Three Points on a Fresh Start

El Greco St Peter keys

In our first reading at Sunday Mass, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear part of one of St. Peter’s early sermons. He explained to the people of Jerusalem the true meaning of what they had done. When they clamored in a cruel frenzy for Jesus of Nazareth’s death, they fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah–namely that He would suffer and die. Then Christ triumphed over death. So now the sinners who wrongly condemned him have the chance to repent of the evil they did. And make a fresh start. [Spanish]

In the Sunday reading from St. Luke’s gospel, we hear the Lord Jesus ordering this mission of reconciliation. Begin here in Jerusalem, where they crucified Me. Then go to the whole world, and declare: “God will forgive your sins. Repent. Choose life. Start fresh.”

God’s mercy extends beyond any limits we can imagine. He went, in the flesh, to the city full of fickle, self-centered numbskulls. He gently offered Himself there as a lamb led to slaughter. A perfectly innocent man, Who had never spoken an untrue word or done an unloving act–the perfectly innocent man offered Himself quietly. He submitted to death at the hands of desperately ignorant, cruel, maladjusted buffoons. Precisely because He loved them. He wanted only for them to have the chance to see the evil of their ways, and repent, beg mercy, and start fresh.

I have managed to get a few years under my belt now hearing confessions. And it seems to me that a fresh start is the key idea, the decisive aspect of the business. Three brief points on this.

1. No one can give him- or herself a fresh start, all by him- or herself. The fresh start has to come from God, because God alone possesses the resources to give me a fresh start, anytime and every time. I need to give myself a break, of course, and start over with myself. But without some heavenly help to do that, I can’t manage it. After all, I don’t have the skills to fix everything that I have broken.

jerusalem-sunriseGod, on the other hand, never has a day when He’s too tired, or sick of it all, or discouraged. The passing of time, and my repeated falls and weaknesses, do not deplete the Lord’s storehouse of newness. He has an infinite number of new beginnings available to deploy at any time, and He can easily fix things that to me look irreparably broken.

2. We gain access to this divine fountainhead of youthful re-invigoration by wanting to change. The men who yelled, “Crucify Him!” and the soldiers and officials who closed their eyes to Christ’s innocence: at some point they realized, through the working of their consciences, that they had participated in something truly wrong, terribly wrong. They didn’t want to live in such a dark place anymore. They didn’t want to be the men who callously crucified the Christ. So they welcomed the preaching of St. Peter, with weeping, and with hope for a better day. They knew they had done wrong, and they did not want to do wrong again.

3. I think all of this helps us to resolve a perennial Easter-season mystery. Why did the Lord Jesus appear only to a chosen group after He rose from the dead, and then vanish into heaven–without appearing openly to everyone? He could have made his victory crystal-clear and indisputable, removing all doubt. Why didn’t He?

Well, why did He become man in the first place? To astound people, as if to compete with George Lucas or Pixar Studios for the most wow-able visual moments? To prove how awesome He is–to make everyone believe? Did He come to cultivate His popularity, or get elected president, or improve His standing in opinion polls? Did He come seeking money, or comfort, or a Maserati, or a beachfront condo?

Hardly. Christ came to reconcile sinners with the Father. To reconcile foolish, malicious, selfish, lazy, weak, nasty, moody, grouchy, unrealistic, proud, deluded, egomaniacal, obtuse, snarky, judgmental, petty, gossiping, klutzy moral nincompoops. To reconcile us wiith our good, unendingly patient Creator. The only-begotten Son of God came; He died; He rose: for the forgiveness of sins. For a new beginning.

God needed nothing. He became man to give us a fresh start. That fresh start is right there, in our grasp. All it takes is: a searching, painfully honest encounter with the unvarnished truth–the truth that we and the Jerusalemites who killed Christ are in the same boat.

Right there, on our knees, weeping over the horrid things we have done–there we find Jesus, risen from the dead. And He says: Forget it. We’re starting fresh.

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The παρρησία of the Apostles and Us

El Greco Pentecost

Parrhesia. Childlike boldness in praying to our heavenly Father. And fearless boldness in bearing witness to Christ before men.

