Third Sunday of Easter

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:13-19; 1 Jn 2:1-5a; Lk 24:35-48

In today’s gospel we see a typical pattern: the Emmaus story is implied and from that we see the pattern that we are living out right now: First Jesus instructs—indeed “opens their minds”—through the scriptures. This arouses affection. Then we give thanks and eat, i.e. nourish ourselves.  The instruction is to-the-point: The Messiah will suffer; He will be raised; we must proclaim repentance for forgiveness of sins.  We Christians live out a story in which we have the answer before we know the questions. The answer is “Christ;” what is the question?  We don’t know what our predicament is until we know what it took to save us.  Why did it take the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection to save us?  

It took the Incarnation because we needed a flesh-and-blood example of what it is to live for God alone.  This is what we are made for and living for something else leaves us confused, bitter, alienated, and at odds with one another.  We end up living lives of avoidance.  We live to avoid the upsetting experiences that breed resentment, and confusion.  We were made to live toward an Ultimate End. So, the answer is Christ.

This restlessness, alienation, and rivalry is very important to understanding why the Messiah had to suffer, why it took the crucifixion to save us. Faith lets us transcend our environment, the events of our lives. It doesn’t spare us misfortune or the upsetting. By faith such events do not have the last word.   We need to be saved from “the peace that the world gives.”  This is the peace that comes from easing our unrest through self-indulgence or finding someone to blame and then driving them out.  Having disposed of “the problem,” peace –temporary, but palpable- returns to the community.  This is precisely what happened to Jesus.  “Pilate knew it was out of envy that they handed Jesus over.”  We need to be saved from looking somewhere else for the solution to our “restless hearts.”  We are commanded to love God and neighbor and finding someone to blame for the dissatisfaction in our lives is an obstacle to this.  The very act of blaming, of scapegoating, is one of avoidance.  We want to avoid facing up to our poverty, which at times we experience intensely because of our deep admiration for the perfect goodness of God. So, the answer is Christ.

 We see intimations of that in others.  Then we compare; comparison is the mother of pride.  We compare our insides to their outsides, our raw meat to their defenses and we come off badly.  We resent: we try to bring them down to our level or lower.  It all seems depressing…well… hopeless.

And that is why it also took the resurrection to save us. It gives us hope.  The Messiah had to suffer, be raised, and then the disciples received unasked-for forgiveness to which they responded with repentance.  Having experienced this forgiveness, they were to go forth and proclaim it.  First, they were forgiven, then they repented.  Don’t we usually repent first and then are forgiven? Yes!  And it is that very promise of forgiveness that makes our repentance possible.  And for that forgiveness to attract us we must renounce resentment and practice its opposite: admiration.

The experience of forgiveness is the good news we are given to spread: “It happened to me; it can happen to you!”  It gives hope; it directs repentance toward.  Most of all, it keeps us ever mindful that we are receivers; we are ever indebted.  It is this thought that drives our monastic life: on that to which everything is owed, everything must be spent. So, the answer is Christ.

 

Third Sunday of Easter

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:13–15, 17–19; 1 John 2:1–5; Luke 24:35–48

“While I was still with you.” Only someone who is resurrected from the dead could have said that. Only someone who knows resurrection from the inside could say, so naturally and without further comment, “While I was still with you,” at the same time that “he stood in their midst.” As Jesus said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as he was walking with them he had already “entered into his glory.” A resurrected person is both a presence and an absence. No one who did not know what it was to be raised from the dead could have invented that passing remark, “While I was still with you.” It is the true word of the Risen One.

But he had already hinted at this when he was still with them, in the Gospel of John when he said, “because I was with you,” as if he already were not with them though he clearly was (16:4). The disciples of Emmaus recognized him and he vanished, all in the same instant. “It is the Spirit,” says the 12th-century Cistercian abbot Guerric, “who bears witness in” our hearts and on our lips “that Christ is the truth, the true resurrection and the life.” “It is better,” he says “to know Jesus in your heart than to see him with your eyes or to hear him talk” because “the Spirit makes a much deeper impression on the interior man than material things make on the exterior senses” (Guerric, Pasch 1.4). “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice,” and they remembered their burning hearts, and in today’s Gospel spiritual joy anticipates and even forestalls the assent of faith.

