Sunday, April 23, 2017

To Believe Thomas - Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday (The Easter Octave) (A)

A very blessed Divine Mercy Sunday to you! This is the Octave Day of Easter—a day, just as in musical octave, where the dissonance of sin is resolved by the harmony of mercy . In ancient times, too, the octave day would be a special day after a boy’s birth. On the eighth day after his birth, the boy would be circumcised. It’s a gruesome image, but the ancient Christian Fathers saw the Resurrection as the definitive new birth—and the eighth day that followed would be the definitive cutting away of the old life and the beginning of the new.

These themes play out in any Christian’s life and, as we see today, Thomas is no stranger to this. We see that he is not there when Jesus appears on Resurrection Sunday. For some reason, he must have slept in on Easter. Or, maybe after the crucifixion, he was one of those that ran away, scandalized, afraid—maybe bitter. Whatever the reason, Thomas is isolated and not with the community on Easter.

Thankfully, Thomas rejoins the community on the eighth day, the Octave Day (Divine Mercy Sunday) and Jesus appears again. This time, Thomas sees. And not only does he see, but he also gets to touch. Thomas places his finger into the side of Christ—the side that was pierced by the lance. And Thomas exclaims: “My Lord and my God!” He believes. And not only because he touched Jesus’ side. Remember what the soldier’s lance pierced—not only the side of the Christ but also the very heart of Jesus. It was from this heart that blood and water flowed down onto the head of that soldier and, in that very moment, that soldier’s doubt was converted. He too exclaims: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

Thomas’ finger, therefore, doesn’t simply touch the outer skin of Jesus. He brings his finger to the very heart of Jesus—the very font of mercy—and maybe Thomas realizes that it is beating and alive. And that may sound gross, but Jesus rose not simply spiritually, but in the flesh—and He is really alive. And He is alive to give us this mercy and to convert us from the old doubts to the new faith, the new life—actual, heart-pounding life.

*          *          *

Here is where the great irony—or, comedy—comes in. You see, Thomas believes precisely because he has seen and touched. But, really, he was supposed to believe his brothers. Peter and Andrew and John and all the rest actually saw Jesus risen on Easter night. Thomas, therefore, was guilty not only of not-believing that Jesus was risen from the dead, but Thomas also guilty because he did not believe them. That’s pretty amazing, given all that they had been through together. There was no reason to doubt his brothers, his friends. But he did.

As a result, Thomas’ doubt not only separated him from the risen Jesus, but also from the very people that he had known and loved. The spiritual translated into the geographical: Thomas was not there on Easter.

But Jesus has mercy on him and visits him when Thomas comes back to the community on the Octave day. Here’s where the irony/comedy comes in: After Thomas touches, Jesus says. “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” In other words: “Thomas, you were supposed to believe your brothers, but you didn’t. Nevertheless, I am granting you this mercy (to touch), because I want you to believe. When you go out into the doubting world, the only way that they will come to believe is if they believe you—that is: I am calling them to do the very thing that you wouldn’t do for your brothers, namely, to trust. And this is going to frustrate you, and you will know the frustration and hurt your brothers had when you refused to believe them, because why should the world believe you Will you have mercy on those that doubt when they say to you the same thing you said to your brothers? Will you have mercy on them? What will be your reason for them to trust you? Will you give them my heart to touch by giving them my mercy, my new life?"

Thomas—indeed all of the Apostles—are entrusted with a great task: not only to evangelize and to announce the risen Christ to all nations, but to be trusted. And in order for them to be trusted, the Apostles must prove themselves through a radical charity heretofore never seen on the face of the earth. The world will only believe these teachers if they are first witnesses. They will need to bring the very heart of Jesus for the world to touch. On this octave day, the dissonance of the world must be far from the harmony of Christ; the old way of life must be cut from our hearts so the new heart of Christ may urge us onwards.

*          *          *

A final note: where does this Octave take place? In the same Upper Room as the Last Supper. There, the Lord had instituted the Holy Eucharist—the very Sacrament of Charity—and in turn ordained His Apostles to be the very priests that would confect it.

One may ask: when does Jesus give them the power to forgive sins? It happens on Easter night in the same Upper Room as the Last Supper and the Octave Day. On that Easter night, Jesus appears to them and says “Peace be with you.” Remember: they had all abandoned Him, crucified Him. And here Jesus comes, not rubbing their nose in it, but saying “Peace. It’s all over. I forgive you.”

