Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Tomb Was Empty...and it's a Total Game-Changer!

The Catholic Liturgy for the 3rd Sunday of Easter.  Acts 2:2-33 & John 20:1-9. Theme: The Tomb Was Empty…and It’s a Game-Changer!

In today's first reading the apostle Peter gives a bold defense for the Empty Tomb of Jesus to a large questioning crowd gathered in Jerusalem . He goes through significant prophecies of the Jewish Scripures and shows how they support the proclamation of a crucified Messiah who has risen from the grave.  And we see the same dynamic happening in the Gospel reading where two dejected disciples are on their way to the village of Emmaus.  They are puzzled by the Empty Tomb and bewildered by strange stories they have heard about Jesus having risen from the dead. Then along comes a stranger who accompanies them and who seems well-educated in Scripture. Like Peter in the first reading, he also points out how the Jewish prophecies support the proclamation of a crucified Messiah risen from the grave.

But you know, we can’t really fault the crowd in Jerusalem for demanding answers nor can we blame the Emmaus travelers for being doubtful and downcast.   Because it ‘s a strange thing, indeed, to believe that a man who was tortured, killed and buried has returned from the dead and been resurrected to eternal life. And the implication of this for the Risen One’s disciples is equally incredible: that they, too, because of their relationship of trust in this Risen Man to free them from the power of sin, will also rise from the grave and live eternally!.

And yet this is exactly what Peter and the Gospels and the Church have been preaching, teaching and celebrating for over 2,000 years.  The Empty Tomb is a powerful silent witness to the Resurrection that screams loudly down through the centuries. And what is it sceaming out ot us? That the Resurrection of Jesus is a total game-changer in human life because if it’s true, then it means that He was indeed who He said He was: God-in-the-flesh come to live among us as one of us. And if that is true, then His words are Truth and so much more than the merely human teachings of such figures as the Buddha or Mohammed; and so much more inspirational than those from positive motivators such as Joel Olsteen or Oprah Whinphrey.

But precisely because claims of an Incarnate God and a Resurrected Lord seems ridiculous; and precisely because Christianity is demanding and requires a conversion of life, there are those who try very hard to discredit it. They know that Christianity rises or falls upon the truth of the Resurrection and so they seek to twist the Gospel story that has come to us from eye-witnesses.  They know that they cannot deny the Empty Tomb because it is historical fact. So they try to refute the Resurrection itself and usually come  up with some version of the following four possibilities: that the body of Jesus was stolen and then the thieves claimed a Resurrection; that the body of Jesus was swallowed up by the earthquake mentioned in Matthew's Gospel; that Jesus didn't really die, but was simply unconscious when placed in the tomb; or that the hundreds of disciples who say they saw the Risen Jesus were hallucinating. 

Let’s tale a quick look at each one and I think we will see how easily it is to refute them.

Stolen Body.  One reaction to the Empty Tomb says that the corpse of Jesus was stolen and then a fake Resurrection was announced. Ok, so who would have stolen Him?  The Romans? No reason.  They killed him to put an end to his influence and possible rebellion. Plus Roman guards were fiercely loyal to their duty, and the guards at the tomb would have guarded it for the sake of their own lives.  The Jewish Leaders? It makes no sense at al. They could have  then easily displayed the corpse and put an end to Christianity which they saw as a blasphemy and threat to Judaism. Lastly, the Discples? No way. First of all they were cowards locked away in hiding out of fear for their lives. Second, how in the world could they overcome the Roman guards?

Swallowed Up by the Earthquake.  Matthew’s Gospel tells us that there was a great earthquake at the time of the Resurrection. So some scetpics say that the corpse of Jesus was swallowed up into a fissure caused by the quake.  Then how is it that the earthquake didn’t take the shroud, the burial cloths as well? Besides, the disciples found these cloths neatly folded and laid aside on the tomb. Was this the work of an extremely polite and neat earthquake? As one historian pointed out, belief in this reason for the Empty Tomb take more mental gymnastics than actually belieiving in the real Resurrection!

Jesus was unconscious, not dead.  Jesus was crucified by professionals. Then his side was pierced by a spear. Physicians who read this account say that the blood and water flowing out from his side tell us that the heart itself was punctured. But let's say he wasn't dead, simply unconscious and revived in the tomb. How could a man who had food and water withheld for 24 hours, was beaten, tortured, crucified and had his heart speared find the strength to move a huge stone covering the cave and evade the Roman guards? Besides, the eye-witnesses tell us they encountered a glorious, powerful risen Lord, not a weak, wounded stumbling man.

Finally, there is the accusation of hallucinating witnesses.  One of the most astounding historical testimonies we have about the Resurrection is that over 500 Christians were all gathered together and saw the Risen Lord among them.  There have  been some people have claimed these disciples were so torn apart emotionally and stressed out physically by what they had gone through that they hallucinated the appearances of the Risen Christ. Now that could be true of some of them for sure - but psychologists as well as our human intelligence – tell us that it is impossible for 500 people to all have the exact same hallucination at the very same time and in the very same place!  They were indeed seeing Someone who was truly appearing in fromt of them. Also, the account of this event was written while many of those witnesses were still alve and if it was untrue or inaccurate they could have easily pointed this out.  But not a one contradicted what St. Paul had writtenabout them.

