Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen

A homily from 2nd Sunday of Easter. Divine Mercy. April 3, 2016.

This is the third homily I have given this year. My turn comes on the first Sunday of each month. Each time, this year, the theme has been mercy. So the focus today on Divine Mercy Sunday should not be on “doubting” Thomas! There is something more important than “doubting” going on here. How about “the not-yet seeing” Thomas? How about “the not yet believing” Thomas? Finally, how about the Thomas who “questions”? Only through questioning can we discover the awesome truth of how necessary it was that Jesus should have died an innocent man’s death on the cross. His innocent suffering and death reveal the quality of God’s mercy, the Divine Mercy. Thomas questioned and not only was it revealed to him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The fuller truth is that Jesus will carry the wounds of his crucifixion, the signs of his suffering and death on his risen body, forever and forever. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Suffering and death are swallowed up in victory. Death has no victory. But the suffering and death are never undone, only completed. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are “It is completed.” Forever and forever!

At the same time let us remember Jesus’ last words while dying on the Cross in the Gospel of Mark, the first line of Psalm 22, the Prayer of an Innocent Person. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Someone said, “Wait let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Of course, Elijah does not come down nor does God. God was silent. God used to be merciful but not now. Or was He? Or is He merciful?

BuchenwaldI am reminded of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel and his famous memoir, Night. If you have not yet read this book, please do read it. It is one of the great religious books of the twentieth century. I am passing around a picture taken on April 11th, 1945, one of the most famous photographic remembrances we have of the Holocaust. That day the American army liberated Buchenwald. Weisel is the last person in the middle bunk in the middle row. Weisel’s literary reference to “Night” comes from the same Psalm 22 that Jesus cried out as he died: “My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” God did not answer as six million Jews were incinerated. This has always startled Weisel, especially the death of the babies. They were all innocent.

He says: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke, Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murder my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

That “night” Jesus suffered and died an innocent man. That night the babies suffered and died innocent babies. We must ask questions. If there is going to be any final justice in the world that God created where so much innocent suffering takes place, then God’s silence must be suffered. There can be sense here only if God can suffer. But our theology and philosophy say that God cannot suffer. Impassibilis est Deus.  Yes, God cannot suffer. That is true. But there is more to God than God, especially when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Saint Bernard completes the phrase Impassibilis est Deus with, sed non incompassibilis. Pope Benedict translated this as: “God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood.”

The seventh sign in the Gospel of John is the resurrection and the signs of Jesus’ suffering and death on his risen body, forever and forever. I have no answer for Elie Weisel’s questioning. He handles it with his Jewish resources. However, Thomas saw and believed, and now had a reason for hope. When we encounter the risen Christ and believe, we discover the only appropriate response to the Divine Mercy. That response is gratitude and hope. In the deaths of the innocents that cry out for justice, we discover a very strong argument why we need faith in the resurrection. But it works the other around. Faith in the resurrection, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, is the only way that those innocent babies will have justice. Jesus did not die in vain. The babies did not die in vain. Jesus’ wounds mark his risen body forever. The babies’ burn scars will mark their risen bodies forever.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” Amen.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program. He is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Portland.



Crisis Points – The Holy Spirit at Work

I have been keenly aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life recently. So, I suppose, on this week before Pentecost, I should not feel surprised that I feel the Holy Spirit has guided my reflections here. Nevertheless, I still feel awed.

HS over Chair of PeterOver the past two years, I have witnessed the breakdown of one of the most effective, faith-filled teams with which I ever have had the pleasure of working. A cancerous tumor had metastasized and spread both deep and wide throughout the team’s relationships. Though the tumor itself was recently removed, the effects of those cancerous spreading fingers remain. True healing will require the deepest levels of love and compassion – a truth that resonates in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. As I ponder all the pain that exists and all the people that have been hurt, I am reminded of Thomas Keating’s thoughts related to crises and spiritual development.

In his book Open Mind, Open Heart on the contemplative dimension of the Gospel, Thomas Keating states, “By not answering our prayers, God is answering our greatest prayer, which is to be transformed” (68). Keating positions that God guides us to a higher state of consciousness in our relationship with Him through the crises we face in life – challenges that can take many forms and exude differing levels of pain – from deaths, to divorces, to family quarrels, to simple disappointments, to health concerns, to organizational chaos. Through crisis points in our lives, we either hold on to our false selves (think “ego”) or grow in our relationship with and understanding of God. Keating states that the false self, an illusion, is how we perceive the world and ourselves, and Christian practice is about dismantling this false self (67). If we resist the crisis, we risk regressing spiritually. We either regress, strengthening the false self, or mature, strengthening our spiritual self while overcoming our weaknesses. In the calamity I have faced these past two years, I have witnessed many examples of both spiritual maturation and regression in my fellow sisters and brothers, as well as myself. Keating reminds us that if we do regress, we have to wait until God presents us with a new challenge.  “Fortunately,” Keating says, “He has plans for us and never gives up” (67). Thank you God.

A similar pattern of Keating’s challenge – regression/growth – challenge occurs throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus has several dialogs of misunderstanding with his disciples and others within which He presents challenges (e.g., dialogs with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, Mary Magdalene, John, Peter). In the challenge, Jesus tries to capture and direct the person’s spirit and guide him or her to a higher level of understanding and faith. As the quintessential servant leader, Jesus used challenges to transform others. Why shouldn’t we, then, accept the challenges and crises in our lives as opportunities for spiritual growth?

Our God, in the abiding Trinitarian relationship with us, uses the Holy Spirit to guide us not only in our relationship with Him but also with all others. Our spiritual transformation may take any number of repeats of Keating’s pattern (only God knows what it will take), but ultimately if we are open to dismantling our false selves, we can find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness to transform all our relationships and grow spiritually. All of this brings to mind my favorite leadership quote which I found over 25 years ago and titled “Leadership Means Helping God Transform Others:”

“The ability to understand and deal effectively with human beings – to get them to fully exploit their own capabilities, and overcome their shortcomings – to give them the opportunity to find success in life, and the courage to make good on that opportunity – in effect, the ability to capture and direct their spirit, and to guide them from where they are to where they need to be – that’s what leadership is all about.”

(General James P. Mullins, USAF)

Yes, God hears our prayers, but he does not always answer them in the way we expect.  He answers them in the way we need. We must trust and look for the Holy Spirit working on, within, and through us as well as on, within, and through the others God places in our path – especially during those crisis points.

My God, please send your Holy Spirit to help me to help You to heal emotional wounds, bring mercy, and transform others.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches spirituality for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.