Christian boldness springs from our conviction that God has spoken His Word of love in Christ. And we—obtuse and klutzy as we are—serve that Almighty Word.

Gamaliel the Wise counseled the Sanhedrin during the first Easter season: Leave these ‘apostles’ alone. If they act out of real obedience to God, then nothing will stop them anyway. If not, then their misplaced fervor will die out on its own.

So the Sanhedrin had the Apostles flogged and released, instead of jailing them pending execution. And St. Peter and Co. rejoiced—for having the opportunity to share in the sufferings of the crucified Word of God.

This parrhesia—our bold conviction that the Gospel of Christ is altogether true; that the man who fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish is the Anointed One—this “parrhesia” is one of our Holy Father Pope Francis’ favorite things.

Pope has used the word parrhesia over and over again in his teachings. And he has dedicated an entire section to the word parrhesia in his new exhortation to holiness. Let me quote the Holy Father:

Holiness is also parrhesía: it is boldness, an impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world. To allow us to do this, Jesus himself comes and tells us once more, serenely yet firmly: “Do not be afraid.” …Parrhesía describes the freedom of a life open to God and to others…

Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite…

Parrhesía is a seal of the Spirit; it testifies to the authenticity of our preaching. It is a joyful assurance that leads us to glory in the Gospel we proclaim. It is an unshakeable trust in the faithful Witness who gives us the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar… He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! (Gaudete et Exsultate 129-135)

Then the pope quotes himself, from the speech he gave as a Cardinal, right before the conclave elected him pope.

We know that Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts. We read that in Scripture. But maybe He wants to go out “to escape from our stale self-centeredness.”

Some people find the pope controversial. A lot of people don’t. Regardless of whether we find him controversial or not, we have to hear what he is saying here. We have to let the Vicar of Christ remind us about this fundamental aspect of Christianity: Every human being searches for the meaning of life. And we cannot live in the truth ourselves if we do not take the risks necessary to form relationships with other human beings searching for the meaning of life like we are.

Especially the ones we do not want to form relationships with, because they do not presume the same things that we do. Relating to them is hard. It requires the very hard work of sincere communication. Which we can’t do without working hard at understanding ourselves. Which will ultimately lead us to the point where we have to acknowledge: we are fundamentally just as weak and clueless as any confused child.

But God loves us anyway. That is the Gospel!

Getting Religious about Christianity in Antioch, Syria

 

antiochs-map

If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father. (John 14:28)

The Acts of the Apostles shimmers with ancient place names. Lystra, Derbe, Perga, Attalia, Pamphylia. And the two Antiochs—one in Pisidia, now Turkey, and the other in… Syria.

Antioch, Syria, is where the disciples were first called… Christians. St. Peter governed the Church universal from Antioch for a time, before he sailed for… Rome.

I think we might be able to go so far as to say this: Antioch, Syria, is where Christians first got used to rejoicing that the Jesus we love has gone to the Father. Got used to the idea that Christianity is a mystery of faith. That Jesus gives us His peace through our religion, in the sacred liturgy.

We got used to the idea that we pass through this world as pilgrims. Yes, the Christians of Antioch were officially citizens of the Roman Empire, or they were members of other peoples whom the Romans had subjugated. Officially, that is, according to the Roman census.

But we Christians learned in that first generation that our true citizenship is somewhere else, in heaven. And we learned that what we do in this passing world, in this pilgrim life, fundamentally is: Wait. We wait.

We love God; we love our neighbor; we celebrate the mysteries of Jesus, with Whom we achieve great intimacy by faith. And we wait for Him to come again from the Father. Or we wait for our pilgrim lives to run their course. Whichever comes first.

Yes, we try to keep ourselves occupied doing good things in the meantime. We Christians here love Roanoke as much as the first Christians in Antioch loved their hometown, too. We pray for peace and prosperity and justice for all, even here in this earthly city.

But this is not our home. Our home is with Jesus, Who is with the Father. We rejoice that He is with the Father—and that He wills that we wind up there, too.

St. Peter, Fisherman and Priest

fishing1St. Peter figures prominently in both readings at Holy Mass today.

