The Fourth Sunday of Easter [B]

The Fourth Sunday of Easter [B]
Acts 4:8-12  +  1 John 3:1-2  +  John 10:11-18

“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The fourth Sunday of Easter is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  Knowing this, you’re not likely to be surprised by Jesus’ first words in today’s Gospel Reading:  “I am the good shepherd.  A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  In other words, a good shepherd is one who serves others in a radically sacrificial manner.

Having noted that, you might wonder what the Responsorial Psalm is to go with this Gospel passage.  Your thoughts might turn to the 23rd psalm:  “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”  But instead, the refrain for today’s Psalm is from Psalm 118:  “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”  What does Psalm 118 have to do with being a good shepherd?  To answer this, we need some perspective.

If you go back to the first words of Jesus from today’s Gospel Reading, they say something different from the images conjured by Psalm 23.  The 23rd psalm, after all, is sung by one of the sheep.  The 23rd psalm describes the comforts that come from the care of the Good Shepherd:  green pastures, reposing near restful waters, and so on.  This comfort is much like what a child enjoys under the care of his or her parents.

In the Second Reading, Saint John says that that, in fact, “that is what we are”:  children of God.  During the season of Easter, the Church celebrates the joy and glory of Jesus’ Resurrection.  Hopefully, we can celebrate with the joy of little children, giving thanks for the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, through which God the Father has adopted us.

However, as soon as we realize that we should be giving thanks, things begin to change.  Giving thanks, of course, is not something that children do easily.  A child has to be taught to give thanks.  Left to ourselves, we tend to believe that we deserve everything good thing that comes to us.  As we learn to give thanks, we begin to realize that all the gifts that we enjoy—life itself, our relationships, our material and spiritual goods—ultimately come from someone else, someone who didn’t have to give them to us, and someone who had to make a sacrifice in order to give them to us.  This is most especially true of the gift of Divine Mercy.

Once we thoroughly believe this, we see that we ought to be acting like the one who has given us these gifts.  That is, our lives on earth ought to be given over less to the enjoying of gifts and more to the giving of sacrificial gifts.  “We are God’s children now; what we shall later be has not yet come to light.”  As Christians, we are all in the process of growing into this truth:  becoming more like God the Father, not only the giver of all good gifts [see James 1:17], but someone who sacrifices what is most precious to Him in giving these good gifts.

As a child grows up to resemble his parents, so each Christian is meant to become like God the Father.  That means that a Christian is defined by his or her own sacrifices.  Those sacrifices will naturally differ from one person to the next.  One Christian is called to sacrifices such as caring for a sick child, or loving a child by offering forgiveness when he or she does something seriously wrong.  The sacrifices that strengthen another Christian might be caring for an elderly relative.

Whatever these sacrifices might be that an individual Christian is called to, we can surely say this of them:  “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”  The world more often than not rejects what is right and just.  Those we serve may reject our sacrifices.  Perhaps later on, those who reject our sacrifices will come to appreciate what was offered for them.  But perhaps not.  Regardless, God asks us to make them.

The strength to make such sacrifices selflessly comes from the Sacrifice of the Mass, offered for us by those called to the ordained priesthood.  Among other reasons, then, we ought to pray for vocations to the ordained priesthood in order to ensure that Christians everywhere might be able to receive the spiritual strength that God offers in Holy Communion.

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter
Acts 8:26-40  +  John 6:44-51
April 22, 2021

“… the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Jesus first declares, “I am the Bread of Life.”  Then He describes Himself as “the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat it and not die.”  Third, Jesus calls Himself “the living bread”.  In all three of these statements, Jesus explains that He is not just nourishment.  Jesus is a bread that offers a life stronger than death.

“Life” is what Jesus is as God, in His divine nature.  “Bread” is what Jesus is for us, in His human nature.  So it’s through Jesus’ human nature that He reveals His love for us, and allows us to share in His love.

This Bread, in other words, is for you, but not about you.  Through the Bread of Life you grow in the likeness of the divine person of Jesus Christ.  Through the Bread of Life you participate in divine life.

Then Jesus reveals this awesome Mystery even further.  In the very last phrase of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus stakes the claim that makes or breaks His disciples:  not just that He is bread, and not just that as bread He gives life that’s stronger than death.

