The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While most consider Christmas to have that honor, I think the Easter Triduum takes it – hands down.

In the next few days, the universal Church will celebrate the reason for her existence. We will remember the moments in the life of Jesus that make the kingdom of God our reality. I use the present tense intentionally here because the memory of these events is of a very particular kind – an anamnesis. Such a remembrance implies a making present of the event, as well as a participation in the event. Though we have this experience at every Mass, during the Easter Triduum, we have the opportunity to travel the road of the disciples in the same time frame that they did – over the course of three days. The Easter Triduum is actually one extended liturgical celebration, not three separate ones. For me, the most powerful moments come in the waiting between our times in the church.

On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus at the Last Supper. Here, Jesus gives new meaning to the Passover ritual gestures that fulfill God, the Father’s plan of salvation. The sharing of bread, which bonded those present at the Passover celebration, is “My Body”, indicating that the unity of his disciples lies now in His Person, not merely common food. The cup of wine blessed by Jesus is the Cup of Elijah, the Messiah. This cup is “My Blood”, by which Jesus both claims his Messianic identity and indicates the way in which salvation will be won. Furthermore, the cup is shared, indicating the sharing in Christ’s suffering that the disciples will undergo – suffering which will have the same redemptive effect as that of Christ’s own. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

We then go off with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane. Traditionally, we visit local parishes to visit with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night – entering into the mind and heart of Jesus, pondering the thoughts and feelings that caused him to sweat blood, staying awake with him as best we can. I always appreciated not having to go to work on Good Friday because it enabled me to truly enter into this moment, and, the next morning, to feel the anticipation of the trial of Jesus to be remembered at the Good Friday service.

tomb mosaicOf course, on Good Friday, we are present at the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus, playing our role in His suffering, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Leaving Good Friday service, I am always left with a keen awareness that the tabernacle is empty, that all tabernacles are empty. I must admit, it scares me a bit – to think that Jesus is not here! Yes, I know he is in my thoughts and in my heart, but that makes his presence dependent on me. In the Eucharist, he is here in a much fuller capacity (indeed, the fullest) than I could ever imagine spiritually – and I can feel that presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a grace far beyond me. With that presence gone, I feel the inadequacy of my own memories of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories?

Slowly, the church illuminates with the light of the Easter fire, then pew by pew until the darkness is lifted, and we are bathed in the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. Halleluah! He is risen! Jesus is the Messiah. He has conquered sin and death. The kingdom of God IS our reality! And we are here, present in this anamnesis, at its founding. We can trust our own memories of Jesus because we have been present to and participated in the Paschal Mystery.

So tell me, is there a more wonderful time of the year?

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Standing by Christ

On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, during a long break in a class I was teaching, students watched, on the “edge of their seats,” the live, televised papal election of Cardinal Bergoglio, presented as “Pope Francis.”   They cheered and screamed exuberantly. In the excitement of the moment, I reminded them that, when the world views him more critically—when the pope’s preaching and living the Gospel evokes anger and hatred among those “of the world”—then they must continue passionately supporting and encouraging our Holy Father. Not so easy, though, when popular culture castigates the Church’s stance “in truth” as an outmoded and bigoted vestige of dark ages in humanity’s past.

We may view Pope Francis’s exceptional popularity—a huge boost for Catholic counter-culture and waning Church attendance—as a timely but provisional blessing from God. As we know, popularity comes and goes. Jesus’ sobering words clarify our focus on realistic discipleship: “…because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:19-20)

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, on which we recount Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. Just prior to this entry, descending the MoPalmunt of Olives toward Jerusalem, Jesus’ multitude of disciples accompany and receive him. They lay down cloaks and leafy branches on the road before him and proclaim Jesus of Nazareth the “son of David,” the “king.” This alludes to and fulfills Psalm 118:25-27: “Lord [actually, YHWH], grant salvation! [in Hebrew, Hosanna!]…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…The Lord is God and has given us light. Join in procession with leafy branches…!” Jesus’ extolled, messianic procession also fulfills prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 and alludes to Isaiah 40:9 and 62:11. Concerning Jesus’ approach toward Jerusalem, the intertextuality between each Gospel and the Old Testament is significant and intricate in messianic contour.

