Jesus’ Compassion for Thomas (John 20:19-31)

This reflection on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter is the first of what I hope will be a series of reflections on the lectionary’s Gospel readings. My hope is to offer a reflection for each Sunday’s Gospel, but if this proves to be too ambitious time-wise, then I will simply offer what I can. Occasionally I will do a reflection on a reading that is not in the lectionary on a given week, but which I might have been thinking about at that time. These reflections are based on what arises through my own particular meditation on the reading (a practice the Church’s tradition calls lectio divina), combined with what I have learned academically with respect to the historical context. I hope others might find this useful in some way. And I welcome your reflections, too.

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

John 20:19-31 deals with the period of time immediately following the Resurrection. According to John, Jesus has just appeared, risen, to Mary Magdalene at the tomb site. There she had gone weeping after the Jewish Sabbath had ended, expecting to anoint his corpse in accordance with the Jewish burial customs. Instead, she was beyond shocked to see him approach her in the garden and speak to her by name: “Mariam.” Mary. He told her to go back and tell the apostles that he was risen, and instruct them to wait for him to come to them. This she did. However, most of them did not believe what she told them. They remained frozen, in a room with locked doors, for fear that they might be hunted down and executed as well. Their hopes and their expectations had been crushed by Jesus’ horrifying murder, instigated by Jerusalem’s corrupt and power-hungry religious leaders, and carried out by the Roman Empire’s well-oiled execution machine. Resurrection was not on their radar. Their own short-term survival was. Struggling through their grief, fear, and humiliation, was. But not Resurrection. As for Mary, they must have theorized, she was perhaps out of her mind with grief, seeing things. In any case, women were not even considered reliable witnesses to testify. Something this extraordinary would be hard to accept even coming from a man; from a woman, the truth of a thing so astonishing could hardly be hoped.

In the middle of all this, the Gospel tells us, “Jesus came and stood in their midst [despite the locked doors] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ ” The Greek word written here for “peace” — eirēnē — reflects the Hebrew/Aramaic word that Jesus would actually have spoken: shalom. English cannot render in only one word the full meaning of shalom: it means not only peace, but wholeness, health, complete well-being. These are the first words they hear from him since before he died — since before they had either claimed that they didn’t know him in order to avoid arrest, or had simply run away in fear and horror during his Crucifixion. Many people have noted that these first words of the resurrected Jesus to the stunned apostles are simply a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, a wiping clean of the slate of their less-than-stellar faithfulness and friendship on Good Friday. Their fear-induced abandonment of him on that day and the night of his arrest prior to it is purged away, wiped clean, put in the past as though it never occurred. He understands. He forgives them. He doesn’t hold it over their heads or throw any anger or hurt in their direction. What matters, he communicates to them, is what they are going to do from now on. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He will be with them on and off for around the next 40 days, to instruct them and be with them before he ascends to the eternal world.

But Thomas, for some reason, was the only one of the apostles who didn’t happen to be there when Jesus appeared in the room. By the time Thomas rejoined the rest, he had to listen to them fall all over themselves trying to tell him that the Lord had been there and they had all seen him. This was too much for Thomas. Now, surely, the rest of them had lost their minds just as Mary and the other women had. This was beyond the pale. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side [where the centurion had pierced it with a spear], I will not believe.” For this reason people have over time given him the unflattering moniker “Doubting Thomas,” which does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. But this, as our parish priest pointed out in a homily and as I have read elsewhere, is really a bit unfair. It’s even a little hypocritical, given how many of us nowadays struggle to believe anything that cannot be conclusively and scientifically replicated to prove its veracity. We cannot in any self-righteousness cocoon call him “Doubting Thomas.”

