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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Ash Wednesday (Ashes)

Job 42:6: “. . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Jonah 3:6: The tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

Recently, I was somewhat surprised when the neighboring Baptist Church called the priest at the local Catholic Church, asking for ashes. The minister’s congregation wanted to do what Catholics did in this regard as a visible sign to others of their Christian faith. I am afraid they missed the point about it as a sign of penance, but the change in orientation was worthy of note. I suspect, also, that they were struggling for ways to express what their hearts felt toward the suffering and death of Jesus. (It must be said that such changes in Protestant customs are also coming as a result of the defection of simple and poorly informed Catholics into the Protestant churches. They are easily swayed by delightful fellowship, black-and-white statements of faith [no matter how flawed], and by certain economic incentives. Ministers are very enthused to claim them at first, but over the long run these people long for elements of their “cultural” Catholicism. I know one Baptist minister in Washington, D.C. who had seen many Hispanics join his church after the instigation of a Spanish bible study program. However, he eventually stopped it. When I asked about it, (keeping my reserve as best as possible), he lamented their presence. He said they were coming in great numbers and changing his church. There was no talking to them. Hundreds of votive candles had started appearing in his church and then the worst of all, little statues in the windows. He would tell them that such things were superstitious and idolatrous. Confusing him as a priest, they would smile and say, “Yes, FATHER!” and go about their business as if he had said nothing. The Catholic Church’s use of sacramentals like ashes reveals that we respect both the head and the heart. The rejection of such a sign of penance is blatant irreverence and counter to Scriptural testimony.

For more such reading, contact me about getting my book, DEFENDING THE CATHOLIC FAITH.

Facing Our Mortality and Immortality

Although there is no Mass, the rituals for Good Friday are very moving and evocative. However, it is the faith that we bring to the ceremonies which gives it importance for us. An outsider to our faith, might look upon such ritual with awe towards its simplicity and yet confusion as to its meaning. This is because we celebrate a theme which much of our culture seeks to ignore or postpone. We commemorate death. Assuredly, it may not be death as many people understand it, but nevertheless it remains something mysterious and even feared. Our society, with its newfound confidence in science, ironically hides the tragic death of the unborn behind the guise of linguistics while many in the medical field go to elaborate techniques to keep certain other people alive, no matter what the cost. One of the tasks of the Christian is to visit the sick; and yet, how often have we hesitated from that duty? And we know why — because to meet an elderly or handicapped or sick person is to face the specter of our own mortality, death. We dye our hair, or wear something over our heads that lost recently at the horse races; we cake our faces in makeup to cover the blemishes and wrinkles of age; we diet to wear clothes that we could not fit into even as teenagers; we take an assortment of drugs to maintain our vitality; we do all this and more to escape the prospect of age and the ghost of death which lingers in the periphery of our lives.

Even believers on Good Friday might view the death we recall as simply a commemoration of an historical event. But, it is much more than that. The Lord on Holy Thursday washed the feet of his disciples as a sign to them that we are called to humble service. Good Friday is the day that he gives us a summons to imitate him. From our Christian initiation onward, we are baptized into the saving death of Christ. It would set the whole pattern of our lives in which we would experience many dyings and risings. It may sound fatalistic, but it is still true that we are on a pilgrimage from the womb to the tomb. To live means we must suffer. To live we must die. The uniquely Christian message is that although we may not escape death, Christ will give us a share in his story of the empty tomb and triumph over death.

To some extent, all the sacraments are a living out of what we celebrate in the Lenten season leading to Easter. The Mass is a special case in point whereby the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is not only commemorated but is recalled by a living memory. Christ died once and for all for us, but in the Eucharist, that death breaks through the bonds of time and space; we are there. Celebrated in an unbloody fashion, what was missing on Calvary is now provided, ourselves and our faithfulness. If it were by our sins that Christ was crucified; then now in the various Masses of the year we are able to get to the other side of that Cross, to offer ourselves with Christ, as an acceptable offering to the Father. We offer ourselves in our prayers to God, asking him to hear us and to transform us to the likeness of his Son.

As Christians we view death as the consequence of our primordial disobedience, sin. In the ministry of Jesus this perspective is retained. When he healed the sick, he often added an admonition, to sin no more. He also showed that he was the master of both life and death. When the little girl Tabitha and his friend Lazarus had died, he restored them to health. However, he did not use this very same power to avoid his mission in the world. Why? Certainly, he had not sinned. He did not deserve to die, especially not a criminal’s death. Why then did he accept his Cross?

