While memories of the global disaster brought about by the new coronavirus at Easter time of this year will long be remembered, there are other, more uplifting reasons to look back on the second week of Easter. Pope John Paul II died on April 2nd, 2005, the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, the world at his bedside. His funeral was held on April 8th, the end of that Week. He was beatified on May 1, 2011, the Second Sunday of Easter, and canonized (with Pope John XXIII) on April 27, 2014 – the Second Sunday of Easter. It may also be noted that as the world watched on television, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2nd, 2011. All of us will no doubt have many reasons to recall the Second Week of Easter in time to come.
But long after the memory of the passing of bin Laden has faded, and hopefully the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 will be at best an unhappy memory, the great throngs in Rome earlier this century will be remembered. Several million people gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and over a million attended his beatification and the canonizations in 2014. Those immense, joyous gatherings are a far cry from the small, quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus that we recall on this Sunday. The gospel story reminds us that the great assembles we have witnessed are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that should truly occupy our attention in this Easter season. How strange in a way that Jesus did not choose to appear to thousands of people after the Resurrection. According to St. Paul the largest number who saw him numbered about 500 [1 Cor 15:6].
It is still Easter day in the mind of the Church. We heard this same gospel on the Wednesday right after Easter. It tells the story of two early disciples walking back to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. They seemed to have remained with the other disciples for the Sabbath. But like Thomas in the Gospel of John, they couldn’t believe the women’s wild story that Jesus was risen. They are deeply disappointed. Apparently one of these fellows, Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early community to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. It probably got a good laugh from his friends and family for a long, long time.
The two grief-stricken and slightly slow-witted disciples found their faith restored when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as Thomas came to believe when he saw and touched Christ a week after the Resurrection. In the case of the two disciples, and of us as well, the same could be said: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe” [John 20:29].
There’s another interesting item in Luke’s story. At first, the disciples report that “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” But when they return to the rest of the disciples, not only do they agree that Jesus has risen, for they have indeed seen him, but they also affirm that he appeared to Simon. Luke has no account of any appearance to Simon Peter in his description of the events following the Resurrection, nor do the other evangelists except when Jesus appears to the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee many days later. But there is a confirmation of an apparition to Peter in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, probably the earliest of all accounts of the Resurrection, where he says “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and … he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [1 Cor. 15: 4-5].”
Hard to believe, skeptics say. But Paul knew St. Peter, with whom he did not always get along well. He didn’t make that story up. But what does it take to believe something? Or to believe in someone or something?
Let me suggest that the disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered the Spirit of Christ before they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread — “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and he explained the Scriptures to us?”
Luke reminds us that the eyes of our minds and hearts need to be opened by faith in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere. For believing is an act of the heart as well as of the mind, perhaps in some ways even more so. There is a tradition that the Latin word “credo,” I believe,” comes from the Latin words ‘cor’ — “heart,” and ‘dare’ “to give.” To believe means to give our heart to something, or rather, to someone.
The appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has something else to tell us, something worth thinking about in the afterglow of those Roman celebrations and the harsh glare of the coronavirus pandemic. Luke reminds us that it is in the small things, the unexpected and seemingly insignificant moments of life, that we truly encounter the presence of God – the sharing of scarce food, making and distributing face-masks, checking on elderly neighbors. We know it in the breaking of bread and in opening the pages of a book. God’s book. But God’s book is wide and vast. Ultimately it is the whole universe itself. To the eyes of faith, every cranny and quark is filled with the presence of God. In order to see, we need only look with the eyes of faith.
Today in the midst of the world-wide pandemic known as COVID-19, the Catholic Church pauses to commemorate something relatively new in our tradition, Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope John Paul II espoused the theme of Divine Mercy due to his devotion to Saint Mary Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938), “the Apostle of Mercy.” In 2000, when she was added by him to the list of saints, he established Divine Mercy Sunday to be observed on the second Sunday of Easter. Pope Francis continued and expanded this devotion when in 2015 he proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, from December 2015 until November 2016.
Because calendars still differ, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter today, but like Western Christians mostly in nearly empty churches and cathedrals. But the theme of mercy resounds throughout, perhaps especially in the Russian tradition. In today’s second
reading the theme is unmistakable: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” [1 Peter 1:3].
