March 21, 2016

This issue, we continue our journey toward Easter and beyond by reflecting on the daily readings for Holy Week and the First Week of Easter in the spirit of the Year of Mercy. Lent, Pope Francis says, is "a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God's mercy."

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Like Peter, we may face trials of persecution

March 22: Tuesday in Holy Week

Isaiah 49.1-6 | Psalm 71 | John 13.21-33, 36-38

'Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.'

John 13.37

It is one thing to say that one will lay down his or her life for the Lord. It is quite another to do it. We criticize Peter for his impulsiveness and his cowardice. Having rashly promised to give his life for Jesus, mere hours later, he denied him three times.

Yet, do not forget that, once Peter received the Holy Spirit, he lived "in Christ" for decades before he finally did receive the grace of martyrdom.

We too are moving into difficult times for people of faith. The future is unclear, but it appears more and more likely that Christians will be persecuted for their faith.

Am I open to accepting the grace needed to endure persecution? How committed am I to standing up for both moral truth and the truths of the Christian faith? Do I know what those truths are? How would I defend them?

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Insult and spitting mark one's soul

March 23: Wednesday in Holy Week

Isaiah 50.4-9 | Psalm 69 | Matthew 26.14-26

'I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.'

Isaiah 50.6

Jesus knew humiliation. In fact, this is where the Mel Gibson movie fell short. It showed in relentless detail the incredible physical pounding that Jesus took.

What is not so easy for a movie to display is the internal, psychological pounding of being laughed at, spat upon and held up for ridicule that was part of the torture Jesus underwent. The external is easier to show than the internal.

Every person has had to accept at least a minor level of humiliation. Often, the humiliation doesn't show on the outside. But the insult and spitting leaves its mark.

If one is to love Jesus, can that be done by standing beside those who are publicly shamed? The humiliation others experience is not always apparent. But by discerning it and supporting the shamed person - even those who have done wrong - one also stands alongside Jesus as he makes his way to Golgotha.

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Jesus reached the heart by washing disciples' feet

March 24: Holy Thursday

Exodus 12.1-8, 11-14 | Psalm 116 | 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 | John 13.1-15

'The devil had already put into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him.'

John 13.2

St. John, by linking the heart and the feet in this Gospel story, draws us into the centre of spiritual warfare. Judas' heart had already been defiled. So Jesus turns to the feet of the disciples and washes them with the ever-flowing water of eternal life.

If I wash your feet, Jesus tells Peter, I do not need to wash the rest of your body. The feet carry life's burdens - the blisters, the smell, the dirt and the fatigue.

When my wife Nora and I walked the Camino de Santiago for 850 kms through France and Spain last fall, it was our feet to which we gave the greatest attention at the beginning and at the end of each day. We soaked them and covered them with foot balm so they would be soft and less likely to blister.

Jesus loved his disciples "to the end." By caring for their feet, by loving them where they were grimiest and most vulnerable from the toil of daily living, Jesus reached their hearts. He drove out Satan.

Yet while Jesus' love is all powerful, he will not trump our freedom.

Peter backed away from this love, and his reticence was magnified later when he denied Jesus. We do not hear how Judas reacted to the foot-washing.

Will I let Jesus relieve me of the burdens of the day by washing my feet? Will I let him touch my heart?

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Through suffering and death, Jesus entered exalted places

March 25: Good Friday

Isaiah 52.13-53.12 | Psalm 31 | Hebrews 4.14-16; 5.7-9 | John 18.1-19.42

'See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.'

Isaiah 52.13

Of all the passages in the Bible, this reading from Isaiah is, to my mind, the strongest evidence of the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

Where did Isaiah get this notion of a suffering servant and write at such length in a way that so clearly - and against all the tendencies of Jewish thought - foreshadowed Christ's Passion and death? The prophet could only have been working from divine inspiration.

How could Isaiah have come to see that by being "despised and rejected by others; [by being] a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity," the servant would be "exalted and lifted up"?

