“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:1–9:
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
This afternoon’s Gospel reading is Luke 24:13-35:
That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures. As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.
Over the last few years, I have chosen to come to the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday nights, rather than go to church on Easter Sunday mornings. That started when a good friend of mine became a member of the Catholic Church several years ago, having dispensed with his atheism and accepted Christ into his life, and prepared himself for the sacraments through the RCIA program. I don’t recall now whether I’d ever attended an Easter Vigil service before then, but the beauty and the complete vision of God’s merciful plan for salvation overwhelmed me that evening. It became one of the many steps along my journey of faith, none remarkable in themselves, but put together a beautiful adventure of love and grace.
Ever since, my Easter celebration has always included the longest Mass of the year. It starts in darkness, as we tell the story of salvation from Genesis to Jesus. The readings take us through the history of God’s plan, and eventually the lights come on to celebrate the rising of our Lord.
A few years ago, I began to lector for our parish, and after becoming comfortable with that service, I volunteered for one of the slots at the Easter Vigil Mass. This year, I had my first opportunity to participate, selected for the final reading before the Gospel, Paul’s letter to the Romans, 6:3-11.
Brothers and sisters: Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. For a dead person has been absolved from sin. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.
The prospect of taking part certainly delighted and excited me, but perhaps didn’t quite touch my heart in the way it should have, at least not initially. Part of the preparation for tonight’s service was a walkthrough-rehearsal earlier in the week, which included the full readings of the scripture and feedback from the other lectors. The consensus on mine was that I had certainly proclaimed well, but had not let the joy of Paul’s words come through in my voice. Instead, I seemed to have emphasized words that made this sound more like a warning than a blessing.
I have been reflecting on that ever since. These fellow lectors are my friends and know me reasonably well, so their feedback forced me to rethink my approach, not just to the reading at hand but the entirety of the Easter message and God’s plan of salvation. Intellectually, I know God sent His only Son to rescue us from our predilection to sin and death. The proper response to sin is repentance and atonement, of course, but it’s entirely possible to get lost in that response to the point where we do not open ourselves to the joy of the Lord’s salvation.
It may be even more possible during Holy Week, the central narrative of our faith. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we walk through the narratives of His betrayal, His trial, and finally His crucifixion. Why did these horrible events take place? Because of sin — our sin, mine as well as others, throughout all of time. We recall these events with that knowledge in mind, that Christ had to become the perfect sacrifice not just of that time, but of all time. Perhaps more than any other time on the liturgical calendar, we are reminded of our own sin and the barrier it erects between ourselves and God.
But that barrier has already been breached, a fact that we celebrate on Easter. A former pastor of mine often warned about the impulse to dwell on the barrier. “Do not give sin more power than it already has,” he would advise us in his homilies (and, I suspect, still does for those fortunate enough to hear them in his new role). “We are an Easter people,” he would further remind us, “living in a Good Friday world.” He meant that while repentance and atonement were necessary steps in the process of forgiveness of sin, Jesus does not mean we should remain in those states of mind.
The message of the Gospels is joy — the joy of God’s love for all of us, the kind of joy expressed by the father in the tale of the prodigal son. When the younger son returns to live as a slave after having so offended his father, the father instead wraps him in finery and orders the feast to be set to celebrate his return. Surely he expects the son to share his joy and the blessings of the feast. In fact, if the son doesn’t do so, he is in effect rejecting the reality of forgiveness and remaining mired in his past sins, even when forgiven. He is making the sin more powerful than the Father, and giving in to despair.
Of course we all sin. Of course we all need to repent and atone. But our Lord allowed Himself to be executed in one of the most brutal ways possible to serve as the perfect sacrifice so that we all may become the prodigals, swept up in joy and love when we finally find our way home. We do not wear sackcloth and ashes when the Father offers the fattened calf and spreads the banquet for our benefit, but give ourselves over to the joy of being in the Father’s love.
Jesus Christ is risen — He is risen indeed. Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the kingdom — if you put your faith in the saving love of Christ, rather than in despair over sin, which He has conquered through the Resurrection.
The front page image comes from a medieval tapestry in the Vatican Museum.