Jesus urged mercy in his preaching, as Matthew was quick to point out: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” [Mat 5:7]. He further commanded us to be compassionate and merciful the way God is compassionate and merciful” [Luke 6:36]. That’s a tall order. In the Hebrew scriptures, mercy is rarely listed as a human quality, but usually seen as divine, in fact, the most appealing of God’s qualities when it comes to needy human beings.
That old mystic, Meister Eckhart, claimed that mercy is the greatest act God is capable of (German Sermon 7). Even for Shakespeare –
“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” (The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.)
In mercy, God bends down to us and lifts us up to divine heights. Our mercy is to be no less, Luke says. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And how is God merciful to us? “By being kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.”
This, of course, is how Luke expounds the Golden Rule. As with Matthew’s account, Jesus makes it a positive statement, which is rarer than similar statements found in the Book of Tobit, Confucius, and the Talmud which are negative: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. Jesus’ statement is also more extensive. It is, in fact, universal in its sweep. Jesus simply says, give to all who ask. Just give. “If someone robs you of your cloak, your outer garment, also give him the shirt off your back. And don’t expect to get it back. Don’t even ask” [See Mat 5:40-48].
In Islam, too, the title “Most Merciful” (al-Rahman) is one of the most common names of Allah and “Compassionate” (al-Rahim), is the most common title occurring in the Quran. Both derive from the root ‘Rahmat,’ which refers to tenderness and benevolence. As a form of mercy, the giving of alms (“zakat”) is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam and one of the requirements for the faithful.
The measure we give to others is the same measure we will get back — and here, as elsewhere, Luke goes farther than Matthew. So abundant is God’s mercy, our reward will exceed our capacity to receive it, it will run over like grain or fruit out of the fold of a tunic that served as a shopping bag in the ancient world.
That we are to love not only our enemies but, even worse, our neighbors, seems to be what Jesus expects of his followers. It isn’t easy. But the general directions are clear — give without being asked and without hope of return; forgive without demanding apologies or punishing the offender for days or weeks with silence, scorn, or condescension; be sparing of blame, don’t condemn, be quick to overlook offenses to our own sacred persons, and look for opportunities to be of real assistance and comfort when needed. Or even when they’re not.
And that, including the story of “Doubting Thomas” in today’s gospel reading, brings us home to today. Jesus is gentle and forgiving in the face of Thomas’ stubborn refusal to believe, leading to what is the apex of the entire gospel in Thomas’ outburst, “My Lord and my God.” The face of God is most clearly revealed in the countenance of mercy and forgiveness.
Anger, resentment, and recrimination have begun to poison the atmosphere of mutual care and sacrifice that so wonderfully marked the early days of people’s response to the new coronavirus. We especially saluted the unselfish, generous and truly sacrificial compassion extended by those in the health professions and first responders among the police and fire-fighters, essential workers, and the military who rushed into danger (continue to), but many others as well, including our neighbors and other citizens who elected to endure the hardship of isolation and quarantine to spare and protect others. Charity and heroism come in many forms.
But impatience, hardship, and boredom have begun to take their toll, and pressure is mounting, vociferously and sometimes unkindly, to get things “back to normal.” Today’s remembrance of divine mercy and the mercy that is expected of us all could not come at a more opportune moment.
Last night, after watching the televised celebration of the Easter Vigil from the Shine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, I found myself meditating (much later) on flowers. It began with a whimsical, ironic observation that the two huge globular floral arrangements in the worship space in that cavernous sanctuary oddly resembled the images of the new coronavirus glimpsed through electron microscopes. Only these spheres were studded with lilies. In the midst of death, we are in life.
For Americans, unless they are now well past a century mark, no one can remember a pandemic like the present health emergency. Not in this country. Smallpox, the Spanish ‘flu, tuberculosis, polio, even yearly recurrences of influenza seem almost insignificant by comparison. They were not, of course. This contagion is simply much, much more threatening to our generation. And frightening. Death truly stalks the land.
But Easter comes at an opportune moment in the national, indeed global emergency. Death is not the final chapter, not the ultimate conqueror. That is
the good news. The message we heard last night and today is simple and profound and, one might be tempted to think, too good to be true.
