Is Death in Charge?

Is Saint Thomas, famous or infamous.  To put it another way, is Saint Thomas remembered more for his confession of who Jesus is My Lord and My God.  Or, is Saint Thomas remembered more for being the one who doubted? I think if we are honest about it, it’s the latter.  More people remember Thomas as the one who had a doubt than the one who confessed that Jesus is our Lord and our God.

But he shouldn’t be remembered this way.  At the very least, we should remember that he is not the only one who doubted.  Think back to last week when we celebrated Easter Sunday, and the angel, and then Jesus himself announced to the women at the tomb that he had risen, Go and tell the brothers, he says… And when the brothers learn of it, where do they remain?  they remain in the upper room, where we find them today at the beginning of the Gospel.  They are in the upper room for fear of the Jews… Why? Because they doubt.  They can’t believe that the one whom they have heard has risen is truly alive, for they saw him tortured and dead.

But even more doubt.  We know all too well the story of the road to Emmaus.  Both Fr. Len and I reflected on this in our bulletin articles and its worth mentioning again today.  These two disciples are leaving Jerusalem. Why?  Because Jesus has died, and we hear them say on the journey home, he was a prophet might in word and in deed, but we thought that he would be the savior of the worldThey too doubted. Thomas is not alone. 

But are they the only ones who have doubt? Aren’t we just like them?  Don’t we too wonder if Jesus’ Resurrection, if Easter Sunday, even matters?  People die every day and we experience the pain and grief that comes from death or, of some other tragedy that ended lives of people too early.  And right now —  right now more than ever —  aren’t we all in some way experiencing fear and anxiety about the coronavirus and who of those close to us might be its next casualty?  Simply put, the experience of death leaves us wondering and asking the question, how can we talk about Christ’s resurrection and victory, “when it seems like death is still in charge?” (Debie Thomas: Unless See,

We are just like Saint Thomas.  And not only that, we are just like the disciples on the road to Emmaus wondering if Jesus’ victory over sin and death really matters for us?  We are just like the disciples in the upper room, overcome by the guilt and shame of our own sinfulness and afraid that the risen Jesus might actually show up.  My friends, We are in good company.

But all of these people do not allow their doubt to leave them blind, instead, they allow themselves to see the Risen Jesus. And it is in seeing Jesus alive — recognizing His resurrection, His victory, that offers us renewed hope, healing grace, and courage to be witnesses.

Renewed hope.  Christ’s resurrection reminds us that we do not have to fear death.  And so, even today, we do not need to fear the coronavirus or the end of our lives. Yes, we should be prudent and yes, we should do what we can to keep each other healthy.  But we also know that when our days on this earth near an end, a new life with Jesus awaits us in heaven.  Death has lost.  We must never forget it.  We must hold on to that sure and certain hope that we have for our loved ones who have gone before us, and that we have for ourselves, that what Jesus said to the repentant thief on cross is true for us now: today you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus offers his healing grace.  Recently, through the encouragement of a friend, I watched the movie “Heaven is for Real.”  And for those who don’t know, its about a young boy who after getting really sick, has a near death experience of heaven.  In this experience of heaven he saw Jesus, and Jesus had his wounds.  It is important that Jesus has his wounds because it is where he heals us of from our wounds.  He healed the disciples from their guilt and shame from their betrayal in our Gospel today.  Jesus heals Saint Thomas from his disbelief by having Thomas touch his wounds.  And Jesus continues to heal each of us ever day as we seek his mercy, his forgiveness, and his love.  Jesus’ wounds are the place for us to receive that healing grace.

And finally, Jesus takes these early disciples who all doubted his power, who doubted his victory over death, and his resurrection, he turns them into courageous and bold witnesses of the resurrection. The Resurrection is incomplete without experiencing the risen Christ.  If all we had was an empty tomb, there is no way that our early Christians would have had the courage to boldly proclaim the resurrection, because they would have found themselves too afraid of their death — of being condemned to die just like Jesus did.  Instead, they become convinced, because they have experienced the living and risen Jesus in their lives and they go on proclaiming the good news and the forgiveness of sins for others.

Friends if you have recently or in your life had some doubts, Good, you are in good company.  But my prayer for each of us this weekend, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, is to have a renewed hope and confidence in Christ’s victory, and in some ways more importantly a more profound experience in the Risen Jesus’ love and mercy for each one of us. Christ has healed you.  Christ has loved you and continues to love you.  But there is a world of people out there who are still doubting, who are still wondering if their sins could ever be forgiven, who are still wondering if God loves and cares about them, and are still wondering if death is in charge?  Are we going to allow them to continue to doubt and suffer, or instead, like the early Christians, are we going to go out and boldly proclaim to the world — Jesus Christ loves you, he gave his life to save you — and now he lives at your side every day to love, strengthen, and guide you?

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Easter Sunday: The Unimaginable

This is the night.  These are the words we heard sung beautifully at the beginning of the tonight’s vigil.

What is the story of tonight?