In any case, Jesus returns a week later, again despite the locked doors, and this time Thomas is there. Again Jesus’ first words are “Peace be with you,” as if he is replicating for Thomas what he had been unfortunate enough to miss. As he had for the others, Jesus understands Thomas and his actions. He has compassion for our limitations, and forgives them. He speaks to Thomas with gentleness. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ ”

May we all be comforted, in our many faults and limitations, by his compassionate tenderness.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

Hearing the Beautiful Sound, Letting the Yeast Leaven

Recently, my husband and I decided that we would like to add to our family by adopting a little girl out of foster care through DCF. This has meant that I’ve spent a lot of time navigating a struggle between two states of mind: (1) the better angels of my nature, as Abraham Lincoln said, which want to do this wholeheartedly, and (2) my darker angels: fearfulness and selfishness. I can describe the first state of mind as a feeling of being gloriously open to the radically freeing and life-giving love of the Holy Spirit. This state feels as though I am standing on a mountain on a sunny day, where the air feels so pristine in my spiritual lungs that to describe it as merely “fresh air” would be to do it an extreme injustice. This state is to be open to love, to life, to faith, to giving, to God. This is to know what Jesus meant when he said, “Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air,” and “Which of you by worrying can add even one cubit to your span of life?”, and “Fear not, little flock, for your heavenly Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom.” This is where I want to give joyfully all that I am.

The second state of mind I mentioned, the one characterized by fear, is the one in which I think mostly about myself. This state feels as though I am standing in a small room, where the air is a bit stuffy. In this room, the Holy Spirit really has to shout loudly through those closed windows for me even to acknowledge that I might possibly hear, perhaps, a faint beautiful Sound coming from somewhere. But I’m doing my best to ignore it. This state is one of self-preservation, and prefers the safety of “known quantities.” In this state, I look askance and reluctantly at the one who calls himself my Shepherd, who claims me as a little one of his flock and beckons, “Come, follow me.” In this state, I’d rather not hear my Shepherd calling. I’d prefer to be one of the sheep that kind of trundles along beneath his radar (as if that were possible) and keep my head down, comfortably munching my patch of grass and pretending I do not hear his voice. But, as he said before, he goes looking for the ones that are out of range and can’t hear him. He’s dedicated like that.

This unknown child that we might adopt would have been removed from her birth parents for one reason or another, most often drug use and concomitant neglect. She would be probably 4-6 years old, and will have been through more confusion and dislocation in her short life than any child should have to deal with. It will be very hard at first, she will not know us, and it’ll take her a while to feel like she’s part of the family. There probably won’t be instant attachment. This is the point at which I hear my own fear whisper to me: “You already have a wonderful, biological daughter. It’s not worth the effort to do this, and you might disrupt things. What are you thinking? Stay comfortable.” This is the state in which I fear all the worst-case scenarios.

But if we are not willing to silence fear, have a little faith, and be open to some level of the unknown, we can surely miss out on wonderful things that can change life forever for the better. When you are expecting a biological child, you don’t know what could happen either. You don’t know what the child will be like in terms of personality, or whether they will be healthy, what they will be like when they’re older, and you don’t even know if something will go wrong with the pregnancy or delivery. And, let’s be honest, if the first stages of having an adopted child in your home are tough, having “your own” biological infant is pretty tough for the first few months too. They’re both tough. Neither one is a bump-less road.

Someone might ask, okay, if you think you’d like to have a second child, why not have another biological one? Well, for us, the first and foremost reason is that there are many good children right here in our own state whose birth parents could not or would not take care of them, and they need a stable forever family to love them and to be a part of. Many of them languish in foster care for much or all of their childhoods and are never adopted, and never have that stability that is so critical to a human’s development. They deserve better than that, and if we would be able to give them better than that, then we feel like we should.

Our faith has a big role in this, too; and often, my husband does a lot better job than I do at listening to the Shepherd’s voice over the whispering of fear and self-centeredness. My husband takes seriously what Jesus said about “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”; and “take up your cross and follow me”; and “whatever you do to/for the least of these brethren, you do to/for me”; and “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” My husband takes seriously too the admonishments in the Old Testament (validated again in the New) for each and every able person to take special care of “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger/foreigner in your midst.”

