Saturday, April 19, 2014

Called to be a sign of the impossible


Three men died and found themselves at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter greeted them and said they could only enter if they could answer one simple question, “What is Easter?” The first man replies, “That's easy, it's the holiday in November when everybody gets together, eats turkey, and is thankful.” “Wrong,” replies St. Peter, and moves to the second man, “What is Easter?” He replies, “I know. Easter is the holiday in December when we put up a nice tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus.” St. Peter just shakes his head at the second man, looks at the third man and asks, “What is Easter?” The third man smiles and looks St. Pete in the eye. “Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus and His disciples were eating at the Last Supper and He was later deceived and turned over to the Roman authorities by one of His disciples. The Romans took Him to be crucified, they made Him wear a crown of thorns, and He was hung on a cross. He was buried in a nearby cave which was sealed off by a large boulder,” the man paused before finishing, “And every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out, and if He sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.” So close!

My friends, as we gather on this beautiful Easter Sunday morning, St. Peter’s question is a good one for us to ponder as well, “What is Easter?” We know the easy answer, which is good news for us in case St. Peter asks, that Easter celebrates Jesus resurrection from the dead. But, if we dive a little deeper into that reality, we realize that our belief in the resurrection of the dead is something that really sets us apart in the world, something that really makes us unique.

Today isn’t just another day. We gather today on this holiest of holy days because we are a people who believe in something that should be impossible. We gather today to commemorate that a man was raised from the dead. If we stop and think about that, this isn’t something that we see happen every day; people aren’t just rising from the dead all around us. And yet, this is the very heart of what we believe as followers of Jesus. We believe as we say each and every Sunday, “in the resurrection of the dead,” and not just in any dead – we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and we believe that we, too, will rise; that we too, will live forever, live for eternity. We believe in the impossibility that death has no hold on us either. As the spiritual writer Scott Hahn has written, “On Good Friday, death died more than Jesus.” Or in the words of First Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, is your sting?”

But this belief in the seemingly impossible is not something that we simply commemorate on Easter; it isn’t something that merely brings us comfort when our time on earth is done. Easter, resurrection, is meant to mark us; define us each and every day. We are meant to bring something of this resurrection into every moment of our lives.

I had the incredible fortune two weeks ago to be at a day of reflection about the first year of Pope Francis given by Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras. If you don’t know his name right away, he might stand out for a few reasons. A year ago in the conclave that elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Rodríguez was also reported to be among those considered papabili or likely candidates; and more recently, Pope Francis has turned to the Cardinal as his right hand man as he brings about reform in the Church. Cardinal Rodríguez was named the Chairman of Pope Francis Group of Eight Cardinals who are advising him on reform.

During his presentation, Cardinal Rodríguez told a wonderful story. It was about a Lutheran pastor who approached him a few months ago and said, “Your Eminence, I want to thank you for all of the many excellent encyclicals of Pope Francis.” The Cardinal, a bit surprised, responded to the man, “Thank you, but I have to ask, what encyclicals? The Holy Father hasn’t written any yet.” And the man responded, “No, not in words, but thank you for the encyclicals of the Pope’s gestures.”

The Encyclicals of the Pope’s Gestures. What a powerful and accurate statement of this year with our Holy Father. No, he hasn’t written thousands of words in papal encyclicals, but as the saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words. Think of the images of the Pope over the last year – of him embracing the boy with cerebral palsy last Easter, the man with the disfiguring skin condition, washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday last year and the sick and elderly this year, his smile, his joy, his compassion. Each one of these moments is more powerful than an encyclical because the Pope has shown us not by what he says, but more powerfully by what he does what it looks like when someone follows Christ with their whole heart and life. Each gesture of Pope Francis is an encyclical or a homily on the love of our neighbor, on compassion, friendship, tenderness, on care for the sick, the homeless, the immigrant, the outcast, on good humor and joy.

And look at what an effect the Pope has had on the church and on the world. A year ago, many would have said that was something impossible for a Pope to do in this day and age. My brothers and sisters, we gather here today, on this Easter Sunday, because we are a people who believe in what the world calls impossible – we believe that a man was raised from the dead; we believe that Jesus is Risen; we believe that we too will be raised.

We are a people who are called to be a sign of the impossible to the world and to make that sign a constant part of our lives. This Easter Sunday is a reminder to us that we, too, are called to write encyclicals; we too are called to preach homilies – but not in our words, instead through our lives.

To a world that chooses vengeance, we are called to offer gestures of compassion and forgiveness; to a world that seeks only power, money and prestige, we are called to offer gestures of humility and kindness; to a world that selfishly cares only for itself; we are called to offer gestures of love and concern; of openness and acceptance of others. Change often feels impossible, but we are reminded today that we are the people of the impossible and so let us write our own encyclicals, offer our own homilies. Let us fill the world with our gestures of peace and care and joy – especially in the situations, times and places where those gestures are least expected. And these gestures have the power to change us and to change our world.

I’ll end with the words of Pope Francis last night at the Easter Vigil in Rome. He said, Let us “return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched us at the start of the journey. From that flame we can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to our brothers and sisters. That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.”

So, what is Easter? Easter is our change to embrace the impossible and make all things new.

Happy Easter and may God give you peace.

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