But, you know, as important as historical facts are, the most convincing proof of the Resurrection is found in the witness of transformed lives.  This transformation first began with the Apostles who were changed from frightened cowards hiding behind locked doors into bold couragoues preachers of the Gospel and martyrs for Christ. They underwent cruel tortures and horrible deaths rather than deny the real meaning of the Empty Tomb.  They declared with their words and their blood that they had truly seen and heard and touched and even eaten with the Risen Lord Jesus.   

In every era of human history faith in the Risen Christ has been attacked and Christians persecuted, just as Jesus had foretold. But this life-changing Resurrection-faith has not been able to be stopped and has been touching hearts, converting lives,  producing saints and yielding martyrs throughout the world for over 2,000 years!  Even in our own times we see the unjust mistreatment and brutal killing of people simply because they follow Christ. Yet they do not stop following. Their faith in the Risen Lord is deep and their love for him even deeper.

And so I think we each need to truly pray, seriously ponder, and honestly ask ourselves:  Where do I most need the grace of the life-giving Cross and Resurrection of Jesus in my life?  How can I open my heart more fully to the Risen Lord’s abundant love and tender mercy which can transform me from the inside out?  What in my attitude, behavior and interactions with others need conversion so that I can become a witness to the Risen Lord among those with whom I live, work and socialize?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Jesus I Trust in You!

DIVINE MERCY SUNDAY – Second Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 19, 2020.  Gospel - John 20:19-31. Theme: Jesus, I Trust in You!

Today, Catholics throughout the world celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. We have so many special feast days but today’s is most unique because it was asked for by Jesus Himself, in the 1930’s, during a series of visions to a Polish nun whom we now honor as St. Faustina.  Usually, such personal spiritual experiences do not enter into our liturgy but this one was seriously studied and promoted by Pope St. John Paul II himself. He was such a strong believer in this devotion and its message as coming from Jesus that he intentionally made St. Faustina as the very first saint of the21st century. In addition to this, he declared Divine Mercy Sunday to be an official liturgical celebration for the worldwide Catholic Church.

In addition to observing this Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday, Jesus asked that a special picture be made showing Him as He was when He appeared to St. Faustina. He wanted this image displayed in parish churches as well as in our homes. He called this image a vessel of mercy and promised his protection over those who honor it and live what it represents. This promise of protection has become more well-known in these times of COVID-19 as people place the Divine Mercy image on their front doors or hang it prominently in their homes.

And this is a very good thing! It is much like the way the Old Testament Hebrews in Egypt placed the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts for divine protection.  It was an outward expression of their interior trust in God that he would take care of them ad keep his promises. But if all we do is hang the Divine Mercy picture and then expect that solitary action apart from a trustful relationship with Christ to protect us, then we are not practicing true religion at all, but only idolatrous superstition.

The danger that lies in this kind of misguided devotion is that we can easily slip into a “magic charm” mentality and see such things as scapulars, medals, relics and pictures in the same way that others look at a rabbit’s foot or a new-age crystal. To avoid this type of misguided devotion which is a serious offense to the worship of our God, we need to know why we have a particular sacred object and how it is intended to inspire us on to a deeper relationship with Christ.

So, with this good intention in mind, let’s take a closer look at the Divine Mercy image that Jesus himself gave us and that he asked that be spread and honored.

A very interesting fact about this image is that it is a totally Easter-picture of Jesus.  The posture and body language of Jesus in this image is that of our Risen Savior as He appeared to the apostles on the first Easter night, as we heard in today’s Gospel. Look closely at his face and see that he glances out at us with compassion in his eyes and invites us to believe in Him, just as He asked of Thomas to believe.

Now look at how his right hand is raised in blessing and his left hand is directing us to his heart. This speaks to us of mercy, of heartfelt compassion for us sinners. The gesture of his blessing reminds us of the action of the priest when forgiving us our sins in Confession. And this also ties in the Divine Mercy picture with today’s Gospel where we learned that Jesus gave this forgiving ministry to his apostles on that first Easter night.

Perhaps the most striking artistic feature about this image are the two bright streams or rays bursting forth from the chest of Christ. These are symbols of the blood and water that gushed forth from His pierced Heart on Good Friday. Jesus himself said that the white rays represent the new life of grace which He gives us in Baptism and the red ones are his invitation to grow more deeply in our relationship with Him through Holy Communion. They are both a sign and a reminder of his love for each one of us.

Finally, there are the words, “Jesus, I trust in you” that Our Lord wanted printed on every copy of the Divine Mercy image. Just as an artist signs his painting, so Jesus called these words His signature. This simple little prayer which we all can easily memorize sums up the entire reason and purpose of this devotion, as well as the whole theme of the Gospels: to enter into and live a deeply personal and intimate relationship with Jesus and to never allow our sins and weaknesses to interfere with this relationship. Those are his own words to St. Faustina, not mine.

