Exegetical notes and homily themes to get you started this weekend:
Blessing and Procession of Palms: Matthew 28: 1-11
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem is framed by the prophecy of Zechariah (9: 9). The Messiah will come, not as a conquering warrior astride a noble steed, but in lowliness and peace, riding on an ass. The Messiah-king is one with God’s just — the poor and lowly of the world. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in such a public and deeply symbolic way (which is followed immediately in Matthew's text by the routing of the money changers from the temple) sets up the final confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests and scribes.
The Passion: Matthew 26: 14 - 27: 66
While the Blessing and Procession of Palms commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Liturgy of the Word focuses on the passion and death of the Messiah. In his Passion narrative, Matthew frames his account in the context of the First Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Matthew portrays a Jesus who is totally alone, abandoned by everyone, but who is finally vindicated by God (the portrait of the Messiah depicted in Isaiah and Psalm 22).
Scripture scholars believe that Matthew (and Luke) adapted their material from the evangelist Mark, whose Gospel is generally believed to be the first to be written. Almost 80 percent of Matthew’s Passion account is identical in vocabulary and content with Mark. Matthew, however, adds several details not found in Mark’s Gospel, including the death of Judas, Pilate’s washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death, Pilate’s wife’s dream (in Matthew’s Gospel, divine guidance is often revealed in dreams – Joseph’s dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt, the magi’s dream to flee Bethlehem), the posting of guards at the tomb after Jesus’ burial.
Matthew is writing his Gospel for Jewish Christians who themselves have suffered at the hands of the Jewish establishment. Many have been expelled from their synagogues and the temple for their insistent belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (the most controversial aspect of the Passion narratives historically) is pivotal in Matthew. Matthew alone names Caiaphas as high priest during the proceedings and describes in great detail the chief priests’ manipulation of Pilate and the crowds. Matthew presents to his Jewish Christian community Jesus as a model of suffering at the hands of the Jews (it is Matthew’s Passion account that includes the troubling line spoken by the crowds, “Let his blood be upon us and our children”). The tearing of the sanctuary veil symbolizes for Matthew's community a break with their Jewish past.
As is the case throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Gentiles and not the people of Israel first recognize the truth about Jesus: only Pilate and his wife recognize the innocence of the condemned Jesus.
Reading 1: Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading 1 is taken from Deutero-Isaiah's "Servant songs," the prophet's foretelling of the "servant of God" who will come to redeem Israel. In this third song, Isaiah portrays the servant as a devoted teacher of God's Word who is ridiculed and abused by those who are threatened by his teaching.
Reading 2: Philippians 2: 6-11
In his letter to the Christian community at Philippi (in northeastern Greece), Paul quotes what many scholars believe is an early Christian hymn (Reading 2). As Christ totally and unselfishly "emptied himself" to accept crucifixion for our sakes, so we must "empty" ourselves for others.
There is a certain incongruity about today’s Palm Sunday liturgy. We begin with a sense of celebration — we carry palm branches and echo the Hosannas (from the Hebrew “God save [us]”) shouted by the people of Jerusalem as Jesus enters the city. But Matthew’s account of the Passion confronts us with the cruelty, injustice and selfishness that lead to the crucifixion of Jesus. We welcome the Christ of victory, the Christ of Palm Sunday — but we turn away from the Christ of suffering and of the poor, the Christ of Good Friday. These branches of palm are symbols of that incongruity that often exists between the faith we profess on our lips and the faith we profess in our lives.
The Gospel calls us to take on what Paul calls the “attitude of Christ Jesus” (Reading 1) in his passion and death: to “empty” ourselves of our own interests, fears and needs for the sake of others; to realize how our actions affect them and how our moral and ethical decisions impact the common good; to reach out to heal the hurt and comfort the despairing around us despite our own betrayal; to carry on, with joy and in hope, despite rejection, humiliation and suffering.
