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Archive for the ‘Easter’ Category

We often approach Lent as the opportunity for a fresh start, a time to make changes in our lives, to let go of bad habits, to grow spiritually. And we approach it sort of like a liturgical marathon, with the final push to Easter taking place during Holy Week. But Easter is more than a goal or a destination. It’s a new way of life.

Today we begin a fifty-day celebration and unfolding of the great mystery of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection may have happened in a flash, but it took his closest followers a long time to understand the implications of that event.

Over two millennia later, we are still growing in this same understanding. In the early days of the church, Lent and Easter traditions grew up around the experience of those who were just being baptized into the Christian faith. In our own time, the revival of the Rite of Christian Initiation has returned to this experience. The days and weeks following Easter are a time to reflect on the experience of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

Our liturgical year follows a cycle of birth, death, resurrection, discipleship. We have seasons of penance and seasons of rejoicing. Our faith tells us that both are celebrations. What we come to realize in our own spiritual journeys, however, is that these cycles are neither mechanical nor predetermined. Like the seasons of nature, the seasons of the church year flow into one another in a swirling mix of life and death.

Father Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, shows us how the paschal mystery is not just something we celebrate at the Sunday Eucharist and in the great feast of Easter, but something that governs the very rhythm of our lives. He uses these phrases to describe the events from Good Friday to Pentecost:
1) Name your deaths;
2) Claim your births
3) Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality
4) Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing,
5) Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living.

This struck a chord with me when I first read it. It made sense to me. And it helped to make sense of things that I’d experienced in my own life and relationships. In his rephrasing, I discovered a way to connect the story of Jesus with my own story.

We are all called to do this, and maybe Easter is a good time to begin. Over the course of the past week, we’ve heard all the great stories of our faith tradition, from the very dawn of creation through the dawn of a new world on the first Easter morning. Now it’s time to discover our own story. Whether we have recently been baptized or whether we have lived all our lives in the embrace of the church, that experience shapes us.

Take some time in the next seven weeks to reflect on your faith life. You might want to use Father Rolheiser’s five steps as a starting point. What comes to mind when you think about death? About birth? What causes you to cling to the old? What scares you about trying something new? Learn to recognize the power of the Spirit blowing through your life.

Easter is not an end, but a beginning. As a community and as individuals we have much to celebrate in the coming months. Promise yourself that you will live this new life to the full.

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The Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter is almost daunting in its simplicity. Easy to say, hard to do, but absolutely essential. The night before he died, according to John, Jesus gave his disciples a single command: “Love one another.” And in many ways this sums up everything he said and did while he walked this earth. How could it be any other way when, as we say, God is love?

But what does this mean for us, his followers, some two thousand years later? As I reflected on this passage, I found myself recalling a greeting card I had seen a while ago with this quote: “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over in your lap and you won’t mind” (Irving Becker). Love changes the way we see the world. It changes the way we see other people.

It’s easy to get caught up in opinions and philosophies and who’s right and who’s wrong. This happens in politics, in religious institutions, in schools and workplaces. Remember Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us reminds us to see people first as children of God, as human beings like ourselves–flawed, yes; frustrating at times, yes; but first and foremost worthy of respect and love. When we forget this, all the good that we might accomplish is lost behind a wall of intolerance and self-defense.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple conversation with someone, learning their likes and dislikes, what they do for a hobby, whether they have children or pets, the last movie they saw, to make a working relationship more congenial, a debate over an issue less acrimonious. This is a first step.

Jesus told his followers, “Love one another.” Acts tells us that the ideal for the early community was that the pagans would know Christians by their love for one another. This love would be something so extraordinary that it would set them apart. And yet, at the beginning of the 20th century, the great Hindu pacifist Mahatma Ghandi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” And here at the beginning of the 21st century, as lines are drawn between liberals and conservatives, as fundamentalists of all faiths grow more intolerant and filled with hatred, how much farther from this ideal are we?

