Sunday Scriptures — Fifth Sunday of Easter C, Apr. 24, 2016

My pastor quoted a commentary characterizing the unifying thread of today’s readings as the question, “What’s new?” In the gospel, there is a new commandment, in the second reading a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and all things made new. The first reading doesn’t have the word new, but it concludes the account of something new: Paul’s first missionary journey, undertaken with Barnabas.
In the first reading —Acts 14:21-27 — we hear of the conclusion of Paul’s first missionary journey: a narrative which began at the first verse of chapter 13. We heard an excerpt last Sunday. From Derbe, Paul and Barnabas are more or less retracing their steps as they return to Antioch in Syria. As they go, they visit the churches they had founded.

There are two elements in those visits. First there is an exhortation to perseverance despite the difficulties which will inevitably be part of the disciples’ life. The same applies to us. We should not be surprised or discouraged in our faith when troubles come. Suffering is part of life. For Christians in many parts of the world, that suffering takes the form of persecution. Next, the apostles appoint elders (presbyteroi, in Greek, a word which has developed into the English word “priests”). The leadership in local churches is not self-constituting; the local churches are not completely independent. The present system of papal appointment of bishops has not existed through the entire history of the Church. Notably, bishops have at times been elected by the people or the clergy; but it has always been necessary for them to receive an ordination from other bishops in order to assume the office to which they had been elected.

In their report to the church of Antioch, the apostles tell how God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” We should be aware, however, that this was not the first time Gentiles had come to faith. Most notably, in chapter 10 we learn of Peter’s baptism of the centurion Cornelius and his household. But the extensive missionary journey was something new. It hadn’t been planned as a mission to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas began by preaching in the Jewish synagogues, but opposition led them to turn to the Gentiles.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 145:8-13, with refrain based on verse 1 — seems to meditate on the spread of the faith to the Gentiles: the Lord’s compassion to all his works, the faithful blessing God, proclaiming God’s might to the human race. The final verse, speaking of God’s everlasting kingdom prepares us for the second reading.
The second reading — Revelation 21:1-5a — promises a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem. What this implies is that at the end of the present age (the “end of the world”), what replaces the present world is not some immaterial existence in which we somehow participate in our resurrected bodies. There will be a material heaven and earth in which our resurrected bodies will live. What will be different will be the absence of death and sorrow. Our existence and the world will be glorified, like Jesus’ body after his resurrection.
In the gospel — John 13:31-33a, 34-35 — we are at the Last Supper. Jesus speaks of his glorification, which is accomplished by his willing acceptance of his passion and death to be followed by his resurrection, conquering sin and death, and his return to the Father. Then Jesus gives his new commandment: “Love one another.” Of course the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is already given in the Old Testament. What makes it new is the next expression: that we are to love as Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us to the point of giving his life for us. We need to try to realize that we belong to God and to one another. Rarely do people get the chance to directly give their lves for another, as did St. Maximilian Kolbe. But those who die in wartime service to their country or in roles of public safety give their lives even they may not have directly chosen to do so at that moment. For most of us, however, it amounts to letting go of selfishness.


Sunday Scriptures — Fourth Sunday of Easter C, Apr. 17, 2016

In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The opening prayer of the Mass (the same all three years) prays that the flock may follow where the shepherd has led, namely, to heaven. Each year’s gospel is taken from chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus calls himself both the gate of the sheepfold and the good shepherd.: Year A, verses 1-10; Year B, 11-18; and Year C, 27-30. The first two readings do not directly relate to the theme of the sheep and the shepherd. The title of Good Shepherd was popular with early Christians. Images of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5) were common as depictions of Jesus, and the logo for the current Jubilee Year of Mercy develops the image, substituting a human for the sheep.
After the opening prayer, we begin with Acts 13:14, 43b-52. (The omitted verses report Paul’s speech in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia.) Paul’s address met with great success among many hearers, which is why a large crowd gathered the following sabbath. But just as Jesus met opposition from those in authority in Jerusalem, so Paul and Barnabas met opposition from the leaders in Antioch. We mustn’t think that in Paul’s time the Christians saw a distinction between Jews and Christians. Clearly, Paul and Barnabas considered themselves Jews. But gradually they came to realize that in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 49:6 (quoted in v. 47 of today’s reading), they must preach to Gentiles as well, and they ended up bringing more Gentiles than Jews to faith in Jesus. Over the course of several decades, with the increasing numbers of Gentile Christians and the opposition of the leaders of Judaism, Christians and Jews came to regard themselves as separate religions; but in Paul’s time that had not happened.
In the responsorial psalm — Ps 100:1-2, 3, 5 with 3c supplying the refrain — we have the themes of ourselves as the sheep of God’s flock (meaning that God is the shepherd), and the call of the Gentiles, “all you lands,” to join the worship offered by Israel.
The second reading — Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 — begins with a reference to the call of the Gentiles: a crowd “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God who purifies his followers, and, in the final verse, the Lamb is also their shepherd. This leads to the gospel.
In the gospel — John 10:27-30 — Jesus, having earlier identified himself as the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep, characterizes his sheep as those who follow him because they hear and recognize his voice. The result of following him is his gift to them of eternal life. No one is more powerful than God, who has given the sheep to Jesus, so Jesus’ promise of eternal life is solid. Indeed Jesus identifies himself with the Father: “The Father and I are one.” How this is true was the subject of decades and centuries of reflection, as the doctrine of the Trinity was developed.
To synthesize the messages: we Christians of all nations have been gathered into a single “flock,” the Church, which is being led by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, into the eternal life of heaven.

