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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We Believe in God-Christ-Mass

st albans psalter road to emmaus

When the Lord Jesus walked with Cleopas and the other disciple on the way to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, He chided them for their lack of faith.  “How foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe!”

[Click por Spanish: Tercer Domingo de Pascua 2017]

How foolish and slow of heart to believe. Let’s check ourselves against these words of Christ. What did He mean, when He criticized these disciples like this?

To believe means to trust, to accept completely.  We humble ourselves before the One in Whom we believe.  We submit ourselves to Him as His defenseless children.

When we believe in God Almighty like this, we achieve our true nobility as creatures made in His image and likeness.  If we put our deepest trust in anyone or anything else, other than God, we will be betrayed.  We cannot entrust ourselves with this kind of faith to another human being, or group of people, or gadgets or computers or anything else.

And, if we are not foolish and slow of heart, we believe also in God’s Christ.  We believe in the Son sent by the heavenly Father.  By virtue of our faith in God, we can behold Christ, our brother, for Who He truly is, the God-man.

holymassThe Christ offered Himself, in the sacrifice of pure divine love, for our sakes, on the cross. Then He rose from the dead. And He took His seat in the glory of heaven, where He reigns as High Priest and King. We do not hesitate to trust this King of Love as our true God, and to rely on Him completely.

Not only that.  We Christian believers, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, recognize this Christ in the breaking of the bread.

Our faith, therefore, involves a series of unbreakable connections, when it comes to what we believe in. 1) We believe in Almighty God, our Creator. 2) To believe in God is to believe in Christ.  And 3) To believe in Christ is to believe in the Mass.

The Church did not make up the Mass; Christ made up the Mass, and by doing so, He made the Church.  The Church did not make up the sacred priesthood; Christ made up the sacred priesthood, and by doing so, He made the Church.  The Church did not say ‘This is my Body,’ and ‘This is my Blood;’ Christ said ‘This is my Body,’ and ‘This is my Blood,’ and by doing so, He made the Church.

He gathered His Apostles, entrusting His divine Body and Blood to them by His infallible words, and then He offered that same Body and Blood on the cross.  His own words make clear the inseparable connection between the Mass and the cross:  “This is my Body, which will be given up for you;” “This is my Blood, which will be shed for you.”

In other words, to believe in the Mass is to believe in the Redemption, and to believe in the Redemption is to believe in the Holy Mass.  The Mass and the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus are the same thing.  The Church did not make this up; Christ made this up, and in doing so, He made the Church.

If we really think about it, we see that we need the Mass in order to understand the real meaning of Jesus’ Passion and crucifixion. That’s precisely what the dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus did not yet grasp.

They thought that Jesus’ condemnation and death involved a terrible tragedy. They didn’t realize that it was a sacrifice, the sacrifice of divine love. They thought their beloved rabbi had suffered a crushing defeat. They didn’t realize that, on the cross, love triumphed; Jesus gave Himself to the Father, for us, with perfect love. Christ’s crucifixion involved neither tragedy nor defeat, because He freely gave Himself in sacrifice as the consummate act of love.

We can begin to understand all this only when we see that Jesus’ offered Himself in sacrifice at the Last Supper, and on the Cross, and this is the sacrifice of the Mass: all together it is one sacrifice, Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice of true religion.

Pope St. John Paul II put it like this:

The sacrifice of our redemption is so decisive for the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it, as if we had been present there.

So: No, not foolish or slow of heart to believe; no. To the contrary: Lord, we believe! We believe in God Almighty.  We believe in His Christ.  We believe in the Mass.

Ten-Point List of Easter-Season Instructions

Everyone knows who wrote Acts of the Apostles? I mean, besides God. The human author. Right! St. Luke.

So: not only do our first reading and gospel for Holy Mass on Ascension Day have the same human author, but also: the two readings form one continuous passage from St. Luke’s work. We just read them in reverse order. Our gospel reading comes from the end of St. Luke’s first book. And our reading from Acts is the beginning of his second.

St Luke
St Luke
We read from Acts 1, “In my first book, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day He was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles.”

“The day He was taken up.” What day was that? Today! Ascension Day.

A day of transition: The transition between St. Luke’s first book and his second. The transition between Christ’s ministry to the human race on earth, and His ministry to the human race from heaven.

He made us essential to His ministry from heaven. We read that, for forty days prior to his transition from earth to heaven, the Lord Jesus gave instructions to His apostles. For the forty days after He rose from the dead, Jesus remained on earth, instructing.

Do we know exactly what those instructions were?