And as for the reality that this road will be hard at first, my husband also inspires me in his willingness to accept that Jesus never promised there would be no suffering in this imperfect temporary world; that promise only holds true for the eternal world to come. In this world, we are supposed to walk with him through suffering and know that he suffered too and continues to suffer with us; and we are also supposed to join with him as “coworkers in the vineyard,” to help alleviate the suffering of others and bring about as much of the loving kingdom of God as we can on Earth. God gives all of us the chance to be co-creators in this way with him, because that is what he wants for us.

In one of his many parables about what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus said that “the kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast that a woman put into her batch of dough, and it worked its way through and leavened the entire batch.” Like yeast, it is slow but sure, and needs certain nourishment. But give it a chance and it will leaven. Sometimes, if you’re willing to trust, and accept the unknown, you receive life, and receive it abundantly. Somewhere, I’m sure I hear a beautiful Sound. And even in the moments when I can’t hear it, I’m going to do my best to remember what it sounds like.

copyright © 2015 Elizabeth Keck

The Easter Triduum, When Time Stands Still

During our Good Friday liturgy this year, one of our priests commented that a parishioner once said to him, “In the Triduum, it’s as if time stands still.” This is true. The Three Days — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in the Easter Resurrection — have been venerated by Christians for 2,000 years as the holiest time of the year. Appropriately, the feel of the liturgies during the Triduum is different from any other. The unity of these Three Days, and thus the “time standing still” character of them, is reinforced by the fact that in Catholicism, the liturgies are treated symbolically as one extended event from the opening of the Holy Thursday Mass to the close of the Easter Vigil Mass. Because of this, there is no formal dismissal at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which ends with Jesus waiting for his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; there is not the usual beginning or any dismissal in the Good Friday Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and Death; and there is certainly not the usual beginning of Mass at the opening of the Easter Vigil. At the conclusion of the Vigil, we finally have again the formal dismissal. Only with this does the Triduum end and time moves forward again. At the Easter Sunday Masses the next day, the Church returns to the normal format.

Each of the Triduum liturgies has its own unique character and purpose. At the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the sign of his eternal presence with his people on this Earth; and we re-enact his washing of the disciples’ feet, the sign-act of his commandment for humble service of others. This is the refrain of the hymn that we sing during the washing of feet at our church: “I, your Lord and Master, now become your servant… I who made the moon and stars will kneel to wash your feet… This is my commandment, to love as I have loved you… Kneel to wash each other’s feet, as I have done for you.”

It’s almost impossible for a self-aware person to participate in the Holy Thursday liturgy without feeling a recognition of all the ways that we do not love as Jesus loves us, all the ways that we resist the idea of humble service or even humility in general, all the ways that we resist the idea of washing another’s feet even metaphorically. Our overly-developed sense of individualism and our self-centeredness so often get in the way. But Jesus knew that, and that is why he gave us this sign-act as an example for us to follow, and we remind ourselves of it at this time each year. If the incarnate God who has emptied himself out as a fellow human being can kneel to wash his followers’ feet — a servant’s job — why can’t we try a little harder to do so for one another?

The Good Friday liturgy, of course, is characterized most by its solemn nature. The altar is bare; the Tabernacle is empty; the suffering and death of Jesus are read aloud; we all come forward to kiss a wooden cross; there is no eucharistic consecration (Communion is taken from the many hosts that were consecrated the night before on Holy Thursday); and at the end of the liturgy, everyone leaves in solemn silence. We are mourning, and we are waiting now, for the Resurrection. Even amidst the mourning and the heaviness, we who are gathered have a joyful advantage the very first disciples did not yet have: we know already that there is a Resurrection.

This brings me to the Easter Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting. Yet I really don’t have adequate words to describe the Vigil. As a kid and a young adult, I heard other people talk about how magnificent, how rich in ancient symbolism, and how moving it is. But, having always gone to Easter Sunday liturgies (which are wonderful too), I had never experienced the Vigil myself until two years ago, when my husband became Catholic and had his Confirmation at the Vigil, which is the worldwide custom for adults joining the Church. It was the first for both of us, and now even our 8-year-old daughter exclaims, “You know, the Easter Vigil really is addicting!”

