Please note that for this homily, because the Solemnity of the Ascension is celebrated next Sunday in place of the 7th Sunday in Easter, the parish exercised the option to use the first reading from the 6th Sunday, and the second reading and Gospel from the 7th Sunday.
If you would like to read further into Pope St. John Paul II’s Christifideles Laici, click here.
Fifty days ago, during the Easter Vigil, we huddled inside away from the rain and cold, and we blessed and lit the Easter Candle. Of course, we then processed in with the candle, singing, “Christ our light!” We have placed that Easter Candle here in the sanctuary, and have been lighting it every time we have celebrated Mass, baptisms, and funerals. Now in addition to just being a 50 pound pile of wax, the Easter candle is very symbolic and is very important to our celebration of Easter. In fact, it’s all explained to us in the Exultet, the Easter hymn of joy. That living flame placed in our sanctuary is a symbol that Christ is alive! He rose from the dead, putting an end to the darkness of death just as the sun puts an end to night. That flame of the Easter Candle symbolizes the pillar of fire from the Book of Exodus, the presence of God, who led them through the desert and protected them from the Egyptians. And just as that pillar of fire led the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the promised land, so now Christ is our light, leading us as our sure guide through every trial and temptation, and into the promised land of Heaven. What an amazing message provided by this beautiful lump of wax! But after today that Easter Candle is going to be taken away, and in this church, placed almost as far away from the sanctuary as it can get – back by the baptismal font. So what happened? Does that mean that after today, the presence of Christ is no longer with us? Does it mean that Christ is heading to the Bahamas for a few months and that he’ll be back next Easter? Does it mean that we’re on our own? That we can handle it from here?
We hear in the Gospel how alone the disciples felt. They were hiding together with the doors locked, windows shut, and tasers drawn out of fear. They knew what had happened to Christ, and they knew that the same thing would happen to them if they stuck their necks out. They didn’t know what would be happening next, where to go. They had given everything away to follow Christ, and he had been crucified before their very eyes. What would happen next for them? Was it time to start over? But then, out of nowhere, Christ appears before them, saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, now I send you!” You can imagine the thoughts of the disciples at that moment. They were overjoyed by the fact that Christ was with them again, but he’d only been back with them 30 seconds before he sends them out again, back into that hostile world. But he doesn’t send them alone, but breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This moment transforms them forever. This moment, our moment, the moment of the descent of the Holy Spirit, isn’t just some other Sunday. It’s Pentecost. It is the Birthday of the Church, when out of that band of scared men, out of the bleeding side of Christ at the crucifixion, and out of the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit, we emerged as a new and transformed people. We are no longer the Israelites, who when the pillar of flame disappeared wandered through the desert wondering if they had been abandoned. We’re no longer the disciples, hiding from persecution, unsure why the Lord had been taken from them. Now, we are the Church, with that pillar of fire burning within our hearts as the raging fire of the Holy Spirit. That Easter Candle that has stood here for 50 days is no longer needed, because now we have that flame within us, and we go out to light the world by continuing Christ’s mission in our daily lives.
This isn’t always easy. We’re still being sent out into the unknown, and that is probably the scariest part – wondering where it is that we’re being sent off to. I have the honor of celebrating my 2nd anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in just over a week, and as I’m thinking back on my time at All Saints, I can say that getting here was pretty scary. I remember receiving the letter assigning me here, and thinking, “Where the heck is that?” I had no idea there was even a parish here, and in fact, I don’t think I had even driven this far down Mid Rivers Mall. I was comfortable where I was, I had finally learned the names of a few people, and I wasn’t sure I wanted a change. But I think now about the many things that the Holy Spirit has led me to, and I know that I wouldn’t be the same priest I am today without that move of uncertainty. Where would I be without the school, and the youth group, and the invitations and visits of parishioners, and the weddings and funerals I’ve done here. Where would I be without the 900,000 Cadberry eggs that have been dropped off for me since Easter – maybe a few pounds lighter, I think. The same is true for all of us. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit leads us through times of uncertainty, but the graces that stem from that experience are plentiful, as long as we trust in the Holy Spirit and follow that pillar of fire within our hearts.
