The Gospel for Sunday, March 27th, 2016

The Gospel for March 27th, 2016: Easter Sunday

John 20:  1-9

Reflection:

“For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (9).

They didn’t understand. As a result, we see confusion and fear and for good reason. Let us consider what they did understand. The circumstances of their faith were frightening and unfathomable at that moment. Jesus, their beloved and Messiah, has been betrayed by one of their own, crucified viciously and unjustly, and His buried body has disappeared from a seemingly impregnable tomb. By all rational understanding, the bottom has completely fallen out from their dream for a savior incarnate.

Reading today, we know the happy ending: Jesus is risen. He has conquered death. Our faith is justified. Should the three disciples have known? Jesus did try to tell the apostles.  But who in their right minds at the time would believe that this was God’s salvation plan? Under the circumstances, their despair and fear is understandable. Therefore, I think the significance of the discovery of the empty tomb is more than merely a plot detail to be briefly acknowledged for the sake of continuity before reaching the climax of the salvation drama. Instead, I see a lesson for today’s Christians to consider in John’s gospel on this Easter Sunday. The lesson is this: the fear of Mary, Peter, and the beloved disciple as they confront the mystery and truth of Jesus’s disappearance is like our fear every time God challenges in ways we don’t expect. We fail to ignore the reasoning and the logic of the world and allow ourselves to become panicked, even though we may well be on the cusp of God’s loving embrace. We are at risk of turning away precisely at the moment when we should move forward in faith to where God is leading us.

In examining their reactions, we can see the familiar havoc that fear can wreak. Yet we also see the necessity and ultimate victory of faith over fear. First, Mary did not go in the tomb when she saw the stone removed. Aghast at the implication of her wrongful conclusion, she runs to tell the others, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put them” (2).

Their return is marked by the sort chaotic sprint that one would expect as all three, filled with adrenaline at the startling discovery, run back to the tomb, disbanded instead of together.  The beloved disciple, commonly thought to be John, arrives first. He looks in the tomb, sees the discarded burial cloths and hesitates to investigate further, clearly afraid to confront the truth. However, Peter, embracing his role as leader, walks in boldly. Surely he too was uncertain, yet he clears the way for all them to accept the reality that Jesus is no longer there by entering. Acceptance of this hard truth will be necessary in coming to grips with the fact of the resurrection. Peter’s example is key:  we must not fear facing God’s truth. Like the Church to which Jesus entrusted him, Peter moves forward in faith–as he undoubtedly learned he must do on the waters of Galilee–and brings others with him. While their confusion and apprehension remain, the step of entering the tomb brings them all closer to the revelation than they were previously during those dark hours of despair.

It should be noted that the unveiling of Jesus’s resurrection soon follows. Mary stays by the tomb weeping, where she encounters the risen Jesus first. Imagine if she had not gone back to the tomb with Peter and John; she would have missed the revelation that changed everything. Granted, eventually she would have known. But God lead her there so she could announce the good news of Christ’s victory to the apostles. As for Peter and John, would they have seen Jesus’s appearance to them as some sort of malevolent phantom later if they had not witnessed themselves that he was no longer in His tomb? We can conclude in hindsight that the frightening experience of the empty tomb was a necessary step toward understanding God’s will and salvation for Jesus’s disciples.

On Easter, as we celebrate the basis for our faith and salvation, it is easy to believe in God’s providence and love. At Church, we are awash in His glory and love. However, as we leave Church and return to the world, once again we are confronted with the logic that makes God’s plans for salvation difficult to believe and accept. In the fear that follows those moments, may we remember Peter’s example and boldly walk into the empty tomb to confront the truth, leaving our lack of complete understanding to God. When we do that with the help our Church, we move closer to Jesus and salvation.

Happy Easter!

Gospel for Sunday, March 20th, 2016

Gospel for March 20th, 2016:  Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Luke 23:  1-49

Reflection:

The length and depth of Luke’s passion narrative for Palm Sunday gives me pause as I consider responding in a blog. Jesus’s passion is so central to our faith, I wish to write with the utmost care. Yet, I think it is a mistake to attempt to tackle all of it in this blog; therefore, I have decided to focus on Jesus’s conversation with the Good Thief during their crucifixion. My reason is simple: I imagine he lived a life much like I have, ignoring God’s call. While I don’t know how true that may be, it would seem the criminal circumstances he finds himself in are his own doing, which he admits. The fact that he asks Jesus to “remember” him shortly before his death challenges my sense of reason. Could one live a life of sin, still repent, and be saved in his or her final moments? At times I ask this very question because I wonder if I too have left myself enough time in my life to repent after so many years pushing Jesus away. Is it ever too late?

Before attempting an answer, I think the words and tone of their dialogue deserves examination. Prior to the conversation, Jesus, the Good Thief, and another criminal have been suffering on their crosses for a while, although Luke is unclear how long. The desire for relief must have been all-encompassing. So it is not surprising that the other criminal says to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (40).  I think his request to be saved is not the problem; it is his rhetorical question whether Jesus is the Messiah. It suggests a lack of belief in the truth the Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Then, before Jesus can respond, the Good Thief rebukes his fellow criminal with, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we have received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal” (40-41). His words are repentant for two reasons. First, he admits to his own wrongdoing. Second and more importantly, his claim that Jesus is innocent indicates his belief that Christ is not misleading the people in His statements that He is Messiah and King of the Jews (2). Finally, it would appear that this moment of confession frees his heart to ask Jesus for salvation: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom” (42). Jesus, of course, does not tell him it is too late. Instead, he mercifully replies as he suffers on the cross, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (43). Both criminals asked to be saved, but only the Good Thief is willing to state that Jesus is Lord and that salvation is only possible through Him.