You can feel the anticipation start to build when you first sit down in the dark church, holding your unlit candle and waiting. You know it has begun when the priest and the altar servers, standing in the center of the church, ignite a pillar of fire in an iron stand, light the Paschal Candle from it, and begin speaking of him who is the Alpha and Omega. From that fire the altar servers light their candles and share their flame with the first person in each pew, who lights their own candle and passes the flame until everyone in that pew — and eventually the entire church — is holding a lit candle. There are no other lights on in the church when now a solo cantor begins the Exsultet, a 10-minute-long a cappella chant recounting why we should rejoice in God’s eternal love for us on this holy night, when God revealed the ultimate impermanence of sin, suffering and death — and the ultimate promise of redemption and eternal life — with the Resurrection of his Son.

Through several Old Testament readings, beginning with Creation and going through the Exodus and finally the prophets, we arrive at the New Testament still brandishing our lit candles in an otherwise dark church. Then we know we’ve all arrived at something big when suddenly the lights are thrown on, the Gloria is sung to the accompaniment of everyone ringing bells, and (at our parish, at least) a liturgical dancer ushers in the reading of the Gospel. Now comes what is for many the most special stretch of the Vigil. This is the full reception into the Church of catechumens (unbaptized adults or older children, who will now be baptized) and candidates (adults or older children who don’t need to be baptized but are joining the Church from other Christian denominations; sometimes there are also “cradle Catholics” who simply never had their Confirmation).

This leads to a rather extraordinary time of the night. It’s during this part of the Vigil that everyone forms two lines and comes forward to the baptismal fountain. When we arrive, we reach into its running waters (one of the many benefits of electrical power!) and cross ourselves with the water in memory of our own baptism and its lifelong call to the continual journey of personal holiness. This, for me, is one of the most moving parts of the night. In our parish, we approach the fountain to the musical setting of “Come to the Water,” which everyone can join the cantor in singing. There is nothing quite like being one of literally hundreds of people all walking forward together to bless ourselves with the same water, bolstered with such powerful and inspiring music as we do it. Sitting in our pew after my husband, daughter, and I have returned from the fountain, just watching the dozens of adults and children continue to file past us, all heading for the same water, to remember the same baptism by which we all were baptized into Christ, is an experience that is impossible to encapsulate in words. It is one Christ, one God, one baptism, and in coming to the water of baptism we present ourselves to God, our ultimate Source. And we come to Christ, whose Resurrection we are there to honor and proclaim.

The spiritual journey of Lent and the Easter Triduum that concludes it are over for another year. But the season of Easter lasts a glorious fifty days, ending in Pentecost. Before we know it, we will be in Advent again, awaiting Jesus’ birth into the world at Christmas. Not too long after that, Lent will begin again. The rhythm will continue, a foretaste, we’re told, of the feast to come.

© 2015 Elizabeth Keck

A Community of the Imperfect

many candles

Yesterday I read this article from America Magazine, titled “A Communion of Saints and Sinners: Loving an Imperfect Church,” and I was touched by its insights. The writer, Leonard J. DeLorenzo, reflects on how the church can simultaneously hold so many sins and failures, and yet also be the life-giving source of healing, joy, sustenance, and communion that so many of its members know and feel it to be. Musing over this perhaps counterintuitive reality, DeLorenzo writes:

The church is human with all that is good about our humanity, but not without those parts of us that have been corrupted through pride, the lust for prestige, acts of violence and hidden malice. The church is also divine, for the love of God, which is God’s very being, touches us here to first heal the corruptions of our humanity and then elevate our humanity toward a relationship with God.

What Congar and others rediscovered at the [Vatican II] council was that the church does not exist as an idea or in the imagination, but is in fact a living, breathing, beautiful and wounded body, whose very life is generated from the grace of God, though it is not yet fully what it is called to be.