There is a movie which came out a number of years ago entitled, Saving Grace; in it the Pope while gardening gets locked out of the Vatican and begins to roam the street with the ordinary people. He eventually ends up in a small town where apathy has crushed the people’s spirits. They live off charity and refuse to try to improve their lot. Not surprising, the village church is in ruins; after all, what need had a dead people of a church. The Pope, who looks like any other poor man, becomes determined to help stir these people back to life. He starts work upon a primitive irrigation system with the help of children. The adults think he is mad. Lazy thugs in charge of the town try to prevent his work from coming to completion. Just when the project is about finished, the gang leader of the town throws a stick of dynamite destroying part of the works. The townspeople look on. Among the debris is a child, a small boy. All seems lost. All seems for nothing. A boy dies, and what does the successor of Peter have to show for it? And yet, the women and later the men of the village start coming to the wreckage and begin to build. What a price this boy paid. He must not die in vain. How evil an act it was, a deed their sluggishness and despair of life had allowed. They rebuild. Water comes pouring into the town. These simply people begin to rejoice and some even dance in the water. They were dead, and are now alive again. I tell you this story because it speaks to us in a small way about the Cross of Christ. Sometimes to redeem a people, takes a life.

We don’t have to dig any deeper than that for the reason why Christ allowed himself to be betrayed, tortured, and murdered. He did it for us. The words from Caiaphas in John’s Gospel took on a meaning even deeper than he would have ascribed, that there was an “advantage of having one man die for the people” (John 18:14). Jesus was betrayed by his very own friends, the ones who should have protected and loved him. His own people disowned him. Peter denied him. Judas turned him in, with of all things, a kiss! Imagine someone whom you love more than life, betraying your love and doing so with a sign of false affection. I know for some of you this would not be hard to envision. Think about the deep agony it causes. It is at the core of what the Cross is about. I cannot tell you how many men and women have come to the rectory door, crying uncontrollably, because a spouse or a loved one abandoned them. It is the Passion of Christ all over again, a story of a love rejected. And yet, if this were all that the Cross was about, we would be the most pitiful of people. The story of Good Friday is also about a love fulfilled and accepted — a love so great that Jesus was willing to stretch out his hands and feet upon the Cross to show us just how much. Taken in connection with what we celebrate at Easter, it is the message that love is ultimately stronger than pain, betrayal, or death.

Despite how we try, I doubt if any of us can completely cast the thought of death out of our minds. I am sure that among the readers, there is pain for loved ones lost. I do not have to remind you of the suffering and regrets which haunt us. We can take comfort in the Christian message that death is not the end but is rather a new beginning. It is a doorway from this life to another. Because that door closes quickly, we might easily despair as to what is on the other side. However, we do not need to fear. God has promised us that we would never be abandoned. Just as he vindicated his Son after the world’s intolerance had done all it could to him, so shall we be rescued. Jesus himself said that he has prepared a place for us and that in his house there are many rooms. When we encounter the reality of Good Friday, let us remember that we are mortal; that we are not totally in control of our lives; that we do suffer; that we are sinful; and that death is a part of who and what we are. But, let us also recall that we are so much more and that there is a part of us that death shall never reach. Where we are weak, God is strong. Where we are sinful, God can forgive. Where God forgives, there is redemption. Where there is redemption, there is eternal life.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

Conscience and Conduct

Many parishes celebrate “Come Home for Christmas” and “Come Home for Easter” reconciliation services. Of course, Confession is available all year long. Priests delight in being ministers of reconciliation. The Christian regularly needs to examine his conscience and behavior.

We do this, not in light of some nebulous feeling or even according to the values of the majority of our peers; we do so in comparison to the standard of Christ and his Church. In season and out, popular or not, the truth is proclaimed.

The first realization which must dawn upon us is that we are all sinners. From the last harsh word we uttered to the little lies we tell; from our lack of preoccupation in the liturgy to our passivity regarding the murder of the child in the womb — we are sinners. We need to be honest to ourselves and to God about that fact. In our consciences, we very often try to run away from this reality; after all, it is an admission of imperfection. However, humility requires this acknowledgment, even if satanic pride would deny it.

I use the word “satanic” here because I believe it is all too easy in our lax consciences to reduce all sin to the level of a simple fault, a mistake, or a stumble. All of these words fail to take into consideration that sin is more than our merely tripping over our own feet. We sin because there is a part of us that chooses to do it, likes doing it, wants to do it some more, and will seek to hide it. There is a malicious and wicked quality to it. Sometimes we might be so good at hiding our sins that we even hide them to ourselves. We rationalize that “everybody’s doing it” or “that I am not a saint.” And yet, if we are following in Christ’s footsteps, it was for going against the former that Jesus was put to death and for the latter that he allowed his passion and death. We are all called to be holy and his grace can make this seemingly impossible goal obtainable.