The Risen Lord is with us always. His mode of presence is his Spirit: “You will no longer see me, but . . . the Spirit of truth will take from what is mine and declare it to you”; the Spirit is the Peace that the Risen Lord breathes upon, gives to, and leaves with his Church and that will teach and remind her of everything: “Peace I leave with you.”

The Gospel passage we heard today from Saint Luke is really giving a description of the Christian Eucharist. Christ is in the midst; he gives a greeting of Peace; there is forgiveness of sin, there is anamnesis orremembering, the Breaking of Bread, and minds are opened to understand the Scriptures. There is, finally, the conferral of a vocation—witness, the dismissal, and the mission to all the nations. But all of this is the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, the spirit of truth, the attraction of love, the advocate of the poor.

When Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, he did this in the context of a community, the Church, a community that in fact had given birth to those Scriptures and was committed to living by them. There is a profound unity, then, between what is understood and the mind that understands. For us to understand the Scriptures with a mind opened by the Spirit of the Lord is not only to know the Lord who is Spirit but to know ourselves, too, in him; and is not this perhaps—this leap and insight into a radical and true self-knowledge—that is meant by “forgiveness of sin”; where sin is simply living in a lie, in disobedience to the Truth, in refusal to believe and receive the Gift of God that is within us as our true self?

Let’s understand this in the way Paul puts it: there is the Law that kills, and the Spirit that gives life (2 Cor 3:6). The true meaning of the Scriptures is an open mind to the forgiveness of sins issuing in spiritual freedom; it is a freedom that is joyful but also dangerous with the shape of the martyr, which is what we mean by vocation and witness. Try being forgiveness and a voice for immigrants or the unborn in your work place, in your family, in your parish, and see what happens. Saint Paul says it so tidily: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). “Where the Spirit is . . . there is freedom”(2 Cor 3:17) that paradoxically binds us to “the obligation of insight and love” (Benedict XVI 12 Sept 2008). The mind opened by the Risen One dispels ignorance and obliges us to the love that, in the words of our abbot Guerric, “so absorbs [our] affections that, forgetful of ourselves we have no feeling for anything but Jesus Christ and what pertains to him,” the salvation of the world, the forgiveness of enemies, the Peace that the world cannot give, his Gift to us, and through us to those around us. “Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

 

 

Third Sunday of Easter

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Pt 1:17-21; Lk 24:13-35

The story is told of a rabbi who had a disciple who asked him for the way to God. The rabbi told him, “There is no ‘way to God.’ God is always here and now. The truth you seek is not hidden from you; you are hiding from it.”

Jesus seems to be telling these two disciples that same thing today. He meets them “on the way.” One of the first names given to the fellowship of followers of Christ was “The Way.” The Risen Christ introduces himself to us today as Homo Viator in via”; a human wayfarer on a journey.

The image of the spiritual life as a journey is familiar to us. Jesus ratifies that image. A journey has an end, a destination. It is travelled by the theological virtue of hope.

It is important to have a clear image of one’s destination in this spiritual journey. Otherwise, we won’t know if the obstacles we encounter along the way are worth it. We must be clear about what we hope in.

The object of Hope, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is a future good that is difficult to attain. The object on our Cistercian journey is first and foremost God. Its second object is divine assistance in reaching that eternal life. In the absence of hope we are left with either presumption or despair. That is what Jesus is addressing as He walks with Cleopas and his friend.

They were “looking downcast.” Not recognizing Jesus speaking with them, they described Him as having been “handed over.” They described Him as powerless and passive; as a victim. Jesus describes the two disciples as “foolish…and slow of heart”; in other words, presumptuous and despairing. They are not travelling in true hope. So He opens the scriptures to them and shows them that a passive and powerless victim has always been a part of the plan.

