By: Fr. James Gross
When we read about the Resurrection of Christ in the gospels, the experience can feel like husking an ear of corn. You can’t get down to the cob instantly, but have to patiently peel your way through a few layers. The accounts of the gospels are like those layers, peeled away until we get farther along in time and his disciples fully comprehend that Jesus is alive. Today’s gospel passage takes us back to Easter Sunday afternoon. Only St. Luke’s gospel contains this story. But thank goodness that at least one of the gospels does!
The two men on the road to Emmaus are not main actors, so to speak. We only learn the name of one of them, and we don’t hear of him at all before this point. Cleopas and his friend were not two of the Twelve, but did that mean they had no stake in the Kingdom of Heaven? Were they simply supposed to let the experts do all the heavy lifting? That’s not the way the Church works. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that the laity have their particular vocation—to be a leaven in the world, and a means of evangelizing and sanctifying the part of the world in which they live.
What can we say for sure about these two men? They had made room for Jesus in their hearts. The bottom line is that we can do the same thing. Despite their grief over the Lord’s crucifixion and their confusion about the reports swirling around earlier that first Easter Sunday, they had loved him too deeply and gone too far to throw their devotion away and start over. For them, Jesus was more than a teacher. He was a beloved friend and brother. Jesus related to them meaningfully and showed them the Father’s mercy. That’s something one doesn’t just set aside.
Celebrities will often have an entourage of hangers-on accompanying them at a public event, but often there isn’t any depth or connection between them and the celebrity. The followers may simply be there for selfish reasons, angling for fame or exposure. But with these two disciples, they knew that the Lord Jesus cared intensely for them, no matter how large the crowds of his followers became.
Here today, the compassion of Christ is front and center. The disciples do not recognize the Risen Christ at first. We never learn exactly why; maybe Jesus is wearing a hooded garment that partially conceals him, or maybe the disciples, in their state of sadness, never bother to look him in the eye. But Jesus doesn’t jar them by saying, “What’s your problem? You really don’t know who I am?!” In fact, he doesn’t refer to himself at all in the beginning. His first statement is: “What are you two discussing as you walk along?”
What we have here is an invitation: “Tell me what’s happening with you.” That’s not so complicated, is it? We see a spirit of warmth, genuine curiosity, and altruism. Jesus wants to enlighten them, but he does so by first inviting them to open the doors of their hearts to him and give their testimony, as it were. Sometimes we encounter people who have to “hold court” and talk about themselves, or else they completely lose interest in the conversation. Christian empathy asks about the well-being of others, not only for the sake of etiquette, but for its own sake. The disciples experienced that concern first, and thus were able to absorb what Jesus had to say next.
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Christ’s victory would come, not through escaping tribulation, but by embracing it. This remains a paradox and folly in the eyes of the world. To them Jesus’ suffering could only mean defeat and destruction. But it is our own demise that he destroyed. We lift high the cross of Christ because, awful as it was, it was not the end of him.
“He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” The sequence of those statements is intentional, because they represent what happens at the celebration of every Mass. Taking, blessing, breaking, giving—the ritual unfolds in precisely that order. We declare without a shadow of a doubt that “Breaking of the Bread” refers to meeting Jesus in the Eucharist. The disciples’ eyes were opened once they arrived in Emmaus and Our Lord gave himself to them in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Many non-Catholic commentaries tend to gloss over these last verses of today’s gospel reading, arguing that what St. Luke refers to is a symbolic experience disengaged from their senses. Luckily for us, we don’t need to play down this scripture passage or try to explain it away; our identity flows from this moment! At every Mass we attend, we re-create this table setting at Emmaus.
Do we really believe that we are meeting the living God, the greatest love of our lives, when we celebrate the Eucharist? Do we reinforce this attitude by the way we dress, the way we prepare ourselves ahead of time, and the way we behave while we are here? The Lord has truly risen. He is here in this place. And when we take leave of his house, he is inside of us. Let’s make sure that he is at home there.