This leads us to our second realization, that if we are sinners, we have not been left to despair and to die in our sins; Jesus offers us the grace of his presence, a presence of healing, peace, and forgiveness. Here too our consciences must not collapse between the tension of either being lax or scrupulous. Our appreciation of sin and the sense of guilt or remorse which brings us to confess and seek pardon is a noble human gesture. However, once that forgiveness of God is given, we must forgive ourselves as well. We need to believe that God does what he claims to do. When Christ forgives our sins through the instrumentality of the priest, healing us and dissolving our breach with God and the community, the slate of our lives is wiped clean. Like a newborn baby we are made new. Temporal punishment may remain and so we are given a penance; but our standing in the Church and before God is healed and restored.

Although the seal of confession prevents me from naming particulars, the habit (no matter how rare these days) of keeping mental or written lists containing hundreds of particular sins, big and small, throughout the week, demonstrates an obsession with one’s sins, a sense of inferiority and depravity. We need to believe that God has made us wondrous creatures to behold, a little less than angels. When I was a teenager, I was so scrupulous that I even thought my feelings, beyond my control, were sins calling for remission.

Our sexuality, one of God’s greatest gifts to us, is sometimes cursed among supposedly chaste people because of the intensity of an attraction to others. Can we not praise God for his creation and leave evil thoughts behind? Even at Saint Peter’s in Rome itself, the beauty of the human form is displayed in great works of art. Having said this, it occurs to me that sexuality is one of those issues which we have to keep in tension. If we are not to be scrupulous about it, we must also not be lax. The commandments of Scripture and the natural law more than suggest an objective norm in living out our sexuality, reserving its fullest expression to marriage and in mandating that it always nurture fidelity and new life. I could have spoken at length this way about any of an assortment of concerns and sinful extremes, but it does seem that sex is the most popular topic these days.

If the lax conscience sins by presumption of God’s will and mercy; the scrupulous sins by questioning and even rejecting his forgiveness. We may fall into certain regular or habitual sins that need to be confessed; but, why tell the same sin committed many years and tears ago, over and over again? [I am not talking here about a general confession which seeks to examine the general thrust or orientation of our life.] Could it be that sometimes we do not believe that God can do what he claims? God does not forgive as we often do. Frequently, our offer of forgiveness is tainted by a threat or warning, “Okay, I’ll forgive you this time, but next time, pow!” When God forgives, he acts like he forgets. The all-knowing God puts our sins behind him, and no longer looks upon them. Perhaps we would do better if we tried to forgive in the same way? Years ago, I was watching the 700 Club on TV and there was an interview with a couple whose teenage son was ruthlessly murdered by another boy for what little pocket change he carried. In our own hearts, how many of us would have wanted to respond with violence in kind? They did not; instead, this young murderer, an orphan of the streets, was regularly visited in jail by only two people, the murdered boy’s parents. They prayed and even forgave him. The youth accepted Christ. They fought for his release and when that day came, they took him home and made him their own. How many of us could have done that? Perhaps that shows how much more conversion we still need?

We killed God’s Son by our sins, and yet he forgives us. Oddly enough, no matter how prayerful and devout, the failure to forgive ourselves may be the most dangerous kind of sin of all. How some people must hate themselves! I mean that. Only hate could make people rehearse their past transgressions in their minds over and over. Have they grown to desire the pain it brings? I do not know. If the lax have made themselves fools to their passions of self-love; the scrupulous have become slaves to their own self-loathing. Christ would have us be free. He would have us responsibly love ourselves as precious in his eyes because he has first loved us. Indeed, unless we love ourselves in this way, what becomes of the commandment, “To love your neighbor as yourself?”

I would like to say a few more precise things about conscience. It is neither the comical stereotype of an angel whispering on one shoulder and a devil on the other nor an arbitrary feeling that something is either good or bad. Conscience is an attempt of the mind to make an appropriate judgment about whether an action is either right or wrong. True judgment demands knowing the facts and deliberation over them prior to action. Odd as it may seem, we are obliged to follow our conscience even when a false judgment is made. However, as soon as we learn otherwise, we must accordingly adjust to agree with a now properly formed conscience. Judgment can be flawed for all sorts of reasons; we might be perplexed, coerced, scrupulous, lax, etc. We suspend judgment when in doubt and do not act until a certain conclusion has been reached. The Church maintains that conscience needs to be properly informed and a judgment must be made according to the appropriate law, i.e. natural law, Ten Commandments, and the law of love.