Faith knows God as first truth; charity loves God as ultimate goodness; hope loves God. These sustain us wayfarers as long as we are facing toward the light of Christ. But if we turn aside, if we turn our interest to wayside inns or other temporal attractions, we lose our way. We become wanderers. In our monastic way of pilgrimage we are alert to the dangers of worldliness.

In the First Letter of John (2:16) worldliness is defined: “all that is in the world, the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, is not of the Father.” In other words it is our attachment to excessive pleasure, wealth, honor, and power. These turn the wayfarer around and make him and her a wanderer. They settle for less when they set their hearts on material, social, and sensual goods.

They are immediate and intense when obtained and that makes one presumptuous. When they are denied, they lead to despair. Again, we suffer from the delusion that we can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of the out of the world if only we mange well. Jesus offers to free us from that. He tells us that what the world doesn’t hold, it can’t withhold. If it’s not out there to be got, it’s not out there to be denied.

In the end Jesus re-orients the disciples to the journey. His followers will be known by their love. Love is seeking the good of the other for the others own sake.

Bread gives itself entirely for the good of the one who consumes it. They recognize the self-giving victim in the breaking of the bread.  

 

Third Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 2:22-28; 1 Pt 1:17-21; Lk 24:13-35]

“Were not our hearts burning within us?” Oh, how I wish we could hear our Lord open the Sacred Scriptures for us, as he did for the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Oh, that our hearts might also be set on fire with love! How can we walk with Jesus and experience his love for us? How can we enter into the mysteries of suffering, death and resurrection with Jesus so that we will not be overwhelmed by life's great sorrows and tempted to despair?

Have you ever noticed that some of the saddest words in our language begin with the letter D? For example: disappointment, doubt, defeat, discouragement, drudgery, depression, despondency, despair and death. The two disciples who left Jerusalem after the crucifixion were disillusioned and depressed. They had forgotten the prophecies about the Messiah and didn't understand God's plan to share in the consequences of our sins, even by dying with us. They left all their hopes behind them. But then Jesus came and walked with them. He retold the stories about God's love for us. How can we walk with Jesus to overcome our forgetfulness and depression so that the fire of his love will burn in our hearts?

We have many ways to walk with Jesus. His Presence in the Eucharist-oh, how great that is-and the gift of his Spirit in our hearts. We have his words in the Sacred Scriptures that we carry with us in our pockets. But better than that, we have his words memorized so we can often listen to Jesus by letting his words bubble up within our hearts. And we can be in his presence whenever two or three are gathered in his name. Yet, with all these wonderful ways to walk with Jesus we can still be forgetful and distracted in our daily lives. And even worse, our greatest gifts can become the heights from which we suffer more terrible falls because of our own self-centeredness and pride.

Two of the most grievous sins ever committed happened in heavenly places. The first was Lucifer's sin. Lucifer was the angel of light, perhaps the most beautiful and powerful angel ever created. Lucifer was not tempted by devils for there were none at that time. Lucifer walked with God, enjoying everything, suffering nothing. And yet, his great gifts became his temptation to be adored. The angel of light fell from the heights and became Satan.

The second most grievous sin was that of Adam and Eve. They were in the Garden of Eden, a paradise. They walked with God in the cool of the evening. There was no suffering, no death. They were beautiful, and yet with all these gifts, they wanted more, the knowledge of good and evil. So they believed Satan rather than God, and they fell from the heights of bliss to the depths of misery. The saddest words, the terrible D's like depression, defeat and death, became their lot in life, and ours.


But these great miseries can be put to good use! Our weaknesses can become our strengths. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me-walk with me-let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Our daily afflictions-disappointments, doubts, disillusionments, defeats, discouragements, drudgeries, depressions, and despondencies-can be reminders throughout the day that drive away our forgetfulness of God. They expose our need for God, reminding us to turn to God for help, both for ourselves and for others. Our afflictions can become prayers, and our prayers joined with the sufferings of Christ, become powerful. Suffering can be wasted. But sufferings turned into prayers by walking with Jesus, carrying our crosses, are never wasted. They always do good. By losing our lives many times a day as we walk with Jesus, we gain the whole world and paradise forever, for ourselves and for others. The terrible D's give way to the wonderful B's: baptisms, blessings, bliss, beatitude, being beloved, beauty, benevolence, bountifulness, bravery, and even beer!

