Second Sunday of Easter - Year A
The readings of the Sundays of the Easter season quite naturally echo the themes of the feast. It can happen, though, that the powerful spirituality of the Easter Vigil readings become lost or obscured in the following weeks. The prophetic reflections on the Exodus event, which shaped the spirituality of Judaism, are worth pondering.
It is not difficult to get the message of this Sunday that believing without seeing is true faith indeed. However, most readers may well equate a series of beliefs with true faith and miss the point that a life based on trust is the defining expression of true faith.
Jesus demonstrated that authentic faith is transformative and his reaction to the religious leaders of his day shows that subscribing to a system of beliefs and giving lip service to a moral code without genuine heart do not amount to spiritual growth.
All the examples given by Luke in today’s first reading and the encouragement of Peter in the second reading rest securely on the foundation of the Spirit. Although not given to gambling I would be prepared to bet that most homilies this Sunday would normally focus on Thomas’ coming to faith followed by a reflection on our own faith since we are the ones who do not see but believe. Christ’s gift of his Spirit may well take second place or get a mention in passing. Actually, one can wonder about Thomas’ faith since he was virtually steamrolled by a dare from Jesus.
An equally, if not more telling incident is the reality of Jesus’ presence as a beacon of peace and companionship. Twice Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you!’ to his friends, who, not long before, had run out on him seized by fear and the grab for self-preservation. This is important and it is followed by Jesus’ gift of his Spirit. Receiving Christ’s Spirit and peace is surely the supreme prize of Easter. Living the life of the Spirit, as Paul puts it in Galatians 5, is the best way to share in the new life of Christ’s resurrection.
To return to some of the gems in the Easter Vigil readings, we begin by reflecting on the wonders of creation. Those of us involved in teaching and pastoral work do well to combine the spirituality of Psalm 104 (103 in the Catholic Bible) with the creation account in Genesis 1 reminding ourselves and those we work with that Genesis 1 is not primarily about creation and how it all happened, but about God the source of all life and all that is good. The psalm fleshes out the wonderful effect of God’s Spirit in all that exists. Remember this creation account was written during the Babylonian exile when the Jewish captives were being impressed by the Babylonian gods who appeared to have sponsored such a magnificent and prosperous empire. To counter this impression, Genesis 1 reinforces the supremacy of Israel’s God and rhetorically rubbishes the Babylonian myths and deities.
Here I am. I’m ready to do it your way The story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his only son Isaac is a brilliant illustration in narrative of how faith (= trust) works. This is the kind of faith Thomas does not have until he is dared by the risen Lord to get real. In Jewish tradition, this Genesis episode is called the aqedah, the binding of Isaac not the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, who was actually never sacrificed. Three times in this passage Abraham replies when called, ‘Here I am,’ in Hebrew hineni. Here I am, I am ready. I trust in you. We find the same sentiments in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The poet/songwriter, Leonard Cohen, expanded on this theme in his song ‘You Want it Darker’ when he effectively said, I love you, Lord, but I don’t love the mess your creation is in. It gets so dark when we give ourselves permission to kill in your name and in so doing we kill the flame that gives light. But for all that, here I am, I am ready to do it your way.
The Jewish relationship with God continues in the exodus story, the great epic of deliverance from oppression and entry into freedom. The homeless are now given a home. Imagine the loss of belonging and self-regard that comes with being homeless or being a refugee entombed in a detention centre. Is upper- and middle-class complacency one of the dark demons of modern Western society? Think of the poor in India who will die of starvation because they can’t get food in the COVID-19 lockdown in their country.
The next two readings from the anonymous prophet of the Babylonian exile, generally referred to as Second Isaiah, deliver a message of reassurance. The ray of hope shines through clearly in these prophetic utterances:
For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you... remote from oppression, you will have nothing to fear. (Isaiah 54:10, 14) The fifth Vigil reading, also from Second Isaiah, urges us to get our priorities right in life. Seeking the God of infinite goodness is the way to quality life.
Like the approach of Jesus this text embodies an invitation from the Lord. Follow my way and you will find satisfaction in life along with fulfilment and peace.
This reading also contains an idea that has rarely been taken seriously, namely,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord (Isaiah 55:8)
Jesus spoke his words quietly and clearly and listened to others It is curious how people from popes and rulers down to clergymen, holy rollers and pious individuals of all stripes have presumed to know the mind of God. Human beings have been killed, tortured, exiled, oppressed and humiliated in God’s name by superior beings who have apparently been granted the gift of certainty when, in fact, nothing is more certain than the couplet just quoted above. It beggars belief that any god would give permission to murder and maim in its name, and yet this has been asserted by the ancient Israelites, Christian crusades, inquisitors, Islamic jihadists and a host of others who had the gift of certainty. This infantile approach to the ‘infidel’ or, basically, the ‘not-like-me’ crowd belongs in the sand-pit. It is galaxies away from the attitudes and teachings of Jesus, who, to paraphrase words from the Desiderata, spoke his words quietly and clearly and listened to others. Humanity should weep at the terrible price of certainty that speaks before it listens.
The prophet Baruch follows up with another invitation, this time to knowledge and wisdom. Again, here is a message about priorities. The prophet urges his people not to run about seeking satisfaction in all the wrong places but to focus on the source of authentic wisdom and knowledge. The words of Socrates come to mind here: the unreflected life is not worth living.
This is a call to mindfulness and fostering of our relationships with God, other people, a healthy relationship with self, that is, keeping peace with our inner selves, and an awareness of the sacredness of our earth and its environment.
Finally, Ezekiel, a prophet of the Babylonian exile, delivers a message of ultimate hope that the Israelite captives will be brought home. Note God’s reassuring words:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you...I shall put my spirit in you And here lies the relevance of the resurrection message for us in the here-and-now – a new heart and a new spirit.
Just a brief glance at these powerful readings shows how they plot a whole spiritual journey that begins with the creative work of the God of life and develops towards the end with sound formulas for quality life in which we are in constant touch with Goodness and Life itself. There are mistakes and skinned knees along the way but support and renewal are never far away. We can all attest to divine help and companionship that come in the form of a loved one, a friend, a mentor – even the smile of a stranger. Recall the proverb: One kind word can warm three winter months. After all, Christ comes to us in the person of the other.
Another lesson we can take from these readings is the knowledge and spiritual growth that come from listening. We all have two ears and one mouth, which is symbolic of the priority listening should have over speaking. Possibly the greatest compliment we could show to another is to genuinely listen to what they have to say.
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. - Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
People who don't think are the ones who don't listen to others
- Haruki Murakami (Contemporary Japanese writer)
Jacob from Russia had just completed a training course entitled 'Improve your English' and was taking the oral exam. The examiner asked him to spell 'cultivate'. He spelt it correctly. The examiner then asked him to use 'cultivate' in a sentence. Jacob thought for a while and then replied, 'Last vinter, on a very cold day, I vas vaiting for de bus but it vas too cultivate, so I took a train home.'