By: Fr. James Gross
To her eternal credit, Mary of Magdala is the first one who comes upon the scene of the empty tomb. She was not named “the rock,” as Simon Peter was. She did not get to see Jesus transfigured in glory, as Peter, James, and John did. But her love for Jesus took a backseat to no one’s. She did not go to the tomb because someone else sent her there, but simply because of love. And that love would be rewarded as Jesus eventually appeared to her first, before the inner circle of His Apostles. Now there is a whole new way to remember her. No longer does that mysterious line by which the Gospels introduce Mary of Magdala to us, that the Lord Jesus had expelled seven demons from her, remain her badge of identity. There is far more to her than that.
Her love led her first to inform Peter & John that the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. When they hurriedly came onto the scene, we are told, they found the tomb as Mary described it, but John is the first one on whom the truth of what has happened begins to dawn. In a touching display of modesty, he refers to himself as “the other disciple” when telling the story.
St. John provides a lengthy description in today’s Gospel of the burial cloths. But couched in this description is a very helpful piece of evidence. We are told that the cloth over Jesus’ head was rolled up and left in a separate place. In other words, the Lord had tended to it in a special way. A Jewish custom at table would be for a guest to shabbily wad up one’s napkin at the end of a meal to indicate that he or she was finished. However, if the person needed to leave the table and intended to return, he or she would fold or roll it up as sign to keep their place setting intact. Now we can understand why Jesus rolled up his head cloth. It was his little “wink and a nod” way of telling his friends that he was coming back. The empty tomb was not a result of foul play. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, just as he promised!
The joy of this event is unsurpassable, but it didn’t unfold immediately. For Jesus’ friends, the grief that came from losing him (and, in most cases, deserting him) sunk in very deeply. When we read the Gospels, most all of his disciples spend that Easter Sunday a few steps behind, scratching their heads and slowly arriving at the truth. Mary of Magdala suspects that “they” (whoever they were) took the Lord’s body away. Peter steps out of the tomb wondering and pondering, but not yet able to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus outright. Thomas will refuse to believe it when the others insist they saw the risen Christ with their own eyes!
Naysayers of the resurrection of Jesus have absolutely no leg to stand on other than a stubborn denial. Think about it: Jesus’ enemies made all sorts of contingency plans in case he should rise on the third day after being destroyed, as he had prophesied. Not only did the Jewish leaders arrange for guards posted at the tomb, but they had a plan in place to protect the guard’s jobs in case Jesus should rise and evade them. The disciples, on the other hand, came around to the facts more slowly, as if awakening from a trance. Now, if they were to manufacture a rumor that the Lord has risen when he hadn’t, would they not have acted differently, more boldly, almost overselling their case? On that first Easter Sunday, the Good News was so good that it was better than they had expected.
The spirit of our Easter celebration is one of unbridled joy and bold, bright colors in the sanctuary. Shame on us if we were not to behave this way! Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven comprise the final and supreme chapter in the story of the world’s salvation. Nothing more needs to be done. The work now is in our hands and the Holy Spirit’s hands, to share the light of God’s victory with the world. Compared to what God has done for us, anything else the world conjures up is as darkness.
We as Catholics celebrate Easter as a 50-day season. What we do with that time says a lot about how we approach this season. Are we celebrating with the crowd today mostly because everyone else is? Will we allow everything to return to normal tomorrow, or will we follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, who not only applied the teachings of Christ to their lives and prayers, but also shared it with whoever would receive it? Lots of Catholics do not identify evangelizing with their own experience. They’ll say something like, “Isn’t that what others do, like the Holy Rollers down the street? What does evangelizing have to do with our parish or with me?” The answer is everything.
Recent Popes have spoken about their desire for a “new evangelization” among the faithful, not to put us down, but to reshape our way of thinking. Evangelization is not a static or historical thing, something done once upon a time for my ancestors so that I’d be here today. No, evangelization has a rightful place now, both for us and for those in our community who do not have a relationship with God as we do.