In all visible creation, only human beings have been called by God to accept responsibility for their actions. Neither pre-programmed robots nor animals of blind instinct; we have been given free will and an intellect capable of discerning God’s design from the natural order and revelation. Unhealthy extremes in conscience would include the static which would have the Church spoon feed everything, dismissing the enlightening power of God’s Spirit and responsibility; and the dynamic conscience which would go to the other side in embracing revolution or even rebellion in actions. These are the people who think the Church and its bishops are always wrong until they say something about which they agree. No one can tell them what to do, even God and his Church! The true path of conscience is between these two and is surmised by a 1973 document from the Canadian Bishops: “We can qualify this as the dynamic Christian conscience. This is the conscience which leads us to have a responsible attitude to someone, to Jesus, to the community, to the Church, etc. Every person who fits into this category feels a responsibility for a progressive search and striving to live out a life ideal according to the mind of Christ” (Statement on Formation of Christian Conscience #22).

We need to examine our consciences. Look at the blind spots in your life. Only you can make the resolution to change for the better. The power to loose and bind from sin, given to the Apostles, is not a principle of enslavement but of freedom. “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

Acknowledging the Holy Spirit

It is sometimes complained that Christians of the West seem apt to neglect the role of the Holy Spirit in their prayer, worship, and reflection. The Catholic emphasis often centers upon Jesus, his mother Mary, and the saints. However, the Holy Spirit is not utterly forgotten and is implicitly invoked every time we make the sign of the cross. The early Church discerned the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst as a personal encounter with God.

When debates arose about the identity of the Holy Spirit, the Church rightly learned from the baptismal formula given her by our Lord. We are baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Repeating myself somewhat, a mere creature has no power to save us. Consequently, the Holy Spirit must also be God: he is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the one God who saves us.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

My Lord and My God!

At this point I would like to say something about the liturgical year; more precisely, I would like to give a quick summary of the first week of Easter. The Gospels relate the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Easter Sunday, we have the discovery of the empty tomb; Monday there is the story of Jesus appearing to the women; Tuesday there is the sending of Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples of his restoration; Wednesday he reveals his identity in the breaking of the bread to the two men on the road to Emmaus; Thursday he reappears to these two while they are recounting the incident to his disciples; Friday he appears upon the shore while his friends are fishing; Saturday there is a brief summary from Mark of his earlier appearances and the narration of his coming to his followers while at table. Finally, John offers us two occasions where Jesus appears to his friends while assembled in the upper room.

Jesus has risen from the dead. Over and over again it is with this message that the Church saturates us. John 20:19-31 has the doors locked in fear of the Jews who plotted Christ’s death. But, doors locked because of fear are no barrier to the risen Christ. The only locks which might prevent him from being present in our lives are the ones we place upon ourselves.

We are surrounded by signs of God’s presence. Every Springtime signals the reawakening of nature, aiding us in appreciating the meaning of Easter. Learning our catechism answers is not enough. If we say that God is everywhere, we run the risk of some skeptic asking us where we saw him last. What answer would we offer?

Astute philosophy teachers would remind us that God is in his creation, but only in the Incarnation can he be identified with it. Who is this God who is vast and infinite — who is all-perfect and knows everything — who is omnipotent and the source of all life — who is three persons in one nature — who can be revealed to us in the flesh of a frail individual called Jesus and be put to death and rise from the grave? Do we see the wonders of God around us and proclaim his glory or do we nurture doubts?

Our faith teaches us that the Scriptures are both the word of God and of man and that they speak infallibly in regards to salvation truth — do we believe this? Do we believe their testimony and that of the Church that Jesus rose from the dead? These are important questions. There are some who seem to believe easily and there are others who find it a most grueling pursuit.

I want to narrow this focus to the abiding presence of Christ in the Church and the ongoing historical fact of the resurrection. I do not pretend to speak the last word on these matters; but, it may be important to speak all the same.

