Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil – April 20, 2019
Did anyone here get Peeps for Easter? There is everything to love about Peeps: their soft, marshmallowy goodness, coated in crystalized sugar and fluorescent colors.
Did anyone here hope for Peeps but didn’t get them? I’m so sorry; that’s so sad.
I love Peeps, but they don’t love me. If I ate just one of them, I’d be sick for days. That would not be a good situation for several reasons, not the least of which is that I wouldn’t be able to show up for the Masses I’m scheduled to offer.
Peeps are one of those created things that are good in themselves but not necessarily good in every situation. If you’re inadvertently wearing a smear of the unnatural color of Peeps on your Easter clothes today, you understand what I mean.
There is a difference between something that is good by nature and something that is good by choice. In Catholic theology we have some very technical language that describes this difference, but it is a difference that everyone can understand.
Peeps, for example, are good because they are a gift from God: sweet, chewy, iridescent, inviting, and tasty. They are, however, not good in every particular instance (me, for example, or when smudged on one’s clothing).
In this manner described above, people are just like Peeps. People are good because they are created by God. To deny this proposition is to deny the goodness of God the Creator. In the sense of the goodness of human nature, then, all people are good. There is, however, an entirely different meaning to goodness; there is the moral goodness in an individual’s life that results solely from making good choices.
Today, we celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection and our participation in this saving mystery by virtue of Baptism. Resurrection is not an act of magic; it is an image of what human life can be and ought to be.
The Gospels describe Jesus’ Resurrection as God’s approval and vindication of Jesus’ life and sacrificial death. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote in his Letter to the Romans that, “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.” (Rom. 6:4)
In the Resurrection, God freed Jesus from the burden of death and offered all creation the possibility of participating in his renewed and transformed life. Here, we can see the difference between the natural goodness of human existence and the superior goodness to which all people are called; the goodness to which we are called in Baptism results from God’s mercy made particular in our lives by virtue of our free choice. Both God’s offer of salvation and our active acceptance of the offer and its obligations are required. In the absence of the free choice to believe and follow Jesus, human life lacks a goodness that ought to be present.
In a few moments, we will renew the vows of our Baptism. This annual renewal on Easter stands as a reminder of the meaning and necessity of our weekly celebration of Eucharist. The Sunday gathering is one of those indispensable practices that strengthens our faith and our resolve to live according to our Baptismal vows.
Natural good occurs only by God’s choice; moral good occurs only by our choice. Our Baptism makes it possible for us to begin to live a resurrected life: a possibility accessible only to those who choose to live according to the vows of Baptism. In our renewal of vows and our celebration of Eucharist we see an image of what human life can be and ought to be: a free existence, set free by Baptism into Jesus’ death, freed from sin and corruption, free to serve God and neighbor, free to choose the goodness that ought to be present in every person’s life.
Good Friday, Commemoration of the Passion – April 19, 2019
The story of Jesus’ Passion is a familiar one; we are well acquainted with the characters and sub-plots. We are aware of all the elements present in the story. I’d like to focus, however, on what is absent from the story.
If Jesus was a typical American today, it is very likely that he would have behaved in a fashion quite different from what we read about him in the Passion Narrative. When looked at from the perspective of contemporary American culture, there are so many possible causes for lawsuits that their number almost defies quantification.
Jesus could have sued both Judas and Peter for fraudulent representation of loyalty. Furthermore, he could have sued the other disciples for failure to fulfill implied contractual obligations. He could have easily claimed economic or class discrimination, religious persecution, and the falsifying of evidence. Someone in his family would have been owed money as compensation for his wrongful death.
Of all the familiar elements present in the story, there are some other things with which we are very familiar that are obvious due to their absence. Despite the many injustices he endured, Jesus didn’t whine, complain, or look for someone to blame. Jesus acted like an adult, unlike the childish behaviors that our culture holds up as values to be imitated. In a word, Jesus accepted the particularity of his life. Let’s think about this for a moment.
Jesus accepted the particularities of his life. He accepted that following God’s will would make him the subject of opposition. He accepted that being the Savior sent by God meant he would lose his life. He accepted that the ones he loved would not love him adequately in return.
The virtues that Jesus practiced: his patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and faithfulness are described in the Passion narrative so that we might imitate them. The vices that he avoided are not mentioned, because they are things that we, too, should avoid.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the sentimentality that western culture projects onto the Passion of Jesus. There are countless dramatic representations of the Passion that focus on Jesus’ physical and mental sufferings; this focus is the result of our culture’s aversion to suffering rather than the intent of the Gospel authors. This tendency to focus on what our culture finds abhorrent obscures the message of the Passion Narrative.
The Gospel authors intended to teach us that Jesus did not fret about suffering and loss; nor did he worry about how others judged him. Jesus did not complain about the unfair treatment he received from those in power. Jesus’ only concern during his life and in his death was to discern and follow God’s will. Today, his life and death still stand as a stark, counter-cultural witness to the fact that holiness of life requires one to accept all the particularities of one’s life, including those that are abhorrent or undesirable.