As we enter into the season of Ordinary Time tomorrow, we know that a tendency can be to get into a routine of mediocrity that lets that flame slowly die out. So how is it that we can keep it bright and burning? Well, the first thing is that a flame needs oxygen. Without it, the flame simply fades and goes out. In the same way, prayer has to be the oxygen of our hearts. A life lived without prayer is one that is unguided, one searching for something to guide it other than the light of the Holy Spirit, and which becomes joyless and dead. Likewise, we have to ensure that the flame is allowed to grow and burn without anything getting in the way. If you notice, when the candles in our sanctuary are lit for a long time, the wax accumulates and stifles the flame, until it is barely recognizable if the candle is lit or not. So occasionally, we’ll have to cut the excess wax away, or pour out the melted wax in order to allow the flame to thrive again. The same is true for us. We sometimes forget to live lives guided by the flame of the Holy Spirit, and we need that wax cleaned away. That is why the sacrament of Confession is so important – it allows that flame of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, that flame of sanctifying grace, to continue burning brightly, giving us all the grace we need to live lives according to the Gospel. We need to make an effort to make use of the sacrament as well.
As this Easter season comes to a close today, and as we enter into Ordinary Time enlivened by the presence of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, let us turn to the Lord in the Eucharist today in gratitude for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us thank him for not leaving us alone as orphans, but for sending us an advocate, a consoler, a paraclete, who leads us on each step of our lives.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Last summer, I went with a group of our teenagers to Cincinnati for our youth group mission trip. And when the service portion of the trip was completed, we did a little exploring of the city, and went to Fountain Square for this salsa dancing festival. Now, I’m not much of a salsa dancer (or really any dancer for that matter), so I was standing off to the side, making sure our kids didn’t get into trouble or anything, when I noticed a group of men about 20 feet away that looked familiar. And more I looked, the more familiar one of the gentlemen looked. Could it be? Well, yeah, I guess the Cardinals are in town this weekend…wait a second, that’s Rafael Furcal!!! So as our group discovered this, we were going nuts, and took a big group picture. All these other people from Cincinnati were kind of clueless as to why all these high schoolers were freaking out, but to us, this was our beloved injury prone All Star shortstop! It made my night!
The reason I bring this up is because that feeling of recognition is something that is so incredible, it’s like nothing else in the world. We hear in the Gospel that the disciples had a similar feeling. They had returned to fishing, back to their old way of life. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they figured the whole experience of Jesus was over with – maybe the visions they had seen of Jesus resurrected from the dead were ghosts or hallucinations or something. Anyway, they’re minding their own business in their boat, but it sends chills down my spine to imagine that moment they recognized Jesus as he invited them to cast their nets just as he did when he had first called them three years earlier. Jesus reached back to the most important moment of their lives and rekindled that fire in their hearts, and they had the sudden and overwhelming recognition of the one who had loved them from the beginning. It welled up from inside of them, and St. John spoke those incredible words – “It is the Lord!”
It’s hard to recognize the Lord sometimes, isn’t it? Christ is present in so many ways: in service, in kind acts for others, in prayer. Even here in the liturgy, the catechism teaches us that there are several ways that he is present among us. He is present in his sacraments. He is present in the reading of the Sacred Scriptures – not just as stories, but as the Word of God made flesh in his person. He is present in me, his unworthy priest, as I celebrate the mysteries in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ, allowing him to work through me to bestow grace on all of us gathered here. He is present in the gathering of all of us, because as he has promised, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
But I think the most important way, and maybe the most difficult way for us to take seriously that Jesus is present is in the Eucharist. How tough is that! You come here every week. You’re feeling tired, bored, or apathetic. Maybe music just isn’t your thing and so you feel a little out of place. Maybe you’re busy wrangling your children as they’re playing with their action figures. My point is that this can so easily happen that we miss out on recognizing Christ. In a sense, we’re back to focusing on our everyday lives, like the disciples back to their fishing nets.