Jesus declares:  “the bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world.”  Jesus is not just “bread”.  He is not just “food for the hungry”.  Jesus is not just bread that offers life.  He is not just bread that strengthens you to survive death.  Jesus is the divine Word made Flesh, and His Flesh is the bread that He “will give for the life of the world.

Easter 3-4

Wednesday of the Third Week of Easter

Wednesday of the Third Week of Easter
Acts 8:1-8  +  John 6:35-40
April 21, 2021

“… whoever comes to Me will never hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never thirst.”

One benefit of attending weekday Mass is how the experience of Sunday Mass is more enriching.  During Easter this is even more true.  The Scripture readings of weekday Masses especially tend to dovetail with those of Sunday Masses.

Starting last Friday and continuing through this Saturday, the Gospel passage at weekday Mass is from John Chapter Six.  This chapter culminates in Jesus’ teaching about His Real Presence in the Eucharist.  In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.  Through these Scripture passages, we can deepen our faith in Christ by understanding more deeply who He is for us.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus first states, “I am the bread of life”, emphasizing His Eucharistic doctrine.  But about two-thirds of the way through the passage, He focuses upon the sort of action a shepherd carries out.  He states:  “this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me”.

As we read, and re-read John Chapter Six, we become aware of how Our Lord is weaving together several different truths about Himself.  He does this in order to deepen our love for Him, and faith in Him.  In these two truths—Jesus as the Bread of Life, and Jesus as the Shepherd who sacrifices Himself for us—we see why Holy Mother Church calls us to see Jesus as “our All”.  The Church, in one of the prefaces at Mass for Easter, likewise chants the following to God the Father:  “By the oblation of His Body, / [Jesus] brought the sacrifices of old to fulfillment / in the reality of the Cross / and, by commending Himself to You for our salvation, / showed Himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.”

Easter 3-3

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter
Acts 7:51—8:1  +  John 6:30-35

“… my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.”

When the crowd asks Jesus, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?”, they’re asking a loaded question.  To appreciate both the crowd’s question, and Jesus’ reply, we have to back up to the end of yesterday’s passage.

The crowd had asked Jesus, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”  Jesus’ reply might have seemed to some in the crowd a non sequitur“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.”

This statement of Our Lord brings the whole of John Chapter Six into focus.  The focus is not the satisfaction of physical hunger.  Nor is the focus the performance of works.  The focus is “the one He sent”:  the one whom God the Father sent to become Flesh and dwell among us.  The focus is the divine Person of Jesus.

Jesus calls the crowd to turn themselves away from their prior concerns.  Instead, He draws them to belief in Himself.  They must believe, and they must believe in Him.  “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.”

In response to Jesus’ call to believe in Him in a profoundly personal way, the crowds respond, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?”  It’s likely that Jesus shook His head in disgust at this reply.  He had called them to personal belief in Him, and they ask for signs.  They want Jesus to prove Himself by performing signs.  But Jesus wants them to believe in Him Himself, not in any signs that He might work, no matter how powerful.

This distinction between belief in the divine Person of Jesus on the one hand, and the performance of signs on the other, continues to play out throughout the rest of John 6, and throughout the rest of John’s Gospel account.  So for ourselves today, in our own examinations of conscience, we might ask the Lord to help us be honest about how often and in how many ways we prefer signs from God to personal belief in Him.

Easter 3-2

Monday of the Third Week of Easter

Monday of the Third Week of Easter
Acts 6:8-15  +  John 6:22-29
April 19, 2021

“… believe in the one He sent.”

In today’s Gospel passage from John 6, we hear the crowd ask Jesus two questions.  First they ask, “Rabbi [meaning, “Teacher”], when did you get here?”  Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but He confronts them with the fact that they are only concerning themselves about their physical hunger.  It was for this reason that they had wanted to make Him their king.  But Jesus wants them to want something greater.

Towards this end, He shifts their attention from the physical hunger that He satisfied shortly before through the multiplication of loaves, to the spiritual hunger that He will satisfy later through the Institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  To the extent that they understand how Jesus is trying to shift the direction of their conversation, the crowd wants in.

So they ask Jesus their second question:  “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”  Jesus’ response is brief.  The work of God is to have faith in the One He sent.  In other words, they do not themselves have the means to satisfy this hunger:  there is no spiritual refrigerator, supermarket, or field for them to go to.  Their spiritual hunger is not only for something to fill the emptiness inside their souls.  That hunger is also for something to fill the emptiness around them.  For there is nothing around them in the world that is capable of sustaining them eternally, but only dependence upon God through the divine virtue of faith.