Sunday Scriptures — Third Sunday of Easter C, Apr. 10, 2016

This Sunday’s readings continue the pattern from last Sunday: first reading from Acts, second from Revelation, and Gospel from John. This will also be followed in the remaining Sundays of Easter, except where the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday. It seems to me that the readings of a particular Sunday were not selected to develop a particular theme. Each stands on its own, although it may be possible to see some resonances between some of them.


The first reading — Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41 — brings us some of the account of the second appearance of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. Peter and John had healed a cripple and proclaimed that Jesus was the Lord through whose power it was done. The Sanhedrin had ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. When they persisted, they were brought in again, and today’s reading gives the account of this second appearance, leaving out the speech of Gamaliel, who warned the Sanhedrin that if the apostles’ preaching was from God, they would be opposing God if they opposed the apostles. It also omits a line that says the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before releasing them, which lets us know what the line about suffering dishonor for the sake of the name means. Peter’s speech is a synopsis of the more extensive proclamations reported elsewhere in Acts.

It is because the apostles have seen the risen Lord (one instance being given in today’s gospel) that they can stand firm in the face of the Sanhedrin’s orders, threats, and punishment. We, too, must be prepared to stand firm when our faith is challenged.
In the responsorial psalm — verses from Ps. 30 — we have a prayer that reflects the apostles’ thanksgiving after their release.



The second reading — Revelation 5:11-14 — gives us a view , in language and images that may be figurative rather than literal, of what is happening in heaven. Jesus is the Lamb, prefigured by the Israelites’ Paschal lamb, who is slain but who saves us from death not only by giving his flesh and blood, but also by rising from the dead, thus conquering death. The whole universe recognizes his glory. Chapter 4 of Revelation presented a scene in which 24 elders worshipped God who was seated on his throne surrounded by four living creatures — one like a lion, one like an ox, one with a human face, and one like an eagle in flight. The appearance of the living creatures recalls Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures, each of which had all four faces (Ezekiel 1:1-28). In chapter 10, Ezekiel again has a vision in which he realizes that they are cherubim. Beginning with St. Irenaeus in the second century, it has been common to see the four living creatures of Revelation as representing the four evangelists: the lion, Mark; the ox, Luke; the human, Matthew; and the eagle, John. Scholars think that in context they are intended to be angels that govern the physical world, while the elders represent the Church. In this reading, then, their worship symbolizes that of humanity and all creatures of the universe, now directed to Jesus, and joined to that of the angels.

In the first Eucharistic prayer, there is a sentence which asks that our offering (the consecrated elements, the Body and Blood of Christ) may be carried to God’s altar in heaven so that all who participate in the reception of Communion from this altar on earth may be filled with heavenly grace and blessing. Our worship is a sharing of the worship of God in heaven: one meaning of the “communion of saints” referred to in the creed.



The gospel — John 21:1-19 — presents three parts of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus: a miraculous catch of fish, a meal of fish and bread, and a dialogue of Jesus and Peter.

The catch of fish recalls the catch of fish which took place at the call of Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee (James and John) in Luke 5:1-11. In both, the fishermen have caught nothing all night, but Jesus tells them where to lower the net, resulting in a catch so large that they cannot haul the net into the boat. In Luke, Peter confesses his sinfulness. In John, the beloved disciple recognizes that the man on shore is the Lord.

In John 6: 1-14, Jesus feeds a large crowd with five barley loaves and two fish, which leads to their recognition of him as one promised by God in Deuteronomy 18:15 (see also Malachi 3:1&23). That previous miracle occasioned the Bread of Life discourse in which Jesus identified himself as the bread of life, whose flesh and blood he would give for the life of the world — whoever consumed them would possess eternal life. At the Last Supper and on Calvary, Jesus fulfilled his promise, and after his resurrection, the disciples in Emmaus recognized him in the breaking of the bread — Luke 24:35. Thus the miraculous meal of fish and bread symbolizes the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.

In the scene of the call of Matthew, Matthew acknowledged that he was a sinner. He is again a sinner, having denied Jesus three times. Now Jesus undoes that denial by requiring a threefold declaration of love. But it doesn’t only mean that Peter’s denial of Jesus is forgiven. Peter’s leadership of the post-resurrection community of Jesus’ followers is affirmed three times as well. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18) who has laid down his life for his sheep and taken it up again. Now Peter becomes the shepherd.

