Monthly Archives: April 2019

The Community of Believers

Pentecost

Today’s first reading at Mass describes the early Christian community in glowing terms: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own but they had everything in common. With great power the Apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.(Act 4, 32-37)

This description of community and an earlier one from Acts 2, 33-47 are important sources for Catholic social teaching and have influenced Christians over the centuries in their thinking  about community–whether it’s the world community, the community of the church, the parish, or the family. Religious communities especially are driven by this ideal. 

In a society like ours where so much wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of so few, where excessive individualism is so strong, this ideal is surely worth considering. 

A note in the New American Bible, however, cautions that Luke is painting a “somewhat idyllic” picture of the early Christian community. Idyllic means idealized, even unsustainable. In other words, given human nature, the early Christian community never measured up altogether to the picture Luke paints.

The commentator Luke Timothy Johnson suggests Luke’s glowing picture might be influenced by the Hellenistic writers of his time– like Plato–who describes the early days of Athens as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property but they regarded all they had as the common possession of all.” Early writers also also put great stock in friendship; people of “one heart and mind become builders of community. ” (The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, Min 1992 p. 62)

In reading Luke’s description of the Christian community, then, we need to avoid the temptation to look for utopias. We can’t expect perfect communities anywhere. They don’t exist here on earth. Nor should we think they existed in the past and all has gone downhill since. That’s  “Golden Age” thinking.

At the same time, though, we can’t give up on the ideal Luke presents and say it’s unreal. It’s an ideal to be aimed at, a norm to measure ourselves and the communities we belong to. Not to strive for Luke’s ideal is to lose faith in the mystery of the resurrection. Jesus taught us to pray”Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We have to pray for and work for God’s kingdom to come now, here and now.

The Nones

Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age” may have insights into the “Nones”, the  “unaffiliated population”  described in surveys who have left their religious traditions “because they stopped believing in its teachings.” Their numbers are increasing the surveys say.

Some become unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Many leave a religion because “they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money.”

It’s interesting to see that “ far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.”

Taylor says the theory that religion will disappear as science advances doesn’t hold up because there’s a search for “human fullness” for a “higher world” that doesn’t go away. Surveys indicate that’s the case among the unaffiliated today

But Taylor also recognizes that people find religions difficult today.  In the western world, our secular age is an age of “expressive individualism;” people want reasons to believe and belong. They need religious places that meet them as they are. They’re looking for religious experience.

“Those who believe in the God of Abraham should normally be reminded of how little they know him, how partial is their grasp of him. They have a long way to go…Many believers (the fanatics, but also more than these) rest in the certainty that they have got God right (as against all those heretics and pagans in the outer darkness). They are clutching onto an idol, to use a term familiar to the traditions of the God of Abraham.”  (p.769)

Churches need to engage the world with reasons, not with condemnations.  Belief leads us to the mysterious Unknown, not sharp certainties. Jesus surely kept speaking to Nicodemus many nights. As the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus says, it takes time to believe. We’re slow learners. We pray that on their journey the “Nones” will find him “in the breaking of the bread.”

 

Welcoming the Night Visitor

Jesus and NicodemusJ

 

We heard from Thomas, doubting Thomas, on Sunday. The next few days  he’s joined in this week’s readings by Nicodemus, a teacher in Israel, fluent in religious matters, but he comes to Jesus by night. Was it fear, human respect? Yet Jesus meets him at night. (John 3)

Nicodemus questions but doesn’t seem to understand Jesus’ answers. “How can this happen?”  Thomas  isn’t the only skeptic, a lone dissenter. Others are slow to believe too.  There is a recurrent skepticism in us all.

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea– a member of the Jewish ruling party and another hesitant believer – finally come forward at Jesus’ death.  Joseph asks Pilate for his body. Nicodemus brings an abundance of spices for his burial. Leaving the darkness, they follow Jesus into the light. Here’s how John’s gospel describes them:

“After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body.
Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds.
They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom.
Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by. “(John 19, 39-42)

The dark time of death is bathed in glory.  Nicodemus’ store of spices  makes Jesus’ burial a kingly burial. The new tomb in a garden already suggests something wonderful about to happen.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3,17)

“Everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” Everyone, even reluctant believers  like Joseph and Nicodemus.

Weekday Readings: Second Week of Easter

Monday Acts 4,23-31; John 3,1-8
Tuesday Acts 4,32-37; John 3, 7-15
Wednesday Acts 5,17-26; John 3, 16-21
Thursday Acts 5, 27-33; John 3,31-36
Friday Acts 5,34-42; John 6,1-15
Saturday Acts 6,1-7; John 6, 16-21

Readings here.

The church grows gradually after the resurrection. The followers of Jesus must first meet the risen Jesus, but they’re slow to believe. Those early days, when Jesus eats with them, shows them his wounds, explains the scriptures to them, are recalled in last week’s gospel readings for Easter week.

The gospels for this week of Easter are about another group slow to believe– people like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night. A well-informed religious person, Nicodemus too slowly understands Jesus Christ.

Our first readings this week describe the apostles as they witness in the temple after the Holy Spirit comes upon them at Pentecost.They experience persecution from the temple leaders,yet the number of believers grows.

They’re “uneducated, ordinary men,” to the temple leaders, but they boldly continue to proclaim God’s mighty works in Jesus Christ. Told to end their witness, they cannot. “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

Monday’s reading from Acts, describes the apostles’ return “to their own people” who recognize that the temple authorities are acting toward them as they did toward Jesus. They pray, and the Holy Spirit tells them to continue “to speak the word of God.” Those who follow Jesus must experience what he did.

On Friday we begin reading about the miracle of the loaves from John’s gospel,  chapter 6, an important reading for the Easter season. The reading, continues into the following week; the mystery of the Eucharist has a major place in the Easter season. It’s a sign the Risen Jesus remains with us.