There was an Anglican Bishop of only a few years ago who publicly admitted in his cathedral that he did not believe the resurrection had ever occurred. Even men of faith may lose it. An interesting footnote to that incident was that a bolt of lightning immediately struck the building and destroyed an ancient stained-glass window. One uncharitable critic with a sense of humor remarked that God’s aim was off and he just missed. Like Thomas in our Gospel, it is easy to discount the fantastic or the unusual. Indeed, this is the age of the doubting Thomas. Science has taught us to believe only what we can empirically prove. Because we cannot place the resurrection of Christ under a microscope, it is a matter, if not outrightly rejected, then ignored. Theologians, even in the Catholic camp, have endorsed an assortment of resurrectional theories which I must admit, if I accepted, would seriously dampen my faith. I recall one most famous thinker writing that if the bones of Christ were discovered tomorrow, his faith would remain intact. He would do this by spiritualizing the event into some kind of a-historical sphere beyond the datum of archeology. For me, such a statement already infers a level of doubt. Some of our thinkers would minimize the resurrection to the level of an internal feeling or experience with no physical counterpart or manifestation. There would be no visions of the risen Christ and the stories of the risen Christ a fiction made up to express what they were feeling in their hearts, especially at meal time. I am sorry. I cannot buy any of it. Maybe we all think too much? Maybe we want everything too explainable within very narrow limits? Faith is deeper than knowledge, even if one informs the other. There are plenty of men and women with intellects which could do circles around most of us; but, they might not all be believers. First and foremost, we need to fall upon our knees and admit that the resurrection is a mystery. However, having said this, we must also acknowledge that it is very real. Everything that Jesus was, his entire person — body, soul, and divinity, is transformed or glorified by the resurrection. He is like us even though his humanity is perfected beyond our wildest dreams; he is unlike us in that he appears in locked rooms and to those with eyes of faith. I believe this is the response to which the Scriptures honestly testify. To doubly stress the fact that this resurrection has a deeper substance than that which some moderns would offer it, we have the story of Thomas. Because we could not all be there, he is our representative. He says, “I’ll never believe it without probing the nail-prints in his hands, without putting my finger in the nail-marks and my hand into his side” (John 20:25).

A second time Jesus appears in the locked room. Thomas is there. After wishing them peace, he says to Thomas, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!”

(John 20:27). I cannot imagine this testimony from Scripture if this appearance were simply on the level of hallucination or a dream. No, Jesus said and meant these words. This particular testimony is for us more so than any previous age.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church provides what is missing so that the risen Christ might be here for us as our food. Jesus again speaks, but this time his words may be more directed to us than to Thomas. “You became a believer because you saw me. Blest are they who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). A day should not pass without our thanking God for the gift of faith and beseeching him for an ever greater share of understanding and belief. The sacraments must suffice until we meet Christ face to face. When we look upon the cup of his blood and the bread which is transformed into his body, we need to see with eyes of faith. He is here with us. His real being is present in these gifts, not just as empty symbols, not merely as devices to recall a past event, but actually here. My father had this kind of faith. Every time he saw the host and cup elevated he could not help but respond with those words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28).Those need to be our words, if not upon our lips, then at least in our hearts.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

Our Belief & Unbelief

From the very beginning, there would be those who would doubt the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, even one of his disciples, Thomas, would have to be challenged by Jesus himself to touch his wounds before his skepticism could be swept away. However, the Gospel chronicles another type of rejection as well, one far more resistant to the truth (see Matthew 28:8-15). The chief priest has an inkling that the story of Christ’s coming back from the dead might bear some truth. It is this possibility which he and his cronies seek to hide behind lies. So, they bribe the soldiers to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body at night.

When Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin, it was this same rigid rejection of his messiahship which catapulted him to the crucifixion. Despite the evidence of multiple witnesses, they later disregarded his resurrection. It was not so much that they doubted Jesus, but that they did not want to know who he was. His claims challenged their positions of prestige and power. His assertions about his own personhood shook their accepted norms in regard to monotheism. What did he mean when he said that he and the Father were one? What was this Spirit he would promise to send? Who was he to forgive sins, especially of those who had come nowhere near them in keeping all the precepts of the law?

Such a man was dangerous to them and had to die. And, what is more, he had to remain dead. We might ask, why did Christ not reappear immediately before the Pharisees and chief priests who had orchestrated his demise? If we look closely, this is already obvious for a couple of reasons. The first has already been mentioned; many of them were not interested in the truth of the situation. They hid it from themselves and tried to veil it from others. Back in 1977, George Burns played the deity in a film called Oh God! As proof, God appears before skeptics; but no sooner had God vanished from the courtroom that they began to explain him away as mass psychosis or illusion. Would these ancient figures have been any different? Probably not; the Scriptures would be fulfilled in their regard which says that they would not believe, even if one were to rise from the dead. The second reason is the most telling and we find it in the Gospel where John looked into the empty tomb — he saw and believed. Jesus would not appear or be present to those who did not believe in him. Even Paul, who had persecuted Christians, was only able to see Christ as a light. The reason he could experience the risen Lord at all probably had to do with the fact that he had been mislead about Jesus and yet was still a man very much in love with God. For those who had killed this love, no vision was possible and no witness credible.