Matthew portrays a Jesus who has been totally abandoned by his disciples and friends. There is no one to defend him, to support him, to speak for him. He endures such a cruel and unjust death alone. Yet, amid the darkness, a light glimmers: The prophecy of a new temple “not made by human hands” is fulfilled in the shreds of the temple curtain; a pagan centurion confesses his new-found realization that this crucified Jesus is indeed the “son of God”; and a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, is embolden to break with his fellow councilors and request of Pilate the body of Jesus. The Passion of Jesus should be a reason for hope and a moment of grace for all us as we seek the reign of God in our own lives — however lonely and painful our search may be.
“If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet.”
John 13: 1-15
This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the LORD, as a perpetual institution.
Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14
As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
The centerpiece of John’s Gospel account of the Last Supper is the mandatum – from the Latin word for “commandment,” from which comes the traditional title for this evening, Maundy Thursday. At the Passover seder, the night before he died, Jesus established a new Passover to celebrate God's covenant with the new Israel. The special character of this second covenant is the mandatum of the washing of the feet -- to love one another as we have been loved by Christ.
(John makes no mention of the establishment of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper. Chapters 14, 15 and 16 recount Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples, followed by his “high priestly prayer” in chapter 17. The Johannine theology of the Eucharist is detailed in the “bread of life” discourse following the multiplication of the loaves and fish at Passover, in chapter 6 of his Gospel.)
Tonight’s first reading recounts the origin and ritual of the feast of Passover, the Jewish celebration of God's breaking the chains of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and leading them to their own land, establishing a covenant with them and making of them his own beloved people.
The deep divisions in the Corinthian community have led to abuses and misunderstandings concerning the “breaking of the bread.” In addressing these problems and articulating the proper spirit in which to approach the Lord’s Supper, Paul provides us with the earliest written account of the institution of the Eucharist, the Passover of the new covenant (this evening’s second reading). If we fail to embrace the spirit of love and servanthood in which the gift of the Eucharist is given to us, then “Eucharist” becomes a judgment against us.
The Eucharist, instituted this night, comes at a price all must be willing to pay: We must become what we have received – we must become, for others, Christ the healer, Christ the compassionate and selfless brother, Christ the humble “washer of feet.”
Jesus, who revealed the wonders of God in stories about mustard seeds, fishing nets and ungrateful children, on this last night of his life – as we know life – leaves his small band of disciples his most beautiful parable: As I have washed your feet like a slave, so you must wash the feet of each other and serve one another. As I have loved you without limit or condition, so you must love one another without limit or condition. As I am about to suffer and die for you, so you must suffer and, if necessary, die for one another. Tonight’s parable is so simple, but its lesson is so central to what being a real disciple of Christ is all about. When inspired by the love of Christ, the smallest act of service done for another takes on extraordinary dimensions.
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over his spirit.
John 18: 1 – 19: 42
John’s profoundly theological Passion account portrays a Jesus who is very much aware of what is happening to him. His eloquent self-assurance unnerves the high priest and intimidates Pilate (“You have no power over me”), who shuttles back and forth among the various parties involved, desperately trying to avoid condemning this innocent holy man to death. Hanging on the cross, Jesus entrusts his mother to his beloved disciple, thus leaving behind the core of a believing community. He does not cry out the psalm of the abandoned (Psalm 22); rather, his final words are words of decision and completion: “It is finished.” The crucifixion of Jesus, as narrated by John, is not a tragic end but the beginning of victory, the lifting up of the Perfect Lamb to God for the salvation of humankind.
Today, Jesus teaches us through his own broken body. As a Church, as a community of faith, we are the body of Christ – but a broken body. We minister as broken people to broken people. The suffering, the alienated, the unaccepted, the rejected, the troubled, the confused are all part of this broken body of Christ. In God’s unfathomable love, the broken body of Christ is forever transformed into the full and whole life of the Risen Christ.
The cross repulses us and shames us, confronting us with death and humiliation, with the injustice and betrayal of which we are all capable. But the cross is also the tree of life through which we are reborn. The tree of defeat becomes the tree of victory; where life was lost, there life will be restored. The tree of Good Friday will blossom anew, bringing life, not death; bringing light that shatters centuries of darkness; bringing Paradise, not destruction.
