Sunday, April 19, 2015

To Be a Witness

In classes and days of recollection I offer during Lent, I often remind participants that the purpose of Lent is twofold: it is the time of final preparation of the uninitiated (i.e. catechumens) for baptism and the time for Christians to recall their own baptism and they prepare to renew their baptismal promises on Easter Sunday. Unfortunately, this second aspect of Lent often gets lost. Yes, we all renewed our baptismal promises at Easter and were symbolically sprinkled with holy water, but, for most of us, that moment seems to be over as soon as it has begun and we don’t really appreciate the significance of the act… which is surprising since we’ve spent 40 days preparing to say “I do!” with a renewed mind, heart, and spirit.

We renew our baptismal promises each year because conversion and growing in faith are lifelong processes. In saying that, I simply mean that each moment of every day (not just the days of Lent) offers us infinite possibilities for experiencing grace, for choosing God and the good, and for giving and receiving love. And we have the freedom to choose how to live each of those moments. Ultimately, this all reminds me of a reflection of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who said that “the divine Majesty is a shoreless and fathomless ocean.” If we truly believe this, then, of course, we can spend an entire lifetime immersing ourselves in the depths of God’s mercy and majesty and never fully comprehend or adequately believe. 
 
Christ appearing to the Apostles by Duccio
 

I think this sense of going ever-deeper is at the heart of the Readings proclaimed on the Third Sunday of Easter. Each of the Scripture passages, in its way, speaks of what it means to be a witness of the Risen Lord. The Gospel passage (Luke 24:35-48) tells us about events after the well-known Emmaus story. As the Apostles are pondering what they’ve heard from those two who encountered Jesus on the road and who shared a meal with him that Easter Sunday, Jesus came to the gathered Apostles to teach and share a meal with them. They witnessed Jesus walking, talking. They listened as he explained everything that had happened to him, as he showed them his wounds. In a commentary on this Gospel passage, Timothy R. Martens writes:
Luke tells us that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” What a terrific description! It evokes a sense of someone holding a newborn for the first time, a team winning an improbably victory or finding out you got the job. Is this real, or is it just a dream?
Then Jesus did the most human of things to ground them: “Have you anything here to eat?” The Greek of the NRSV seems to formal. I would opt for “What do you guys have to eat here?” They gave Jesus “a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” Things just got real.
Once Jesus had finished teaching and eating, he reminded the group that they were now-and had always been-witnesses of these things. But, they also needed time to understand and unpack everything they had seen, heard, and felt.
 
We get a sense of their own progression in faith and understanding when we read Peter's words recounted in Acts of the Apostles: "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus... You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses." Peter and the others had begun to get it. They were piecing together all the things they had seen and heard and they were empowered to go out and share the Good News of mercy and hope.
 
This is the same gradual realization that we experience in our own faith journeys. We have heard the stories and we encounter the Risen Christ present among us in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the proclamation of the Word, in the praying and serving Church, and in the poor. But we are rarely (if ever) granted those "Aha!" moments when all the pieces fall into place and we somehow, mystically comprehend the Life, Light, and Life that is God. And so, we reflect, we pray, and we serve so that we can be effective witnesses, just like Peter and the Apostles. Remember that part of the reason we say those "I do's" at Easter is because we are also being sent out to share with the world that we are also witnesses that Christ is alive in the world, even now.
 
This leads us to a final reflection as we continue this Easter celebration: The quality of our witness is tied to how we live out our faith.
 
This point is brought home to us in the reading from the First Letter of John. Here, John is reminding us that, because we are witnesses, we have an obligation to live according to God's commandments: "The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Those who say, 'I know him,' but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them." These are strong words, but a powerful statement that we are called to live with integrity.
 
To profess that we believe in the One who has been raised from the dead, even as we refuse to live according to the teachings that he gave us, is to live a lie. Our commitment to care for the poor, the disabled, the outsider, the qualities of our friendships, the health of our family relationships, how we act in our private lives, and our habits of prayer are all fundamental aspects of our witness-commitment. This same is true of our willingness to be converted and to give up our sins: "Repentance and acceptance of forgiveness is not guilt-induced; it is the only adequate response to God's gift of new life offered in restored relationship with the risen Christ" (Barbara Reid, O.P., Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B). Only those who have experienced repentance and mercy can proclaim the Good News as Jesus intended (cf. Luke 24:46-48).
 
 
A prayer for the Third Sunday of Easter +
May your people exult for ever, O God,
in renewed youthfulness of spirit,
so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption,
we may look forward with confident hope
to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

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