One day Jesus brought a dramatic question before His Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” That question was not exclusively for them, but is just as crucial for each of us. Please ask yourselves: “Who is the Risen Christ to me? Do I long to make room in my life for Jesus, or do I act as though I’ve had enough of him? Do I entrust myself to his authority, over my soul, over my marriage, over my family, or do I resent it?”
I invite all of you to keep these questions in the forefront of your minds this Easter season. May we all pray for a greater ability to answer “Who do I say Jesus is?” Our Savior has come so that His joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. His Resurrection to new life changes everything. My prayer for all of us this Easter is that our joy may be genuine and strong.
By: Fr. James Gross
Tonight’s Mass begins what amounts to a three-day celebration in the Church. There’s nothing else like this all year long. Instead of a formal ending to this Mass with a final blessing, we will form a procession to take the Blessed Sacrament to our chapel of repose, out in the alcove. Just as Christ and the Apostles left the upper room once the Passover meal had ended, so our Lord exits the church proper.
Tomorrow’s liturgy is not a celebration of Mass, but the reading of the Passion, the veneration of the cross, and the reception of Holy Communion. A final blessing and dismissal comes only at the conclusion of Mass on Easter, bringing this great liturgy to a close. But before we can arrive at the great joy of Easter morning, we first have to accompany the Lord in His suffering and death. And tonight Jesus gives us an intimate look at those last quiet moments gathered with his apostles before Judas finalizes his sad betrayal.
“Jesus loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” The importance of Holy Thursday night is enormous, because of two things Jesus instituted for his Church: the Eucharist and the Ministerial Priesthood. Here the sacrifices of the Old Covenant find their proper understanding. Here we have the meaning of what the shedding of a lamb’s blood could only symbolize. Here is the most tangible means by which Christ fulfills his promise to be with us always, until the end of the world.
There are other times during the year to put on our “theology caps” and study in depth the Church’s teaching of how the simple gifts of bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood. For tonight, let’s put on our “history caps” instead. The final sign that God would show the Egyptian Pharaoh of His majesty was the plague of the firstborn.
For untold numbers of people and animals in the land of Egypt, on one fateful night, the gift of life would be snatched away. But God had Moses instruct the Hebrews as to how they would escape this tragic fate. Each household needed to select a year-old male lamb free of blemish and slaughter it to provide a sacrificial meal. Then, a portion of its blood would go on the door frame of their tents. God’s angel rescued all those who participated in the ritual meal and “passed over” the homes marked by the blood of the lamb.
Now, as wondrous as all that was, everyone acknowledges that an animal sacrifice does not take the place of a contrite heart. In one of the Psalms, God Himself chastises the people for spilling the blood of bulls and goats as though these mere beasts, and not God, would deliver them from condemnation. We no longer have that concern. John the Baptist’s words some three years earlier, “Behold the Lamb of God,” perfectly foreshadowed our Savior’s work. On the night before his trial, scourging, and crucifixion, Jesus left us a memorial of his once for all sacrifice. At every Mass, the act of our redemption is not redone, but it is represented in sacramental form. At every Mass, the altar is the cross.
Notice that Jesus institutes the Eucharist with a specific command that we do this in remembrance of him. This command supersedes a mere suggestion. In fact, we can go so far as to say the Christ depends on us to offer his sacrifice together with him to his Father. When we consider the living practice of the Church, this one thing is the most indispensable.
The Holy Sacrifice, made present in the Mass, is to endure as long as time endures. On no occasion did our Lord say anything similar about writing down his words. Thanks be to God for the witness of Sacred Scripture, but nowhere does a message of Jesus come after the order: “Quick, somebody jot this down!” However, when it comes to the sacrament of His Body and Blood, Jesus left nothing to chance. “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, do this in memory of me.”
In order to provide for this sacrifice, we have our Lord’s commission—ordination, really—of the Church’s first bishops in the apostles. Catholic Bishops today are successors to the Apostles, carrying out the fullness of that office. Priests are extensions of the Bishops, ordained to ministry in the Person of Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church. While everyone is endowed with a priestly identity by virtue of baptism, so as to offer God fitting worship and praise, some men among their number are called forth to exercise the ministerial priesthood so as to personify the presence of the love of Jesus Christ by many different means, not the least of which being the consecration of the Holy Eucharist.
