By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Easter!

In the Easter season we celebrate the reason for our hope: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

As human beings we cannot live without hope. Despair robs us of life and encloses us in on ourselves. Hope opens us to the future and fills us with purpose and joy. Sadly, though, much of our world is searching for hope, and in its absence is suffering from anxiety and fear. Many struggle with difficulties and consequently have hearts filled more with dread than delight. The Mass of Easter proclaims that there is no need to be afraid; there is no reason to fear. On the contrary, there is every reason to live a hope-filled life, and that reason is a person: Jesus Christ risen from the dead. The Scripture readings for Easter Sunday illustrate this for us.

I draw your attention to three aspects of the passage taken from the Gospel of St. John. It is the narrative of Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the beloved disciple going to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed after his death.

First, this narrative takes place in the dark. It is still early morning. We can well imagine Mary, and then the two apostles, moving in the darkness with lit torches, trying to pierce the dark with some light so that they can find their way. This is an image that describes many people today. Darkness pervades our lives when we get lost on paths of our own making; when we lose sight of any real meaning or purpose to life; or when the shadows of moral confusion blind us to what is true and good.

Second is the image of the tomb. Jesus has died, his body is placed in the tomb, and a very large and heavy stone is rolled across the opening. There is a terrifying finality expressed here, the death of hope. The disciples had placed all their hope in Jesus, and now he is dead. The heavy stone of the tomb seals their fear and despair. How many people today are anxious because they, too, feel that all hope has gone, never to return, when they experience the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, family dysfunction, a natural disaster, or look out upon the violence that continues to rip peoples apart?

Third, consider the people of the Gospel passage. They don’t yet understand what is happening. Mary Magdalene finds the stone rolled away from the tomb; Simon Peter goes in and finds only the linen wrappings lying on the ground; the beloved disciple sees and believes, but he, like the other two, does not yet fully comprehend. The three stand for many people today who, like Mary and Peter, see the signs but don’t know what to make of them, or who, like the beloved disciple, have begun to believe but do not fully understand Jesus and the faith of the Church. They feel the first stirrings of hope, but have not yet fully awakened to the full and glorious truth of Jesus Christ.

For those first disciples, everything changed when they came to realize that Jesus had risen, just as he had foretold. The darkness of anxiety was dispelled with the dawn of new life, death’s finality was transformed into a new beginning, and the opaqueness of doubt gave way to the light of faith, when they met the risen Lord. The encounter with Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, changed everything for them and filled them with real hope. When Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection, his most often repeated words were “Peace be with you” and “Do not be afraid”. Be at peace, have no fear, because I have risen, I am alive and I am with you.

So it is with us, so it is with anyone who meets the risen Lord. Life changes. Something of the change that awaits all who meet Jesus is seen in the life of St. Peter. In the Gospel we heard that he saw but did not yet understand. Yet the first reading of Easter Sunday records a speech later given by the same Peter. It is full of understanding and boldness as he begins to lay before the people the full truth of what God has done for the world in Jesus. What caused the change in him was his meeting of the risen Lord and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The same possibility is held out to our world today, to the world of all ages. It is possible to meet Jesus and be filled with his Holy Spirit because he continues to come to us and wills to change us by the power of his love. We encounter him in the community of the Church, because he promised that where two or three gather in his name he will be there; we meet him in the poor and needy, because he said, “as often as you do these things to the least of my brothers and sisters you do them to me”; and we touch the Lord above all in the Eucharist, because he said, “this is my body, this is my blood”. In fact we meet him in all the Church’s sacramental celebrations, which Jesus himself instituted as the place to encounter him in the power of his resurrection. Let us not fail to go out to meet the Lord where and when he comes to us, so that we might discover, or re-discover him as the one and only reason for our hope.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Following the Lord with a Lively Faith

With the liturgy of Passion Sunday, we enter into the most sacred time of the year: Holy Week. The solemn liturgies of yesterday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter celebrate those events through which Christ brought salvation to the world, by which he gave to all people the hope of eternal life. They reveal that, contrary to the distortions offered by the chief priests and Pharisees at the end of St. Matthew’s passion narrative, Jesus is no deception. He is truth. The wondrous events of Holy Week reveal that he is, truly, the Saviour of the world. At the end of the week, at Easter Mass, we shall be invited to renew, in solemn fashion, our baptismal promises and thus recommit ourselves to following Jesus as his disciples. To borrow words from the beginning of yesterday’s Mass, we shall be invited to dedicate ourselves once more to follow the Lord with “a lively faith”. This means with complete devotion and full understanding.

The question that thus poses itself at the beginning of this week is: on what understanding of Christ do I base my decision to follow him? The people we recalled in yesterday’s Scripture passages underline the importance of this question, because their decision to follow Jesus was founded upon a misunderstanding of who he is. The crowd of jubilant supporters, who welcomed him to Jerusalem and placed palm branches before him, thought that he, the Messiah, had come to liberate them from political oppression and tyranny by displays of power and might. Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. But he came to liberate them and all people from the tyranny of sin; he would do so by handing himself over to death. In fact, he had forewarned his closest disciples that the Messiah was to suffer and die before rising from the dead.

As the events foretold by Jesus came to pass, the truth that he was no political liberator dawned on the people. Suddenly, those who had followed Jesus into the city were nowhere to be seen. The jubilant crowds were replaced by multitudes who called for his crucifixion. Even among his apostles, his closest friends, there was Judas who betrayed him with a kiss, and Peter who denied him. Indeed, they all fled from him and abandoned him to his fate. It became clear that to follow Jesus would mean following him to the Cross. At that time even the apostles were unwilling to do that. But that willingness did come later, when, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles came to know the full truth of Jesus and boldly proclaimed to the world the power of his death and resurrection. That proclamation did, indeed, take them to the cross as they were martyred for their faith in Christ.

