Sunday, March 31, 2013

Witnessing to Faith at Easter

This Easter we invited two parishioners to share their faith journey after the homily at two of the Masses, as the liturgical rules allow. We’ll be doing that every couple of weeks, beginning today, as the Church continues to celebrate the Year of Faith.

However, I was a bit disorganized and I didn’t line up anyone for this Mass. Thinking it over, I decided that maybe I could talk about my own faith journey—the first time in history that a priest has had to replace a lay person in the pulpit! But first let me share a little of what Steve and Eunice have to say in witnessing to God’s work in their lives.

Steve entered into full communion with the Catholic Church last night, and received the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.  Although he’d been baptized as a child, he’d lived his adult life as an atheist. But through the Alpha Course and attending our men’s prayer group and RCIA , he found a spiritual home in the Catholic Church and pretty well glows when he speaks of his happiness in joining us.

Eunice was brought up in a faithful Catholic home, but like many young people she needed to make the jump from family faith to personal faith. Like many of her peers, she saw the Church more in terms of rules and regulations, not as a way to having a fuller and more abundant life. While on a mission trip after her third year at university, Eunice encountered Jesus as a person and began a true friendship with Him. In her own words, “I began to hear Him loud and clear and it completely changed me.”

My own story is closer to Eunice’s than to Steve’s. Our family life was solidly Catholic, and I never really doubted or denied the Faith. Like Eunice, my walk with Christ was founded in the teaching and example of my parents and other relatives. But the story of my spiritual life is also told very well in the readings we hear at Mass this morning.

In the first reading, St. Peter tells us why the Resurrection makes such a difference. If Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, his miracles of healing were just history. Instead, he is with us to the end of time, no less present than he was when he healed the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus isn’t “then;” he is “now.”

This matters in many ways, but for me the biggest one is forgiveness of sin. By believing in Jesus and trusting what he has said, I experience regularly the forgiveness of my sins, big and small. I’m frustrated, of course, that I don’t overcome sin in my life, but I have a solid peace that sin won’t sink me.

Strangely, I don’t recall going to confession that often when I was young—perhaps my Mom will tell you I was a perfect teenager!—but since my mid-twenties the sacrament of penance has kept me free from a great deal of fear and from the kind of guilt that destroys inner peace. I do not think I could stand with any confidence before the judge of the living and the dead without this sacrament, and I would have no confidence in this sacrament if Jesus had not triumphed that first Easter morning.

And certainly I could not stand here this morning fulfilling his command to preach about him and testify to him without the forgiveness of my own sins.  Think for a moment about who we hear preaching in the first reading. It’s St. Peter—the apostle who denied Jesus, who let him down, and who ran away. But in the power of the Resurrection, and knowing that Jesus has forgiven him, Peter is fearless.

I also find echoes of my own faith journey in the second reading . St. Paul—another sinner forgiven by the power of Christ—calls us to “seek the things above, where Christ is.”  He says “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” My life as a Catholic has been rich partly because I have taken this seriously.

 “Faith seeking understanding” was the motto of the great theologian St. Anselm.  Long before I studied theology, I tried to know more about the faith of my childhood.  I read and attended talks about the Faith and the spiritual life, and this made a tremendous difference.

Catholic faith includes an element of feeling—our emotions are part of us, and God has used my emotions to deepen my relationship with him.  But it is also a well-reasoned faith, and some of the greatest minds in human history have helped me to understand better what I believe. I learn something new almost every day as I work at setting my mind on the things above and doing my best—not always successfully—to avoid thinking with the world.

Finally, my faith in Jesus has developed in ways that resemble what’s happening in this morning’s Gospel.  Like Mary Magdalene, I tend to get up early; also like her, I panic easily.  “Where’s the Lord?” I sometimes think. I run to others and ask them to help me figure out what’s happened.

And of course I connect with the story of Peter and John: I’m Peter, of course, since I always lose the race! I’m often a bit breathless and I’m not always in the best spiritual shape, so there are times when I do not understand what Scripture is telling me.  But once my heart stops thumping, I do see, and I do believe.

There is something else in my own faith story that connects to this morning’s beautiful account of the first Easter: the place of women. The Church gets knocked for having a male-only priesthood, but I think that is a side issue exploited mostly by her critics.  My experience of women in the Church comes closer to what we saw happen in the Gospel story: the women are first at the tomb, the women are asked by Jesus to tell the men what’s going on, and the women are quick to recognize Jesus when he appears.

In my family, in parish life and in my work at the Archdiocese, I have been blessed by the example and the witness of so many Mary Magdalenes—women whose faith was stronger than mine, and who shared with me the things the Lord had told them. I learned early on that it’s the Church, and not the world, that truly respects women and their role, despite anything I read in the papers.

Finally, because of my faith I have always lived with one eye on the world to come. Believing that there is a judge of the living and the dead has helped me make good moral decisions. Believing that I will share Christ’s glory some day is a powerful reason for living as his disciple. Believing the same about those I love has helped me over the years to grieve inevitable losses with great hope and even a certain joy.

Most of all, Christ’s Resurrection is the main reason I can believe all the other things said by him and about him in the Bible. St. Paul says “God works for good in all things,” and “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” Well, I believe that not simply because he said it, but because Jesus rose from the dead—the ultimate proof of those claims.

At the back of the church today there is one lonely lily that hasn’t bloomed.  I was glad to see it: it’s a reminder that God is not finished with me—there are still great things to come.  And the same is true for every single person here this morning: the faithful flock, the Christmas and Easter Catholics, and the non-believing visitor.

We’re all on a journey, some of us running, some of us walking, some of us limping.  But to each one, I repeat the words of today’s responsorial psalm: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

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