Yet, there is the core of the Gospel. Through his suffering and death, not only was Christ lifted up, but we too are exalted into the heavenly spaces.

In our world that esteems comfort, wealth and prestige, this is the hardest thing to wrap one's head around, to wrap one's entire life around. "He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God" (2 Corinthians 13.4). Christ's glory comes not with fireworks and trumpet blasts, but in the ignominy of the cross.

What does that mean for me, not just on Good Friday, not just in Lent, but every day of the year?

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Holy Saturday a day for feeling God's absence

March 26: Holy Saturday

'Something strange is happening - there is a great silence on the earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the king is asleep.'

Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday

Every year, I feel that we move a little too quickly from the sorrow of Good Friday to the joy of Easter. We need Holy Saturday, not for baking and decorating, but to feel the absence of the Lord.

Christ has died, and we need to reflect on what that death means and to grieve his loss.

Christ goes down into Hades to set the prisoners free. But for us, he is absent. A huge hole has been left. Hope seems to have been abolished.

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, "No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point." Today, the Infinite has been taken away; the finite is without meaning. Today, without anticipating the resurrection, just feel what Sartre wrote. Feel what your existence is like when the finite is without meaning, when there is no infinite reference point.

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Raised with Christ, we can experience glory of the Lord

March 27: Easter

Acts 10.34, 36-43 | Psalm 118 | Colossians 3.1-4 | John 20.1-8

'If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above."

Colossians 3.1

For a few years in my youth, I was away from the Church, experiencing at length my own Holy Saturday with Jean-Paul Sartre.

When God broke through to me, I was thunderstruck by the power and the beauty of God's word. That first Easter, I was an awe-struck participant in all the Triduum liturgies, including both the Easter Vigil and the Sunday Mass.

Of all the readings in those liturgies, it was that little one from Colossians that touched my heart the most. I, we, have been raised with Christ. It was not just an event for one man who lived 2,000 years ago. His resurrection is our resurrection - in part in this world, and in fullness at the end of time.

The "things on earth" are of no avail; they glitter and have their appeal. It is in "the things that are above" that we find true life. That life comes in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. All we can do is live it. Live that life through prayer, spiritual reading, study and serving the most vulnerable.

Experience the glory of the Lord. Live in the joy that comes from "the things that are above."

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Resurrection party was set for Galilee

March 28: Monday In Easter Week

Acts 2.14, 22-33 | Psalm 16 | Matthew 28.8-15

'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'

Matthew 28.10

Jesus, in my imagination, says these words with excitement to the women who have come from the tomb. I see him grabbing their arms with his hands and saying with great conviction, "See, it is all over. All the turmoil and rejection and suffering have had their day. Now, the victory has been won."

The victory party will be held in Galilee; a point so important that Matthew feels compelled to report it twice within four verses.

Galilee is the homeland, the place far from the centres of worldly and religious power where Jesus' life and ministry had their beginnings.

This will be a different sort of party, one more exalted, on a different level, than the parties that Jesus had with Zacchaeus and with the Pharisees and with others during his public ministry.

This is getting closer to the heavenly banquet: "There is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new" (2 Corinthians 5.17). Jesus is inviting us. Will we go to Galilee?

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The first proclaimer of the resurrection

March 29: Tuesday In Easter Week

Acts 2.36-41 | Psalm 33 | John 20.11-18

'Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.'

John 20.11

Mary Magdalene is standing, weeping, outside. She has not yet understood; she has not experienced Easter joy. She does not recognize Jesus; she does not even listen to his question, "Why are you weeping?"

Once she "turns around," but still does not recognize Jesus. Only when he speaks her name does Mary "turn" again and call out "Rabbouni!" After that moment of recognition, she goes forth to announce, "I have seen the Lord."

Mary is the first proclaimer of Christ's resurrection.