Easter 3-1

Saturday of the Second Week of Easter

Saturday of the Second Week of Easter
Acts 6:1-7  +  John 6:16-21
April 17, 2021

“It is I.  Do not be afraid.”

How can the presence of Jesus cause fear in people?  Contrast today’s Gospel passage with the scene of the Annunciation.  Jesus says to the apostles in today’s Gospel passage what the Archangel Gabriel says to Mary:  “Do not be afraid!”  Is it odd that God’s Presence—or even the news of His desire to come and be present—so often causes fear?

Do you yourself feel fear when you sense God’s desire to enter into your “boat”?  Can you welcome Him with the faith and trust of our Blessed Mother?  What other parallels are there between today’s Gospel passage and the Annunciation?

One parallel would be between the physical structure of the boat in today’s Gospel passage and the physical and spiritual dimensions of Mary as a person.  The parallel is not exact.  But a boat (or to use an archaic word, “barque”) is used in Catholic theology as a symbol for the Church, in which dwell the members of the Body of Christ.

Mary, as the Theotokos or “God-bearer”, is the Mother of Christ and therefore the Mother of the Church and all her members.  Continue to pray to our Blessed Mother throughout the remainder of Easter, asking that through her intercession, fear may be replaced by fire in your heart:  the power of the Holy Spirit.

Friday of the Second Week of Easter

Friday of the Second Week of Easter
Acts 5:34-42  +  John 6:1-15
April 16, 2021

… He withdrew again to the mountain alone.

The Season of Easter sometimes is called “the season of the Church”.  The reason for this is that Easter culminates in the feast of Pentecost, which is considered metaphorically to the “birthday” of the Church.  The whole of the Easter Season, then, prepares us for Pentecost by focusing on several aspects of the Church’s life and mission.

For more than a week, beginning today, our Gospel passage at weekday Mass will come from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel account.  If you have time, you might, for meditation, read this chapter of John 6 in its entirety each day next week.  This chapter can help us profoundly to understand the life and mission of that Church of which we are individual members.  Each weekday passage from John 6 can help us appreciate in a unique way the beauty of Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.

In the first fifteen verses of John 6, Jesus shows His fellow Israelites that the Law of Moses is not enough.  The Law cannot fulfill the human person and cannot offer eternal life.  The people in the crowd who witness this new miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves are attracted all the more to Jesus.  They recognize Jesus as the Prophet, one even greater than Moses.  They believe that He can be their king in this world.

But what does Jesus instantly do?  Immediately, He does something counter-intuitive.  He withdraws to the mountain alone.  Why did He withdraw from God’s people?  He withdrew from them for the same reason that He often withdraws His presence from the soul of a Christian:  that is, to purify the disciple’s desires.

Consider that Moses in the desert responded to the grumbling of the Israelites by drawing manna from Heaven.  But this did not stop their grumbling.  Throughout the forty years of Israel’s wandering through the desert, Moses had constantly to meet the needs of the Israelites as they continued to grumble.  It was as if Moses was the only one who could truly keep sight of their true goal, the Promised Land:  a land overflowing with milk and honey, where there would be no more hunger, and where they would be truly filled.

Yet even after the Israelites reached this Promised Land, they grew over the centuries to believe that their life there was the best God had to offer.  They did not realize that their covenant with God was about to be fulfilled by a new and everlasting covenant.  They did not realize that the Word of God, present in the Scriptures, had become flesh and was standing in their midst, offering to lead them towards eternal life.  What they did not realize, they could not desire.

Easter 2-5

The Third Sunday of Easter [B]

The Third Sunday of Easter [B]
Acts 3:13-15,17-19  +  1 John 2:1-5  +  Luke 24:35-48

… Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread.

At some point after the Resurrection, the disciples might have wondered, “Jesus rising from the dead is great, but what now?  Do we have to follow suit, and then is Jesus going to start building the Kingdom on earth with all of His Risen Disciples?”  Was Jesus going to set up shop in Jerusalem, and establish a new world order with the apostles as his cabinet officers?  “What’s next?”