As Jesus’ cross becomes a means of transforming death into life, we are called on this Good Friday to use the crosses that we shoulder in our lives as vehicles for “resurrection” in the Jerusalems and Golgothas of our own time and place.
Jesus is crucified every day in the betrayals, condemnations, and crosses taken up and endured by the poor, the sorrowing, the sick, the grieving and the dying – but the “goodness" of Good Friday gives us reason to hope, reason to carry on, reason to rejoice. By the grace of the Risen Christ we can transform our crucifixions into Easter victories.
Today, “truth” stands in front of us in the figure of the humiliated Jesus, the suffering Jesus, the ridiculed Jesus, the crucified Jesus. Right in front of us is the truth about a God who loves us to a degree we cannot begin to fathom; a God who refuses to give up or reject or destroy his beloved creation — a creation that has hardly lived up to its promise; a God who humbles himself to become one of us in order to make us like him, to realize that we have been created in his image, created by his very breath blown into our hearts.
This Good Friday is God’s calling us to a second Exodus journey, marked in the slaying of his Son, the Lamb, who becomes for us the new Passover seder — today is our exodus from the slavery of sin to the freedom of compassion and forgiveness, our “passover” from this life to the life of God.
The angel said to the woman, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised up just as he said . . . ”
Matthew 28: 1-10
In his Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus’ resurrection as a great intervention by God, inaugurating a new order throughout creation and history. The empty tomb is surrounded by miraculous phenomena: the earthquake, the angel whose appearance resembles a “flash of lightning” with garments as “dazzling as snow,” the rolled back stone and the collapse of the guards.
In Matthew’s account, Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary come to the tomb for no other reason than to mourn (the guards, no doubt, would have prevented any attempt to go near the body for additional anointing). The disciples, meanwhile, are nowhere to be seen. The women’s courageous and compassionate presence is rewarded by their being the first to hear the astonishing news of the Resurrection. The angel explains that Jesus has been “raised up” exactly as he foretold on three occasions in Matthew’s Gospel (16: 21, 17:23 and 20:19). The two women then become “apostles to the apostles,” sent to tell the others what they have seen.
On their way, the Risen One appears to them. In bidding the two Marys peace and in calling the cowering disciples his “brothers,” Jesus offers the forgiveness and reconciliation that are hallmarks of the Easter promise.
In the Easter miracle, God re-creates the world. It is the night and day of the second Genesis. Death is no longer the ultimate finality but the ultimate beginning. The Christ who taught forgiveness, who pleaded for reconciliation, who handed himself over to his executioners for the sake of justice and mercy, has been raised up by God. We leave behind in the grave our sinfulness, our dark side, our selfishness, our pettiness -- the evil that mars God's first creation.
In the light of Easter morning, we realize unmistakably the depth of God’s love for us and understand the profound truth of Jesus’ Gospel of compassion, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and selflessness for the sake of others. God’s ”raising up” of his Son affirms our redemption through the power of the Gospel spirit of love; the empty tomb of Easter is the ultimate victory of the Gospel over humanity’s sad tendency toward despair, isolation, prejudice and selfishness.
With Easter faith, we can transform the darkness of Good Friday hatred into the light of Easter’s Alleluia; we can awaken the promise of the empty tomb in every place and moment and heart we encounter on our journey to Easter's fulfillment in our own lives.
[NOTE: The Gospel from the Easter Vigil may be read on Easter Sunday.]
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”
John 20: 1-9
John’s Easter Gospel says nothing of earthquakes or angels. His account begins before daybreak. It was believed that the spirit of the deceased hovered around the tomb for three days after burial; Mary Magdalene was therefore following the Jewish custom of visiting the tomb during this three-day period. Discovering that the stone has been moved away, Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and the others. Peter and the “other disciple” race to get there and look inside. Note the different reactions of the three: Mary Magdalene fears that someone has “taken” Jesus' body; Peter does not know what to make of the news; but the “other” disciple – the model of faithful discernment in John's Gospel – immediately understands what has taken place. So great are the disciple's love and depth of faith that all of the strange remarks and dark references of Jesus now become clear to him.