Belief in the resurrection goes against the grain. We too might have to "turn" several times before we apprehend the truth of the resurrection. Once we have seen it, will we be so bold as to go forth and proclaim, "I have seen the Lord"?

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For Luke, Jews and Christians are one family

March 30: Wednesday In Easter Week

Acts 3.1-10 | Psalm 105 | Luke 24.13-35

'We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.'

Luke 24.21

Luke is a marvellous storyteller, and his account of the disciples and the risen Lord walking the road to Emmaus is perhaps his best. It deserves to be read and relished for the moving account that it is.

Yet, because the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders have had such bad press, it needs to be pointed out that in this account, Luke emphasizes the continuity between Israel and the Christian community.

The disciples say that it is "our" chief priests and leaders, not "their," who handed Jesus over to be crucified. When they tell the still-unrecognized Jesus that some women say he has risen, Jesus says they are slow to believe the prophets. He then interprets the Hebrew Scriptures to show that they are fulfilled through the cross and resurrection.

Above all, the disciples were shown at the beginning of the story as walking away from Jerusalem. Once they had recognized Jesus as Lord, they went, not to Galilee, but right back to the centre of Jewish life.

Matthew's and John's Gospels have been misused for centuries to portray Jews as Christ-killers and to justify anti-Semitism. Luke tells a different story, one where Christians and Jews make up one family.

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Even risen Christ has flesh and bones

March 31: Thursday In Easter Week

Acts 3.11-26 | Psalm 8 | Luke 24.35-48

'Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.'

Luke 24.39

This little story of Jesus appearing to the disciples is one of the clearest affirmations that, even after his resurrection, Jesus still shares our bodily humanity. It is an obvious reference to Genesis 2.23 where God creates the first woman, and the man exclaims, "This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!"

Now, the risen Lord also has human flesh and bones, assuming them into heaven when he ascends there a few verses later . . . after eating a piece of broiled fish.

The Easter reading from Colossians (3.1) should be read in light of this text. Being raised to heaven does not mean abandoning humanity and the earth. Rather, human flesh and bones are one with God in the heavenly places.

It is a point St. Paul also made when he wrote, "We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8.23).

Christians, in short, should not despise their bodies, but treat them with respect. Jesus himself went bodily into heaven.

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Peter, in baptismal robes, plunges into the water

April 1: Friday In Easter Week

Acts 4.1-12 | Psalm 118 | John 21.1-14

'When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.'

John 21.7

Really? Did a naked Peter really put on all his clothes and jump into the sea when he realized the Lord was present?

Some commentators go to great lengths to avoid this unusual picture of a grown man getting fully dressed before leaping into the sea to get soaking wet. But let's accept it as told. What could it mean?

It could mean that Peter had lost everything through his betrayal of Jesus and that, having now recognized the Lord, he put on the new robes of rebirth through Baptism before plunging into those baptismal waters. His old self has died and a new self is born when Peter takes the plunge.

That plunge will have major consequences. Peter will feed the Lord's sheep and, when he is old, he will suffer martyrdom. Recognizing the Lord has consequences much more significant than going for a dip while fully clothed.

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Even after resurrection, Mark shows disciples as dimwits

April 2: Saturday In Easter Week

Acts 4.13-21 | Psalm 118 | Mark 16.9-15

'He upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.'

Mark 16.14

St. Mark consistently portrays the disciples as dimwits who fail to understand everything that Jesus says and does. This Gospel story - in the view of most Scripture scholars, added after the fact to at least get some mention of the resurrection into Mark's Gospel - shows that theme continuing after Christ is risen.

We do need to hear this. Even after the most important event in world history, those closest to Jesus still fail to believe.

Here we are in the 21st century with brilliantly-designed religious education programs, but with religious faith collapsing. There are numerous dedicated witnesses to that faith, but even their example only rarely makes converts.

What about me? Do I fail to follow Jesus all the way? Or, am I lukewarm because I stubbornly put my own ideas above those of Jesus?

(End of this series of reflections)