Jesus’ peak of popularity, and the renown proper to him as the true Messiah and world Redeemer, are quite transitory. Shortly following his climactic reception on Palm Sunday (as we call it), the religious leaders of Jerusalem—at risk of suffering the fate of the unrepentant sinners of Zion, of those consumed among unquenchable flames (Isaiah 1:27-31)—falsely arrest, torture, and crucify the Christ.

Jesus, undaunted by the esteem of men or their status (Matthew 22:16, John 5:41), boldly speaks the truth: “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus’ mission of testifying to the truth corresponds to his identity, Truth itself (John 14:6). If our discipleship of Christ is genuine, we must be faithful to his word. Can we withstand the pressure to conform to “the world?” By what we say and do, and even at times by our silence or act of omission, do we fail to courageously, faithfully embrace all of Jesus’ teachings? Out of fear of social reprisal, do we slight duty and devotion to Sunday Eucharist and holy days of obligation, patience and kindness toward all, chastity and the sanctity of real marriage, material solidarity with the poor, etc.? When we conform to our fallen nature, we deny our divine image, as well as Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). In our denial, we are saying about the Christ, in effect, “I do not know this man!”

In contrast, by the amazing grace God lavishly bestows on us, along with our freely-chosen resolve, we each can stand by Christ in courage, saying, “I can do all things through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Communion & Evangelization: A Lesson from Evangelii Gaudium

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The instructions one usually receives upon agreeing to be part of such an activity normally only extend as far as: “Just make a brief presentation on something that struck you in the text.” The instructions in this case would be no different. The following, therefore, is a short mediation on what I understand to be a great lesson to be learned, or reminder to be noted, from Evangelii Gaudium.

When one normally conceives of evangelization, a phrase often used is “handing on the faith.” While a good phrase, a temptation can be to understand faith strictly as it relates to the intellect. In other words, faith relates to what we believe, what we know as disclosed by divine revelation. Accordingly, missionary and evangelizing activity can be seen strictly as a task which communicates these truths to others. I am not attempting to disparage this task. In fact, this is precisely what I do every day in the classroom, i.e., communicate the truths of the faith as intelligibly as I can for my students. But the goal of evangelization is not a full understanding of the Catholic faith, rather, it is communion: communion with God and one another in the Church.

In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is reminding us that “handing on the faith” is not simply an intellectual activity. Rather, and primarily, “handing on the faith” is the communication of God’s love for us; a love which is personal. As St. Paul wrote: “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). For Pope Francis, as for St. Paul, faith cannot be separated from love in our evangelizing activity. It is “the love of Christ [that] urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14) in our missionary vocation, and impels our desire to seek out the least of Christ’s brothers (cf. Mt 25:40).

One passage of Evangelii Gaudium which, I think, points to this relationship between communion, love and evangelization, is the first section of chapter one, entitled, A Church which Goes Forth (Una Chiesa in uscita). This is more strictly translated as “A Church Going Forth,” a church active and in the process of reaching out. In this section Pope Francis mentions that the missionary impulse of the Church stems from the love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and who calls us to be servants of one another (cf. Jn 13:17); thus forming an evangelizing community which “goes forth” in service. This service is not a disengaged and aloof didacticism, but an immersion in and among the evangelized, a taking on of “‘the smell of the sheep,’” a forming of communion in the one who has laid down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:15).

This is the great reminder, I believe, of this apostolic exhortation: that the goal of evangelization is not knowledge but communion in love. This is the joy of the Gospel, that “God never tires of forgiving us” (§ 3) and constantly calls us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with one another.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.