In the gospel reading, he announces, “I’m going fishing.” And his confreres reply, “We’ll go with you.”

Now, we might think of going fishing as a cheerful, relaxing occasion. A quiet day, away from the hustle and bustle. No Honey Do lists. Just the calming sound of water.

But St. Peter and the Apostles didn’t go fishing on the Sea of Galilee for a getaway. It meant something else to them. It meant: “Well, I guess our mission as apostles has come to an end. Let’s go back to our old way of life, and try to pick up where we left off, before we met our Teacher, Whom they crucified.” The Apostles’ fishing trip in John 21 didn’t mean relaxation; it meant disappointment, disillusionment, confusion, maybe even despair.

St. Peter’s speech in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles took place about fifty days later. And we hear St. Peter fearlessly preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem, having reclaimed his role as the heroic Prince of the Apostles.

bloody and unbloody sacrifice crucifixion massA startling change.

In the course of those fifty days, Peter and the other Apostles not only had seen the Lord risen from the dead. They also had heard His further teaching, enabling them to grasp the meaning of His Passion and death. We know that the Lord Jesus had to rise from the dead—for many, many reasons. But one reason why He had to rise was: simply to explain to the Apostles what His crucifixion and death had really meant. He had suffered no catastrophic defeat; His mission had not ended in failure. To the contrary, on the cross, He had triumphed. Omnipotent and eternal love had triumphed.

Now, we might wonder: What part of the Lord’s words at the Last Supper had the Apostles not understood? We might wonder that. But we have the benefit of hindsight, and our own years of participating in the Mass. The Mass that Christ gave to His Church on Holy Thursday offers the key to understanding His death on Good Friday. Jesus did not suffer a tragedy. He offered a sacrifice. The sacrifice by which God united Himself with all our suffering, and our own deaths, and has reconciled the world to Himself through the establishment of the new and eternal covenant.

So: What changed between St. Peter’s dejected fishing expedition in Galilee and his heroic preaching in Jerusalem? He came to understand the Mass that Christ had given him to celebrate. On Holy Thursday, Jesus had made the Apostles priests of His mystery. But it took them until Pentecost to understand that His crucifixion and death was not just a slaughter, but was in fact a mystery, the mystery of His life-giving Body and Blood, of which He had made them priests.

And when we understand this, we become true apostles, too.

What Do You Mean, We? A Quiz and Two Lessons in Honor of St. Paul’s Conversion

Who wrote the Acts of the Apostles? St. Luke.

What is the book about? The beginnings of the Church. The beginnings of the mission entrusted by Christ to us human beings who humbly put our faith in Him.

For whom did St. Luke originally write the book? For Christians who spoke Greek, which means both Gentile and Jewish converts. At that time, Greek was the language that the world had most in common.

Saint Luke
St Luke

Who are the two most significant heroes of the Acts of the Apostles—other than the Holy Spirit, of course? Saints Peter and Paul.

How many times do we read about St. Paul’s conversion to Christ in the Acts of the Apostles? Three times. St. Luke narrates the event once, in chapter 9. Then St. Luke recounts St. Paul telling the story of his conversion twice. Once before to the Jews in Jerusalem, and once before the Roman procurator, on the Mediterranean coast.

The details remain the same in all three accounts. Lord Jesus spoke from heaven to the zealous Pharisee, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

But when St. Paul told the story to his final audience, which included non-Jews, he added something. When the Lord spoke from heaven, He asked Saul about persecuting Him, and He also employed a common Greek expression to try to help St. Paul come to his senses: Saul, why do you kick against the pricks?

A yoked ox must learn to submit to the farmer. A prick, or goad, will stir an idle ox to action. But at first the ox doesn’t understand that the goad means, “Move!” So the ox kicks when pricked, instead of stepping forward. The kick just makes matters worse and exacerbates the pain. The ox has to learn that the prick means, “Step forward, dummy!”

Let’s take a lesson from Lord Jesus saying this to the young Paul. A farmer driving an ox knows more about what’s good for the ox than the ox does. Likewise, God knows more about what’s good for us than we do, left to our own devices. We prosper when we submit to God and obey Him.

