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.

Imagine

In John Biguenet’s short story, The Vulgar Soul, an atheist who is unexpectedly experiencing the stigmata is speaking to a psychiatrist, who asks,

‘“What about religion?”

“Well, I’m Catholic — at least I was raised a Catholic — but of course I don’t practice.”

“Why not?”

To believe in God, he patiently explained to the psychiatrist, one has to be willing to close his eyes to a great deal. “Isn’t that what they mean by faith — refusing to accept the obvious, refusing to accept what has always been right there in front of our eyes.”

“But that’s exactly what believers say,” she countered. “God has always been right there in front of us. We just won’t open our eyes.”

“Maybe it’s not so easy to see what right in front of our eyes.”

The psychiatrist laughed. “That’s certainly true, Mr. Hogue. I’d be out of business if that weren’t true.”’

Faith is an act of seeing what God reveals. As seeing, it is an act of the imagination. The tradition speaks of the “eyes of faith” that see what the “light of faith” reveals. Seeing and believing are complementary. By believing one can see and by seeing one can believe. The phrase “blind faith” is profoundly misleading. God cannot bypass the senses, and since the senses lead to knowledge through the imagination, God cannot bypass the imagination, the means by which the eyes of faith see the form/gestalt of God’s revelation, Jesus Christ. The form is the incarnate, yet risen, human reality of Jesus. The risen Jesus is absent to the physical eyes, but is visible to the eyes of faith. John says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But those who believe now see. Jesus must be imagined to be believed in, or if he is believed in, Jesus is then imagined. To the eyes of the believer, the risen Jesus is not imaginary, but is indeed imagined, and thus the whole world is seen as transformed. If the world is transformed by the resurrection of Jesus, then a living faith must be Catholic, where “Catholic” means “through the whole.” The dynamic imagination of Catholicism, “through-the whole-ness,” cannot rest short of attempting to see and then understand everything.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

 

Musings on the Practical, or Practical Musings?

On numerous occasions over the years I have been asked to “make a presentation on Scripture”. The settings have been quite varied: a series on the Gospels or a particular Gospel; a talk to a group sponsored by a parish education program; a study group meeting at the homes of parish members; an RCIA program; members of men and women religious, and the like. One common denominator among all is a lack on the part of many of knowledge of the teachings from Vatican II, especially those contained in Dei Verbum.

Without trying to assess the reasons for this vacuum, I believe some suggestions for increasing the knowledge of the faithful regarding Scripture might be in order. One way to approach the problem is to develop an understanding of the various “criticisms” that Scripture scholars have put forth. For the audience intended, this does not have to be full of technical jargon. But as the title of this article suggests, it must be practical.

José A. Pagola, a Spanish Scripture theologian whose numerous books have guided me in this quest of the “practical,” offers the following response to the question:  What are the Gospels attempting to do?

For followers of Jesus, the four gospels are a unique and irreplaceable resource. They are not textbooks, expounding an academic doctrine of Jesus. They are not detailed biographies, tracing his life in history. These stories bring us close to Jesus as the first generations of Christians remembered him, with faith and love. On the one hand, they show us the great impact Jesus caused in the people who first were attracted to him and followed him. On the other, they were written to inspire new disciples to do the same.[i]

Pagola is in no way denigrating the academic study of the Gospels, for he is a scholar. Rather, he is finding a way to “translate” our studies in such a way that the widest audience possible will understand and be inspired.

How do we approach the “practical”; that is, how do we make the concepts real and compelling in the lives of those whom we teach, preach, and offer pastoral care and support? Three words come quickly to mind: gently, firmly, and spiritually.

Gently: It is imperative that we approach our faithful people knowing they are, in the words of Pagola above, disciples who must be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the original disciples. Thus we are to take the approach of Jesus who ministered to those he described “as sheep without a shepherd.” Doing this will require our own studies to lead us to bring the “good news” in a manner that will not frighten these “yearning disciples” away. Our learning and intimacy with Jesus will provide the means to “break open the Word” to our audience. Our prayer to Jesus should be, “Help me, Lord, to tend to your most precious flock whoever they may be and at whatever stage of learning we find them.

Firmly: In this context, firmly is not to emit a negative or frightening connotation. When we bring the word of Jesus to any audience, we must search for an understanding of just “where” the audience is. If they are novices in the study of the Gospels, we must “feed them with the milk of Jesus’ nourishment.” If they are more learned we can guide them to and through the many techniques with which they can continue to grow in the knowledge of Jesus’ message.

Spiritually: We can intertwine the message of the Gospels with the continual understanding that Jesus’ teachings are designed to lead us to the Father. In this regard, our objective becomes to strengthen each person’s relationship with the Lord. As Lectio Divina teaches, we can read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. Perhaps no greater good can come from guiding our audiences to grow in following in the footsteps of Jesus and to teach them to be more than readers and studiers of the Word, but as the wise saying emphasizes “to be doers.”  Jesus came, Jesus taught by word and example, Jesus reconciled us to the Father. What a splendid way he has given us to lead others to his Father.

John Munroe teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


[i] José A. Pagola, The Way Opened Up by Jesus : A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Miami: Convivium Press, 2012), p. 24.

Setting Relationships Right

Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help.  A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.

Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarLentked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.

The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?

I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life?  Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.