June 1, 2022 | By Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
June 1, 2022 | By Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter, St. Teresa Parish, Belleville
(This is the text as originally written. During the actual delivery, some passages were omitted and other comments were added spontaneously. Nota bene: This text has not been thoroughly proofread. Therefore, there may be errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ:
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I use to know.” In 1942, with the stroke of a pen, Irving Berlin, the brilliant Russian Jewish agnostic song writer, turned the nation’s attention away from the birth of Jesus Christ to focus on the winter solstice. Eleven years earlier, in 1933, he wrote “In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it, You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade.” Thus, turning the nation’s attention away from the mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and focusing it on a spring fashion show.
For many Catholics, especially those in Poland, this Second Sunday of Easter focuses on something more serious, namely the story of the Polish nun, Faustina Kowalska and her visions of Jesus as the source of “Divine Mercy.” St. John Paul II, who was also Polish, was so moved by her story that he canonized Faustina and encouraged devotion to “Divine Mercy.”
The scripture readings proclaimed on this second Sunday of Easter, on the one hand, reject Irving Berlin’s secular vision of Easter and, on the other hand, address a much deeper question than Faustina’s devotional vision. The readings ask us to ponder what we actually think about the biblical story of Christ’s Resurrection.
St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles writes: “The people carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on them. A large number of people gathered, bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.” These healings were brought about by the working of the Holy Spirit through the apostles as witnesses to the Resurrection. When you heard this reading, what did you think? “Well, it’s Easter season when we always hear readings about the Spirit-filled ministry of the apostles.” Did you ask yourself, do I really believe this story? Did the Resurrection really happen?
The reading from the gospel of John is more direct in asking us what we believe about the mystery of the Resurrection. As you know, none of the gospel writers describe the Resurrection. Nor do the gospels say that anyone actually witnessed the Resurrection. The gospels say Jesus was crucified, he died, he was buried, the tomb was found to be empty on Sunday morning, and, later, the risen Lord was seen by many of His disciples.
Obviously, an empty tomb does not lead to the necessary conclusion that the person who died has been raised to life again. After the film genius, Charlie Chaplain, died on Christmas Day 1977, his grave was found empty two days after he was buried in a Swiss cemetery. No one suggested he had returned to life. Two months later the body of the renowned film master was found buried in a nearby cornfield.
Now, the Gospel of John contains several narratives about what happened to Jesus after His body was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. There is the Easter morning narrative, in which Mary of Magdala goes to the tomb and finds the stone removed and the tomb is empty. She rushes to tell Peter and John, who go to the tomb and find the burial clothes, but no sign of Jesus’ body. (20:1-10). Then there is the apparition of the risen Jesus to Mary of Magdala (20:11-18) in the garden, but she does not recognize Him. She asks the stranger where the body is. She only recognizes Jesus when the stranger calls her by name, “Mary!” She clings to Him, and Jesus tells her “Noli me tangere!” Do not touch Me. I have not yet ascended to My Father.
Today’s reading from John’s gospel gives us two critical narratives of the apostles encountering the risen Christ. The first is on the Sunday evening after the crucifixion.
The doors were locked, for fear of the Jewish leaders but Jesus stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you,” showing them His wounds. The disciples rejoiced when they saw Him.
Then Jesus said again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” He breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain are retained.”
Clearly for John, Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, happened on the same day as the Resurrection, not, as Luke suggests, in the Acts of the Apostles, 40 days later. John stresses that the gift of the Spirit flowed immediately from the Resurrection mystery. John also tells us that the power to forgive sins, the now neglected sacrament of reconciliation, Confession, was given to the apostles on the very day of the Resurrection!
Then John points out that Thomas, for some strange reason, missed this great encounter. He declares, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in His hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” So, the following Sunday, Jesus appeared again when Thomas was with the disciples. In spite of the locked doors, Jesus stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” He told Thomas, “Put your finger here and see My hands, and bring your hand and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Then Thomas makes the greatest profession of faith in the gospels in five words “My Lord and my God!” Why would he say those words and not simply, “Jesus it really is you. I did not believe it when my brothers said they saw you. But now I do.” By the time John wrote his gospel, there were many who argued that Jesus could not possibly have been raised from the dead. If he had, He would have been seen by everyone, not just a few people.
Pontus Pilate did not see Him. King Harod did not see Him. The chief priests and the Sanhedrin did not see Him! The Roman shoulders guarding the tomb did not see him. The crowd that watched the crucifixion did not see Him. The risen Christ is seen ONLY by those who believed in Him. John is NOT saying that the Resurrection of Jesus proves that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, so now everyone should believe in Him. He seems to be saying the opposite. Only those who believed in Him, and ONLY they, experience the apparition of the risen Lord. This is a great paradox. Obviously if the emperor Tiberius Caeser in Rome had encountered the risen Jesus, the entire empire might have embraced Jesus as the Christ!
Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” John is speaking to generations yet to come. He is speaking to you, and he is speaking to me. We call Thomas “doubting” Thomas. But his initial doubt in such a wonder is completely understandable. According to venerable tradition, Thomas became the apostle to the people of India, where he brought the gospel of Christ. He died a martyr’s death after his body was pierced with five spears. His initial doubt gradually became the enthusiastic faith of a missionary, making him an example for us.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, on this sunny Second Sunday of Easter, I invite you to take up the Word of God and read John’s narratives about the apparitions of the risen Jesus. Ask yourself what the Resurrection means to you. Was it the resuscitation of a dead body? Something more than that? Something less than that? An inexplicable mystery? Do you think you are encountering the risen Christ, as the disciples did, when you receive the Eucharist? How does Christ’s Resurrection influence your personal beliefs about your death and the hope of Eternal Life? In what sense do you believe that your loved ones who have died share in Christ’s Resurrection? What do people mean when they say to you, after someone near to you has died, “she is in a better place.” Is that the Resurrection? Why hasn’t the Resurrection of Jesus changed the world? How can Kril, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow affirm the Resurrection AND support President Putin’s immoral war against the people of Ukraine?
Why not take a few moments tonight or tomorrow and read what The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the Resurrection? You might find the Church’s teachings surprising. I suggest that you also read novelist John Updike’s poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Easter.” What do these remarkable poems mean to you?
“Seek God’s house in happy throng;
Crowded let His table be;
Mingle praises, prayer, and song,
Singing to the Trinity.
Henceforth let your souls always
Make each morn an Easter Day.”
Praise be Jesus Christ. Both now and forever. AMEN.