The command still stands: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

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Perhaps one of the most endearing images in popular religious art is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Children immediately grasp this image, indentifying with the cute lamb held in Jesus’ loving arms. In fact, this image lends its name to a method of religious education called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Based on Montessori educational methods, it encourages children to learn and grow in their faith in ways that involve their whole selves. Urban—and urbane—adults sometimes have more of a struggle with this image, setting it aside, perhaps, for more sophisticated and rational understandings of their faith, but each year during the Easter season we find ourselves once more confronting this image and reflecting on our response.

Our adult minds, filled with a misplaced pride, sometimes reject the image of the Good Shepherd because we don’t want to think of ourselves as sheep. Sheep are not particularly bright animals. Placid, vulnerable to predators, their only real defense is flocking together in a large group. If the whole group strays from a safe pasture, they’re all lost. And an individual separated from the flock is easily picked off by a wolf or coyote. The more we know about sheep, the less attractive the image is. But in our heart of hearts, we know that this is exactly how we behave sometimes. When we feel threatened, we panic. We bunch together with like-minded people in the belief that our numbers alone will make our position right. We forget that we need God’s providential care and we think that we can go it alone—but we can’t. At the most difficult times in our lives, we know that we need someone to lean on, someone to watch over us. And no one can do that better than the God who knows and loves us in our folly as well as our finest moments. It’s no accident that the psalm most often read at funeral liturgies is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When it comes right down to it, we know with every fiber of our being that we need God.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is not the product of some fussy Victorian artwork. In John’s Gospel, part of which we hear today, Jesus himself offers an extended reflection on his statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This is an image with deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, which emerged, like the Gospels, from a rural, pastoral culture in which sheep and goats provided much of the food, clothing and shelter for the people. The prophets speak of God acting as a shepherd to the people. David, he greatest king in the Old Testament, was chosen while caring for flock and was often referred to as a shepherd king. And Jesus frames the metaphor in terms of a protective love, a shepherd who risks his own life for the life of the flock. The threat of predators is very real, both for sheep and for humans.

Being a shepherd is no task for the weak. A tiny lamb is cute and cuddly, but in a very short time that lamb is heavy, strong, stubborn and unwieldy. The shepherd must be strong enough to tend the sheep, at times setting it up on end for medication, hoof trimming and shearing. But the shepherd must also be gentle enough not to frighten the sheep into heart failure. Our God takes much the same pproach with us. And so we come to reflect on the Good Shepherd with both a childlike faith and an awareness of adult dangers. It is an image of comfort, but an image of strong comfort. The words of St. Francis deSales come to mind: “There is nothing so strong as real gentleness, and nothing so gentle as real strength.”

Finally, for a contemporary look at sheep and shepherds, you might want to visit The Yeoman Farmer. I can’t have my own sheep at this time, but I’m living vicariously this year through his descriptions and pictures of his icelandic sheep.

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Today’s Gospel pulls together themes and echoes of the many stories of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee: the call of the fishermen to be the first disciples, the multiplication of bread and fish to feed the crowds, the miraculous catch of fish, the meal shared with Jesus, the breaking of the bread. These are the iconic, significant events both before and after the resurrection, and the writer of John’s Gospel shows us how the apostles needed to deepen their understanding of these events.

The resurrection indeed changed everything on a cosmic level, but Peter, John and the rest were still going out fishing in their boats. So it is with us. It takes a lifetime of living our faith to achieve a real integration of what we do in our everyday lives with what we profess on Sunday. And Jesus understands this. This is why he focused his parables and actions on the most basic aspects of the daily lives of his listeners and followers. He strove throughout his time on earth to forge this connection.

At the last supper he said, “When you eat and drink, remember me.” And in Luke’s Gospel, a stranger walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explained and interpreted the scriptures for them, but it wasn’t until he broke bread with them that they recognized him as the Lord. Here in John’s Gospel the stranger on the beach, tending a charcoal fire, patiently leads them through their memories of him and his actions and they, too, recognize him as Lord.