It’s the story of the unimaginable. And in some ways, tonight, is the story of grief. Those of you who have experienced extreme grief know that,  “There are moments that the words don’t reach.  There is a suffering to terrible to name.  We push away what we can ever understand. We push away the unimaginable.”[1]

These words come from the musical Hamilton.  I saw it in January. It’s one of the few times that I have gone to see something that was so hyped, and it lived up to the expectations.  Why did I love Hamilton?  Because it was the story of real life.  It was the story of a man who was zealous, ambitious, fallen, broken, healed, transformed, and loved.  It was a human story.  The song that touched me the most is called, It’s Quiet Uptown. This song is about Hamilton and his wife Eliza grieving at the death of their son, while at the same time, attempting to repair their broken marriage. And so, Eliza begins the song acknowledging their grief:  There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is a suffering to terrible to name. We push away what we can never understand.  We push away the unimaginable!

If we think about it, this is the story of tonight—of the Easter Vigil. Tonight, the unimaginable has happened. Who would have ever thought that God could become one of us? Who could have ever thought that our God – the Christ – would be brutally tortured by us and rejected by us!? Even more hard to believe, who could imagine that we would put God to death?  And yet it is what happened; the Unimaginable. 

But that’s only half the story.  The apostles, they too are grappling with the unimaginable. They are experiencing a horrible grief—the death of Jesus; the one whom they thought[2] would be the savior of the world.  Its important for us to acknowledge this.  This moment, this night, albeit brief, the earliest of disciples began to doubt and wonder, have we lost?  And worse, they are overcome with grief and shame for abandoning Jesus at his greatest hour of need.  They are hiding and trying to push away the unimaginable—that Jesus Christ is truly dead and their betrayal had something to do with that.

And today, are we not too experiencing the unimaginable?  The world has been turned upside down.  Many have lost their jobs, who two months ago, probably thought that was impossible.  And we know that the coronavirus does not discriminate, it has impacted every aspect of life.  So much so that even the Church, even we have canceled weekend masses.  Unfortunately, this means that on this night—on this holy night, where we anticipate Christ’s resurrection, we are not able to celebrate together at the Church.  There is no other word, it is Unimaginable.

But look: something beautiful is happening in the midst of the unimaginable… Families are praying together in edifying ways.  The other day I saw on facebook pictures of parents who were celebrating Holy Thursday at home with their children by washing their feet. There have been countless examples of good deeds done to support each other through this crisis.  One of these cool moments happened when John Krasinski, an actor from the hit show “The Office” decided to focus on good news during this time of crisis.  So, he heard of a girl who had tickets to see Hamilton, but because of the coronavirus was unable to go, and she was crushed.  So what did he do?  He invited her on to his youtube show “Some Good News.” He promised her tickets to see Hamilton when life is back to normal.  But the surprise didn’t end there, in this video call, the Hamilton cast all appeared and sang the opening song for her.  It was awesome and it made me emotional.  The goodness of humanity shining through during this unimaginable time.  

And look: this isn’t just happening now; it happened then.  Christ’s goodness shines through during the unimaginable because Christ did the unimaginable.  He had risen.  He is not in the tomb but he is alive.  This is what we celebrate tonight, when the angel says to Mary, He is not here, he is not in the tomb, he has risen indeed! Jesus has accomplished the unimaginable, he has risen from the dead.

The song that I mentioned at the beginning of this homily begins with the pain and grief of the unimaginable, but it ends with a new start, a new beginning, and forgiveness. Hamilton is asking his wife for a second chance.  He wants to grieve with her after their son’s death.  And we hear these words from Eliza:

There are moments that the words don’t reach.  There’s a grace too powerful to name. We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable. 

And then it happens.  In that moment of grace. In that moment of profound grace. Eliza reaches out and grabs Hamilton’s hand, and offers forgiveness.  The chorus sings: Forgiveness, can you imagine!

Look at that… the one imaginable thing, is forgiveness. 

Friends, this is the story of tonight.  The Unimaginable has happened, Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, so that, the imaginable could happen.  Our forgiveness.  The story of tonight is that Jesus offers us forgiveness, freedom from sin, and a new start. He offers us that same grace that is too powerful to name.

So, in another song from Hamilton we are given our call to action. 

Raise a glass to freedom something they could never take away

Christ has won for us freedom and that can never be taken from us! This is the song freedom, the song of victory!

Raise a glass to the [few] of us, tomorrow there’ll be more of us

As we proclaim that powerful grace to others, there will be more experience the powerful grace of Christ in their own lives.

Telling the story of tonight

Raise the glass to Freedom; Go tell the story of tonight

Tonight, there may only be a few of us in this church, but as we go on in our lives and we tell God’s story, there will be more of us—Because God has accomplished the unimaginable; our freedom from sin and death!

In Christ’s Love and Friendship, Happy Easter!

Fr. Stephen

[1] Hamilton, It’s Quiet Uptown.

[2] Luke 24:19

The Eucharist is a Gift!