While the Easter mystery does not deny the reality of suffering and pain, it does proclaim reason for hope in the human condition. The empty tomb of Christ trumpets the ultimate Alleluia – that love, compassion, generosity, humility and selflessness will ultimately triumph over hatred, bigotry, prejudice, despair, greed and death. The Easter miracle enables us, even in the most difficult and desperate of times, to live our lives in hopeful certainty of the fulfillment of the resurrection at the end of our life's journey.
The Risen Christ is present to us in the faithful witness of every good person who shares the good news of the empty tomb, who seeks to bring resurrection into this life of ours: to rise above life’s sufferings and pain to give love and life to others, to renew and re-create our relationships with others, to proclaim the Gospel of the empty tomb.
Today we stand, with Peter and John and Mary, at the entrance of the empty tomb; with them, we wonder what it means. The Christ who challenged us to love one another is risen and walks among us! All that he taught – compassion, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, sincerity, selflessness for the sake of others – is vindicated and affirmed if he is truly risen. The empty tomb should not only console us and elate us, it should challenge us to embrace the life of the Gospel. With Easter faith, we can awaken the promise of the empty tomb in every place and moment we encounter on our journey through this life.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And when he said this he breathed upon them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit . . . ”
Jesus 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.”
John 20: 19-31
The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter (for all three years of the Lectionary cycle) is Act 2 of John’s Easter drama.
Scene 1 takes place on Easter night. The terrified disciples are huddled together, realizing that they are marked men because of their association with the criminal Jesus. The Risen Jesus appears in their midst with his greeting of “peace.” John clearly has the Genesis story in mind when the evangelist describes Jesus as “breathing” the Holy Spirit on his disciples: Just as God created man and woman by breathing life into them (Genesis 2: 7), the Risen Christ re-creates humankind by breathing the new life of the Holy Spirit upon the eleven.
In scene 2, the disciples excitedly tell the just-returned Thomas of what they had seen. Thomas responds to the news with understandable skepticism. Thomas had expected the cross (see John 11: 16 and 14: 5) – and no more.
The climactic third scene takes place one week later, with Jesus’ second appearance to the assembled community – this time with Thomas present. He invites Thomas to examine his wounds and to “believe.” Christ’s blessing in response to Thomas’ profession of faith exalts the faith of every Christian of every age who “believes without seeing”; all Christians who embrace the Spirit of the Risen One possess a faith that is in no way different less than that of the first disciples. The power of the Resurrection transcends time and place.
We trace our roots as parish and faith communities to Easter night when Jesus “breathed” his spirit of peace and reconciliation upon his frightened disciples, transforming them into the new Church.
The “peace” that Christ gives his new Church is not a passive sense of good feeling or the mere absence of conflict. Christ’s peace is hard work: the peace of the Easter Christ is to honor one another as children of the same Father in heaven; the peace of the Easter Christ seeks to build bridges and find solutions rather than assigning blame or extracting punishment; the peace of Christ is centered in relationships that are just, ethical and moral.
The “peace” that the Risen Christ breathes into us at Easter shows us a way out of those tombs in which we bury ourselves; the forgiveness he extends enables us to get beyond the facades we create and the rationalizations we devise to justify them.
Jesus’ entrusting to the disciples the work of forgiveness is what it means to be the church: to accept one another, to affirm one another, to support one another as God has done for us in the Risen Christ. What brought the apostles and first Christians together as a community – unity of heart, missionary witness, prayer, reconciliation and healing – no less powerfully binds us to one another as the Church of today.
While today’s Gospel has been ready by the Church as Jesus’ instituting the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the whole Christian community possesses the power to “forgive” and “retain,” and the grace to “bind” and “loosen.” The Risen Christ gives to every one of us the “power,” the “authority,” the grace to forgive and to bind one another in love.
