16 April 2020

'Reach out your hand . . .' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Incredulity of St Thomas
Caravaggio [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)
Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition, Canada)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31 in Filipino Sign Language

John 20:19-31 from The Gospel of John

We can read the words of Jesus to Thomas as a gentle rebuke that has led to the nickname he may carry for all eternity: 'Doubting Thomas'. But I prefer to see him as the one who understood that the Risen Lord must carry the scars of his crucifixion and who made the most explicit act of faith in the whole of Sacred Scripture: My Lord and my God!

The First Reading today (Acts 2:42-47) opens with the words They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 'The breaking of the bread' is an expression used for the celebration of the Eucharist. We can see in this sentence the essence of the Mass as we celebrate it today: listening to God's word, praying and sharing in the Sacrifice of Jesus and sharing his Body and Blood.

Some commentators say that the failure of Thomas was not to listen to God's word as related by his companions. Maybe he did fail here but did the others have the same awareness as Thomas had that the Risen Lord must carry his scars for all eternity?

In Evangelii Gaudium No 7 Pope Francis writes: I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: 'Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction'.

Thomas had been a companion of Jesus for two to three years but what he experienced in today's gospel was precisely what Pope Benedict describes as the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

Servant of God, Fr Emil Joseph Kapaun 
(20 April 1916 - 23 May 1951)
Celebrating Mass with American soldiers on 7 October 1950 during the Korean War. [Wikipedia]

 In his general audience in St Peter's Square on 31 October 2012 Pope Benedict said: I cannot build my personal faith in a private dialogue with Jesus, because faith is given to me by God through a community of believers that is the Church and projects me into the multitude of believers, into a kind of communion that is not only sociological but rooted in the eternal love of God who is in himself the communion of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is Trinitarian Love. Our faith is truly personal, only if it is also communal: it can be my faith only if it dwells in and moves with the 'we' of the Church, only if it is our faith, the common faith of the one Church.

Pope Francis re-echoes this in Evangelii Gaudium Nos 264 - 268: We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence . . . Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters . . . The word of God also invites us to recognise that we are a people . . . Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and he sends us to his people; without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.

What both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are saying is that while our faith is in a person, Jesus Christ the Risen Lord, it can never be a question of 'Jesus and me'. Pope Benedict says, faith is given to me by God through a community of believers that is the Church and projects me into the multitude of believers. And Pope Francis emphasises that He takes us from the midst of his people and he sends us to his people; without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.

In other words, I can only know myself as a brother or sister of Jesus, as a son or daughter of God the Father when I know myself as a member of their family, which I have become through my baptism.

And that awareness of who I am is strengthened when I join other members of God's family every Sunday as they devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

During the current Covid-19 pandemic most Christians are not able to participate directly in the Eucharist. Yet we may do so in a real way - more than a 'virtual' way - through modern technology. 

On Tuesday of this Easter Week 2020 - I participated in such a way in the funeral Mass of a friend named Helen Rickard who was a member of Our Lady of the Visitation Praesidium of the Legion of Mary in Navan, our local town. I'm the spiritual director of the praesidium. The celebrant, Fr Declan Hurley, emphasised that through her baptism Helen had become a sister of Jesus and that she had lived her faith out of that in prayer, especially in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, often in the middle of night, and in serving others. The following day I watched on Facebook part of the funeral Mass of a priest of the Prelature of Marawi, Philippines, who was my student in the 1970s, Fr Nilo Tabania. I didn't watch it live, but many others did. Like my friend Helen, Father Nilo was a man of great simplicity, a man without guile, like Nathanael in St John's Gospel. Please remember Helen and Father Nilo in your prayers.

I spent most of my life as a priest in the Philippines and was well aware of the fact that probably a majority of the people there, certainly in rural areas, aren't able to take part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on a regular basis because they live so far away from churches where it is celebrated. The present situation enables us to share in their experience. 

Yet when we participate in Mass through television, online or listening to the radio, we hear the word of God proclaimed to us. This is as real as the voice of a loved one we are talking to on the telephone or through one of the modern internet forms of communication. The conversation is real, not 'virtual'.

Yes, we cannot receive Holy Communion but we can be in true communion with the Risen Lord present body, blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament when the priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote as follows about spiritual communion in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (The Sacrament of Charity) in No 55: Clearly, full participation in the Eucharist takes place when the faithful approach the altar in person to receive communion. Yet true as this is, care must be taken lest they conclude that the mere fact of their being present in church during the liturgy gives them a right or even an obligation to approach the table of the Eucharist. Even in cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. In such circumstances it is beneficial to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion, praised by Pope John Paul II and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life.

There is a very good post on spiritual communion on Catholic Strength.

In the suffering of so many throughout the world because of the Covid-19 pandemic we can see both the wounds of the suffering Christ and the scars of the Risen Christ. 

May we have the grace to see, with St Thomas, the presence of My Lord and my God especially in suffering, our own and that of others, in whatever form it comes.

All in the April Evening
Words by Katharine Tynan, music by Hugh S. Roberton

I learned the poem All in the April Evening in Fourth Class (Grade Four) when we had a wonderful teacher named John Galligan, a man who influenced my life greatly, though it was only years later I realised that. I think our class also learned to sing it that year - I'm not totally sure! - under a colourful woman named Mrs Agnes Boylan, who loved to wear large hats like the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother of England. She was everyone's 'favourite grandmother'. I learned later that she was the mother of the late Dom Eugene Boylan OCSO, abbot of Roscrea Monastery in Ireland and author of a number of influential books on spirituality.

All in an April Evening by Katharine Tynan

All in the April morning,
April airs were abroad;
The sheep with their little lambs
Pass'd me by on the road.

The sheep with their little lambs
Pass'd me by on the road;
All in an April evening
I thought on the Lamb of God.

The lambs were weary, and crying
With a weak human cry,
I thought on the Lamb of God
Going meekly to die.

Up in the blue, blue mountains
Dewy pastures are sweet:
Rest for the little bodies,
Rest for the little feet.

But for the Lamb of God
Up on the hill-top green,
Only a cross of shame
Two stark crosses between.

All in the April evening,
April airs were abroad;
I saw the sheep with their lambs,
And thought on the Lamb of God.

Canon Patrick Comerford, a priest of the Anglican Church of Ireland, has a very good commentary on the poem on his blog. He puts it in a Lenten context. But Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. Katharine Tynan died on Good Friday 1931.

Gregorian Chant setting of the Communion Antiphon

Antiphona ad communionem  Communion Antiphon  Cf John 20:27

Mitte manum tuam, et cognosce loca clavorum,
Put your hand and feel the place of the nails,
et noli esse incredulus, sed fidelis, alleluia, alleluia.
and do not be unbelieving but believeing, alleluia, alleluia.

Below is a setting of the Latin text of the Communion Antiphon by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, sung by The Sixteen, Harry Christophers.

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