It is Ascension Thursday, even though most American Catholics won’t celebrate it until Sunday (when are the Bishops going to release our Ascension Thursday from captivity?). On this day my mother would take all us kids out of school for a hike and picnic in the mountains. Because it brought delight in the golden years of my childhood—because Christ’s Ascension was more important even than school—this Solemnity has always meant a great deal to me. Moving Ascension on a Sunday flattens it, especially in young minds, and I doubt it holds the same kind of fascination for young people today as it did for me.
But by God’s grace I was assigned Mass in the Extraordinary Form today, which retains the Ascension on Thursday, with its jubilant verses: “Viri Galilaei…O ye men of Galilee, why wonder you, staring into the sky? This Jesus will return just as he left you!... Clap your hands, ye nations; shout to God O ye peoples!” There is no replacement for Ascension Thursday. I have the day off, and am going to hike up a large hill with some dear friends today, in exultation. “Dominus ascéndens in altum captívam duxit captivitátem… The Lord ascending on high leads captivity captive!”
The Ascension marks 33 days from Easter Sunday, and yet we are still squarely within the paschal season. When I was a young priest, I used to grow tired of the Easter season after three or four weeks. I would get bored of praying nearly the same divine office for eight days in a row, and I would grow weary of adding Alleluias after every antiphon and response. I longed for “Ordinary Time,” just simple green with nothing too dramatic.
Now that I am older, and life is a bit less dramatic anyway, I am more grateful that the Church celebrates Easter for fifty days. I have come to savor the Easter verses like “The splendor of Christ risen from the dead shines on the people redeemed by his blood, alleluia.” I can’t seem to get enough of the paschal mystery these days. Perhaps I am perceiving at long last that all of life pulsates with paschal energy, and life depends on recognizing the fire and the water, the body and the blood, every day.
I just can’t seem to get enough of Easter, and wish it would never end. And maybe that means I’m getting closer to heaven, when it will never end. The older I get, the younger I get—every day is a day closer to my birth into eternal life and youth. The weaker I grow, the stronger I grow, in Christ Jesus. I just can’t get enough of Easter, because I know better now that it will, in fact, never end.
We Catholics celebrate Easter for fifty days, and we are still swimming in the bright seas of glory streaming from our resurrected Lord. I’ll bet most of us still have some Easter candy around—a chocolate bunny yet perches atop the printer in my office. Why, then, does Holy Mother Church give us readings today that sound more proper to Lent than Easter? St. Peter reminds us that we are “foreigners and pilgrims” in this world, and that the world “wages war against the soul.” Jesus tells his confused disciples that he will soon leave them, and that they will weep while the world rejoices. I think the Church gives us such sober readings on the Third Sunday of Easter to remind us that the joy of Easter streams from Our Lord’s wounds— glorious wounds—but wounds nonetheless. We must not forget the price of our redemption, nor that we are not in heaven yet.
Foreigners and pilgrims
The world, of course, does not believe in Christ or in his resurrection. It tolerates Easter for one day a year, and then only as a holiday of marshmallow bunnies and chocolate eggs. It is in this faithless world that we pass 70 or 80 years as “foreigners.” We must not forget our status as “pilgrims,” making an often difficult and dangerous journey to our true homeland. I am reminded of Bilbo Baggins, who muttered to his nephew that “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door….” And while we are on that journey, we smile, we sing, we enjoy the good gifts God gives us along the way, but we keep moving. We keep one eye always on the road ahead: we don’t know what may come at us to “wage war” against our souls, and the souls of our children.
And so how to comport ourselves as we travel? St. Peter advises us to keep ourselves clean and upright, for it is only by doing good that we might silence the ignorance of foolish people. Perhaps never more than now has godless ignorance become so widespread. The absurdity of post-Christians using Christian language, such as “human rights,” to promote precisely the violation of human rights, can discourage any pilgrim. The very concept of human rights did not exist before Christianity, and that concept is used now to kill an entire class of human beings (as in a woman’s “right to choose”). When the whole world seems to be losing its mind, stupidly following really evil men who call right wrong and wrong right, who promote manifestly irrational laws, and who blame the violent consequences on Christians—then we realize to what degree we are strangers in this world. We scarcely speak the same language as our own friends and family. We see what they cannot see, and they consider us deluded and fanatical.
