Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Year C, Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 13,14.43-53; Ps 100,1-2.5; Rev 7,9.14b-17; Jn 10,27-30

Today’s readings are about the universal nature and scope of the Gospel, about the depth and height of God’s plan. Today we read about what God has done in Jesus Christ for men and women of all nations, races, peoples, tongues, and times, including our own. These readings beckon us to step back and view the Paschal mystery from a panoramic perspective, to see it as the fulfillment of what God set in motion through Abraham, who is our father because of his faith (Rom 4,16), to view this mystery that has played out through his descendants, the nation of Israel, culminating in Jesus of Nazareth, through whom His covenant is made open to all. It remains for us to discern how all this bears on the here and now. Our Psalm, which is a hymn of praise summoning Israel to worship God, unifies the first two readings. This psalm has a universal dimension, it is a call addressed to "all you lands” (Ps 100,1). This call includes three imperatives: to serve the LORD, to come before the LORD, and to know the LORD.

In this same vein in his first encyclical Pope Benedict XVI writes: "The Church's deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)" (DCE, 25a). Indeed, the Church is the new Israel, the very fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham immediately following the episode with his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, when God tells him: "because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore" (Gen 22,16-17).

We see in our first and second readings faithful responses to this three-fold mission. Paul and Barnabas, in our passage from Acts, certainly demonstrate what it means to give witness and to preach, as well as to suffer for, the word of God, that "is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4,12). In this reading, Paul paraphrases a verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah, spoken originally to Israel affirming God’s universal call: "I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isa 49,6). We get an even longer glimpse of God’s ultimate plan in our second reading from Revelation in which John sees "a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, worshipping God" as they stand "before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands." One the elders of this white-robed multitude says: "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev 7,9.14), thus both serving and coming before the Lord after having known Him and having made him known to others by their witness.

Exegetes do not know exactly what is meant by "the time of great distress." Given the end-times mania to which our society is so prone, many take this to refer to the tribulation they believe will precede Christ’s return. However, in the context of the time in which Revelation was written, it more likely refers to the imperial persecution of Christians, like the Neronian persecution several decades earlier, which claimed the life of St. Peter. More practically, given the travails of life on earth in any age, it becomes apparent that for anyone to join this white-robed multitude, s/he, after having been washed clean in baptism, must survive times of great distress, not with their lives, but with their faith intact.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, but our readings today are more focused on the flock. In today’s Gospel our Lord speaks of his sheep hearing and heeding his voice. His sheep are given him by his Father. In turn, he gives his sheep eternal life. By expanding his flock to include all who hear and respond to his voice, belonging to the flock is no longer a matter of being a member of a race. It becomes a matter of faith, which, according to Hans Urs von Balthasar, "is a movement of the entire person away from himself, through the gift of grace." By moving away from ourselves, we lay hold of the mercy God gives us in Christ. Since through this movement it is our intention to abandon ourselves completely to divine Providence, it implicitly contains all the works that we ever will do. Good works "are not some second entity beside faith," they are the concrete form our faith takes, through which our faith becomes real.

It is in Jesus’ identifying himself with his Father that we find the synthesis of today’s readings; in the primordial divine union of the Trinity. Though united in Godhead, the Father and the Son, as well as the Spirit, are distinct. This tri-unity is the foundation of all unity, the very force that brought forth and created the universe, a creation that can rightly be called both "a universe" and "a cosmos" because it is orderly and reasonable, crackling with life and purpose. Just as works constitute the concrete form of faith, so the "heavens declare the glory of God" and "the sky proclaims its builder's craft" (Ps 19,1). Further, it is in and through the Incarnation that “God has engraved his name upon matter,” and has “inscribed it so deeply that it cannot be erased.” In and through Jesus Christ matter takes God into its innermost being (von Balthasar). Nonetheless, the most unstable part of God’s creation is the human part. We are the most unstable and chaotic part because, of necessity, we possess freedom in order to fulfill the end for we which are created, namely communion, which we are gathered here today to concretely enact. A rock has no choice but to be a rock, a tree must be a tree; an otter can be nothing than an otter. It is only the human person who can reject her/his part in this Theo-drama. The great Catholic writer Georges Bernanos wrote: the "scandal of Creation [isn’t] suffering, but freedom.” He further observes that “moralists like to regard sanctity as a luxury." Far from being a luxury, Bernanos insists, sanctity "is a necessity."

It is only by striving to be holy, by cooperating with God in bringing about His purposes for us and through us, that, like the white-robed multitude, like Sts. Paul and Barnabas, like St. Gianna Molla, that we become stable and fill our role in God’s great plan. St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian physician, began experiencing pain during her fourth pregnancy. It turned that she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. It was removed during surgery and her unborn child was unharmed. After her surgery, for the last seven months of pregnancy, despite pains and continuing complications, Gianna resumed her duties as a devoted disciple of the Lord Jesus, as a wife, a mother, and a physician. A few days before the child was due, amid much concern, she told the attending doctor: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it. Save him.” On the morning of 21 April 1962, a healthy baby girl, Gianna Emanuela, was born. Despite every effort to save both of them, on 28 April, amid unspeakable pain and after repeated exclamations of "Jesus, I love you," Gianna Molla died. She was 39 years old. She was canonized on 16 May 2004 by Pope John Paul II, with her husband and four children, including Gianna Emanuela, herself a physician, present to witness her being raised to the altar. 28 April is her memorial.

Grace is nothing less than our "participation in the [Trinitarian] life of God" (CCC, 1996). We see in the communion of saints a reflection of the unity in diversity of the Trinity. The unity we share is brought about by the Eucharist, which makes the Church and is the means through which we become, in all our diversity, the one Body of Christ.

Like the child heroine of Flannery O’Connor’s story, The Temple of the Holy Ghost, who says, "I could never be a saint but I think I could be a martyr if they killed me quick," it is the lukewarm Christian "who allots himself a measure that seems appropriate to him and considers anyone who gives more to be a professional saint." "It is important to realize," writes von Balthasar, "that the genuine saint never sees his offer to God as something beyond the norm, as a work beyond what is required." One may believe that the era of the saints is over, but it is always the era of saints until Christ returns in glory, when "the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and . . . will wipe away every tear" (Rev 7,17) as they, like St. Gianna Molla, having “survived the time of great distress,” join the white-robed multitude.

(Photograph of St. Gianni Molla from the Vatican website)

4 comments:

  1. Dear Deacon,

    I heard this beautiful homily spoken by you last Sunday. I was transfixxed. Thank you. God Bless and Keep you. You are a gift to the Church.

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  2. Thank you. I appreciate your encouragement very much!
    May God continue to richly bless you!

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  3. One of the best homilies I have read in some time.

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  4. Thank you very much Fr. Erik! I know you do not (rightly) do not dish out praise lightly. I appreciate your encouragement very much.

    There is a story behind this homily I wish to relate. I wanted to use St. Gianna Molla as an example of surrendering to God's perfect will and enduring suffering from when I began praying about this homily, which begins before I write a word. Since I do not often refer to the insert for the Liturgy of the Hours on new saints, I did not know that Saturday, 28 April, was her memorial. When I looked it up, I was frozen at this rather everyday intercession. Needless to say, she is now one of the saints to whom I appeal each day for their help.

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