We are the recipients of their apostolic message. Therefore, we enter Holy Week in the full knowledge of our call to follow the Lord to the cross. This means imitating in our lives the pattern of his. As St. Paul exhorts us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He was humble and obedient to the will of the Father. He gave his life, that all might have life. We who follow him are to do the same.

Throughout this week, as we commemorate with gratitude and joy the death and resurrection of Christ, let us pray that we become ever more faithful disciples of the Lord. Throughout the week let us prepare to commit ourselves anew to follow Him all the way to the Cross, by living each day the pattern of Christ’s life.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Faith or fear?

Why do we fear? At first glance such a question seems silly. There are many things that fill us with fear, usually circumstances that are beyond our control, and before which we know ourselves to be powerless. Fear touches each of us. Nevertheless, the question is legitimate in the light of Sunday's Gospel passage from St. John (cf. John 11: 1-45). When we consider what that passage recounts, the question that springs to the mind and heart is: "Why should I ever be afraid of anything?"

It is the astounding narrative of the raising of Lazarus. Although he is dead a full four days (!), nevertheless Jesus restores him to life and calls him forth from the tomb. This is our God who has drawn near to us and remains with us. He has power over all things, even death, and he is here. This is enough for us - to know that Jesus is here. Think of the disciples when they were caught in a storm, terrified. Jesus came to them and gave them the one reason that suffices to calm fear: "It is I." (Cf. Matthew 14:27)

Very pointedly, Jesus poses a question to Martha, who is grieving the loss of her brother Lazarus. The same question is directed at us: "Do you believe?" Faith or fear? In the face of difficulties where we are powerless, do we choose to believe or to fear? Martha's answer is very beautiful and moving: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

To make this act of faith, which dispels all fear, we need the Holy Spirit. St. Paul teaches that no one can acknowledge Jesus as Lord unless by the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1Cor 12:3). In the second reading of the Mass the Apostle affirms that this same Spirit of God dwells in us. Promised long ago through the prophet Ezekiel (cf. first reading) the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the Church at Pentecost and is now poured into our hearts through the sacraments of the Church. The mission of the Spirit is to unite us to Jesus, to his love and to his power. Therefore, why be afraid?

Faith or fear? If you are facing something particularly difficult right now, ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to renew your act of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In him there is no room for despair. There is only hope. In the words of Saint Paul (cf. Romans 15:13), may he fill you with peace as you believe in him.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Revelation Along the Journey

Pretty messy around here these days. The warmer temperatures are welcome, of course, but the melting of the snow is exposing a lot of dirt. As the snows recede, what comes to view is a lot of litter, as well as the sand that has been used for traction on the winter roads. Spring rains and city cleaners will be busy with the cleanup! This might be a helpful metaphor by which to approach the Scripture readings from last Sunday and thus to understand the Lenten journey on which we find ourselves.

In the first reading from 1Samuel, the Lord reminded Samuel, who was about to anoint God’s chosen as king of Israel: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” We bring our “hearts” before the Lord during Lent, so that He who sees within might bring to light what is of darkness (cf. the second reading from Ephesians) and heal us of our infidelities. This can at times be painful for us because the movement of God’s grace melts our hearts frozen by pride and self-reliance and gradually brings to view the “dirt” of our sin. He thus brings us face to face with the truth of ourselves, as he did with the woman of Samaria as recounted in the previous week’s Gospel passage. What is exposed may be very difficult to acknowledge. Yet the Lord wants only to heal and transform, and our sin is brought to our view so that he might “wash it away” with his love and mercy.

From this perspective we realize that the blind man healed by Jesus in the Gospel is representative of all of us. Apart from an encounter with Jesus, we cannot see properly, and are blind to the truth of our need for his saving grace. Recall how Jesus healed the blind man; he used mud that he formed from the dust of the earth. This evokes the teaching of Genesis, where we are taught that God created the human being from dust. This Gospel passage is teaching us that Jesus Christ, “through whom all things were made” (cf. John 1:3), has come to recreate us as the children of God and lead us home to the Father.

Ironically, when the blind man began to see, others could not “see” him, i.e., they did not recognize him at first as the same man who had had to beg. We are changed when we meet the Lord, and others will notice the difference. The blind man accepted the questioning as an opportunity to tell others of Jesus. We, too, must do the same.

I had a wonderful experience over the weekend with some young adults of the Archdiocese who are seeking to be such witnesses. They are the team leaders in one of our Archdiocesan youth camps, called Our Lady of Victory Camp. We celebrated the Eucharist together, and then had a brief Q&A session around the theme of evangelizing the young people of today. I was very impressed and heartened by their commitment to the Lord and His Church, and their urgent desire to be authentic witnesses of the Lord’s transformative love.

The following day afforded me the opportunity to meet with the priests who have come to this Archdiocese from other countries. As is the case in other dioceses where there are insufficient numbers of priests to serve the pastoral needs of the faithful, these men have made great sacrifices to be present here in service. We can well imagine it is not easy to move away from family, friends and native country to work in a new culture. Yet they do so gladly and we are grateful. Their presence enriches us with the reminder that we are part of the universal Church of Christ, responsible for one another. Our encounter with the mercy of the Lord happens wondrously in the sacraments of the Church, and their ministry among us makes this possible for many.

Allow the Lord this Lent to bring about whatever “melting” needs to occur in your life in order to lead you to forgiveness and freedom. In this way we discover in our own personal experience what the blind man found through his: that Jesus alone is Saviour of the world and only He is the reason for our hope.