In this moment, He breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit—the very power to forgive sins. You see, the Upper Room is all one Ordination Rite: Jesus waits to give them the power to forgive until the moment when they finally know mercy. Now that they know mercy, they are now ordained and commissioned to give it.

Why do I mention this? Because Thomas was not there on Easter night. So, on the Octave, Jesus comes and does the same thing—but this time for Thomas. And not only for Thomas, but to give the other Apostles the chance, too, to forgive. You see, after Thomas puts his finger into Jesus and believes, Thomas will say to Jesus: “I’m sorry I left you.” But then Thomas will have to turn to his brothers, too, and say, “Brothers, I’m sorry I doubted you.” And in that moment, they will be able to lavish upon their brother the very mercy which they themselves had received.

This is why the best confessors are the ones who have known well the mercy of God. Indeed, the best Christians are the ones who know this mercy, too. Indeed, this is the very heart of Jesus that the world longs to touch—“will not believe until.” That is, until we have received and then give.

In only this way will the world trust and come to believe.

Will they trust you, Thomas? Have you so trusted?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New. Life. - Homily for Easter Sunday (2017)

A very blessed Easter to you and your families.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

A couple of years ago, I had the blessing to visit the catacombs in Rome. The catacombs, as you likely know, are the underground tombs where, during ancient days of persecution, Christians would not only bury their dead, but also celebrate the Holy Mass. I vividly remember the stairway as it plunged me underground. The brown darkness. The stale air and the smell of soil. The muffled sound. The tightness of the confines. Death…. It was there that I offered the Holy Mass.

After an hour or two, I came out of the catacombs and I remember the first taste of fresh air—there was a delightful hint of flowers—which I had taken for granted before I had gone underground. The sunlight was annoyingly bright (and how quickly I had become used to the darkness)! There was a sense of freedom, of openness, …

This was the memory that came to my mind as I prepared the words for today. It is, as I look back, a memory that provides a kind of microcosm of my life. There was a time when I was in a dark place, where the faith was stale and confining—and then there was a time when I began to “seek what is above”; I emerged from the world of death and began to breathe the fresh air of beauty and goodness and truth.

This is the question that all of us are faced with today: that is, at this very moment, in which place are you? Are you in the stale, dreary, lifeless kind of faith? or are you in the world above—where things are new and full of hope? How would you describe your faith right now?

And what is your expectation of Christianity in general? What is your expectation for today? Oftentimes, we expect things to continue as they are. So, if we’ve found little, we oftentimes expect little.

*          *          *

I’m sorry if I’m rambling a little bit today, but I’m really, really tired. We had the Easter Vigil last night and it was totally awesome—30 people came home to the Catholic Church! It was so beautiful. But it is also a really late night and here I am at the Mass at Dawn with you all. If you think this morning’s Mass is long, last night’s Mass lasted over two and a half hours! (And Monsignor was going at a really snappy clip, too!)

It was actually pretty funny: there was a young boy in the front pew—he was one of three to be baptized. And this young boy of about 10 has little idea that this Easter Vigil is going to clock in under three hours. And so we start Mass and it’s dark in here and we get through one reading. And then another. And two readings becomes five. And by the time we reach the homily, we’re nearing one hour!

And maybe I was imagining things, but I think I started to see him slowly—so slowly with each reading—slowly…  start… to…. lean forward….

And before he was able to get any sleep, his godparents brought him and the others to the baptismal font. And Monsignor asked them about whether they renounced Satan and believed in God and they said I do in that “hey, it’s past my bedtime” kind of voice. And then this young boy climbed into the baptismal pool—

And his eyes became wide: “Ooh!” This water's cold!

And Monsignor takes a big bucket of water and says “… I baptize you in the Name of the Father”—and pours the cold water on the boy. And he goes: “Oh—Brrrrhhrrrhrhrh!”

And before he can catch his breath, Monsignor pours more water: “… and of the Son…”—And now the young boy is laughing! Laughing not in the “this is silly” kind of way, but in the “this is totally awesome, invigorating, I don’t know else to respond” kind of way.

And by the time the third pour with the words “And of the Holy Spirit” were said, I knew what was happening. This young boy was being woken up. He was being filled with the Holy Spirit. This was a new day—a day that would never be forgotten. Shoot, I’ll never forget it. (I nearly laughed myself silly and cried at the same time. It was beautiful).