Sometimes, I wish you could see what I see as a priest. It’s pretty incredible. I think most people think I’m not really paying attention, or that there are so many people that I can’t pick out one person or another, but let me tell you: I see everything. I can see people falling asleep, people reading their bulletins, people leaving to go to the bathroom or leaving early. I can see the crazy faces that people make to the baby that’s sitting the row in front of them. I’m telling you, Mass is never dull to me, because there’s always something funny going on. But there are really some things I wish you could see that would change you.
Yesterday, we celebrated first communion. The church was packed, and there was a feeling of energy (and a little chaos) that just filled the air. The kids were all dressed up in their fancy dresses and suits, smiling like it was the best day of their lives. But I’ll tell you, there is nothing like seeing a child receive communion for the first time. We forget what it was like for ourselves, but for them, they’ve been studying this stuff all year, and when they hear me say, “The Body of Christ,” and look at the host coming towards them, there is that look of recognition like the one I’m sure the disciples had – a look that says, “It is the Lord!”
I also have the opportunity to bring communion to the dying. These are people whose lives will be over in days or even hours. They’re totally sapped of energy. And I am coming to bring them Viaticum, the Eucharist that will be their food for their journey home. I wish you could see the look in their eyes when I lift the Eucharist to them for what will probably be the last time, and again, there is that spark of recognition that says, “It is the Lord!”
It’s not often that I get to do this, but another great experience is giving communion to couples that have just had their marriage blessed in the Church. There are few people in the Church that I respect more than the couples going through the annulment process after going through a divorce and who faithfully and lovingly obey the laws of the Church by not receiving communion until their annulment is complete. They talk to me about how much they miss the Eucharist – how much they miss the Eucharist! And then to receive it for the first time in years, after almost forgetting what it tastes like, there’s again that look of recognition that says, “It is the Lord!” Man, I wish you could see those things – to see the moment of recognition where someone realizes the presence of the one who has loved them all their life.
My point is to say that again today, we find ourselves in the situation of the disciples in the Gospel. Jesus is here. He’s right in front of us, challenging us, teaching us, calling us by name. What good is our being here if we can’t recognize him? Imagine what might have happened if the disciples had not done so. If when Jesus had told them to cast the nets into the deep, they just said, “Whatever, you crazy old man.” Or if they had said, “These are my nets, and I can have my own opinions on how to use them! Who are you to tell me what to do with them?” Or if they had just shrugged and gone back to playing Angry Birds on their phones. There would be no Church. There would be no All Saints Parish. There would be no church or gym or parish center. If there was only one wish I had for the people of All Saints, or one prayer that I wish would be answered directly, it would be that all of us came to understand what is before us in the Eucharist. When I see people falling asleep, or leaving early, or when there’s only 2 people at Eucharistic adoration on Tuesday night, it doesn’t make me angry or resentful. It doesn’t make me judge those people or write them off. It makes me sad more than anything. Because what’s here before us isn’t bread and wine. It’s not some drama that we’re reenacting. It’s not some medieval obligation that’s being imposed on us by the Pope. Brothers and sisters, “It is the Lord!” Do we recognize him? Do we act like we recognize him? Are our lives different?
As we come here today, may we, like St. John, be able to recognize Christ, and like St. Peter, may our joy drive us to leap from the boats of our complacency and go to meet him in love and service to others.
Poor Thomas. Of course, what is he known as to everyone? Doubting Thomas. The guy followed Jesus faithfully during his public ministry, he witnessed the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he preached throughout Syria. You know when missionaries went to India in the 2nd century, they found that there were Christians already living there…because of St. Thomas! He was responsible for building what is now the world’s longest-standing Christian church. And what do we remember him for? For doubting Jesus, of course. You mess up once, and your friends never let you forget it. Today’s Gospel, though, has less to do with doubt and faith, and more to do with Thomas getting a second chance. Remember, he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared. I don’t know what he was doing – maybe he was afraid, or maybe his alarm didn’t go off and he slept in. Whatever the case, Jesus appeared to the disciples again, and to Thomas with them, to give him a second chance. Think what would have happened if Jesus hadn’t given him that second chance. He’d simply be a man in Palestine, living with his parents, doing whatever he did before Jesus came along.