The vast host of witnesses to the risen Christ in this period and the Church’s experience of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages stand for us as a most staunch underpinning to our faith. May we always be open to belief and struggle sincerely to help transform our unbelief.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

To See More Than an Empty Tomb

The cast of characters and events in John 20:1-9 fuel our hope. They include Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and John. But notice who is absent in our reading; although it is a Gospel and therefore about Jesus, he is neither seen nor heard. All we have is the empty tomb and some surprised disciples. The story, of course, goes on; but, the Church in its wisdom feels that this passage alone would suffice on Easter morning at Mass. Why is that? Let us look at the story.

The first to reach the tomb and to make the discovery that the stone had been rolled away is Mary Magdalene. In the long history of the Church, venerable piety would link her to the prostitute whom Jesus reformed. Although modern exegesis would place this in some doubt; she, nonetheless, stands out as one of the so-called weaker sex, a woman who in that society often possessed a third class status behind oxen and other forms of property. To the eyes of many, she would be worth nothing and invisible. And yet, this Scripture and Luke (mentioning the women), places the female first at the tomb. Maybe this honor falls upon her to demonstrate how Christ has come to raise up the downtrodden and to grant all of us an equal dignity in the eyes of God? He comes for the poor, the oppressed, and the sinful. Mary Magdalene, maybe more so in that culture than our own, would come to highlight that mission. If as a child he could be worshiped by lowly shepherds then why could he not first appear to a woman who herself was lowly in the eyes of many?

In this version of the story, she is afraid and runs to Peter with the news. The second person to reach the tomb is called “the disciple Jesus loved” and we in our tradition have discerned this to be John. But, notice what he does. Although he has outrun Simon Peter, he hesitates at the entrance of the tomb and waits for him. John is nothing if he is not humble. He knows quite well whom Jesus has placed in charge of the disciples — it is Peter. Peter is the one who first recognizes Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But, remember what has happened recently. He has denied Christ three times. Unlike John, he runs and hides himself. He would not even be present at the Cross. Now, he is at the tomb. He is slowly recovering from his betrayal. With Jesus gone to the Father, it would be Peter who would be the rock of Christ’s Church. In the tomb he sees the various wrappings, but we are not told whether he discerns more. We like Peter might also sometimes find ourselves in the paradox of both betraying Christ by our sins and yet searching earnestly for him. Where is he, we might ask?

After Peter looks into the tomb, John takes his turn. With John there is no mention of the various wrappings and artifacts which the human eye can see. No, it is John this time who sees deeper than the rest. With the same eyes which witnessed the Crucifixion and somehow did not totally abandon hope, he sees and believes. He sees with eyes of faith. It is no mere empty tomb for him. Something new has happened — something unheard of — something which only a madman or a man of faith might hold — a man has risen from the grave. Notice that I say this is something new. In similar stories as with the little girl or Lazarus, a person comes back to life; but it is more like resuscitation than resurrection. Jesus would never die again. Jesus is totally transformed. Everything he is becomes something new and wonderful — beyond suffering — beyond sickness — beyond death. Suddenly the quote from Jesus, that if his temple is destroyed it would be restored in three days, makes sense. He means his very own person.

Later on the Gospels would relate episodes where the risen Lord, who is man and yet also very much God, would appear to his followers. He would greet his friends from a beach. He would appear to them in the locked upper room. He would appear to a couple of followers along the road to Emmaus and be recognized in the breaking of bread, an incident which is intensely important for us who also seek Christ in his bread of life broken for us at the Eucharist. These other incidents are wonderful treasures in our heritage from God; but we must first take seriously the initial response of John and then later the other disciples. In our own personal stories we see little more than what we find in our Gospel about the empty tomb. Jesus does not regularly manifest himself in a sensible fashion in our homes. Even in our Church, the reality of the risen Christ can only be present in the sacraments which reveal him to our eyes of faith and yet veil him to our five physical senses.

However, we like the early Church, know in our hearts that Christ is indeed risen and that his Spirit is among us right at this moment. He promises that he would never abandon us, even unto the end of the world. In my fondness for history, I recall a passage from the great French general Napoleon after his final bid for power fails. He remarks that in his very own lifetime, his followers have forgotten him and that he is utterly deserted. And yet, Jesus who lives and dies a millennium and a half earlier still possesses disciples willing to surrender their lives for him. For Napoleon, in those last years of his life, this becomes evidence that the Spirit of the risen Christ is still alive among his disciples in the Church. This continues to be the case for us. Not only is the risen Christ made manifest in the seven sacraments and especially in the Eucharist; he is also revealed in his Mystical Body — ourselves.