Lastly, as a touching gesture that represents Jesus’ total gift of self, he begins to wash the feet of the Apostles. Aside from the obvious meanings of this act—a pattern of humble service and an example of servant leadership in Christ’s name—there’s an added meaning to this ritual, which helps to explain why the Church insists, if at all possible, that Bishops and priests reenact it.
I’ll ask you to look at it for a moment from the celebrant’s vantage point. A priest’s washing the feet of parishioners helps to cement a bond of love. This is not the fruit of an impersonal style of ministry, in which an itinerant preacher comes in, says what he says to say, and goes away. This is, rather, the fruit of a shepherd’s investment in his flock. At some Cathedrals, bishops arrange for seminarians to fill this role, as a representation of the Apostles. In other cases, certain groups or organizations in a parish supply the participants. Regardless of the details, the person Father serves in this way is never just a token selection or a number. Those people represent all the individuals under his care. And unless Father relates to them with humility and respect, honoring the dignity which God gave to them, his participation in the ministry of Christ becomes a fraud.
Since there’s no formal dismissal at the end of this Mass, we all are invited to linger and remain with Christ in prayer. The words he spoke that first Holy Thursday night ring in our ears; “Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?” The Lord invites us to spend some time in quiet and meditation before we need to drift away. If you still need to make a good confession before Easter, you can do that, too. The King of heaven and earth looks upon us with inestimable love and waits for us here.
By: Fr. James Gross
“Christ Jesus…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” St. Paul uses this statement as the lens through which he views everything we just heard. The reading from which it comes is one of the most powerful and beautiful writings to come from his hand.
I’ve heard a number of Church history scholars speculate that the text of today’s second reading was actually a hymn that some Christians used in worship. In other words, St. Paul may not have composed these words, but adopted them as something already in the public domain, as it were, sung during Eucharist or other times of communal prayer. What we heard was a song of praise, rejoicing in the fact that Jesus was willing to set aside the appearance of His divine nature in order to redeem us.
Never does Christ profess his love for us and solidarity for us more than during the sufferings of His Passion. While we join in with the crowds in Jerusalem giving Jesus a hero’s welcome, it’s far more important to stay with the Lord Jesus as He submits to ridicule, scourging, and execution. The Palm Sunday Liturgy shows us that, even though we may prefer to celebrate Christ our King and wave branches along the road, we cannot stop there and go back to our routine. We have to return to Calvary, remaining with the King even when those whom he loved condemned Him to die.
There’s nothing magic about Holy Week. The next few days will be an enriching, spiritual time for you only if you make them so. How can we do this? One way is to make the effort on Good Friday to forgive someone who has wronged you or to ask forgiveness of someone you have hurt. Another is to curb your consumption of TV, movies, or smartphone usage during what we call the “Paschal Fast,” from Holy Thursday evening until the Easter Mass.
Lastly, and most obviously, take advantage of these beautiful celebrations the next few days. Say to yourself, “I need to put some other things on hold for a little while and give God a higher place. I’m not going to rush into church breathlessly at the last moment, as if I were fulfilling a requirement. Instead, I will take my time and let God’s messages soak in. I’ll return to God the gift of time that He has given to me.” The Lord waits for you to bring you true peace.
By: Fr. James Gross
Two weeks ago we heard the Gospel reading of a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. She came to a well in search of water to quench her thirst, but found hope that the Holy Spirit, the Living Water, would satisfy her spiritual thirst as well, and she became a witness to Christ for her whole town. Then last Sunday we heard the Gospel reading of Jesus healing a man born blind. Although the Pharisees had their physical sight, they would not let go of their blindness residing in their arrogance and stubbornness of heart. On the other hand, the healed man testified to the divine power at work in Jesus and became his follower.