The reign of sin and death has been broken, the world has been redeemed, faith has triumphed over fear, doubt, and despair. Death is all too real, but not final. That is why Easter remains a feast of faith. Faith is not just belief; it is also trust — probably more trust than belief. Faith often goes untroubled until tragedy or suffering strikes someone directly and personally. Then faith as trust is revealed, a deeply personal commitment, an act of the will to rely on another, ultimately on the power of God to bring light from darkness, life out of death.
It is not always easy to trust in God, but it is most important to do so when it is hardest to do. Jesus trusted God to the end of his life, even in the darkest moments of betrayal and abandonment. He showed us the way. That way lies Resurrection and Life.
And that’s where the flowers entered. Each one is a little miracle. All together they are a stunning triumph of life, a sacrament of hope, and a repudiation of death. They developed on earth only when insects and other animals appeared that could see – and see in color. They are meant to be seen and smelled and loved. Floral gardens, but wild flowers too, perhaps especially, are the closest we can get to understanding the Court of Heaven. That may be why the Bible begins and ends in a garden. Jesus rose to new life in a garden. And “we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” [Rom. 6:9].
I was reminded in my musing of a passage in Nikos Kazantzakis’ great book, Report to Greco, where the narrator and his friend Angelos come across a flowering almond tree in the midst of a wintery landscape. Challenged, Angelos summons his gift of poetry and gives us this wonderful haiku:
I said to the almond tree,
“Sister, speak to me of God.”
And the almond tree blossomed.
So, as the angel and Jesus himself said to the faithful women on that first Easter morning, do not be afraid. And for at least a few minutes, forget about the Easter bunny, forget about chocolate eggs and brunch, and all the other peripheral decorations of the season and remember this when you see a flower in bloom: Christ has died. Christ is Risen. The world has been reborn in hope.
Every year, in some way most Christians reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday and, as it is sometimes called, Passion Sunday because we read one of the synoptic gospel accounts of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ earthly life. This year, those who use the
Common Lectionary are reading Matthew’s version, the longest of the three. Ordinarily churches reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by a sung procession, carrying palm leaves or other small branches and leafy twigs. This year the ceremonies will be very different – muted and most likely solitary, save for the “digital community” able to witness some of the ceremonies on television or live-streamed to their various devices.
Much of the world is now reeling in the wake of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The rate of infection is falling in some areas, increasing (along with the death rate) in others. The end is not yet in sight, despite hopeful predictions by those desperate to get the national and international economies “going” again. I suspect that most people are simply worried about their survival and that of their families and friends as well as the general population – perhaps especially the first-responders and health professionals putting their own lives on the line to save others. And that may be the greatest gift of all in this time of worry and death [John 15:13].
Understandably, the events of that day in Palestine just short of 2,000 years ago probably seem to many people to be both remote and irrelevant. But I suspect that long after the present crisis has passed into history, Palm Sunday will remain pertinent and hope-filled. It is still worth noting that in the gospels, Jesus is said to have wept only twice – once as he neared the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had recently died, and in Luke’s gospel, today, as he first glimpsed Jerusalem on what was to be his last pilgrimage there. Both moments point ahead to his torture and death, which he had long since foretold would take place in the Holy City. Jesus’ tears are not for himself, but for those who mourn and seek comfort [John 11:35], and for those who choose to ignore or resist what is likely their final chance for deliverance [Luke 19:41]. On his way to execution in a very different kind of procession, Jesus will caution the mothers and wives who line the route, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’” [Luke 23:28].
But that is a thought for a day yet to come. Here, we are invited to exult for a moment in the entrance into Jerusalem of the Prince of Peace seated on a donkey, a beast of burden, an animal of peace not a war horse. And joining the throngs entering the Holy City for the great Passover with their celebratory branches and bright cloaks, Jesus went his way to death and resurrection. And the crowds shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” – ‘hoshiya na,’ which originally meant “Save us!” [Psalm 118:25]. Here it has been transformed to mean “The Son of David is our salvation!” [See this excellent comment by John Piper, to whom I am indebted: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/hosanna]
So as we begin the final week of Lent, this Holy Week, in the Year of COVID-19, we pray for those who have died on this day, meditating on our own part in the story of salvation and looking ahead to the bright dawn of Easter.