We also witness a most poignant meeting between Jesus and Peter. In John’s passion narrative, we last see Peter warming his hands over a charcoal fire in the courtyard, filled with fear and anger. Three times he denies even knowing the man being tried and crucified, the man he swore to give his life to defend. Back to today’s Gospel, one wonders whether the charcoal fire at dawn on the beach brought back shameful memories of this denial. Many people interpret this threefold affirmation of his love as a healing of that denial. Healed of his shame, forgiven by the very person he denied, he can go on to live the ministry to which he’s been called.

The original Greek used in this story is even more revealing. It shows us that God is always willing to meet us where we are, understanding our limitations and failings, but always encouraging us to grow in our faith. First, a little background. (Disclaimer: I’ve thus far only dabbled in Greek [my preferred biblical language is Hebrew], so I’m gleaning some of this from what I’ve read elsewhere. Feel free to clarify in the comments.) Biblical Greek has three main words for love: eros, sensuous, physical, sexual love; philia, the love of friends and brothers (think of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love); and agape, a self-sacrificing love that goes beyond emotion or any physical attraction. It was considered the highest form of love and it’s the love we see in the great saints in our tradition.

Now, back to our friends on the seashore. The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he uses agape and Peter responds with philia. In other words Jesus asks, “Will you give everything for me?” and Peter says, “Sure I’m your friend.” The third time Jesus uses philia as well, recognizing that Peter is still growing in his faith, hope and love. But all three times, he urges Peter to the very work of feeding and tending the flock that will lead him into that greater selfless love that is any Christian’s goal. Service to others is ultimately the manifestation of our love for God and for one another. Jesus knows this. Peter will learn it. So will we.

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It’s a lovely day to celebrate Earth Day. The birds are in full chorus outside my windows (open at last after all the cold and rain we’ve been having) and the rooster was awake around 4 this morning. I live as close to the natural world as I can in the middle of a big city, so environmental concerns are never far from my mind. But it’s good to take time to reflect on the way these issues are rooted in Scripture. Our Bible comes out of a culture that was far more dependent on the earth and the natural world than we are. And because of that, they were perhaps more aware of their dependence on the God who created and sustains that world.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson has this to say in a past issue of Scripture From Scratch:

A flourishing humanity on a thriving Earth in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God; such is the theological vision and praxis we are being called to in this critical age of Earth’s distress. We need to appreciate all over again that Earth is a sacrament vivified by the living Spirit of God. We need to realize that the way we are destroying it is tantamount to a sacrilege. And we need to act as members of the Earth community called to be partners with God in the ongoing creation rather than destruction of the world.

And for those who think this is a 21st century phenomenon, here’s the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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Happy Easter! The retail world has moved on to other events and is looking to the next holiday, perhaps the Fourth of July. The chocolate rabbits are long gone and we’re tired of eating hard-boiled eggs. But as a faith community we’re just beginning to unpack the mystery of the resurrection. Like any life-changing event, understanding doesn’t come instantly. And the resurrection changed not only the lives of a few people, but the nature of human reality itself. Death was no longer the end of all existence.

We have the benefit of 2,000 years of reflection and study on this idea and we still struggle to grasp it in our own lives. We come to Easter each year with new experiences and emotions that give us new insight into these events. Our faith is always growing and deepening. And so it was from the very beginning.

Today’s reading from John’s Gospel begins in the evening of that first Easter day. Confused, even frightened, by rumors flying through their small group, Jesus’ closest friends and followers are gathered in the upper room where just days before they had celebrated Passover. Like any group of people gathering in the aftermath of a tragedy, they’re consumed with the events that have taken place and the effect those events have had on their emotions. They’re just beginning to grasp the implications of the crucifixion for their own safety. Now word is beginning to spread of the resurrection. “Mary Magdalene says she’s talked to Jesus in the garden.” “I’ve seen where we laid him. He’s not there. I believe he’s been raised.” “I don’t believe it. It’s madness.” Some are sitting quietly in an out of the way corner, caught in emotions of grief tinged with both hope and disbelief, too confused to enter into the conversation.