Second, let’s take a lesson from St. Luke writing the Acts of the Apostles the way he did. Submission to God involves participating in the living, breathing institution that Jesus founded when He was on earth.

One thing St. Paul never thought was, “My relationship with God is my own independent, personal business.” He knew that he needed to belong to the People of God. The question was, “Who is the we? Who are we, the People of God?”

The answer he got: the one, visible Church founded by Jesus, presided over by St. Peter and his successors in office. An institution full of foibles, to be sure. But united nonetheless by the divine Gift, the Holy Spirit of Christ.

conversiononwaytodamascuscaravaggio

 

Early-Christian Witnesses

“You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48)

Anyone visited Jerusalem?  The Sea of Galilee?

Two thousand years might seem like a long time.  But:  the places where the Apostles saw Christ after His resurrection–those places still look a lot like they did 2,000 years ago.

galilee
At the Sea of Galilee in ’08

The Romans burnt and destroyed Jerusalem during the two centuries after Christ, but the city got re-built much like it had been.  The famous Western Wall of the Temple still stands.  The sites in Jerusalem that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, like Solomon’s portico, lay buried in ruins now.  But it is not difficult to imagine them as they were, because the Old City is fundamentally the same city as the Jerusalem of Christ.

In the grand scheme of things, 2,000 years is not a long time.  It may very well be that 2,000 years is just the beginning of the beginning of the history of the Church.  For all we know, Lord Jesus won’t return in glory for another 100,000 years or more.

We ourselves will long since have vanished from the earth by then, of course.  They’ll have gotten up to the iPhone 750 by then.

But my point is:  We really ought to think of ourselves as early Christians.  Christians who find ourselves relatively close to the time of the New Testament.

Christ coming to the Upper Room on Easter evening.  St. Peter standing on the Temple steps, preaching after Pentecost…These things are not really ancient history.  Truly ancient events include the discovery of fire and the invention of pizza by the Egyptians.  The New Testament, on the other hand, counts very much as news.

People like to gossip about the news, of course.  So, if we’re going to gossip, let’s gossip about things like how St. Peter must have felt when, after getting Christ back in the resurrection, he had to say goodbye to the Master again, forty days later, at the Ascension.  Or, if we’re going to speculate about other people’s private conversations, let’s speculate about the conversations over supper in St. John’s household, after the Blessed Mother came to live there.

The Easter happenings did not happen so long ago; we are not far away from them.  We are plenty close enough to count ourselves as witnesses.

Not Owning It

Barnabas…sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles. (Acts 4:36-37)

Re-birth from above involves letting go of worldly possessions and putting them entirely into the hands of their true owner, which is God.

Martyrdom of St. Barnabas
Martyrdom of St. Barnabas
Barnabas had a large estate. People in those days, just like us, thought of a large country estate as the ultimate possession. You could go there and control everything–have peace and quiet, escape the noisy demands of all the rabble in the city. A man with a large estate enjoyed true “independence,” or so everyone thought in the days of the Roman empire.

But Barnabas discovered something. He did not want independence. He didn’t want to be a powerful man who controlled everything in his life and could keep the dirty people away from him.

He wanted just the opposite. He wanted to live in a tent with St. Paul. He wanted to eat simple meals with the poor and teach them about Jesus Christ.

Barnabas knew he could never be satisfied with a comfortable life, because even his great riches seemed paltry compared to the joy of living as one of the brothers who followed in the footsteps of Jesus. Even a vast estate on a Mediterranean island seemed lame compared to heaven. Barnabas chose Christian friendship over wealth. True friendship is worth more than all the money in the world.

St. Catherine of Siena* followed in these same footsteps. She gave up the marriage to a wealthy man which her parents had planned for her. She, too, did not want a “comfortable” life on earth. She preferred to live like Barnabas. She found happiness with the bare minimum of food, clothing, and shelter, so that she could focus on helping other people turn to God.

However it is that the Lord has planned for us to serve Him in this pilgrim life, we can only find our way by recognizing this fact: Everything we have really belongs to God. He has put it all into our hands for one reason: So that we can have the true joy of sharing it with others.

