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Diebus Saltem Dominicis: 3rd Sunday after Easter – The Lord’s Ever-present Absence

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You know how I like to bang on and on about context.  This Sunday, the 3rd after Easter in the traditional reckoning (the 4th of Easter in the Novus Ordo calendar), we shift to a new phase in the seven Sunday Season of Easter.  The first Sundays looked back to Easter and its main themes of Baptism, the Resurrection and the Eucharist.  The next Sundays look toward the Ascension of the Lord and the Pentecost event.  Hence, we drill into the mystery of the Lord’s ever-present absence, His absent-constant presence.

After His Resurrection, Christ told Mary Magdalen “Mé mou háptou… don’t cling to me” (John 20:17).  The Lord was bringing her to understand that she had to adjust to a new way to encounter Him, one which was not through the ordinary senses and His earthly physical presence.  Similarly, when the Lord was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they did not recognize Him until the moment He took and broke bread – surely a reference to the Eucharist (Luke 24:30-35).  In that moment He bodily disappeared from their geographically limited place.  He was teaching them that now they would encounter Him not in His physical speech and actions among them.  Rather, they would thereafter interact with Him in the Eucharist.

This Sunday we have for the Gospel reading a section of the Last Supper’s “Farewell Discourse”.  We are in the Farewell Discourse for three Sundays, today John 16:16-22 (on the 4th Sunday 16:5-14, on the 5th 16:23-30).  The Lord is readying His Apostles for His eventual Ascension followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit.  He is preparing them to detach from His physical person and presence.  He also stresses how they must detach from the tribulations of the world in view of their heavenly joy.

Inherent in Christ’s teaching in His Farewell Discourse is that, if He must go to where He belongs, to the Father, they too (therefore, we too) do not fully belong here anymore.  The Son has His place with the Father.  They, too, have their “father place”, their patria as the early Latin Church Father’s described our heavenly destination, our “fatherland”.  This is also a theme in this Sunday’s Epistle taken from 1 Peter 2:11-19.  The writer calls his listeners – letters were read aloud to ancient communities – “pároikoi kaì parepídemoi… ádvenae et peregríni… strangers and pilgrims (DRV) … aliens and exiles (RSV) ”.  The Catholic novelist and mystic Michael D. O’Brien rendered this phrase for the title of his book Strangers and Sojourners, part of a series (Children of the Last Days) which branches out from Father Elijah.

We belong here but we don’t.  We have something to do here, which God has given us, for the sake of being elsewhere.  We now belong here so that we can belong later to what we already belong to now but possess only in our longing.  How must we deal with this conundrum?  Do we switch off and tune out of the world?  Do we engage?

Peter, in the Epistle for Sunday Mass, admonishes us, as strangers here and sojourners now on the road toward the patria, about how to behave in the face of the world and its expectations.  At the Holy Mass you attend in the Vetus Ordo, you perhaps will hear a vernacular rendering of the Epistle, or you will read it in your hand missal, perhaps from the Douay-Rheims Version, “having your conversation good among the Gentiles”.  Latin conversatio, isn’t “dialogue with”.  It means “conduct, way of life”: behave well in the sight of the Gentiles, even if they abuse you.  Endurance of persecution is a theme of Peter’s preaching to the communities of Asia Minor.  This is how the world is going to treat us, strangers.  Moreover, once baptized into Christ, the Christian must not revert to the ways of the dominant pagan society.

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) describes Christ as both the patria and the via, the homeland or fatherland as well as the road to get there.  Augustine, working with the ancient understanding of gravity as an inherent compulsion that seeks to go where the thing belongs, wrote:

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Conf. 1.1).

Once we belong to Christ, we seek to go to where He is.

We are not abstractly members of Christ.

Will you permit a brief digression about the imagery of being a “member” of the “Body of Christ”?  St. Paul makes strong use of this image when confronting the Corinthians about their sexually immoral behavior: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Cor 6:15).  The Body/member image stresses both our dignity and our total dependence on being integrated into the community of the Trinity through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Christ Himself underscores our dependance with vine/branch imagery.  Cut off a member or a branch, it withers and dies.

However, there is a way in which the English word “member” can leave us a little less than impressed.  “Member” is not inaccurate.  Greek tó mélos is indeed “limb, organ, member”, and “part belonging to a whole”.  Yet, it could ring in our ears as if we belonged to a club.  Perhaps we can expand our imaginations around the member/Body image so that when we hear it, it is more complete.

John Paul II in his 1986 letter for the centenary of St. Augustine’s conversion wrote (emphasis added):

Because Christ, the only mediator and redeemer of men, is head of the Church, Christ and the Church are one single mystical person, the total Christ. He writes with force: “We have become Christ. Just as He is the head, we are the members; the whole man is He and ourselves.” This doctrine of the total Christ is one of the teachings that mattered most to the Bishop of Hippo, and one of the most fruitful themes of his ecclesiology.

Augustine’s ecclesiology, his theology of who and what the Church is.

Last week, we heard how the Shepherd and the sheep know each other as the Father and the Son know each other.  To know is to love.  Through baptism, as members of the Church, we have an indestructible bond in the divine Person of Christ.  We can refuse the benefits of this bond (grace and life) but it cannot be eradicated by any force or choice.

Shall we not take the greatest advantage of it?  We are not components in a mechanism.  We are not members of a club who pay dues.  We are desired and loved persons in communion with Persons.  This, as Paul explains so sharply, can be the inspiration and the grace to live outwardly who we are inwardly, who we are in Christ’s mystical Person.

We grope ahead together through the mist on the via toward the patria.  We will be, are being, tried and tested, proved and strengthened.  As the Mystical Person Christ suffered in His Passion, the Mystical Person of Christ, His Holy Church, is inexorably being drawn to her own, our own, self-emptying and Passion.  Our trials will ultimately be advantageous for us, for we will see Jesus.  To this end we have been also given the Sacrament of Confirmation, about which we will discourse next time.

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