Then, Jesus is in their midst saying, “Peace be with you.” That’s all. A blessing of deep peace. Three times in the reading he says this. Some things are beyond understanding, beyond figuring out with our rational, problem-solving minds. We know that our emotions can be untrustworthy at times, influenced by so many things. We see in the first appearances after the resurrection that faith transcends both emotions and reason. Faith responds to God’s peace with a simple acknowledgement: “My Lord and my God.”

Throughout the Easter season, readings from the Acts of the Apostles show us the young church at work in the world. Faith is a living, growing thing. We move back and forth between faith and doubt, but we keep doing God’s work in the midst of the questions.

A year ago a friend lost his father suddenly. He was not at all religious even though his parents were very active in their church. As he dealt with the deep grief of losing his father, I felt at a loss for what to say. What do you say to someone who doesn’t believe in God, who has no sense of an afterlife? I couldn’t imagine how much worse the grief must be. As he walked with his mother through her own confusion and grief, he found himself taking her to church on Sundays, seeing the support of the close-knit community, and in this experience he came to a new appreciation of faith and of God. Over time he found a measure of the Easter peace that Jesus offers his friends today. We don’t always understand these things, we just know at a deep level that they’re true.

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Sometimes when we put everything we have into anticipating a great event—planning, preparing, hoping, dreaming—the event itself can sometimes seem almost anticlimactic, as though it couldn’t live up to the hype. Brides and grooms have said this of their wedding days, when after months and months of planning every perfect detail, they have little recollection of the day itself. Easter can be a little bit like this, especially if we celebrate the great feasts of the Triduum, the three days before Easter. Holy Thursday with its commemoration of the Last Supper, Good Friday’s account of Jesus finest hour, reigning from the cross, and the Easter Vigil, recounting all of salvation history, culminating in Jesus’ great gift.

We know in our minds that we are celebrating the greatest single event in God’s covenant with his people, the triumph over death itself. But somehow we can’t wrap our understanding and emotions around something so intense, so unique, so utterly beyond our human experience. Ironically, this letdown is almost built into the Easter readings. At the heart of the Easter story is the empty tomb. The stories of the appearances will come later, unfolding the mystery of the resurrection. But the first message to the apostles is that the tomb is empty.

Somewhere in the darkness of our Easter Vigil, we must confront the empty tomb individually in fear and trembling. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb in the early hours of the morning. John and Peter go together to the tomb but each enters separately. We must do likewise. But our belief that the Christ has risen will draw us together once again into an experience of community, an experience of Church. Our response to our individual conversion is to gather with those who can share that experience and then together go out to tell our story of the Christ.

Throughout the Gospels, the apostles appear in shifting groups or more often as individuals, following Jesus and relying on his leadership to hold them together and settle their disputes. It is only the fear of the crucifixion and then confrontation of the empty tomb that gathers them together into a single group, relying on each other for protection, reassurance and support. The empty tomb compels them to rely on their faith in the stories Jesus told of the resurrection, stories they may not have heard or understood because of their individual preoccupation with success and advancement. Now they must rediscover his presence by retelling those stories and centering on him rather than on themselves. Alone none of them is able to fully comprehend the experience; together they discover new insights in a shared belief. From Easter to Pentecost, they are most often referred to as the Eleven, a sign that their identity is as a cohesive group rather than a collection of individuals. Any personal experience of the Risen Lord is marked by the command or the impulse to “go and tell the others.” Our vision of church today and into the future can take its form and character from this early community.

Just as a wedding day is followed by years of marriage, the day-to-day life of learning to live and love in a committed relationship, so Easter Sunday stretches first to the Easter Octave, then throughout the fifty days of the Easter season and into each expression of the paschal mystery in our weekly Eucharists and in our lives.

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