It is no coincidence that Jesus did not deny his loyalty to his friends even when they denied loyalty to him. He was unable to deny his loyalty to those who abandoned him because he refused to live in denial about the particularities of his life and death. The recrimination, blaming, whining, and scapegoating that are so common in our culture are absent from the Passion Narrative because these things are impassible obstacles to holiness.
During the Easter Triduum, we celebrate the forgiveness of sins that is the result of Jesus’ death. His death is redemptive for us because he accepted the bad with the good. To do so is the sign of a mature faith.
Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper – April 18, 2019
The University where I served as Catholic campus minister used to publish a quarterly magazine that highlighted the activities of the University’s various colleges of studies. I remember distinctly an article that appeared in the magazine about twenty years ago.
The article described a conversation between two worshipers, a mother and a daughter, as they approached the altar of worship. The young girl expressed her anticipation and wonderment about the elaborate religious ritual in which she and her mother were participating. The mother explained that the origins of the ritual dated to a time long before the mother’s birth. Both grew increasingly excited as their turn to offer their sacrifices approached.
By the time it was their turn to offer their obeisance at the altar, the two were with filled with overwhelming joy. The mother and daughter laid their gifts on the altar and awaited an acknowledgment by the minister. The minister examined the offerings brought by the two worshipers and rang the sacred bells. The two worshipers’ aspirations reached a zenith and the minister asked, “Ma’am, will that be cash or credit?”
The magazine article was written by a professor of Marketing in the University’s College of Business. The article was a tongue-in-cheek assessment of American consumer culture. The article intended to illustrate how shopping, buying, acquiring, and satisfying consumer desires have displaced traditional religion as the guiding value set in American culture. The article was honest, funny, and sad – all at the same time.
Conspicuous consumption has become our national religion. We Americans obsess about our next meal, our next purchase, our next acquisition, and our next accomplishment. Sadly, consumerism has not only become our religion, it has become the way in which we interpret traditional, institutional religion. The reception of Holy Communion, for example, remains an act of worship, but it is not always an act of worship directed toward God.
In Catholicism, we describe the celebration of Eucharist as a sacrifice. The Eucharistic sacrifice that we will offer at this Mass of the Lord’s Supper does not add anything to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Rather, Jesus’ sacrifice was the single sacrifice, offered once for all, that takes away the sin of all creation. When we offer the sacrifice of the Mass, we join our personal and communal acts of reverence to Jesus’ reverence for God. We do so in the hope that our faith might be found acceptable to God in the same way the Jesus’ faith was acceptable to God.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that Catholics universally treat Eucharist as a sacrifice; there appear to be many now who treat Eucharist as a convenience, or an entitlement, or a personal possession. Reception of Holy Communion has become as casual an act as lining up to get free samples at the big-box discount warehouse store. The beginning and end of the ritual of the Mass are treated with the same dismissiveness accorded to traffic signals: those who don’t get fined when they drive through a red light consider themselves exonerated. The Liturgy is treated more like a consumer-goods manufacturing process than an act of communal worship owed to God on account of God’s goodness.
A now deceased priest of our diocese was renowned during his lifetime for reminding his congregation which Apostle left the Last Supper early. For the sake of those who were a little slow-witted, he always added that no Catholic should imitate the example of Judas the betrayer. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if some of my parishioners did choose to imitate Judas. Judas, at least, left quietly instead of talking loudly, banging the doors, and nearly committing vehicular homicide in the parking lot in order to get away from God’s People as quickly as possible.
Although the language is now very old-fashioned, I would advocate a return to the practice of treating Eucharist as a sacrifice. In this act of Eucharistic worship tonight, we sacrifice some of our time, some of our attention, and some of our self-will in order to give God the worship that God deserves. We participate in Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross by giving ourselves over completely to this communal ritual. We imitate Jesus’ sacrifice in order that, after the Liturgy concludes, we can imitate his way of life.
Every reception of Eucharist is an act of worship. Unfortunately, Eucharist can be made into worship of the false gods of our egos, our wants, and our worries. The celebration of the Eucharist becomes authentic worship of God when we set aside our personal agendas, our consumer desires, our anxieties, and our self-concern in order to give our attention completely to the assembly with whom we pray.
In the Gospel reading tonight, Jesus said, “I, your master and teacher, have washed your feet; you, therefore, ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example to follow: what I have done for you, you should do for one another.” (Jn. 13:14-15) This is a command to value respect for God and love for others more than our own perceived needs.
At this and every celebration of Eucharist we gather in the name of Jesus, who was selfless enough to give his life for our sakes. This Eucharist will be for us a saving encounter with the Risen Lord if we can be selfless enough to set aside our wants and fears in order to gather as a united congregation to worship the One, True God.