Today we have a situation more tragic than thirst or blindness—death. The siblings of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are as close to Christ as anyone besides our Blessed Mother and the Apostles. He can be as close to any of us as he was to these dear friends. When word comes to him that Lazarus is ill and near death, Jesus decides to go to Bethany, a town within a region where danger certainly awaits him. And when he and his disciples arrive, what we see is an effusive outpouring not only of his divinity, but also of his humanity.
What am I referring to when I speak of Jesus’ humanity on display? Consider how he comforted Mary and Martha, and how he wept at Lazarus’ grave. In addition, twice we hear that Jesus was “perturbed.” To me, that verb denotes something almost trivial, like the pesky fly that lands on the same spot on your neck over and over. I thought to myself, “St. John must not mean a simple annoyance, does he?” It turns out that the Greek verb translated here as “perturbed” is in several other Gospel verses translated “moved with pity.” The literal meaning of the word is physical, as though one’s insides were being twisted around. What Jesus experienced was a visceral, gut-wrenching emotional anguish. That paints quite a different picture, in my humble opinion.
After performing the miracle, Jesus asks people to remove the confining cloth wrappings from Lazarus’ body. This symbolizes that reviving the man is not enough. One needs to have the freedom that comes with life in the Holy Spirit in order to live to the full.
We don’t know any personal details about Lazarus other than his friendship with the Lord, but Lazarus serves as a metaphor for how Christ deals with his brothers and sisters by means of His Body, the Church. It’s not a stretch to say that a great many people in our world are more spiritually dead than alive. I don’t need to list a litany of sexual or other moral faults to make this claim. We on the parish staff are thinking primarily of how we think of and carry out a relationship with God every day, and how we make our choices with respect to that relationship. Our hearts go out to those who have been baptized and confirmed—sacramentalized, if you will—but have not really encountered God in a meaningful and personal way. Those indelible marks of grace are present, but glowing as faint embers waiting for the Holy Spirit to fan them into flame. These brothers and sisters look normal on the outside, but spiritually are more dead than alive.
We are trying to be intentional and responsive about how we work with these folks. We don’t mean to blast them with angry diatribes and chase them away, leaving the false impression that those of us in the pews have everything under complete control. Neither can we be silent in the face of great societal evils, as though such acts have no consequences. A faithful Christian accepts the deposit of faith and clings to the hard truths therein, even if most people we know disagree. So what’s the proper course when encountering the “more dead than alive?”
The answer, I believe, lies in invitation. Constantly we invite them to come home and welcome them with open arms, because we ourselves know what Jesus does for us. The recent Jubilee Year of Mercy illustrated this beautifully. How much more can our parishes accomplish when more and more of her members reach out in the community in this humble fashion? Someone I was chatting with about this very topic put it this way; we ought to be able to say, “I care enough to care about you when you don’t care enough.” That’s not coming from a place of superiority, but of empathy and companionship.
You folks find yourselves in a good position to share with others what God has given you. That’s not to say that it is easy, but the opportunities are ample. Maybe half a century ago, everyone we knew belonged somewhere—they were Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, et cetera. Today it’s not the same. The percentage of young adults in Cass County who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated is skyrocketing. They’re our coworkers and neighbors. We’re not saying they’re creepy or all immersed in witchcraft or the occult. But Christ thirsts for them just as for us! How sad if no one ever brings this to their attention.
Fr. Courtright and I decided that today is a good day for us to share with you a great experience that we as priests are privileged to have. Once in a great while, someone comes into the confessional who hasn’t been there in a very long time. Sometimes it’s a longer period of time than I had been alive. When that man or woman reveals that fact and then bears his or heart before God, the last thing on earth I want to do is give them a hard time. Rather, I say something like this: “Praise God that you are here right now. The angels in heaven rejoice when anyone of us repents of our sins, and all the more so now. Neither you nor I can change what you did in the past. What we can do is look at the future and make a new start with the Holy Spirit’s help.”
Time and time again, Jesus meets people who are more dead than alive, people who thought God’s plan for them had long ago passed them by. What can we do together to encourage them to step out of the grave and into the light of God’s grace?