We are given a share of that life. In baptism, we die with Christ (Good Friday) so that we might rise with him (Easter). We do not deserve this gift. But, in return for our faithfulness, it is offered all the same. Everyone who has ever died is still alive. All those who have believed in our Lord and were faithful now possess a happiness and life we could never even imagine. In the face of death, the resurrection is our one true consolation. Otherwise, we would be tempted to complete despair. Imagine, we will one day meet Christ face to face, and in him, everyone else who has believed, whom we have lost and loved — our friends — our parents — our brothers and sisters — even our enemies, whom we sometimes ironically miss more than certain friends — all those who have at least on some level of their life held Jesus as their treasure. Every year, starting on Holy Saturday, our Easter Candle burns tall and bright once again, a symbol that after we have burned ourselves up bringing Christ’s light to those in darkness and his warmth to those in the coldness of sin, that we like him will be restored and made new.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.

Questions & Answers About the Church Year

What is the meaning of Advent?

This season of four weeks before Christmas represents the four thousand years (according to the Scriptural reckoning) that mankind had to wait for the coming of the Redeemer.

What is the object of Advent?

We become aware of ourselves as spiritual Jews, recalling the advent of Christ’s first appearance while awaiting his Second Coming. It should light the spark of desire for this definitive encounter and for the graces he gives us as our Savior and Redeemer. Advent prepares us for the birth of Christ.

Why do we call Jesus’ birthday Christmas?

It is because the Church celebrates the festive day with Masses that specially commemorate the birth of our Lord.

Why do we traditionally offer three different Christmas Masses?

It is seen as a threefold act of thanksgiving to the divine persons of the Blessed Trinity who participated in our redemption.

What is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord?

On the fortieth day after Christ’s birth, Mary, in obedience to the law, offered her divine Son to his heavenly Father. It was once called the Purification because Mary offered the required clean oblation in the temple.

Why is it also called Candlemas Day?

It is because the priest blesses candles on this day. Candles are symbols for Jesus who is the Light of the World. Simeon proclaimed him to be the light of enlightenment of the Gentiles (Luke 2:32). Candles are blessed on this day with beautiful prayers and hymns: “May we who carry them to praise your glory walk in the path of goodness and come to the light that shines forever.” A procession is made to the church where Mass will be offered.

What is done on Ash Wednesday?

Ashes are blessed by the priest and placed on the heads of the faithful.

What makes up the ashes?

They are the remnants from blessed palm used the previous year. The ashes remind us that our bodies are destined to soon return to dust. That is why the priest says: “Remember, man, you are dust and unto dust you will return.

What are the ceremonies of Passion (Palm) Sunday?

It is a pious custom to cover the crucifix, statues, and pictures in violet to represent the brief time before the passion that Jesus hid from the Jewish authorities, following his terrible humiliation by them in the temple. Since it is also Palm Sunday, we also celebrate Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Palms are blessed in the church. The Jewish people greeted Jesus with palm branches and hailed him as their king. We know, of course, that he was not the kind of king they wanted and that Jesus really came to Jerusalem to die.

Why is the last week of Lent called Holy Week?

It is because we specially commemorate the events making up our redemption. Many graces are given us in this most holy time.

What takes place during Mass on Holy Thursday?

The Church commemorates the institution of the Eucharist (and the Priesthood). As a special sign of joy, the Gloria is sung and bells are rung during its recital. Extra hosts are consecrated for special reservation that evening and for communion on Good Friday. The Eucharist is carried in procession to the repository at a side altar. The organ and bells are now silent until the Gloria on Holy Saturday. This expresses the deep bereavement of the faith community over the passion and death of Christ.

Why is this the customary day for the consecration of holy oils?

Although sometimes moved to another day like Monday or Tuesday (for practical reasons) of Holy Week, the bishop consecrates the oils that are used at baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and certain consecrations. Holy Thursday is chosen since it is the day that Jesus instituted the priesthood and made the apostles dispensers of his graces through the sacraments. Priests renew their promises.

Why are the altars stripped after Holy Thursday Mass?

This indicates our sorrow at the pitiful exposure of our Lord during his scourging and crucifixion.

What does the washing of the feet signify?

It is connected to the calling of the apostles as the first priests. The deep humility of Christ must also be found in his servants and ministers. St. Augustine associated it to our faith and baptism. Jesus washed the feet of his apostles before instituting the Eucharist. This reminded them of the purity and humility of heart that should be theirs before receiving and distributing Holy Communion.