Today we read this particular gospel about this post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples, including Thomas, in the context of this second Sunday in Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday. What is mercy? St. Thomas Aquinas said that mercy was “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” Simply put, mercy is a second chance. It’s out of mercy that Jesus appears again to the disciples, and specifically for Thomas. It’s mercy that drives Jesus to call them not to be unbelieving, but to believe.
If I’m honest, Jesus’ reaction is not the one I would have. When he appears in their midst, the first thing Jesus says is, “Peace be with you.” These are the same guys who ran away time and time again – in the garden, on the way to the cross, at the foot of the cross. I’d probably be more inclined to roll up my sleeves for a beat down and say, “Where were you? Why didn’t any of you stand up for me? You were supposed to be my friends!” Either that, or I just wouldn’t show up in their midst at all. And honestly, that’s what they would probably deserve!
I think in the midst of this Gospel, we struggle to understand two virtues. Justice is that more natural reaction that I was just talking about. It’s to give to others as they deserve, to put things straight. This is a good thing, right? Justice is one of the cardinal virtues. That’s why if someone steals your car, they’re punished – not out of revenge, but out of the justice of setting things right again.
On the other hand though, what Jesus shows us today isn’t justice – it’s mercy. Justice is a cardinal virtue, which is something that we strive for simply because it’s part of the natural law that’s written on everyone’s hearts. Mercy or charity, on the other hand, is a theological virtue – something that we can only receive from God, and which we can only imitate by God’s help. So if we think it’s not natural that Jesus doesn’t yell at his disciples, or that he doesn’t accuse them or reject them the way they rejected him, we’re right! It’s not natural. It’s supernatural. The gift of mercy from God is something completely and utterly otherworldly, because it only comes from a God who is love.
There are only two people in the world who know the complete truth of what we deserve in justice – ourselves and God. Only we know our weaknesses to the greatest extent. Only we know how unworthy we are to have the spouse that we’re given for life. Only we know how unworthy you are to be mothers and fathers of such great children, or to be sons or daughters of such loving parents. Only I know how unworthy I am to be a priest. Only we know how unworthy we are to be Catholics. Only we know the extent to which in justice we don’t deserve any of these things. But like his appearance to those disciples huddled in the room, Jesus doesn’t come here with the hammer of justice, but with his gift of love and mercy. That’s why we pray that the mercy of God might be poured out on us at the beginning of Mass (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.), and why even 2000 years after his death and resurrection, a priest still sits in that little box in the back of church every Tuesday and Saturday. Christ is there to give us that second chance, just as he did St. Thomas.
We have all had that experience of the grace of God’s mercy – through the sacraments, through prayer, through being taught the Gospel of Christ. But there are many people around us who haven’t had that grace, or who have forgotten about it. I can’t think of anything that would please God more than if we all made the commitment to spread that mercy this week, even if just for a little bit. We’ve all had relationships that aren’t exactly marked by mercy. We all know of relationships that are marred by indifference and envy and resentment. And it’s tough to forgive others. But remember why you love them, and know that love is about forgiveness and mercy. You can give up all hope of a better past. Even Jesus didn’t go back and change the choices that his disciples made on the day of his Passion. But have the hope of a better future. I have been at the bedside of quite a few people who are dying, and it’s interesting that none of them ever says, “I wish I’d stayed angry longer.” They generally say one of three things: “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” or “I love you.”
As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today, take the opportunity to both experience and imitate the great mercy and love which God has for each of us, unworthy as we are. As we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, the ultimate gift of God’s mercy, I invite you to listen to these words, spoken by Christ to St. Faustina, and to reflect on them in your heart today. “There is no misery that could be a match for My mercy, neither will misery exhaust it, because as it is being granted-it increases. The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I myself take care of it.”