We cannot convince most people of the absurdity, nor prevent much of the damage from pervasive ignorance of the Natural Laws. But we can, and we must, do good in the brief time given us this side of the grave. A Christian must never forget his dignity, and the supreme law of charity. “Give honor to all,” St. Peter counsels us. “Respect the king (for Americans, that means President Obama). Slaves should be subject to their masters, and not only to the nice ones. We are slaves, in a way, to the political powers and social trends that overwhelm us. The world is against us, but this should not unduly sadden or disturb us. We are only here in transit, after all, like changing planes at an airport. We know whence we come, and wither we go.
You will weep, Jesus assures us; you will grieve but your grief will become joy. “I am leaving you,” he told his disciples. The world will defeat him; Jesus will hand himself over to this world’s power, but only in order to defeat evil by good. “I will see you again,” he declares, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away.”
My dear people, we must resist the temptation to let this old world get to us. We must not become despondent, even if marriage and family life collapses, and God is mocked all around us, and even, God forbid, those dearest to us lose their faith. We must still do good, and maintain our composure, and radiate goodwill to everyone, because we have been given a joy that no one can take from us. We can only hope to overcome some evil by patient goodness, and we cannot expect much from this world anyway. We must take the long view, the Christian view, the supernatural view, and think always in light of eternity. I think God has permitted us to live in a period of decline, so we do what we can to save souls and please God’s divine majesty.
We turn, always, to Our Lady. She patiently, and calmly, accepted her Son’s crucifixion. Somehow, she knew, he would overcome evil by good, and she would do it with him. It was hard for her, no doubt, but she didn’t lose her peace, even at Calvary. Let us apply ourselves to the same: imitating her faith, and calling upon her intercession, that we may faithfully follow her Son to our true homeland.
Divine Mercy Sunday
Blessed John Paul II declared today Divine Mercy Sunday when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska in the Jubilee year 2000: Dominica Secunda Paschae seu de divina misericordia. Jesus told Sr. Faustina (from her diary): “I want the image [of my divine mercy] solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter, and I want it to be venerated publicly.” At the end of Mass, we will venerate the image and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, in obedience to Christ’s words. “Every soul believing and trusting in My mercy will obtain it.”
Just a note on the Second Reading before we reflect on the Gospel. “I, John, your brother, who share with you the distress and the kingdom, … found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word.” I detect a self-deprecating irony in John’s tone—how did I get here? No matter, God’s will is perfect. At George Washington University this week, a kind, hard-working Catholic Chaplain named Fr. Greg Schaffer finds himself the center of acrimonious contention because … he gently told a Catholic student who came to him for counsel that that he should not live the “gay lifestyle.” This student and his male consort are mounting a media campaign to banish him from the University for “proclaiming God’s word.” But like St. John, Fr. Schaffer does not seem to be upset about it. The Risen Christ stood before John and assured him: “Be not afraid. I am the first and the last; once dead, now I am alive forever. I hold the keys to death” and life. Be not afraid.
The apostles were afraid. They were afraid of Jesus, whom they betrayed, and they were afraid of the temple officials, who sought to wipe out any remaining disciples of Jesus. The apostles thought that Jesus would be angry with them—wouldn’t anyone think that? We think that God gets angry at us when we betray him. But Jesus shows, again, that his thoughts are not our thoughts. God does not seek vengeance; he brings peace, and bestows mercy. His first words to his friends—for they are still his friends—are “Peace be with you.” He comes through the locked doors of their fear and regret to assure them: You have nothing to fear, either from me, or from the world outside this Upper Room. I am here. We forget, as those Apostles forgot, that his mercy endures forever. His love is an infinite abyss. Oceans of mercy and rivers of grace flood the world after his Resurrection. Jesus wants us to venerate the image of Infinite Mercy today, one week after Easter, so that we grasp the full effects of his Resurrection. “Pax vobiscum” Jesus says, and then shows them the wounds of his love for them.