That is often what strikes me each week when I go with my husband and our daughter to Mass. Sitting in our pew after receiving Communion, I watch all the rest of the people approaching the Eucharist, lining up together, advancing slowly forward together to receive the same Body of Christ, each one together participating in a worldwide communion of 1.2 billion Catholics — and a broader communion with another billion non-Catholic Christians — found to varying degrees in every corner of the globe in thousands of different cultural settings. And I think to myself as I watch them that, in the words of St. Paul, each one of these is a member of Christ’s mystical Body; each one is precious; each one is equally important; each one is sinful in his or her own ways, and each penitent one is lovingly redeemed. We are a vast yet intimate community of one body having many parts, sharing in the wounded-and-risen Body of our common Lord. In the words of a favorite hymn of ours: “We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone…”

We do not stand alone — even though our communion is imperfect and consists of very flawed people. It’s impossible to be fully in relationship with Christ without also being in relationship with the rest of his flock. While each member of the church has his or her own individual relationship with Christ, Christianity isn’t a religion for individualists preferring to remain apart from the community of Christ’s people (as Pope Francis has reminded us on many occasions). Christianity is in fact a deeply communal religion that calls its members not to a purely solitary spiritual journey of individualistic isolation, but rather to a spiritual life lived as a vital part of Christ’s earthly Body-in-community. This Body-in-community is the whole church.

The notion of real community often doesn’t rank very highly in our individualized Western culture, which can make it seem easy to think that the church as a community is irrelevant, or at least unimportant, to a person’s active living practice of his or her faith. But this would be a very incomplete understanding of what Christianity, as a relational religion, truly is. The church community, comprised of ordinary folk, certainly isn’t a perfect society in either its human leadership or its laypeople. It will always bear sins and failures within itself, some very grievous. It is us in all of our humanity: the beauty and the ugliness are both there. More importantly, the grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit is always there — in that communal body, in the sacraments, in togetherness — just as his grace also dwells in the individual prayerful heart. The grace is always there, always offered to us, the flood of light to warm our spirits, to comfort us and beckon us to walk toward it, to let it guide us on our way.

I began to experience an awareness of the church’s communal wholeness in a new way when I recently signed up to be a eucharistic minister (one of the people who offers either the eucharistic bread or wine to those coming for Communion). It happened that the very first person to whom I ever gave Communion was my husband, who himself chose to become Catholic two years ago, followed by our daughter, who had her First Communion almost one year ago. There I was, holding the chalice of wine, looking into their faces and hearing myself say to them, “the Blood of Christ,” as I gave them the cup. (Our daughter, who is 8, always gives me a big hug right after I give her Communion before she heads back to the pew, which makes it that much sweeter!). As each person after them approached me, I felt more and more a sense of humility; of how, despite my flaws, I am a part of this body of equals before God, and how awed I felt to be able to serve that body-of-many-parts in this very modest way. Each time that I’ve served as a eucharistic minister since then, I have experienced this sense of humility and awe. There’s something very special going on in that body, imperfect though we all are.

In a somewhat related way, all of this reminds me of what Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have repeatedly said about what Christianity is: Christianity can’t be defined as primarily a system of ethics and morals, as though it were simply a kind of philosophical humanism. Christianity is primarily a relationship with a divine Person, from which these things then flow. It’s a relationship with a God who emptied Godself to become enfleshed as a human born of a woman, to become a Person both fully human and fully divine; this Person suffered torture, died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended to Heaven in his luminous, resurrected physical body — as witnessed by many women and men who would later go to their deaths for refusing to say this did not happen. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians around the year 50 (and scholars say he was likely quoting an even earlier source), this divine Person demonstrated the divine love for Creation in the most self-emptying of ways, which in some mysterious way also brought about our own redemption and salvation.

DeLorenzo reflects on the church community as Christ’s ongoing earthly instrument in this:

And in what is the richest irony of all, God elects to work through and with ordinary, sinful human beings in this plan of salvation. For the plan is to save us together for each other, not separately for our lonesome selves. It is the communion of sinners that is the sign and instrument of this salvation.

This sinner thanks God for that!

 © 2015 Elizabeth Keck