Finally, Jesus tells Peter what he can expect. Just as Jesus was bound and executed, so, in his turn, will Peter suffer a similar end (with, of course, the promise of eternal life given in John 6).
So Jesus in effect constitutes his Church around the sacred meal of his body and blood with Peter as the shepherd. The success of the disciples as “fishers of men” depends on Jesus.

Sunday Scriptures — Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday) C, Apr. 03, 2016

The Sunday after Easter has had various titles through the centuries. One ancient title, which was used in the Roman Missal was “Dominica in Albis,” which means “Sunday in Whites.” Scholars concluded that originally the title was “Dominica in Albis Deponendis,” that is “Sunday of Laying aside White [Garments].” The neophytes, who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil, were given new, white garments to wear when they emerged from the baptismal pool. They would wear them for a week and, on this Sunday, resume wearing ordinary clothing.
Another title was “Quasimodo Sunday.” This follows the custom of designating Mass texts by the opening word(s) of the introit. When the Mass was only used on a particular Sunday, the title was also given to the day. The introit for the Sunday after Easter began with a quote from 1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn infants [newly born through baptism, that is], long for pure spiritual milk,” in Latin “Quasi modo geniti infantes rationabile concupiscite lac.” So the hunchback of Notre Dame was called Quasimodo because he was born on Quasimodo Sunday.
In English speaking countries, it was also called “Low Sunday,” because after the peak Sunday of the year, it was, relatively speaking, low. As with “Dominica in Albis,” it may also suggest the end of the Church’s week long celebration of Easter and a return to usual activities.
More recently, with a view to the 50 day Eastertide of the liturgy, it has been known as the Second Sunday of Easter.

Now the subtitle “Divine Mercy Sunday” has been added. This comes from popular devotion based on the writings of a Polish nun of the first half of the 20th Century, St. Faustina Kowalska. She wrote of having visions of Jesus in which he presented himself as the exemplar of the mercy of God and urged people to invoke divine mercy in their prayers. She also reported that Jesus asked that this Sunday be designated “Divine Mercy Sunday.” Pope St. John Paul II both wrote an encyclical about God’s mercy titled “Dives in Misericordia,” that is, “Rich in Mercy” — a phrase taken from Ephesians 2:4 — and designated the Sunday as requested by St. Faustina.
Pope Francis has followed up, in a way, by designating this year a jubilee year to be called the Year of Mercy. So there is considerable emphasis in the Church on God’s mercy today. Nevertheless, the scriptures assigned to the day were put in place for the Second Sunday of Easter before its designation as Divine Mercy Sunday. So we begin with a reading from Acts about the time after Jesus’ resurrection, then hear the first of a series of passages from Revelation, and conclude with an account from John about post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Only the responsorial psalm explicitly mentions mercy.


The first reading — Acts 5:12-16 — tells of the respect in which the apostles, and especially Peter, were held in Jerusalem. Peter and Jon had cured a cripple at the temple gate by invoking the name of Jesus, and had been ordered by the chief priests not to preach about Jesus, but they persisted, and cures continued and faith in Jesus spread. In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of six ways of showing love to others, including caring for the sick. These, along with have come to be called “corporal works of mercy.” Then seven “spiritual works of mercy” were identified, one of which is “instructing the ignorant” and another “converting sinners.” The apostles are engaged in these works of mercy, in which God’s mercy reaches people through them.

The responsorial psalm — Ps 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24 with verse 1 as the refrain — proclaims that God’s love (mercy, “misericordia,” in the Latin of the liturgy) is everlasting, and the first strophe urges all to proclaim that everlasting mercy. The final strophe contains two verses which have become classic in the tradition of the Church going back to the New Testament. By his resurrection, Jesus, rejected by the chief priests, has become the cornerstone of God’s people; and the Lord has made the day of his resurrection (and by extension every Sunday) a day of rejoicing.

In the second reading — Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19 — we hear of John’s vision of the heavenly Jesus who once was dead but now lives forever.

The gospel — John 20:19-31 — tells of two appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. The first takes place on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, and the second a week later, which would be this Sunday. Thomas’ absence on the first occasion, his doubting of what he was told, his subsequent presence and vision of the Lord, with his enthusiastic proclamation of Jesus as not only his Lord but also God, serve as an encouragement to hearers of the gospel to believe. Beyond that, it is an instance of God’s mercy. When Thomas doubts, God does not condemn him or dismiss him from the company of the apostles. He mercifully calls Thomas to faith, just as he mercifully forgives Peter for his denials. So it is with us: God mercifully calls us to repentance and forgiveness — a forgiveness which the conferral of the Holy Spirit on the apostles enables the Church to extend on God’s own authority.