If someone had asked Jesus “What’s next?”, Jesus would have answered that soon, He was going to ascend above the earth, to return to the Right Hand of God the Father.  But, on the other hand, where were the disciples going?  They were going to go from Jerusalem to all the corners of the world.  As Jesus said in last Sunday’s passage from the Holy Gospel, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  Jesus’ earthly journey was almost over, but not the apostles’ journey.

Jesus, through His Death on the Cross, opened the gates of Heaven so that everyone could enter through them.  But does that mean that being a Christian is just about saying “Thank you, Jesus, for opening up Heaven”, and then waiting to be taken from this world to Heaven’s gate?  Nothing in the Scriptures, and nothing in the Church that Jesus established, says anything like this.  From the moment that we become Christians at Baptism, until the time that we die on this earth, our motto should be those words Jesus spoke:  “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  Consider these words of Jesus in the light of another statement of His.

I doubt that many of us have even been anywhere near the Middle East.  So is there any personal meaning for us in the words of Jesus, when He says that His followers are to preach the Good News of the Gospel “to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem”?

Jerusalem was the historical origin of the Church:  it was there that Jesus celebrated His Last Supper, there that He died and rose from the dead.  It was there that the apostles waited during those ten days after Jesus’ Ascension for the Holy Spirit to come down upon them from Heaven, to fill their hearts, minds, and souls.  “Jerusalem” represents for us both the historical city where the Church began and the place in the soul where God plants His grace.

When Jesus tells us to preach the Gospel “to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem”, He means for us to preach the Gospel to as many people as we can, beginning with those closest to our souls:  those within our homes, in our classrooms, and in our neighborhoods.  It’s to the people there that Jesus is sending us when he says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  But what are we sent to do?

Of course, there are many ways of “preaching”.  We should keep in mind the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:  “Preach always, and use words if necessary.”  In other words, you can preach without opening your mouth.  In fact, our example is usually more persuasive than our words, since most of us are not great speakers.

The greatest work we can carry out as Christians is to forgive.  As the Father forgave us through Jesus’ Death on the Cross, so we forgive others through our example.  The Christian offers forgiveness first without demanding an apology beforehand, and not even expecting the apology at the same time as forgiveness is given:  just as Christ on the Cross not only did not receive an apology from those around Him, but received instead mockery and scorn.

For us, too, Jesus does not wait to forgive us until we are good and strong enough to appear before Him and offer an apology.  He offers to cleanse us of our sinfulness when we are yet babies, unable even to speak or realize that we are conceived in this world as sinners.  We in our turn should offer forgiveness from our hearts and through our words and actions before someone who has wronged us even asks for it.  This is the message that alone can bring peace to the world and make it possible for Jesus’ words to come true:  Peace be with you.”

Thursday of the Second Week of Easter

Thursday of the Second Week of Easter
Acts 5:27-33  +  John 3:31-36
April 15, 2021

“We must obey God rather than men!”

Baptism is not a private experience.  It is not simply about “me and Jesus”.  Baptism washes away not only one’s own personal sins, but also the sin of Adam and Eve.  All members of the human race have shared that original sin, with the exceptions of Mary and Jesus.

Likewise, as the baptismal bath washes away death in both personal and communal ways, so baptism also brings about new life in the soul of the baptized in two ways.  The individual Christian, during the course of his earthly days, works out his salvation [see Philippians 2:12] through his membership in the Church:  that is, by sharing in her saving mission.

This Church, the Body of Christ, is the answer to the questions that today’s readings raise.  The evangelist explains that there’s a difference between those who speak of earthly things, and those who speak of God.  Peter himself, the first visible head of the Church, says ultimately the same thing in Acts.  In front of Jewish officials, Peter offers an explanation for why the apostles disobey the officials, declaring:  “We must obey God rather than men!”  Yet, ironically, these Jewish officials were representatives of God!

Most Christians, in fact, represent God in some manner or another.  Parents represent God to their children.  Catechists represent God to their pupils.  Clergy represent God to those entrusted to their care, and not only through the sacraments.  This is as God designed the Church, although of course, this is where difficulties arise within the Church.  Those called to represent God fail through sin or ignorance.

From the day of Pentecost, the Church has not been perfect.  As we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pentecost, we beg the Holy Spirit for those gifts that will allow each of us to be seen as pure icons of our Crucified and Risen Lord, and to represent God faithfully in thought, word and action.

Easter 2-4