If I tell you that we live in a time of great turmoil and stress, both within the Church and within our world, I’m sure no one will be surprised. It’s certainly very evident within the Church that we are living in very troublesome times. Large numbers of people, in fact, are leaving the Church -- one out of ten people in the United States is a former Catholic; that’s 30 million people. We’ve experienced, just recently it happened again, a terrible scandal of sex abuse.
The Peace Pulpit
You may remember last Sunday on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, our gospel lesson ended with the very last words of St. Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus promised his disciples and promised all of us, “I will be with you always, even until the end of time.” Now many of us, I believe, when we hear that promise and reflect on it, think of Jesus being present with us; as he said, “I will be with you, present to you,” and we think of what we call the real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, the presence of Jesus living, risen, truly his body and blood, the whole Jesus.
We’re so very familiar with the sign of the cross, which we say at the beginning of this liturgy, for example, and most of the time before any of our prayers or devotion, “In the name of the Father and of the son and of the holy spirit,” we are very familiar. But we probably do not reflect often enough on the fact that that formula, which we take in a sense, I think, very much for granted, was not how the first disciples in the beginning experienced God and reflected on God. It’s a formula that, in fact, only was developed within the Church about 200 years after the last biblical writings were proclaimed.
There is one line in the gospel today that is very important, and yet it's very easy for us to overlook it. Jesus tells his disciples and is telling us that Jesus has many things that we need to know. He was speaking to the disciples at the Last Supper Many things that they had to know, but they couldn't hear them all now, so that is why Jesus tells them, "I will send you the holy spirit and the spirit will make known to you all that has been revealed to me."
Now when we think of the Feast of Pentecost, we think of it as an event that was extraordinary, of course, but we think of it as an event that is over. It happened that one time; 50 days after Easter, the whole community was gathered together in the upper room. They were living in fear and doubt, not knowing what to do. Then there was the extraordinary experience that St. Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles, and he makes it very clear that this is something special.
Probably all of us are able to picture the ascension of Jesus as it's described by Luke in our first lesson today. It's something that we've heard from the time we were very young and we, I'm sure, have seen many pictures showing the disciples standing around in a circle looking up and Jesus kind of floating up in the air out of their sight. But that's not the way it happened, I have to tell you this. It's very important that we take some time to understand what the gospel writers are doing, what Luke is doing in the Acts of the Apostles, which is the history of the early church, but also in the gospel, and the other gospel writers -- they are not giving us historical facts.
As I just mentioned to you, you have to be committed to wanting to be confirmed, so that’s why I ask that question: “Do you want to be confirmed?” When I ask you the question, I always look for a very clear and strong answer that you say with confidence, “Yes, I want to be confirmed.” Why is that so important? After all, you have prepared for a number of months for this moment and obviously if you didn’t want to be confirmed, you probably would have dropped out a long time ago.
This is the fifth Sunday of Easter, so now for the fifth time, we hear again and are asked to reflect upon the Easter truth: Jesus is alive. Jesus is alive and he's living in our midst, even at this very moment. That's what we've been hearing Sunday after Sunday. That Easter Sunday itself, the first women who went to the tomb were told, "He is alive, he is risen, he's no longer here." Well, it took those first disciples a long time to really begin to sort all of this out and to accept the reality that Jesus is alive.
As we try to listen deeply to God's word now during this liturgy, I think it's important to remind ourselves of what is happening during these weeks of Easter. We don't say it's the fourth Sunday after Easter; it's the fourth Sunday of Easter -- we're beginning the fourth week of the Easter time, the time of the risen Jesus. During this time, what the liturgy guides us in doing is trying to hear how the disciples came to understand Jesus. Think back to Easter Sunday, and if you remember, we listened to the gospel of Mark, and that gospel is rather unusual in the way it ends, because it's a very abrupt ending.
Probably most of us haven’t noticed the slight change in the way we designate the Sundays after the Feast of Easter. We used to talk about them as the Second Sunday after Easter, the Third Sunday after Easter and so on until we get to the seventh Sunday. But now it’s simply the Second Sunday of Easter that we celebrate today. It may not seem significant, but it is.
What we’re being taught is that this period of seven weeks, the 50 days after Easter, is a continuation of the one feast, the one event, this extraordinary, unbelievable almost, event: Jesus being raised from the dead and living among us. During this seven week period, the church is taking time to instruct us. So we must listen carefully each week to grow in our understanding.
I sense, as I’m sure you do, great excitement in the church this morning as we gather to celebrate this feast of Easter. We sing out with great joy, we clap, we rejoice, and that’s the way it should be, because we celebrate the most extraordinary event in all of human history -- a unique, one-time-only event. And even though we have the spirit of excitement and joy, I think that very often, we really do not reflect on how extraordinary it is, what we celebrate.