Third Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 2:22-28; 1 Pt 1:17-21; Lk 24:13-35 ]

“Were not our hearts burning within us?” Oh, how I wish our Lord’s words to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus were recorded so that our hearts might also be set on fire with love. We want to walk with Jesus, listening to him reveal the Father’s love for us. We want to learn from the teaching of Jesus about the mystery of suffering and death as we journey down the road of this life so that we will not be overwhelmed when great sorrows and discouragement afflict us. We long to have our eyes opened to the hidden world, where angels and saints enjoy unimaginable happiness in the dwelling place of God. Like our first parents, we are exiles from the Garden of Eden. We want to go back, we want to see and walk with God. No wonder Cleopas, and the unnamed disciple who represents us, urged Jesus to stay with them. Their petition expresses the very reason for our existence, our desire for union with God.

The Lord, who never leaves prayer unanswered, does more than the two disciples ever dreamed of. They offered him a room and a meal. Jesus makes room for them in his heart and transforms their meal into a Eucharist by the blessing and breaking of bread. Jesus, the first homilist at a post-Resurrection Eucharist, opens their eyes to understand his suffering and death. He reveals that death is not the end of everything, but the beginning of everything! But we don’t have to envy those two disciples. Jesus, invisibly present, gives himself to us today, here and now. We offer Jesus a room in our hearts and the humble bread of our lives, and he gives us a place in his heart with his own risen body and blood as food for eternal life. He comes to bring us back to God.

The journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recalls the exodus of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Like our first parents, these two disciples did not believe what they had heard. Adam and Eve refused to believe God and chose to believe the lies of the serpent, Satan. Our Cistercian father, Baldwin of Ford, writes that the first sin, the original sin, was an act of disbelief in God’s word, making God a liar by choosing to believe the devil.1 Likewise, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not believe the word Jesus had spoken about rising after three days. And like Adam and Eve who departed from the Garden of Eden under a sentence of death, these two disciples were also under the same sentence of death. They departed from Jerusalem after seeing Jesus die, fearful for their own lives, leaving all their hopes behind them. They did not yet understand the plan of God to share in the consequences of our sins, even death.

God told Adam and Eve , “… of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Yet, without any concupiscence, without any weakness of purpose or confusion of mind, with full deliberate willfulness and knowledge, they believed the serpent rather than God, and then they ate. So, they did die, first by a spiritual death—losing the grace of sharing in God’s divine nature when they disbelieved and ate—and later by a physical death. After they lost the gift of sharing God’s own nature, they began their exodus from the Garden of Eden into the world of suffering and decay that has been our agony ever since. But what they did not know, what God did not tell them, what was revealed to us by Jesus, is that God would also die, not right away, not divinely, but humanly in his Son on the Cross. God did not sin, but God chose to suffer the consequences of our sin. The heart of God, so terribly offended by the first great sin of disbelief that gave the devil the honor due to God alone, this heart of God in a kind of divine agony over the terrible fall of his human creation, watched with wounded love the exodus of Adam and Eve. Like the good father who watched his prodigal son depart for a distant land, God watched those he loved reap what they had sown as they left him in their disgrace. He wanted to reach out and bring them back, but not until he also suffered death with us. The time would come when Jesus would die by crucifixion to make visible just how evil sin really is, and also to make visible just how much God loves us, by willing to die with us, and forgiving us. God died out of love.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not believe it when women said they had seen angels who announced that Jesus had risen. Unlike Adam and Eve, their disbelief, like ours, was mixed with confusion of mind, weakness of will, and fear of the unknown. Now the time had come for God to reach out from the heavenly Garden of Eden, and bring us back to our original holiness and happiness. The risen Jesus, God, joined them on the road. He set their hearts on fire with love, revealed himself at the breaking of bread, and then disappeared from their sight. But he only disappeared from their eyes, not from their hearts. This new presence of God never leaves those who believe and love. We will see God.

