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April 23 2017 (A)--Second Sunday of Easter (A)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. Divine Mercy Sunday.

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Acts 2:42-47). The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common. This is one of the three summaries concerning the life of the early Church in Jerusalem which Luke has inserted into his work. (The others are 4:32-35 and 5:12-16.) The themes are related to one another. Luke’s purpose in inserting them seems to have been to hold up the early Christian community in Jerusalem as a model for his readers and for the later Church. These idealized presentations of the early Christian community in Jerusalem are presented as a model of what any later Christian community should be: united in heart and soul, witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, sharing their means with one another. These early believers remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the fellowship, the breaking of bread (in the Eucharist) and to the prayers, that is prayers within the Christian community, although they also attended the Temple liturgy. This was in the early days of the Christian community, shortly after the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The implications of faith in Christ had nor yet sunk in, as it later would when the Church spread out into the non-Jewish world, and away from the Law of Moses. This once tranquil Jerusalem community will later experience much soul searching and no small division. In this, too, it is an image of the Church of many ages.

            This idealized presentation of the early Christian community in Jerusalem has

influenced Church life down through the centuries, not least as a model for religious life. The Church, in her liturgy, continues to set it before us today, as one of these three idealizing summaries is read each year on this day in the Three-year Sunday liturgy cycle.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 117). Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love has no end.

Second Reading (1 Peter 1:3-9). In his great mercy he has given us a new birth by raising Jesus from the dead. During the Easter period this year the second readings for this Sunday Masses are taken from the First Letter of Saint Peter. This letter was addressed to “the exiles of the Dispersion”, in five named Roman provinces in north-western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Ordinarily the phrase “exiles of the Dispersion” would indicate Jews away from their homeland. However, in the present instance the exiles of the Dispersion do not appear top have been Christians of Jewish origin, but rather of non-Jewish, pagan origin. They are exiles, a Dispersion, on this earth, away from their true home which is heaven. They do not appear to have been recent converts, but rather well grounded in the faith, with a good knowledge of the Old Testament. The letter is not designed to give basic instruction in the faith, but rather attending to reflection on basic truths and conveying words of encouragement. It appears that the Christian community in the areas addressed had grown considerably in numbers, leading to a certain envy and enmity and hostility on the part of some of their pagan neighbours. There are references in the letter to the communities being plagued by all sorts of trials, and to persecutions, or the dangers of persecution. The author gives the basic principles on how to be prepared for such trials, which can even be an advantage to one’s faith and hope. Among other matters, in this letter he exhorts his readers not to have a ghetto or siege mentality, but to be well informed in the faith, and to be always ready to give an account of the hope that is in them to any inquirer, but to do so with gentleness and reverence (3:25-26).

            It is not quite clear at what date during the first century this letter was written. It is presented as the work of Peter, and sent with greetings from Babylon, that is Rome.          It is not definite whether the author is Peter himself, or some later person writing in his spirit and person. In any event, the question of the precise author does not take from the message of the inspired work.

            In today’s reading the author gives the fundamental principles on which the faith and hope of his Christian readership can be based: faith is founded on the grace and the mercy of God, on the resurrection of Christ which is a sure foundation for lasting confidence. This belief is for them a cause of great joy. Peter is well aware of how lively their faith in Christ is: they did not see him, yet they love him, and without seeing him they are filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described. It is redolent of the Thomas episode in the upper room, although written decades later.

Gospel (John 20:19-31). The first part of this reading tells of events that took place on Easter Sunday. The risen Saviour appears to his apostles, and confirms the reality of his risen humanity by showing them his pierced hands and feet. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, the Holy Spirit promised before his death and resurrection, and gives them (and the Church for all times) the power to forgive sin. The second half of the reading is on the Sunday following, the completion of the Easter week. It has the well-known episode of the “doubting Thomas”. Thomas is led to faith in Jesus, not merely as risen Lord, but as God. His profession of faith “My Lord and my God” brings the Gospel of John to a fitting conclusion. This gospel began with the words: “And the Word was God” (John 1:1). It ends with the same profession by Thomas. Jesus’ reply to Thomas is rich in meaning: “Jesus said to him: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”

I once heard a playwright being asked what extra experience he would like to have had in life. His reply was: “I would like to have met Jesus”. One can only surmise what encounter, if any, a playwright, a politician or any other would have had with Jesus, and what, if any, Jesus’ reply would have been to their questions. Matters are different with regard to faith. Jesus is not a person of yesterday, or of another era. He is ever present as a person and influence.

            Let’s go back for a moment to that scene in the upper room, with doors closed. Jesus accepts Thomas’s profession of faith. Thomas has seen the risen Saviour and believed. But, as if casting a glance forward to believers of all ages, in all places, into this twenty-first century, and this particular year, Jesus declares blessed all those who will believe in him down through all the ages. They will not have seen with their physical eyes, but will have done so through the eyes of faith. In his parting discourse at the Last Supper Jesus looked forward in prayer to the same course of faith history, and prays to the Father for all believers (John 17:20): “I ask not only on behalf of these (my disciples now present), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one”. For the earlier Church, and for later ages, Jesus is near in his empowering, consoling and inspiring presence. As we have seen in the first reading, Peter is made to address early Christians suffering for their faith in Jesus as follows: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8).

            The imitation of Christ is central to the New Testament and to Christianity. Imitation in this sense also implies a personal acquaintance with Christ. It s nicely put in a poem transmitted in Irish folk tradition, as part of an instruction to young people how to prepare for life: “Young person, at the beginning of your life, pay good attention to my teaching. Before you get too old come to a personal acquaintance (aithne) with Christ” – not just knowledge of Christ (eolas), but a personal acquaintance with (aithne), through faith, an awareness of that the presence and prayer which Jesus spoke about to Thomas makes possible. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Divine mercy Sunday

This is also Divine Mercy Sunday, established by Pope John Paul II in 2000, a Pope who was duly declared a saint, together with Pope John XXIII, on this same Sunday some years ago. On this Sunday in 2001 (Year C of the Yearly Cycle, with the Revelation of John as Second reading) Pope John Paul II in the course of his homily to pilgrims in Poland to commemorate the canonization of Sr Faustina Kowalska the Pope said: "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore" (Rev 1:17-18). We heard these comforting words in the Second Reading taken from the Book of Revelation. They invite us to turn our gaze to Christ, to experience His reassuring presence. To each person, whatever his condition, even if it were the most complicated and dramatic, the Risen One repeats: "Fear not!; I died on the Cross but now I am alive for evermore"; "I am the first and the last, and the living one." With these sentiments, we are celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter, which since last year, the year of the Great jubilee, is also called "Divine Mercy Sunday. ... It is a great joy for me to be able to join all of you, dear pilgrims and faithful who have come from various nations to commemorate, after one year, the canonization of Sr. Faustina Kowalska, witness and messenger of the Lord's merciful love. Jesus said to Sr. Faustina one day: "Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy" (Diary, 300). Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium”.

(The entire homily can be accessed on the internet, Google, at “Pope John Paul II’s Divine Mercy Sunday Homily”)

(For reflections on Sunday and Feastday readings see Martin McNamara, Sunday Readings with Matthew. Interpretations and Reflections, Dublin, Veritas, 2016)