Thomas had not been with the others on Easter night, and he refused to let go of his disappointment at how things turned out on Good Friday. And so, a week later, that is, today, Divine Mercy Sunday, Jesus appeared again to give his Peace a third time. Then, to Thomas directly, he says: Come here, my son. Do you need another proof of my mercy? Put your hand into my side. I am not angry with you—but I do want you to surrender to my love. And Thomas did surrender: “My Lord and My God.” It is said he traveled as far as India, repeating those words to the ends of the earth, and was martyred in Madras. 2000 years later, Indian Christians name their children Thomas, and many of the Indians I have known radiate the faith given them by the once-doubting Thomas so long ago.
Forgiveness of Sins
Notice one last point: Jesus consecrates and sends his apostles out that Easter evening specifically to forgive sins. “As the father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…” He ordains them so that they can administer his mercy through the forgiveness of sins. Before we can receive the Eucharist, before we can even believe in the Gospel, we need to be forgiven. Even the most hardened atheist, the most insouciant secularist, knows he has sinned. Only God can pass through the locked doors of our post-Christian fear—that of having to live in our own depravity, with no one to forgive us. The Church must persist, as did Jesus, in bringing mercy to those who do not believe.
Blessed John Paul II said on this feast day in 2001: “Jesus said to Sr Faustina: "Humanity will never find peace until it turns with trust to Divine Mercy". Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.” With Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope, let us be apostles of mercy to the world.
Jesus Christ is Risen!
Easter Sunday Homily 2012
What happens after you die? Well, your body decays in the ground, and … what happens to … you? Are you anything more than your body? Is there anything, like a “soul,” that survives the death of your body?
We Christians, and those who live in Christian cultures, take it for granted that when we die, we don’t really die. We can’t imagine dying without some form of life after death—we say grandma became an angel or something that still moves. “Somehow I’ll be OK after I die,” we think. “All will be well in the end; Death can’t really be the end.”
But people didn’t always think like this. We assume there is life after death thanks to one historical event: the resurrection of the Jewish rabbi Jesus Christ around the year 33 AD in the city of Jerusalem. The people of that time—even the Jews themselves—all had different ideas about what happened after death. Some thought it was simply the end—the annihilation of existence. Others thought that people went to a kind of dark, sad, lonely pit called Sheol or Hades. Others thought that we returned to earth in the body of another person—reincarnation. But certainly, certainly, no one thought anyone could rise from the dead, to live forever as the same person. No one had ever done anything like that—to return to life, laughing at his own tomb, simply striding out the door of his mausoleum leaving his burial cloths behind. “I won’t need these anymore!”
That’s why everyone in the Gospels who sees the empty tomb of Jesus, or meets him after his resurrection, is absolutely confused, terrified, speechless. It’s never happened before, and no one ever expected what actually happened. What we call “Resurrection” was entirely new, and it would transform the human race. Mary Magdalene was bewildered and frightened to find the grave hanging wide open on Sunday morning. Did grave robbers get into it? She ran to get Peter, and breathlessly explained the situation, and then Peter and John themselves ran at top speed. We know this because John, the young man, outdistanced Peter. They went in and found the burial clothes neatly folded—no grave robber job here. They simply did not know what to think: “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” He is alive, he is not some kind of monster resuscitated like Frankenstein, and he will meet you in a few days back home. All is well, and all manner of things will be well.
Just a Myth?
It slowly dawned on humanity, in the decades after Christ’s resurrection that year, that God had destroyed the power of death by His death. Christianity began to spread across the globe, and to thoroughly transform humanity. People began to actually lose their fear of death. The growing emptiness of the decaying Roman Empire, growing more irrational and barbaric as it lost faith even in its traditional gods, was filled by the new vitality of Christians. They had nothing to fear, and nothing to lose. They had lost everything on that Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, and gained infinitely more back when Christ rose on Sunday morning. They lived their lives as if already dead, and already resurrected. They were citizens of a greater kingdom.
Is Christianity all just a myth? Did anyone really rise from the dead, or is this just desperately wishful thinking? Jesus Christ is not a myth. His resurrection has transformed the human race. You are witnesses to his death and resurrection. You who are at Mass this morning, just by being here, testify to this faith in a faithless world. Jesus Christ, and the Church he founded, are mocked daily in our culture. Persecutions are coming. I can see them on the horizon. But we have nothing to lose, because we have died with Him, and risen with him, and live in Him. Happy Easter!