Oh, how fortunate we are! God—whom we offend by believing the devil’s temptations and doing what is evil—God shows his loving forgiveness by entering into the terrible consequences of our sins with us. Jesus suffered and died. And by rising from the dead Jesus reveals that a good death is not the end of everything but the beginning of everything. Our return to God is represented by the two disciples when they go back to Jerusalem proclaiming the good news that Jesus is truly risen. The exodus from the Garden of Eden has ended. We are no longer departing from, but returning to our heavenly homeland. What a grace this is! That’s what Eucharist means, giving thanks for God’s graciousness. It is rooted in the Greek word charis, from which we derive our English word, caress. The Eucharist is thanksgiving for God’s good and loving caress of fallen children wrapped in his forgiving embrace. That embrace, that caress, is the Holy Spirit.

1. Baldwin of Ford: Spiritual Tractates, Vol. 1; Treatises # 1, Cistercian Publications, 1986, Cistercian Fathers Series #38, p. 53

Third Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 5:27b-32, 40b-41; Rev 5:11114; Jn 21:1-19]

In today’s gospel we see a beautiful story of the heart of the resurrection as experienced by the disciples, that is, by us. It is the experience of presence. It is a presence that beckons and demands a decision. In return it renews and transforms in areas of proven failure.

We have each, I am sure, had an experience of the resurrection. After all, the spiritual journey is a paschal journey: a journey of dying to an old way of living and rising to a new life. This is why Jesus told skeptics that no sign would be given them except the Sign of Jonah. Thomas Merton saw that Sign as an emblem of monastic life. That is why I took the name of Jonah when I began the Cistercian way of life. Before I came to the monastery I had experienced the slow and agonizing death of the old self and experienced the sudden rising to the new life in Christ. I came to the Cistercians to give thanks for it.

Before the resurrection, there is the passion: that which we passively endure. Jesus’ passion began the moment He let Himself be “handed over”; He gave up control over His life. We handed ourselves over on the day we began novitiate and received the habit.

It is not being dramatic to say that with the novitiate began our monastic agony. Luke uses the Greek words agon and agonia for Jesus’ experience because it means “contest” or “struggle.” We came here having learned the world’s ways of living life, a way characterized by “getting the upper hand.” (We call it self-will!) When “the upper hand” is confused with “rights” and “responsibility” it can seem like a higher truth. Thus the “upper hand” ethic enters us into a contest with the monastic way of handing oneself over. This is the agony that begins in novitiate and continues all the time after that (!). Specifically, the struggle is to answer this question: “Can anything separate us from the love of God?(Romans 8:35).

Jesus’ agony began and ended in Gethsemane. Once He was handed over, once He decided to allow them to do whatever they wanted to Him, the struggle was over. With this decision nothing could separate Him from the love of God.

The world has much in its arsenal to cut us off from the love of God. We have One Thing: the Resurrection. This resurrection did not come about as a result of clever management or strong will on our part. As St. Bernard tells us, all we bring is an intense awareness of our misery, our struggle. No, the resurrection happened to us, just as it happened to the prophet Jonah and to Jesus. Our experience of the impact of the resurrection is similar to that of the disciples.
In today’s gospel, the disciples first experience the absence of Christ. Then, whether suddenly or gradually, they (and we) experience the utter gratuity of the presence of Christ in our lives.

By gratuity I mean that His presence was devoid of reciprocity, of “getting even” on His part for the times we let the world separate us from His love. But the lack of reciprocity was only part of the gratuitousness. The other part was the giving of something totally unexpected: FORGIVENESS.

The eruption of the presence of Jesus Christ in the life of the apostles and of ours is experienced first and foremost as a forgiving presence. He never said, “I forgive you.” His presence was enough to convey it. Another way to say “forgiveness” is to say “LOVE WITHOUT CONDITION.” There is nothing harder for a human being to receive. Nothing else shatters our old way of perceiving, understanding, and being in relationship. The gratuity of the presence shattered us because we saw there was something to forgive; something had separated us. We were given not just a change of attitude on the part of Jesus or God, but a change of relationship.