All of us, at one time or another, experience the doubt and skepticism of Thomas: While we have heard the good news of Jesus’ empty tomb, all of our fears, problems and sorrows prevent us from realizing it in our own lives. In raising his beloved Son from the dead, God also raises our spirits to the realization of the totality and limitlessness of his love for us.
We all have scars from our own Good Fridays that remain long after our own experiences of resurrection. Our “nail marks” remind us that all pain and grief, all ridicule and suffering are transformed into healing and peace in the love of God we experience from others and that we extend them.
Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “While he was sitting with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and the recognized him . . . ”
Luke 24: 13-35
Today’s Gospel begins on the afternoon of that miraculous Easter Sunday. Having just completed the observance of the Passover Sabbath, two disciples of Jesus (one identified as Cleopas) are making the seven-mile trip to the village of Emmaus. By identifying them as disciples, Luke is emphasizing that these two were more than just impartial observers of the events of Holy Week.
Luke writes that their exchange was “lively” – we can well imagine! As well as anger at the great travesty of justice that had taken place, they must have felt emotionally shattered at what had befallen their revered Rabbi Jesus. The two are suddenly joined by a stranger who asks the subject of their “lively” conversation. The stranger then explains, to their astonishment, the meaning of each of the events of the past week. When they reach the village, the two disciples ask the stranger to stay with them. And, in the words from Luke’s Gospel that we have come to treasure, the two disciples “come to know (the Risen Christ) in the breaking of the bread.”
Luke’s Easter night story parallels our own experience of the Eucharist: We come to the Lord’s table feeling angry, hurt, despairing, alone – but at this table, coming to “know him in the breaking of the bread,” we can experience the peace and presence of the Risen Christ.
It has been said that true friendship begins when people share a memory. Like the two disciples who recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread, we, too, are bound as a Church by the same memory of the Risen One. In the word we hear together and the bread we share together, God's love is both remembered and relived, giving us hope and direction and meaning in the course of our individual journeys.
As the two disciples discover on their journey to Emmaus, Christ is alive and present in our midst in the love, charity and goodness we give and receive, in the sacrament of his body and blood, in moments of grace and prayer.
Like the disciples journeying to Emmaus, we are disciples journeying. The journey reaches its zenith in the great Paschal journey from crucifixion to resurrection. As the disciples traveling to Emmaus discover, the journey is not ended. It continues through the wilderness and is marked by the cross. But God is still very much present to us along the way.
“I am the gate for the sheep . . . Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture . . .
“I came so that they might have life and have it to more abundantly.”
John 10: 1-10
Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel is Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” discourse. In today’s Gospel reading, two kinds of sheepfolds or corrals are mentioned: In the community or town sheepfold, the real shepherd was recognized by the gatekeeper and his flock knew his voice and followed; out in the fields, the shepherd slept across the corral opening – his body became the corral gate. Both “gates” are beautiful images of the Redeeming Christ, the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his own life to become the very source of life for his people.
John places these words of Jesus right after the curing of the man born blind (the Gospel read a few weeks ago on the Fourth Sunday of Lent). The evangelist uses these references about shepherds, sheep and sheep gates to underline the miserable job of “shepherding” being done by the Pharisees and the temple authorities as in the case of the blind man. John is writing in the spirit of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34): God will raise up a new shepherd to replace the irresponsible and thieving shepherds who feed themselves at the expense of the flock.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the “gate” of humble justice, selfless compassion and ready forgiveness that leads us to the dwelling place of God. In this Easter season, God invites us to pass through the threshold that is his Risen Christ: to leave behind our sadness and fears and doubts in order to come into the safety and warmth of God’s hearth of peace and compassion.
When our spirits ache over what has been lost, when we lose our moral and ethical way, when we feel our footing slip beneath us as we try to navigate life’s twists and turns, Christ’s voice can always be heard above the noise and din our lives if we listen for it with hope, conviction and faith.
