O God, from Whom all good things do come, grant unto us, Thy suppliant people, that by Thine inspiration, we may think what is right, and under Thy guidance perform the same.
– From the Collect for Fifth Sunday after Easter
In the Traditional Latin Mass, the Epistle often contains practical advice for the Catholic to live an upright, moral life. The Epistle is an aid to encourage and exhort us to be faithful to the gifts we receive at the Mass; it is our “marching orders” to apply the graces we are given in the Mass. On the other hand, the corresponding “First Reading” in the Ordinary Form of the Mass is usually intended to relate the story of salvation history.
This Sunday, the Fifth Sunday after Easter, the practicality of the Epistle is readily apparent, which shouldn’t be surprising since it comes from perhaps the most practical book in the Bible, the Epistle of St. James. The first verse of the Epistle read at Mass states bluntly, “Be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” As St. Augustine preached, “Do not deceive yourselves by coming eagerly to hear the Word and then failing to do it. If it is a good thing to hear, it is a much better thing to do” (Sermons 179.7-8). In other words, we must put into action the Gospel we have heard.
Such a directive might seem like a burden. Yet this urgent command to put the Gospel (“the Word”) into action paradoxically brings us freedom. St. James continues, “But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work: this man shall be blessed in his deed” (emphasis added). By being a doer of the Word, we are no longer enslaved by the flesh. Although the world wants to present the demands of the Gospel as something onerous and burdensome, they are in truth liberating. As one medieval bishop put it, “The perfect law is liberating because it is the law of Christ, which sets us free from all slavery to the flesh” (Oecumenius, Commentary on James). Our observance of the law of Christ brings us joy. “Spiritual happiness is gained not by empty words but by putting our good intentions into practice” (Venerable St. Bede, Concerning the Epistle of St. James).
Sunday’s Gospel reinforces the idea of the joy that comes from following the way of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full.” At first glance, these words from Our Lord make him sound like a divine candy machine: just ask for what you want and you’ll get it! But of course that’s not what this passage means. If we are a hearer and doer of the Word, then we will only desire what is conformable to that Word. We won’t ask for material riches or comfort in this life, but instead that we might always remain close to the Lord no matter the circumstances of our life. And if we remain close to the Lord, then we cannot help but be joyful!
During this Easter Season the Church, through the readings at Mass, exhorts us to respond to the great gifts that have been made possible through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But she does this knowing full well that our response will be nothing in comparison to the gifts, for they hold the promise of the Beatific Vision, when God will be our “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Then, our joy will truly be full.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.