Our former consciousness was shaped by the world’s way of rivalry and reciprocity. To keep the upper hand, we had to “get even” in adversity and, worse yet, be sure we “deserved” our success. Then came the resurrection experience and the gift of the new consciousness: the Mind of Christ. The Mind of Christ is the mind of total self-giving. In place of reciprocity we were enabled to receive, cling to, and pass on this love of God. We did this as forgiven people.

Having this mind in us hinged on a decision. Decisions either separate or unite us with their object. When Jesus questioned Peter about his love, He was demanding a decision; it was a decision Peter was not able to make and stick to during the Passion. Peter loved Jesus when he denied Him or he wouldn’t have “gone out and wept bitterly” afterward. Political correctness caused him to say what he did not believe in an effort to get the upper hand. It cost him his integrity. What Jesus demanded was a decision that was to have the upper hand from now on. That decision was not about a course of action, but about motives; about what was to be the orientation of Peter’s heart. A decision for love is a decision for living in the presence of God. As a result, Peter was later able to assert that, “We must obey God, rather than men.” Earlier Jesus had said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” With the decision for love made, it was for Jesus to command the course of action for Peter: “Feed my sheep.”

Similarly, as William of St. Thierry taught, the novice decides the direction of his heart; the spiritual father decides the actions that will express it.

The risen Christ is a presence that is gratuitous, human, forgiving, and that leads us on. Let us renew this Easter, our irrevocable decision to follow; our irrevocable decision to let nothing separate us from the love of God.

Third Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 2: 22-28; 1Pt. 1: 17-21; Lk. 24: 13-25]

In our experience of the Easter season we perhaps pass too quickly to the “good news” of Jesus’ resurrection and fail to realize the impact that the arrest, crucifixion and then resurrection of Jesus had on his disciples; and what their experience means for us. When I reflect on the post-resurrection narratives the experience that stands out is disorientation.

The reaction of the women who came to anoint Jesus to the message of the angel that Jesus was alive was a mixture of fear and joy. That may seem like a contradiction, but our emotions do not always follow the logic of our intellects. They simply didn’t know what to make of the situation. Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener and wanted to know where he put Jesus’ body. Resurrection from the dead was beyond her expectations. It was only after Jesus called her by name that she recognized him. The Apostles refused to believe the reports of Mary and the other women, and they were startled and frightened when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room. Only with difficulty could they accept that it was really Jesus who was standing in their presence. Cleopas and his companion not only failed to recognize Jesus as he walked with them; they were going in the wrong direction to begin with. We don’t know why they were going to Emmaus, but their hopes in Jesus had been disappointed and it seems that there was no point for them to remain in Jerusalem. It was only after Jesus explained the scriptures to them and broke bread with them that they recognized him and turned around and went back to join the other disciples.

Admittedly the Holy Spirit usually acts more subtly and gradually in our lives than was the experience of the disciples; but not always. There are times when we too have our hopes and expectations disappointed. We may feel that God has not treated us fairly or has abandoned us, and we are left in a state of bewilderment and confusion. Our challenge then is to accept, perhaps with difficulty, that God has not abandoned us, but is leading us to a new understanding of what our life is about. To a greater or less extent an experience of disorientation is inevitable until we get our bearings again.

We may think that our situation is different from that of the first disciples, because we don’t have Jesus with us; but that is not true. Jesus Christ has sent his Spirit to be with us, and we have the witness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church and how he has acted in the lives of the saints down through the centuries. If we are willing to walk in faith, the Holy Spirit will open our understanding to the scriptures and their witness to Jesus. We too encounter Jesus in the breaking of the bread and in the other sacraments.

The message that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and that we are called to share in the new life he brings is indeed good news. But to the extent that we realize what that means for us, life cannot go on as before. We need to accept the disorientation that a truly new life brings, and walking in faith and hope allow the Holy Spirit give us our bearings.