Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: ACTs 2: 14A, 36-41; PS 23 1-6; I PT 2: 20-25; JN 10: 1-10.
I’m here for the weekend in Westport, CT, at my daughter’s and son-in-law’s beautiful home. The occasion is the First Holy Communion of our 8-year-old granddaughter, Eva Kathryn, whom we all adore. I couldn’t be happier for her.
The event, along with the readings in today’s liturgy of the word, are causing me to remember my own first communion. I’m recalling how my faith has developed since that momentous occasion. It’s making me reflect both on the beauty of childhood faith, and on the challenge of its adult version. If the human race is to survive, I realize, that adult version must prevail.
The difference between early faith and later developments is underscored in today’s readings. They call us as adults to abandon childish understandings of God, to grow up and work for non-violence in a world threatened by the deceit, murder, and general destruction of “a corrupt generation.”
Do you remember your First Holy Communion? I remember mine quite vividly, even though it happened about 70 years ago. I can still picture all of us third-graders at St. Viator’s school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, lining up for procession to the church across the parish campus. The girls, of course were in white dresses with traditional sheer veils. We boys were wearing dark blue “Eton Suits” with short pants. The water fountains in the school hallway where our procession formed were covered with white sheets to prevent any of us from drinking. In those days before Vatican II, even that would have broken our fast and disqualified us from participating in the event we had prepared for so intensely.
I so looked forward to receiving Jesus into my heart. Didn’t you? I firmly believed (as Eva, no doubt, does) that Jesus was actually contained in that snow white wafer. He would enter my mouth and reside in my body until the “appearances of bread” dissolved. Later I would frequently “visit” Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I became a “Knight of the Altar” and on occasions like the feast of Corpus Christi, would spend an hour in adoration before the parish’s golden, bejeweled monstrance. As I knelt there, I firmly believed that I was looking right at Jesus as I stared at the white Host encased in the glass “pyx.” One day, during my assigned “holy hour,” I had something like a mystical experience. I felt a special unity with Jesus residing there. I don’t know how to describe it. But I was, for a few moments, transported by a sense of oneness with God. Obviously, I never forgot it. I’ll bet you’ve had experiences like that too.
I wish all of that for Eva Kathryn. My heart went out to her this morning as she spoke of her upcoming First Confession. In some ways, I wish her beautiful faith would never change. But, of course, that’s like wishing she would never grow up. Her faith will inevitably change. Doubts will come. And if she’s like most, she’ll probably eventually throw her faith in Jesus’ “Real Presence” into the same waste basket with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. It’s all part of growing up.
Too bad. And I don’t mean it’s too bad that Eva’s childhood understanding will someday prove inadequate to the challenges of adult life. As I said, that’s inevitable and good. What I mean is: it’s too bad that she’ll predictably probably stop growing in her understanding of the Christian faith she’s trying to learn about in her Sunday School classes, just as she’s trying so hard to learn her multiplication tables in Montessori school.
I mean, isn’t it shocking that the faith dimension of life – arguably the most important, since deals with life’s meaning – turns out to be the only one where our 8-year-old understanding is supposed never to change?
That would be like letting Eva say: “I’m satisfied with addition and subtraction; don’t tell me about multiplication or division. And I never want to hear the words ‘algebra,’ ‘trigonometry,’ ‘calculus” or ‘computer science’ even mentioned. That would be shocking and unforgivably childish in itself.
Even more importantly, it would describe exactly what’s wrong with our world. There we’ve been carefully schooled not to think about life’s meaning, especially as it touches questions of social justice, economics, politics, war, peace, and adult spirituality. That’s meant ignoring the world’s most powerful teachers: the ancient priestesses of the Great Mother God, Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day . . .
The Donald Trumps of the world (and there are a lot of them) are quite content with our ignorance. They’re happy with our refusal to grow up – with our retaining childish understandings of life – especially if growing up would cause us mobilize for social change. They somehow realize that the Jesus story and others I’ve mentioned have revolutionary power. It scares the hell out of them.
Today’s readings remind us of all that. They summon us to answer the question addressed to Peter and his ten colleagues in today’s opening selection from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s what Tolstoy asked in 1888, “What then must we do?” Peter’s answer was the same as Tolstoy’s: “Repent! In the name of the crucified Jesus, save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”
Those words are profound, but so familiar that their challenge can easily be overlooked. They mean: change your consciousness – the way you think; the way you look at the world. Reject everything “this corrupt generation” tells you. Instead, follow the example of Jesus whom, by the way, you’ve just crucified as a terrorist. Reject imperial authority. It’s not Jesus’ Way. (None of that is a stretch. Peter’s reference to “crucifixion” is central. It reminds us that the cross was the method of execution reserved for rebels against imperial Rome.)
To repeat: all of that is pivotal to this day’s readings. However, in the light of Eva’s first communion, there’s a lot more about the way faith changes and develops in adults.
Listen again to Peter’s description of Jesus in the opening reading from Acts. He says, “God has made Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” When you think of it, that’s a pretty elementary understanding of Jesus. It clearly distinguishes God on the one hand and Jesus on the other. God elevates Jesus’ status from a crucified rebel to “Lord” and “Christ,” but only (according to this formulation) after Jesus’ execution. Again, that’s a very primitive “Christology,” probably the earliest we have. Scholars say it was formulated around the year 35 and retained in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles which was written much later – probably about the year 70. Here Jesus is a human being later elevated in status.
Contrast that with John’s Christology reflected in today’s gospel selection, written 30 or 40 years later. By that time (as we learn from the prologue to John’s gospel), Jesus has been fully identified as present from the beginning of time with God the Creator: “In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .” That seems to mean that by the time John wrote, believers were making no distinction between God himself and Jesus. Quite a change.
There’s still more to unpack here. In today’s reading, John has Jesus identifying with “the Good Shepherd” whom the author of the familiar Psalm 23 (today’s responsorial) had much earlier identified with Israel’s God, Yahweh. Think of the psalmist’s description. God is the original ecologist providing everyone with verdant pastures and clear waters. He gives everyone rest, refreshment, long life, abundant tables and cups overflowing with rich wines. God and (by John’s extension, Jesus) ends poverty (want); he provides shelter for all; he is good and kind. Those words are nothing short of revolutionary. Think of the world we’d create if the planet’s 2.5 billion Christians accepted that Jesus as our Lord and Savior!
Then in today’s second reading from First Peter, the author gets more specific. He identifies Jesus as a champion of justice (“He handed himself over to the one who judges justly”). Jesus (in contrast with John’s “false Christs” and our political “shepherds” today) is truthful. He doesn’t insult or threaten anyone.
And finally, in today’s third reading Jesus identifies himself specifically as non-violent. The false Christs, like the childish ersatz versions the world finds so comfortable, are warlike. In Jesus’ words, they are liars and thieves who slaughter and destroy. On the other hand, the Christ of adult faith is non-violent; he gives abundant life, rather than taking it away.
My prayer is that Eva Kathryn will one day discover that Jesus and accept him into her heart. That she and her post-millennial class of first-communicants will eventually do so, may be our world’s only hope.