Over and over again Jesus said that no one ever needs to worry or fear when it comes to their relationship with Him. We are simply to trust in His love and realize that He did everything, even to the opening up of his heart on the Cross, out of love for each one of us personally.

He declared that our sins and our past, no matter what they were, are no obstacle to friendship with Him and that it is especially in the Sacrament of Confession that He pours out His mercy and forgiveness upon us.  He said that as long as we have breath within us, we have a right to claim His mercy and no sin, no matter what it might be, is greater than his forgiving love. He even said that the greater a sinner, the greater right that person has to his mercy. Imagine that! So very different from how so many of us have been taught to think about Jesus.

So, the bottom line of this devotion, if we want it to be an expression of true religion and not superstition, is that it is a sign of and a motivation for our confident relationship with Jesus. The Divine Mercy devotion proclaims that Jesus’ love is unconditional and therefore we would be so very foolish as to have any other attitude towards Jesus than that of trust, of confidence. This is where we will find our peace and protection in these difficult days of COVID-19. So always and everywhere, and especially if we find ourselves teetering on the ledge of fear or panic, let’s think of this image of our Merciful Brother and say from the heart, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Coming to Believe

The Catholic Liturgy for Easter Sunday, Gospel: John 20:1-9. Theme: Coming to Believe…

Today's awesome celebration of Easter places before us the central truth of Christianity:  the real, historical, physical Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a strange thing, indeed, to believe that a man who was tortured, killed and buried, has risen from the dead to more a powerful, glorious and real life.

And to be honest about it, it’s impossible to take at face value.  People die and are buried. They do not then suddenly rise up out of the grave!  As a matter of fact, this claim seems so foolish that people have tried to raise objections to the Resurrection ever since it first happened. But the evidence of the empty tomb, and the eye-witness experiences of over 500 disciples for 40 days after that first Easter, is just too strong to ignore.

As we hear in today’s Gospel the tomb of Jesus was found empty about 36 hours after he was buried.  Let’s pause here for a moment and recall a bit of the backstory that leads up to this discovery.  After Jesus was removed from the cross, his mother and several disciples placed his corpse in a cave tomb. It was the evening of the Sabbath which forbid working, so they could not properly prepare his body for burial.  One of the disciples, Mary Magdalen, took notice of the tomb’s location so that she could return on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath, to complete the burial ritual.

Once she discovered that the tomb empty she ran in panic to tell Peter, the leader of the disciples and John, Jesus’ best friend. And we heard what their was reaction in today’s Gospel. You know, I think that each one of us are very much like the Peter and John on that first Easter Sunday. We have been told that Jesus is risen, but we have not seen it for ourselves. We have evidence that it could be true, but it seems so unbelievable.  And so, like them we also have to pass through a process of coming to believe…

Perhaps in this process of coming to believe we might be like John who saw the empty tomb and came to believe right away.  He had no need for further proof or evidence.  He was the only one of the twelve apostles who stood faithfully by Christ. He even followed Jesus to his trial, though at a distance, which he recorded for us in his gospel. John stood at the foot of His cross with the Blessed Mother on Good Friday even though the others had run away. His love and fidelity seems to have been rewarded with this gift of Easter faith.

But I think that most of us are more like Peter, who came to believe in a series of steps. He had witnessed all that Jesus had done, he had seen the miracles – the blind being given sight, the deaf suddenly able to hear, the paralyzed getting up and walking. But still…this news of Resurrection seemed so impossible, a bit too much!

He listened to what Mary Magdalen had to say and then he ran – not walked but ran - to the tomb to check out the evidence. He was eager to investigate. Afterwards, he went home and pondered these things. We can be sure He prayed, asking God for the grace to be able to come to believe.  And “come to believe” he did! He would go on to labor as one of the boldest preachers of the Resurrection as well as the first Pope.  And he would die a martyr himself by being crucified for his faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ!

Do we have this eagerness of Peter? His urgency to check out the evidence? His sincere desire to come to believe? Have we followed his example? Do we take up the Gospel and really ponder it with our hearts? Or do we just listen to what we have come to think of as “the same old story” Easter after Easter? Do we truly consider the eye-witness experiences that the New Testament records, taken from those who personally saw and touched and spoke and ate with the Risen Lord Jesus for 40 days?  Do we realize that these are historical facts and not simply Christian fairy tales?

Faith in Jesus, belief in reality of his Resurrection, is a supernatural gift. It is not something we can make happen, nor is it something we can purchase or earn. We can spend year after year celebrating Easter but still feel unsure, doubtful inside. We have to come to believe that there is One Who is greater than ourselves Who can overcome whatever doubts we have. And then we must take a step forward in trust, turning our lives, our minds, our hearts and our wills over to the care of this One Whom we call the Risen Lord.

He is ready and willing to touch and transform those who open their minds to the truth about who he really is… He is ready and willing to give light to those who open their eyes to the evidence that he is risen indeed…and ready and willing to works a miracle of transformation from the inside out for those who open their hearts to the power of His love.