Readings for the week here.

At Peace

 One of my favorite expressions is “Shalom Aleichem” : “Peace be with you,” or “Peace be on to you.” Even as I pronounce the Hebrew words, a strange tranquility comes over me. The word “Shalom” itself has so many rich meanings: peace, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, harmony, wholeness, completeness. It seems almost like an invitation to taste the wholeness and completeness of God Himself, a wishing of the good for the other person.    

 This expression has become more of a casual “Hi, how are you” in modern Israeli society. Saying “ Shalom” has become similar to saying “Aloha”: “Hi, bye.” And yet, I find such power in these words. A few years ago, after our interfaith Thanksgiving service at my parish in Bayside, NY,  I found myself talking over cookies with the wise and gentle Rabbi Weitz. I told him about my upcoming trip to Israel the following week, and he told me that he was also going there then. We were both very excited about it. As we were leaving I dared to try out my little Hebrew and told him, “Shalom Aleichem”. In the holy environment of my church the expression seemed to have so much meaning. My eyes met his shining eyes, and it felt like we shared something beyond ourselves. When he smiled and answered “Aleichem Shalom (Unto you peace),”I felt I was truly being blessed by this man of God. 

     Every year I spend the Easter Triduum in retreat at the Passionist Spiritual Center in Jamaica, NY. I usually go there without any expectations. I always know it’s going to be great. But from the beginning of Holy Week I had been asking the Lord for much-needed peace. The Morning Prayer that I recite begins by asking the Lord for peace, wisdom, and strength. I usually get stuck at “peace,” trying to measure on a 1 to 10 scale how my state of peace is.

This week I was at a 4-5 level ! I was worried about all the jobs I had to do to help out during the retreat, especially with regard to this big cross that I had built. When would there be time to have the retreatants write their prayers on it? Would it be an imposition? Was there any room left on the cross to write on? Would anyone be interested in carrying it outside to pray the Stations of the Cross? Would anyone get splinters on their hands? Would it fall on somebody’s foot?   

 My lack of peace went a lot deeper than that. I was going through a senseless feeling of unworthiness. I had become a little worn out by the people I serve in my different ministries. There was a heaviness in my heart that I could not explain.     And then, as soon as I had figured out where to put the big cross, and I was able to sit before the Lord at chapel, the most blissful sense of peace descended on me. Talk about a quick answer to a prayer!

Throughout the four days I just never worried about anything. All the retreat events unfolded before me in mysterious, delightful ways. Nothing and nobody bothered me. There was no need to assess whether my prayers, or the experiences, or presentations, were devout, inspiring, or spiritual enough. Everything just was. I usually had a smile on my face. My fellow retreatants were not like strangers; they were beloved children of God, good and gracious company. The peace of God enveloped us.     

Dear readers, why am I writing about this? I guess I really want to share this peace with you. I want to sort of wish it, pray it upon you! Shalom Aleichem!     In the Gospel (John 20: 19-31) for the Octave Sunday of Easter (also adequately named Divine Mercy Sunday), our Resurrected Lord appears before His fearful disciples (that’s us!), and tells them, “Shalom Aleichem.”

This is much more than just a “Hi, what’s up.” The Living God blesses us with the power of His love. The soothing breeze of His Holy Spirit is breathed upon us. We relish in His love. As we touch His wounds our wounds are touched and relieved. We are home. Our guilt over the times we have deserted Him is calmed. He invites us to stop retaining our sins, and through His power,  to forgive ourselves for all those sins that He has already forgiven. And then He puts us back to work. He tells us, “so I send you!”

I hope that peace of His holds out within me. And even if it goes down to a 4 or 5 again, there is a bountiful storehouse of it in His heart within our hearts, just for the taking! We are His ministers, His agents in this troubled world.     Like the psalm says: “Lord send down Your Spirit and renew the face of the Earth.”     Shalom Aleichem!

By Orlando Hernandez

Easter Friday: Tabgha

sinful man

Our gospel story for today ( John 21, 1-14) must have taken place at Tabgha, the quiet stretch of wooded land on the Sea of Galilee just south of ancient Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Seven springs of water flow into the lake there. Some years ago, during an early morning visit I made to the place, birds were singing in the trees and drinking from the streams of fresh water.

Fishermen would surely draw into Tabgha after a night’s fishing for fresh water from the springs and maybe fry some fish over a fire on the beach. It’s a likely place where Jesus would meet with his disciples. Two ancient churches are on the site. He met his disciples here after his resurrection, tradition says.

Peter and the others returned to Galilee after the Lord’s death and resurrection and went fishing, John’s gospel says. They caught nothing through the night, but at dawn they heard a call from the shore to cast out their nets again.
“… Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.”

They caught a large catch– 153 fish. Jesus then called from the shore to come eat some fish at a fire he had started and he gave them bread and some fish to eat and revealed himself to them.

Peter figures prominently in this story. He jumped into the water to get to the shore. Then after they ate, Jesus took him aside and asks the disciple who denied him three times, “Do you love me?”

Three times the apostle cursed and swore he did not know Jesus. Three times he answers “Yes, I do. I love you.” And Jesus tells him “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” Peter isn’t alone in this encounter, the other disciples and all of us are with him.

A statue at Tabgha marks that beautiful meeting, an example of God’s forgiveness! No scolding words or recriminations. No “I told you so.” No warning, “You do that again and …” No demotion, no putting on parole. Rather, Jesus gives Peter new responsibility. “Feed my lambs” as I do. God’s mercy does not take away, but gives more.

Tabgha– the memory of Jesus lingers at this lovely place besides the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, risen, brings us mercy and a mission.

The church and rock table at Tagbha