Sometimes we look at the Gospel from our modern, sophisticated perspective and quietly dismiss what Jesus says as too unrealistic or too simplistic to deal with the complex problems we must face. But there is no high- tech, comfortable, convenient road to living the Gospel of forgiveness, compassion and justice. “To have life to the full” demands that we journey by way of the “gate” of Gospel wisdom, charity, reconciliation, compassion and justice.
“Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father.”
John 14: 1-12
Today’s Gospel takes place at the Last Supper. John’s account of that night is the longest in the Gospels – five chapters in length (but with no account of the institution of the Eucharist). The evangelist uses a literary device common in Scripture: A leader (Moses, Joshua, David, Tobit) gathers his own (family, friends, disciples) to announce his imminent departure, offer advice and insight into the future and give final instructions.
At the time of the writing the Fourth Gospel, Christians are being harassed by both the Jews and the Romans. Proclaiming the Crucified Jesus as the Messiah is blasphemy to Judaism, while accusing the Romans of “judicial murder” in the death of Jesus threatens the new faith’s chances of survival as a “lawful religion” tolerated by their Roman occupiers.
The dominant themes here are consolation and encouragement: Be faithful, remember and live what I have taught you, for better days are ahead for you. Christ – the Way to God, the Truth of God and Life incarnate of God – will return for the faithful who “who do the works that I do.”
The Jesus of the Gospel does not only show us the way – his life of humble and generous servanthood is the way; he not just philosophizes about a concept of truth – he is the perfect revelation of the truth about a God of enduring and unlimited love for his people; he is not just a preacher of futuristic promises – he has been raised up by God to a state of existence in God to which he invites all of us. In embracing the Spirit of his Gospel and living the hope of his Word, we encounter, in Christ, God himself.
Regardless of the career path we choose – doctor, laborer, bank teller, teacher, parent or priest – if we truly consider ourselves disciples of the Risen Jesus, we are called “to do the work I do.” In our homes, workplaces, city halls and playgrounds, we are called to bring the miracle of Easter life: the reconciliation, justice and peace of the Risen One in whom God has revealed himself to all of humanity.
Seldom do we think of death as a return home, but today’s Gospel image of the “house with many dwelling places” helps us to realize that we were created for a life beyond this one – we were created by God for life in and with him.
As Christians, we live in the eternal hope of one day living in God’s dwelling place – but that “place” of hope and compassion and peace exists here and now in the places we create where the poor and sick are cared for, the fallen are lifted up, and lost and rejected are sought after and brought home.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you will know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”
John 14: 15-21
In legal terminology, an advocate defends the accused on trial. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, Christ is the first “Advocate,” who comes to liberate humanity from the slavery of sin. The second “Advocate,” promised by Jesus in today’s Gospel, is the Spirit of truth, the Church’s living, creative memory in which the mystery of God’s love, revealed by and in Christ, lives for all time.
The Spirit of truth, “whom the world cannot accept,” illuminates our vision and opens our hearts to discern the will and wisdom of God. The Spirit/Paraclete “advocates” for what is good, what is right and what is just, despite our skepticism, rejection and blindness to the things of God.
The Risen Christ challenges us, in the gift of the “Spirit of truth,” not to approach truth in terms of profit, power, comfort or convention, but to embrace the truth of God’s justice and compassion present in our world.
Throughout his Gospel, the writer of John’s Gospel never allows love, as taught by Jesus, to remain at the level of sentiment or emotion. Its expression is always highly moral and is revealed in obedience to the will of the Father. To love as Jesus loved – in total and selfless obedience, without conditions and without expectation of that love ever being returned – is the difficult love that Jesus expects of those who claim to be his disciples.