And so I return to my question. Is that simple act of faith enough really enough to give hope to all of us Good Thieves out there? The answer is yes. In that answer, I ignore the rational logic that says there should be a ledger during my lifetime that keeps track of the balance between my sins and my good works. That sort of thinking is so tempting because we operate that way in so many aspects of our lives: in our schools, in our jobs, and our government where standards and laws abound. But we must remember that Jesus came to renew God’s covenant is faithfulness and love, not legalism and accounting.

Therefore, it is a different logic we must embrace, one that sees our salvation as participating in a loving relationship with Jesus through which we are a part of His body and His mission to gather all His people to Him. We say we love you Lord and all your creation each time we worship and pray, each time we admit our sins and ask forgiveness, each time we are called to love a neighbor or enemy by word or deed, and each time we resign ourselves to putting this mission before our desires. For those who have many years left before their time on earth is through, in this faith they will experience the connectedness of a relationship with Jesus that consistently provides happiness through His unconditional love and mercy, despite life’s perpetual trials. And when their time is up, they will say “Jesus remember me” and He will. For those, like Jesus’s criminal companions on the cross, who have only a short time left, the challenge is more difficult, not because they don’t deserve salvation, but because they may have denied Jesus’s love for so long they will not be able to believe it is possible He will forgive them their sins. And so they will, like the first criminal, continue to suffer separation from His love in their lack of faith unless they cannot radically open their hearts as the Good Thief did. They will be unable to say “Jesus remember me.” I once read that Judas was not damned to Hell because he betrayed Jesus, but rather because he could not believe he could be forgiven for what his sin of betrayal. That sounds about right to me. So I pray for all those sinners who doubt God’s mercy and forgiveness, as I have in the past. May Easter serve as a reminder that Jesus wants to gather all of us home.

Gospel Reflection for Sunday, March 13th

Gospel for March 13th, 2016: Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 8:  1-11

Reflection:

The story of the scribes and Pharisees bringing to Jesus the woman guilty of adultery has multiple layers. First, there is the insidious plan of His enemies to entrap Jesus by bringing him a legal dilemma. His position as for or against stoning will either land him on the wrong side of Roman authority or Jewish law. Then there is Jesus’s evasion of the trap by turning the focus away from the girl’s punishment to the fitness of any human to judge the sins of another. He evades taking a position by saying, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (7). Also, there is this cryptic move where Jesus writes on the ground with His finger, an action which surely had some meaning for those who meant to find fault with Jesus, although John does not make its meaning clear for modern readers. Taken together, the scene is highly dramatic and suggests to me that we should leave judgment of others’ sin to God.

Yet I am most interested in the dialogue between the girl and Jesus after the hypocrites leave. It is so uncomplicated and straightforward. In her position, I can see myself either needing to explain why I was guilty of this sin or to thank Jesus profusely for His intervention. However, this doesn’t seem necessary. He asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” She replies simply, “No one, sir.” Finally Jesus sends her on her way with, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (10-11).

This is so different from the mental gymnastics I go through before confession. While the anguish from guilt is deserved, so often I allow its weight to paralyze me so that I put off reconciliation. When I read how Jesus forgives the adulteress’s sin, I think it is better to act with simplicity. Jesus already knows the details and depth of my sin. My words need not be many, just genuine and faithful. I have always found the sacrament of reconciliation difficult to embrace.  Perhaps, this gospel puts it in the proper perspective, especially in the sense of the outcome: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

Gospel Reflection for Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Gospel for March 6th, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

Reflection:

I consistently feel a deep resonance when I hear Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. At times, I remember that I have been the son who went off to pursue freedom and pleasure, squandering the gifts given to me by the Father, only to recognize my sinfulness and return in humiliation. Indeed, I spent many years as a fallen-away Catholic. The welcoming love of God and His Church on my return continues to amaze me. Our God is a merciful God and I am grateful for His forgiveness at my willfulness.

At other times I have been the jealous brother, the rule-follower who secretly hopes everyone notices his good deeds and looks with envy on others successes of the attention of those who seemed less deserving. This is a bad way, to be so consumed with self-centeredness as to miss the blessings and grace of the Father at work in our lives. I am ashamed to admit to such feelings, but it is true. This parable serves as a powerful reminder to put God and others first.

Unlike those first two experiences, I noticed on this reading that I have never related emotionally to the father in the story, who welcomes home the prodigal son with unconditional forgiveness and patiently counsels the jealous son to see the blessing in his return. Could it be that I have never openly forgiven one who wronged me or acted with mercy to one in desperate need of unconditional love? In all honesty, I think I have, many times on recollection, especially as a parent. However, it is a little disconcerting that I had to think so hard to remember. Perhaps, it means I am not seeking out the opportunities to welcome home the wayward souls around me. Maybe, I am still too preoccupied with myself to extend a joyful hand to the needy in my presence with regularity. This is really where this gospel begins, with Jesus inviting sinners from all walks of life to His table, despite the protests from the Pharisees. The message is not just that I am invited, but also that, as a Christian, I need to join the welcoming committee.

I pray that as Lent continues I stand ready for those times where I am called to play the role of the father, non-judgmental and compassionate, to all the prodigal children and jealous siblings that may cross my path in the coming weeks. May I do for them what has been done for me many times over.