As we know, the coronavirus pandemic as impacted everything, and so if you are listening to me right now, you know its impact on the church – that we are not gathered in the same physical space. Many of you are joining us in a spiritual way from your homes. A day that ought to be one of celebration, is in some ways a day of mourning.  Mourning that we are not here together celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. No doubt there is some sadness for all of us. 

Because of this, I have been wondering, as I am sure many of you are as well, was all this necessary?  Was it the right call to cancel masses, or was it not?  You are not alone.  I have wondered the same… We have all wondered this. I do not have an answer for you.  What I know in my heart is this: All those in authority, both civil leaders and ecclesial leaders, legitimately believe these actions are necessary. Amid all this questioning I have found consolation in the words from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  In this book, “Behold the pierced one,” he reflects on the ancient practice of the Church to “fast” from the Eucharist on Good Friday, where the people together would make a spiritual communion.  This is not the current practice today.  But – as Benedict points out – this “ancient fast” reminded the early church this profound truth: The Eucharist is a Gift. The Eucharist is a Gift.

Benedict reflecting on this ancient practice wrote, “The more I think of it, the more it moves me to reflection. Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ?” In some ways this time of separation reminds us what we may easily forget or take for granted – that the Eucharist is a Gift. Benedict XVI is saying what we all know, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I think of a young child who has been given a toy at Christmas. And after months of playing with it, the toy is forgotten. It remains forgotten until a younger sibling comes along and begins to play with it.  What happens?  Many parents know an argument often ensues between the siblings.  Why? Because to the one whom the toy belongs, they remember how much they miss the toy – they miss the gift, and they want it back.

The same is happening now for us.  We’ve had complete access to the Eucharist.  Now, the fact that we can’t receive communion, reminds us how much we truly hunger for it.  And so, even though we are in some ways grieving as we experience the lack of the sacrament in our lives, this experience can lead us to a greater gratitude to God for the gift of the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is a gift because it is simultaneously the greatest sacrifice, the most intimate experience of love, and the banquet of believers. 

The Eucharist is the one sacrifice. Benedict tells us, that a fast from the Eucharist, “would visibly express the fact that we all need that ‘healing of love’ which the Lord performed in the ultimate loneliness of the Cross.” And this healing, the atonement made for us in Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is why it’s important to remember that the Eucharist comes to us from an altar.  An altar is a place of sacrifice.  In our Gospel, John tells us that Jesus loved his own and he loved them to the end. Jesus sacrificed everything for us. Jesus sacrificed everything for us to show us how much we are worth.  Our worth and dignity is signified by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. That is what God is willing to pay for us.  So let us never doubt our worth, because we are worth the sacrifice of Jesus.

The Eucharist is the place of intimate communion.  It is the Sacrament of Love.  In our Gospel this evening, Jesus says to the disciples, You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’  and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. But just two chapters later, we hear from Jesus, I know longer call you slaves, but I call you friends.  Remain in my love.  The Eucharist, the experience of communion, is the same reminder for us.  Jesus calls us his friends.  Jesus, through the Eucharist, continues to remind us the intimate bond of friendship he wants and desires to have with each of us. The Eucharist is the sacrament of love, because it is spiritual nourishment for our intimate friendship with Christ.

Finally, the Eucharist is a gift because it connects us with each other.  This is why, the altar is not just an altar.  It is also a table. It is a banquet table, that gathers friends, sisters, brothers, and family.  This table is the experience of communion with one another.  And this is also why we miss it so much right now.  We miss the communion that we share with each other.  We miss our connectedness. But, we are still connected in prayer.  The priests of our diocese continue to pray for the people of God at Mass.  We continue to be connected because we see Eucharistic love – fraternal charity – being lived out especially right now during this pandemic.  Think of all the professional athletes who have given money to arena workers who are struggling without work, or Amway our local company from Ada that made thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer for local hospitals as a gift, or some of our car companies now making masks or ventilators items scarce and greatly needed right now.  The world right now is connected and supporting one another through works of charity.  This is the mark of charity that ought to remain visible especially amongst Christians.  We live not as individuals, but mindful that we are one human family, united in the bond of Christ’s love – the Mystical Body of Christ.

I think many of us could never have imagined a world that we would be unable to celebrate Mass together. But this is something, many Christians throughout the world do experience.  And they don’t experience it because of disease.  They experience it due to a lack of priests.  Our Church, and specifically our diocese, need generous hearts to say yes to a vocational call to the priesthood.  Today we experience the lack of public worship due to a virus, I pray we never experience a lack of public celebration of the sacraments due to a lack of priests.  Right now, we not only recognize the gift of the Eucharist in our lives and our hunger for God, but we also remember the gift of holy orders, that God continues to feed his sheep through the ministry of priesthood.  And so we join in the prayer of Jesus The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. And so tonight, we give God thanks and praise for the priesthood, and especially we thank God for the gift of the Eucharist. May we allow this “Eucharistic fast” to strengthen our gratitude for the greatest gift imaginable; the love of Christ out-poured in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

In Christ’s Love and Friendship,

Fr. Stephen