The Spirit of truth is the creative, living memory of the Church. Through that “living memory,” the Church enters into the mystery of Christ himself. Jesus, the wise Rabbi, the compassionate Healer, the Friend of rich and poor and said and sinner, the obedient and humble Servant of God, is a living presence among us to give us hope, strength and light as we struggle to balance and direct our lives until he calls us to the new life of his Resurrection.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1: 1-11
“Go and make disciples of all nations . . . and know that I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Matthew 28: 16-20
Today’s Liturgy of the Word includes two accounts of Jesus' return to the Father:
Reading 1 is the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s “Gospel of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’ Ascension begins volume 2 of Luke’s work. The words and images here invoke the First Covenant accounts of the ascension of Elijah (2 Kings 2) and the forty years of the Exodus: Luke considers the time that the Risen Lord spent with his disciples a sacred time, a “desert experience” for the apostles to prepare them for their new ministry of preaching the Gospel of the Resurrection. (Acts alone places the Ascension forty days after Easter; the synoptic Gospels – including, strangely, Luke’s – specifically place the Ascension on the day of Easter; John writes of the “ascension” not as an event but as a new existence with the Father.) Responding to their question about the restoration of Israel, Jesus discourages his disciples from guessing what cannot be known. Greater things await them as his “witnesses.” In the missionary work before them, Christ will be with them in the presence of the promised Spirit.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with the promise of Emmanuel – “God is with us.” It concludes on the Mount of the Ascension, with Emmanuel’s promise, “I am with you always.”
The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure but the realization of a presence. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the dawning of Emmanuel: “God is with us”; it concludes with Emmanuel’s promise: “I am with you always, even to the end of time.” It is not an abstract or distant presence; Christ is the center of our Church in word, in sacrament, in every moment of generosity and every act of compassion we perform and experience.
Jesus’ Ascension is both an ending and a beginning. The physical appearances of Jesus are at an end; his revelation of the “good news” is complete; the promise of the Messiah is fulfilled. Now begins the work of the disciples to teach what they have learned and to share what they have witnessed.
The fledgling Church is not off to a very promising start. Christ places his Church in the care of a rag-tag collection of fishermen, tax collectors and peasants. And yet, what began with those eleven has grown and flourished through the centuries to the very walls of our own parish family.
The Church Jesus leaves to the disciples on the mount of the Ascension is rooted not in buildings or wealth or formulas of prayer or systems of theology but in faith nurtured in the human heart, a faith centered in joy and understanding that is empowering and liberating, a faith that gives us the strength and freedom to be authentic and effective witnesses of the Risen One, who is present among us always.
Christ entrusts to his disciples of every time and place the sacred responsibility of teaching others everything he has taught and revealed about the Father: God’s limitless love, his unconditional forgiveness and acceptance of every person as his own beloved child and our identity as God's sons and daughters and brothers and sisters to one another. Christ also calls us to be witnesses of God’s presence in our lives: to bring into the lives of others his healing forgiveness and reconciliation with God and one another, to hand on to others the story that has been handed on to us about Jesus and his Gospel of love and compassion.
[NOTE: In some dioceses, the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated today.]
“Father, I pray for those you have been given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them.”
John 17: 1-11
Today’s reading from John’s Gospel is the climax of the Last Supper discourse: the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus. As his “hour” of glory approaches, Jesus prays to the Father for the unity of present and future disciples, a union rooted in the love of the Father and the Son.
In the first part of his prayer, Jesus prays that his disciples will be worthy and effective witnesses of the Gospel he has entrusted to them. When Jesus left this world, he had little reason to hope. He seemed to have achieved so little and to have won so few. And the Twelve – soon to be the Eleven – to whom he has entrusted his new Church are certainly not among the most capable of leaders or the most dynamic of preachers. Yet with so small a beginning, Jesus changed the world. As Jesus returns to the Father, he leaves a portion of the Father's glory behind: the community of faith.
Jesus’ priestly prayer is a prayer not only for his followers at table with him then but also for us at this table: that we may be united and consecrated in the truth Jesus has revealed and that we may reveal to the world the love and care of the Father for all of the human family.