Yes and no. We can’t exactly download the podcast. For us to know and understand the instructions Christ gave during the original Easter season, we need the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Only when we get to heaven, please God, will we fully know and understand everything.

But let’s speculate a little, about the instructions He gave. What if He rendered them in the form of a ten-point list?

1. My friends, you saw Me die. But I live. When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.
2. Break the bread, in memory of Me.
3. Do not be afraid.
4. Gird your loins, and light your lamps, for you do not know when the final hour will come.
5. Sell what you have, and give to the poor, and 6. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
7. Love one another.
8. Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
9. Rejoice and be glad! Your names are written in heaven.
10. Be good to your mom.

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.

The Messiah We Actually Got

st albans psalter road to emmaus

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35)

On the way… Where? On the road to… Emmaus.

The two disciples moped along, downcast and directionless. Jesus had been crucified. His body had gone missing. And these two disciples did not understand. Then, on the road, they met a mysterious stranger who wanted to know what was eating them.

“We thought he would redeem Israel. But now our hopes are dashed.”

The stranger replied, “Seems to me you have missed something crucial here. Have you never read Isaiah 52 and 53? Psalm 22, 34, and 69? Exodus 12? Wisdom 2? Zechariah 12?

“What kind of Messiah did you think was going to come? Was the Messiah going to redeem Israel without uniting Himself with the suffering of His people? Without offering Himself as the truly pleasing sacrifice to the Father? Without establishing the religion of the new and eternal covenant?

“After all, the blood of bulls and goats does not atone for sins. Man, left to his own devices, stands helpless before inevitable death. Something that overcomes the separation between man and God had to happen.

“God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways not our ways. Human beings see crucifixion as the most shameful death imaginable. Human beings see what happened on Good Friday as discouraging, depressing, totally dispiriting. But God can turn a wooden cross into a gilded throne. God can turn heartbreak into triumph.”

tabgha loaves fishes multiplication mosaicThen the stranger proceeded to break bread with the disciples, and… Whoa! He has risen from the dead! And He’s right here! And what were we worried about?!

So the two disciples ran back to Jerusalem to tell everyone else. These two disciples, who had despaired only hours earlier, were probably saying things like, “The heavenly Father has turned the Master’s cross into a throne of glory. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The grave could not hold Him, and He can turn bread into His immortal flesh!”

The two probably went on and on like this, and St. Peter was saying, “Yes, I saw Him, too,” and the rest of them were like, “Sure, guys. Sure. Maybe you need to get your heads examined…” Then:

‘Peace be with you, my lads.’

OMG. It’s a ghost!

‘No. Touch the wounds. Touch the nail-marks.

“And, listen, give me some food. Getting crucified, and then rising from the dead, makes you hungry.”

What kind of savior do we think we want? Do we want some pure spirit who has nothing to do with the trials and tribulations of our human pilgrimage? Do we want an ideal for a savior? Or a theory?

Or do we want some kind of human “savior” that grows up in a mansion and goes to Harvard? The kind that wins lots of prizes during an illustrious career and then retires to Cabo San Lucas? The kind that everybody feels comfortable with? So comfortable that, when he is confronted by contradictions and threats, he backtracks in a heartbeat, saying “Oh, no, when I said the Pharisees were a hypocritical brood of vipers, I didn’t mean you…”

No.

I think we want a Messiah Who grew up a carpenter, suffered heroically for His beloved friends, conquered death by dying for the truth, and reigns supreme in a realm too sublime for us even to imagine.

That’s the real Messiah, foretold by the prophets, attested to by the Apostles, who lives with us in the breaking of the bread. The Messiah we never could have foreseen. But Who–now that He has done what the prophecies declared He must do–certainly is the best Messiah possible, the only Messiah possible, our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Emmaus Word

“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know of the things that have just taken place there?” –What things do you mean? (Luke 24:18-19)

st albans psalter road to emmaus

In addition to all His other enchanting qualities, the Lord Jesus has a perfect sense of humor. ‘What things to you mean? …Oh, you mean when I rode into the city as the Prince of Peace, only to be betrayed? You mean when a skeleton-crew Sanhedrin convicted me of blasphemy in the middle of the night? You mean when the Roman procurator staved-off a riot by letting the centurions scourge and crucify Me? You mean all that nonsense?

‘Seems like ancient history to Me now. I’ve literally been to hell and back since then. I’ve already seen Mary Magdalen…

‘Wait a minute, you men don’t believe the ladies who went to the tomb and say that it is empty? Don’t believe them? And why not? When was the last time you knew better than they? How about never?’ Continue reading “Emmaus Word”