it, be a bad person?” Grace that transforming experience of God, can come through art. The word may not be present, but the reality is.
“Babette’s Feast” (1987): A French chef finds political refuge with two elderly sisters on a remote Danish isle. She transforms the inflexible Christian community when she sacrifices every penny she has to prepare a splendid meal for them.
Participation in the body of Christ.
It is no small thing that moviegoing is a communal affair. Even if one goes to the theater alone, there is almost always someone else there, and for more or less two hours we form a community that laughs, cries or screams in fear together, applauds or complains together, and sometimes, all of the above. The movie ticket becomes our I.D. card for the moment, a pass into a dark place where we participate in a story with our moral, Catholic imaginations, where we can have an authentic encounter with God. There is a ritual to finding a seat, eating, watching, listening, participating.
My favorite films about the theme of participation in the body of Christ, which can lead to action, to a blessed altruism that embraces all (as well as transformation and encountering the divine), are metaphors for the Eucharist, “food movies.” They all show that joy comes only when the characters turn from selfishness and sin and begin anew for the sake of the other; food transforms us.
“Mostly Martha” (2001; the 2007 U.S. version “No Reservations” does not work as well) tells of a chef who is obsessed with the perfection of the food she prepares and must make room in her life for her orphaned niece and an annoying bloke named Mario (the connection between “Martha” and “Mary” of the Gospels is to be noted).
“Big Night” (1996) recalls the immigrant experience, how food connects with our very identity, our culture, family, community and faith. It is about two Italian brothers who try desperately to belong, to fit into the restaurant business in late 1940s America and still be true to the art of the cuisine of their homeland. “Good food is like God,” says the older brother, Primo.
“Pieces of April” (2003) is an image of the Mass: a family, broken and yearning, travels to the elder daughter’s apartment for the Thanksgiving meal. There is reluctance, resistance and, ultimately, reconciliation in the sharing of self, love and food — excluding no one.
“Enchanted April” (1992): In the 1920s four British women who are strangers rent an Italian villa together for a month, each for her own reasons. Isolated in the villa by space, time and language, they are each transformed by choosing love of others over selfishness, so they rejoin their families and society.
Others: “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” (1994); “What’s Cooking?” (1997); “Soul Food” (2000); “Simply Irresistible” (1999).
In Christ we are a new creation
Those who allow for a theology of communication would agree that the spontaneous, joyful impulse that comes from Easter, to spread the Good News, to be the Good News, is “… to communicate the significance of creation, the richness of revelation, and the tremendous reality of the Incarnation” (Archbishop John P. Foley, 1998.) The brief reading from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians on Easter Sunday (3:1-4) tells us to seek the things that are above, “where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” If Christ, the revealed, incarnate Son of God, is Lord of all creation, what does that mean for us, in practical terms?
Vice President Al Gore said that care for the earth is not only a moral problem, but a spiritual one because people’s lives depend on it. We cannot separate God, people and creation; we are one body. Some films that address this theme:
“The Burning Season” — (1994) A made-for-TV film based on the life of Chico Mendes, who led a rubber-tapper’s union in the Brazilian rain forest. He was murdered when he resisted the destruction of the forest that his people depended on, which was being threatened so that roads and cattle ranches could be built.
“Contact” (1997): This film has a mystical and transcendent sensibility to it that leads us to contemplate the vast wonder of the universe and our place in it. Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, it sheds a positive light on the compatibility of faith and science, “sincerity and truth” (see the alternative second reading for Easter Sunday, 1 Cor 5:6b-8), when a young woman searches for the possibility of life beyond the earth and travels through space and time to find her deceased father.
“Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” (2008): Horton, the awesome pachyderm, says that every creature has value, no matter how small. Filled with themes about the environment that sustains life, community and the common good.
“WALL-E” (2008): 700 years into the future a lone robot cleans up the earth while the humans relax in a luxury spaceship waiting for life to reappear so they can return. This clever if somewhat dark film looks at the causes and material and spiritual consequences of consumer pollution on the earth.
Others: “Erin Brockovich” (2000); “A Civil Action” (1998); “Men with Guns” (John Sayles, 1997); “Blood Diamond” (2006).
“Chocolat” (2000) is the quintessential film for the Easter season because it addresses all the great themes of Paul, from sin to grace, to transformation to our responsibility to all the members of the body of Christ, the church. The Easter homily in the film is that privileged “holy moment” that reflects on the parish’s Lenten journey.
Then the film goes a step further. It ends with the Easter festival in a small community, for us the beginning of that period of hope and freedom-filled mystagogy after the rites of Christian initiation have been celebrated.
One has the sense that life is just beginning for the people because they have renewed their baptismal experience of dying and rising in Christ, leaving behind the yeast of malice and wickedness for the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul is everywhere, especially at the movies.
You also need to check out:
Man of La Mancha is a 1965 musical with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh. It is adapted from Wasserman’s non-musical 1959 teleplay I, Don Quixote, which was in turn inspired by Miguel de Cervantes and his 17th-century novel Don Quixote.
Text from NCR