The Church as a community of prayer is at the heart of today’s readings: prayer that is, first and foremost, an attitude of trust and acceptance of God's presence in the community, an attitude that is not occasional but constant and continuing, an attitude not limited to asking for something but of thanksgiving for what is and for what has been. The prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper and the prayer of the company of disciples seek not God's acquiescence to their will but that God's will might be done effectively through them.
In baptism, the Gospel first preached by Jesus and then by the Eleven is passed on to us – we became witnesses of the great Easter event and accepted responsibility for telling our children and people of our time and place the good news of the empty tomb. Not in words alone but in our attitude of joy, our work for reconciliation among all, our commitment to what is right and just, our simplest acts of generosity and compassion, do we witness the Father's name and presence to the generations who follow us.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Acts 2: 1-11
Jesus breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit . . . ”
John 20: 19-23
Pentecost was the Jewish festival of the harvest (also called the Feast of Weeks), celebrated 50 days after Passover, when the first fruits of the corn harvest were offered to the Lord. A feast of pilgrimage (hence the presence in Jerusalem of so many “devout Jews of every nation”), Pentecost also commemorated Moses’ receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. For the new Israel, Pentecost becomes the celebration of the Spirit of God's compassion, peace and forgiveness – the Spirit that transcends the Law and becomes the point of departure for the young Church's universal mission (the planting of a new harvest?).
In his Acts of the Apostles (Reading 1), Luke invokes the First Testament images of wind and fire in his account of the new Church’s Pentecost: God frequently revealed his presence in fire (the pillar of fire in the Sinai) and in wind (the wind that sweeps over the earth to make the waters of the Great Flood subside). The Hebrew word for spirit, ruah, and the Greek word pneuma also refer to the movement of air, not only as wind, but also of life-giving breath (as in God’s creation of man in Genesis 2 and the revivification of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37). Through his life-giving “breath,” the Lord begins the era of the new Israel on Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel of the first appearance of the Risen Jesus before his ten disciples (remember Thomas is not present) on Easter night is John’s version of the Pentecost event. In “breathing” the Holy Spirit upon them, Jesus imitates God’s act of creation in Genesis. Just as Adam’s life came from God, so the disciples’ new life of the Spirit comes from Jesus. In the Resurrection, the Spirit replaces their sense of self-centered fear and confusion with the “peace” of understanding, enthusiasm and joy and shatters all barriers among them to make of them a community of hope and forgiveness. By Christ’s sending them forth, the disciples become apostles – “those sent.”
The feast of Pentecost celebrates the unseen, immeasurable presence of God in our lives and in our Church – the ruah that animates us to do the work of the Gospel of the Risen One, the ruah that makes God’s will our will, the ruah of God living in us and transforming us so that we might bring his life and love to our broken world. God “breathes” his Spirit into our souls that we may live in his life and love; God ignites the “fire” of his Spirit within our hearts and minds that we may seek God in all things in order to realize the coming of his reign.
Today we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit: the Spirit that enables us to love as selflessly and as totally as God loved us enough to become one of us, to die for us and to rise for us; the Spirit that takes us beyond empty legalisms and static measurements of “mine” and “yours” to create a community of compassion, reconciliation and justice centered in “us”; the Spirit that enables us to re-create our world in the peace and mercy of God.
In Jesus’ “breathing” upon them the new life of the Spirit, the community of the Resurrection – the Church – takes flight. That same Spirit continues to “blow” through today’s Church to give life and direction to our mission and ministry to preach the Gospel to every nation, to proclaim the forgiveness and reconciliation in God's name, to baptize all humanity into the life of Jesus' Resurrection.
The Spirit of God enables the Eleven – and us – to do things they could not do their own: to understand the “truth” of God’s great love for his people that is embodied in the Risen Christ, and then to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ. The Spirit empowers us with the grace to do the difficult work of Gospel justice, forgiveness and compassion.
The miracle of Pentecost (Acts 2) is the Spirit’s overcoming the barriers of language and perception to open not only the minds of the Apostles’ hearers but their hearts as well to understanding and embracing the Word of God.