*          *          *

I say all this because at the very heart of Christianity is the belief in tremendous—miraculous!—transformation. Jesus died. He was as dead as a doornail. And then three days later, He is raised from the dead. This isn’t reincarnation. This isn’t re-animation. This is the Father filling His Son with a whole new and glorious life.

And it is totally reasonable to believe this. I mean, not only do the guys-in-power see it, but the women do too. Their voices matter-- or, at least, I think so. Of course, we may have learned something silly in college that filled us with doubt and plunged our faith into darkness. And we would have dismissed the ridiculousness of our misguided professors if but for one thing: some of us had already started to doubt the truth of Christianity. For those of us, we had begun to doubt because we didn’t see the tremendous, miraculous change in the very lives of those around us who claimed to be Christian. I mean, so what if this Jesus died and rose—what difference does that make in my life?

Let's admit it: for many of us, the life of faith, like that Easter Vigil, had grown long and tiresome. We have lost some of the eager expectation that was the hallmark of our beginnings in that faith. 

*          *          *

At the heart of Christianity is the scandalous assertion that this crucifixion-resurrection drama can play out not only in the life of Christ, but in every person who welcomes it. How many lives of the saints—men and women just like you and me—how many of their lives start in less than heroic (ok, let’s just say it: sinful!) ways? I mean, you think you and I are horrible sinners? Tell that to St. Paul or Augustine or Ignatius!

The Father of the Prodigal Son, on seeing his return, cries out: “My son was lost and is now found! He was dead and is now alive!”

Those words—we’re always using those words about ourselves and about forgiveness and so on. You see? The Resurrection not only shows us the victory of Christ; but it also reveals to us the very miraculous change of anyone who truly receives this same Jesus. You—you, dear brothers and sisters!—you were dead and are now alive!

This was the whole point of Lent. What was the reason for the season? The reason for Lent is to prepare us for New Life—to transform us from stale, dead ways to the new, fresh breath of new life.

So, for example, when we went to confession, there our Father forgave us of our sins—He freed us from all of that weight of all of that baggage we had been carrying for so long. We were given a new beginning of goodness. When we fasted, we learned about how much we take for granted and how attached we have become to things. That peanut butter and jelly sandwich after a long day’s fast—man, that never tasted so good! That fasting suddenly infused so much beauty and appreciation in something so simple as a PBJ for me. 

… And yeah, maybe your Lent was horrible—maybe you were a total failure. But do you know what? God was doing something in you there. He was making you humble. You see: we often think that holiness and salvation are totally up to us. They’re not. They are firstly up to God. After all, He says, “Without me, you can do nothing.” We don’t really believe that some times. We come up with a stellar plan for Lent and we beat ourselves up when we don’t follow through. Perhaps God is saying: “Ok, did you ask me for help? Do you really believe that you are really actually and totally dependent on me for everything?”

*          *          *

 At the end of the Lenten Season, I look up at the Cross and not only do I see Jesus, my Savior whom I love and owe everything. But at the end of the day, I also see myself. I see everything that was dark and evil and stale and dead in me—I see everything Jesus has taken and crucified. Crucified because He wants me to have a new life, a free life, a beautiful life!

*Looking at the Cross* That’s me before I emerged from the catacombs. That’s me when I was in a dark place: depressed, anxious, searching for meaning, angry, impatient, and resentful …

Amazing Grace: “I was blind, but now I see.”

I was lost but am found. I was dead, but am alive.

I am walking around right now in gold-- you in your Easter dresses and nice, crisp suits. We are all saying: "Hey, we're not in the tomb anymore!" We just have to live that-- which means that the dark parts of our lives need to go up on that Cross and truly die. Only then will we truly experience the beauty of this awesome, transforming Christianity.

The Resurrection is real, my dear friends. And not only because a couple saw it on that Easter morning. But because I have experienced it in my own life, too.

*          *          *

This is my prayer for you today: that our Father can say about us—indeed, that we can say it about ourselves: “I was lost and am now found. I was dead but am now alive!”

I want us to expect this kind of transformation from Christianity again.

I want the world to expect to see this kind of transformation from Christians again.

I pray our Lord may bring this resurrection into our life through the crucifixion of our old, stale lives of sin—I pray that our Lord may do this so that we can attest to the world the reality of our faith. I pray that we can speak this in word and in deed to all—I was dead, but am now alive!—and to proclaim this humbly yet confidently.

I want people to say not only of Jesus Christ, but of each one of us: “Wow, he is risen. He is risen indeed!”

May this be our expectation this Easter. May God grant us this New Life! Amen.