_________________________
* who died 634 years ago today

St. Paul’s Perspective and Ours

When St. Paul spoke in Athens, he referred to the one, true God, Whom no pagan image can represent. The true God does not need our service. Rather, He freely gives us all that we have and are. He has made the whole world and the entire human race. He is everyone’s God, the only God.

St. Paul appealed to the fact that everyone, somewhere within him- or herself, knows this God. God is, after all, closer to every individual human being than he is to himself.

Continue reading “St. Paul’s Perspective and Ours”

Gamaliel Speaks

Today we read from the Acts of the Apostles the wise words of Gamaliel the Pharisee. Perhaps we could say that this episode illuminates an aspect of our current situation as Catholics today.

The Apostles’ insistence on proclaiming the Gospel had infuriated the members of the Sanhedrin. This ruling body had ordered the Apostles to keep quiet, but St. Peter and Co. flouted the order. Up in arms over this open disobedience, the Sanhedrin wanted to execute the Apostles.

Then Gamaliel spoke with calm humility.

We do not read here that Gamaliel believed the Apostles’ message. Nonetheless, the rabbi insisted on acknowledging the fundamental fact that God is, after all, a higher authority than the Sanhedrin is.

God—not the Sanhedrin—guides the course of history. The Sanhedrin has the duty to preserve order and the public good. But the ruling body does not sit in judgment over the mysterious plan of God. No human legislature can claim to understand fully the counsels of the Almighty.

We Catholics look around us for friends, not enemies. We have countless neighbors who do not share our faith. Our nation has plenty of leaders who do not believe in Christ or in His Church.

But anyone who has the humility to acknowledge the sovereign authority of God, like Gamaliel did; anyone who sees that human government has a highly limited scope and strictly circumscribed responsibilities; any God-fearing American, in other words—such a person is our friend, our ally in the cause of seeking the common good by open discussion and debate.

On the other hand, God forbid that we find ourselves in the other possible situation. God forbid that the reins of our nation be taken completely into the hands of blind guides who do not see that God alone rules history.

As Gamaliel put it, arrogant human authorities can and do run the grave risk of fighting against God. We Catholics are prepared to suffer persecution, if it comes to it, because our hope lies in heaven, not here on earth. But we love everyone around us too much ever to want such a thing to happen. May it please God to keep our nation at peace and spare us the hard lot of being a country at war with Providence Himself.

Keystone Cops in Jerusalem

The Sanhedrin officiously dispatched their court officers. The armed guards made their sword-jangling way to the jail—only to find that the incarcerated Apostles had mysteriously gone missing from behind locked gates. They marched back to the chamber and bumbled through their report.

A Keystone Cops episode in ancient Jerusalem. The angel of God managed to turn the jealous and hateful Sadducees into the Three Stooges.

Meanwhile the intrepid Apostles took their place to tell people about this life. The angel told them to. “Take your place, and tell people everything about this life.” The Lord gives us the same instruction. Take your place. Tell people everything about this life.

Okay. Take my place. Do I know what my place is? The place where God wants me to be?

Sometimes this question can get tricky. But if I start with: He wants me right here, right now; He wants me in His Church; He wants me to be faithful to the duties I have undertaken; He wants me doing good and avoiding evil—if I start with these immediate basics, then the question of where I belong can become less intimidating.

This question has crucial importance of course—the place I am to take. After all, telling people everything about this life is not an easy job.

First of all, we need to know which people to tell. With seven billion people in this world, neither you nor I can tell them all. When each of us takes his or her place, though—then we find the people we are supposed to focus on. At which point we then proceed to tell them everything about this life.

This life with God. This life of hope and love. This life of giving ourselves over to help others.

This life aimed at something greater than the world offers. This life that demands self-sacrifice and mortification of the flesh. This life that promises the only real blessedness—the blessedness of virtue, holiness, and eternal life.

How could we possibly tell people everything about this? After all, St. John reports in his gospel that the world could not contain all the books that could be written about the glorious works of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But we can make a start. Maybe we can obey the angel’s instruction by telling all the people we know that the best place for them to take would be a seat in church with us. We don’t claim to know God’s will for everyone. But we know this much: We love everybody, and we want everybody in our Church with us.