What are the observances for Good Friday?

This is not a feast day, and no Mass is said. There may be special readings of the passion, Stations of the Cross, and Veneration of the Cross. We remember the death of Jesus. Various supplications are prayed.

Why do priests prostrate themselves at the foot of the altar on this day?

It expresses our profound grief at the suffering and death of Jesus.

What does the Church pray for in the great Supplications?

In the context of solemn petitions, the priest prays for the Church, the Holy Father, the bishops, the clergy and laity, the country, those preparing for baptism and/or reception, the suffering, separated brethren, Jews and other non-Christian people of faith, etc. We actually dare to pray that they might share in the fruits of Christ’s saving death. After all, our Lord died for all men and women.

How is the Veneration of the Cross conducted?

The priest or deacon holds up a Cross at three areas in the church: the back, middle, and front. If veiled, he reveals another of its three points as he moves toward the sanctuary. He proclaims: “This is the wood of the Cross on which hung the Savior of the world.” The people respond, “Come, let us worship.

How is the Cross worshipped or adored?

The priest lays the uncovered Cross before the altar, and then he kneels and kisses it. Traditionally, he would kneel three times at different distances and would finally kiss the wounds on the figure (corpus).

What does the choir traditionally sing?

They sing the reproaches that Christ must have made to his ungrateful people on this day.

Why is no Mass celebrated on Good Friday?

It would be unbecoming to celebrate the UNBLOODY renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross on the day we commemorate the BLOODY sacrifice of the Cross.

Also, every Mass makes really present the saving activity and presence of our RISEN Lord. Today we remember the shadows and not the light directly.

What does Holy Saturday bring to mind?

Many things come to mind. The darkness, candles, sacred silence and repose brings us to the Lord’s borrowed tomb and his descent to the limbo of the fathers (the righteous dead who awaited their Savior). But also, the festivities of the evening press upon us. We will soon celebrate our Easter joy.

What are the services for Holy Saturday?

The most elaborate liturgy of the year it is also the most beautiful and profound. There is the blessing of the new fire and the lighting of the Paschal Candle. There are a whole series of readings that trace our salvation history. There is also an incredible Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet. The Litany of the Saints is recited and baptismal faith is reaffirmed. A blessing is made over the baptismal water in preparation for the initiation and reception of new members into the faith.

What does the blessed fire of the candle signify?

The Paschal Candle is a symbol for Christ. Extinguished on Good Friday, it is restored brand new (resurrected) on Holy Saturday. The fire of the candle, from which other candles in the church are lit, signifies Christ as the Light of the World who dispels the darkness and gives warmth against the cold world and sin. Five incense grains are pressed into the candle representing the five wounds of Christ.

How is the baptismal water blessed in this celebration?

A whole series of Old Testament prophesies that point to baptism is read and prayers are made for the neophytes and those who reaffirm their faith. After the blessing and renewal of baptismal promises, the priest sprinkles the people. During the blessing, the Paschal Candle is dipped three times into the water as an invocation is made to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. The water reminds us that the waters of baptism cleanse the world of sin.

What does the Church celebrate at Mass on this day?

The Church celebrates the resurrection of Christ. The Gloria is chanted, bells are rung, and the solemn Alleluia is sung.

What does the word Easter mean?

Easter or “East star” is derived from the rising of the sun or the resurrection of Jesus. It has also been called Pascha, a name taken from the Jewish festival when a lamb was slain in memory of the blood of the lamb that saved the first born of the Israelites. Jesus is the new Lamb of God who was slain on the cross and whose blood will save us.

What is the Ascension?

Forty days after Easter we commemorate Christ’s triumphant ascent into heaven.

What ceremony is peculiar to this day?

It is customary to extinguish the Paschal Candle, symbolizing the departure of Christ from earth to his Father in heaven.

What is Pentecost?

This is the commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit and it traditionally occurs ten days after the Ascension, or fifty days after Easter. We celebrate it on Sunday.

What are the Holy Days of obligation?

In the United States they are as follows:

  • Solemnity of Mary – Jan. 1
  • Ascension Thursday – (40 days after Easter)
  • Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary – Aug. 15
  • All Saints – Nov. 1
  • Immaculate Conception – Dec. 8
  • Christmas – Dec. 25

Canada: Holy Days are Christmas and Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

What is Ordinary Time?

This is a name given to the liturgical time outside of the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Of course, in a sense, no time is ordinary. Every day and every liturgy is a wondrous opportunity to grow closer to the Lord and to live out our discipleship.

For more such material, contact me about getting my book, CATHOLIC QUESTIONS & ANSWERS.