Friday I celebrated the Good Friday liturgy, and I made reference to one of Michelangelo’s famous sculptures, the Pietá. Friday I was reflecting on the lifelessness of the figure of Christ in the sculpture and the sorrow of the Blessed Mother, with the importance of feeling that sorrow with her. That was Friday.
But today, I want to talk about another of Michelangelo’s sculptures, but a much less famous one than the Pietá. It is the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It is a very different statue. In the Pietá, Christ was limp, but here he stands firm, young, muscular, confident, and energetic. In the Pietá, the image of Christ calls forth pity, but here, he is glorious. In the Pietá, he was held in the arms of his mother, but here he stands alone, with the only other figure being the Cross at his side. He holds it in his right arm, but it is small and misshapen, almost puny, like the one outside our church by the walkway. The cross is almost silly looking, and it would be ridiculous to think that he could be crucified on it. He simply holds that flimsy wooden cross as easily as he might a bouquet of flowers or a baseball bat.
But see, that’s exactly the point. Whereas Friday we focused on the sorrow and guilt that we felt as Christ died on the Cross, today, we celebrate the life-giving power of the Lord who conquered overwhelmingly the power of the Cross. If Christ had not risen today, why would Good Friday be worth anything? What good would that suffering have been? What good would the love that he showed us through his suffering be if evil and death had simply extinguished it? Only the bright light and power of the Resurrection gives meaning to the blood-stained darkness of the Cross.
That’s what Easter should do for us. It makes that light of hope and joy shine so brightly in our lives that it shrinks those crosses that we find ourselves bearing down to size. Think of the statue I described. Yes, the cross is still there, but it looks silly and powerless, impossible to hold Christ and impossible to hold us back from sharing that joy with him. We can bear our own crosses and sacrifices now with joy, because we know that like the Cross of Christ, they are leading us to the victory of the Resurrection.
Today, we come to Mass, and it’s a little more joyful than normal, hopefully. We might be dressed a little nicer and we did the sprinkling right earlier. It’s an exciting day that should be the cause of celebration and joy as we share in the victory of Christ. It’s a day of easter egg hunts and candy for the kids, Cadberry Cream Eggs for Fr. Grosch, scrumptious dinners, and happy company with relatives and friends. But let’s not stop there. Let’s not just enjoy Easter, let’s let it change the way we live our lives! The Resurrection is not just a nice idea to think about for an hour and leave. It’s the power of eternal life at work in us! Now we have the opportunity to continue that. In fact, it’s not just one more day and back to work, but Easter lasts another 6 weeks!
Almost all of us did something different during Lent, or at least we tried to. We gave up something, tried to pray more, gave generously to the Church and to others, and abstained from meat on Fridays. And hopefully it had an impact! I know your sacrifices had an impact on me, since 6:30 Mass was crowded almost all Lent, so I had to consecrate more Precious Blood and work a little harder on my homilies! That was our very concrete and practical way of embracing those special graces and the opportunity to grow. Maybe if we gave something up for the penitential season of Lent, we can take something up during the joyful season of Easter! Make an Easter resolution for yourself. Don’t stop going to daily Mass now that Lent is over, but invite someone to go with you. People got together in huge numbers for our Fish Fries during Lent. Why not continue getting together on Fridays during the Easter season – not to fast, but to celebrate! You can join us for some of the parish events coming up, like the May Crowning or the Corpus Christi Procession.
Our souls need that. Just as good as Lent and this past Holy Week were to help our souls grow in humility and self-denial, now Easter is here to help us grow in joy. If we don’t take advantage, we’ll never be strong enough to carry those crosses, and they will overwhelm us, rather than be our inspiration.
May the risen Christ, the victor over evil and death, and the victor over the Cross, sustain us. In the Eucharist we now receive, may he grant us hope in facing our Crosses, and give us the strength not to be overwhelmed by them, but to make them but trophies of the great victory that we share with him today.