During the season of Easter it is good to reflect upon what life was like for those who lived during the time after Jesus resurrected. A great way to get insight into this is through the Scriptures we hear at Mass. We have heard that after the apostles were empowered by Jesus who ‘breathed on them’ and then the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they had a deeper understanding of everything Jesus had taught them. They also had a better grasp on the gifts they had been given and of what Jesus intended for them to do as leaders. In this light we might think of them as nearly fearless in their encounters with the hostile religious and civil authorities. However, they were not impervious to threats of physical harm. After seeing what happened to Jesus they had a healthy respect for what could and would happen. They also had been given the wisdom to discern, so they most certainly knew when trouble was real. But I do think that they were fueled by deep faith and by the gifts God gave them for their ministry. Encountering the Living God is always life changing, and given how much time they had spent with Jesus, at that point they could not remain silent. They simply had to tell people everything about their new life in Christ.
In the passages from the New Testament readings of last week (Acts 4 & 5), we see that the tiny community of believers, not yet referred to as Christians, was trying to share everything they had with one another, especially those who had more with those who had less. We see that they took seriously what Jesus had taught about living in unity and prayerfulness, with the Eucharist at the center of their celebrations and love as the glue which held them together. Additionally, the teaching of the apostles was very important because these men were the witnesses to Jesus: they knew Him better than anyone else, but they also were witnesses to His resurrection in that they were taught by Him for the forty days before His ascension. Therefore this fledgling community was on fire with love and the Good News, desiring to share it with the world as Jesus had instructed. It was this very zeal and commitment to sharing that got Peter and John arrested by the religious authorities who were jealous of their success with the crowds.
There really is no stopping the Word of God because it is alive with the gift of spiritual life offered to us. Therefore, shortly after Peter and John were jailed an angel showed up in the night to release them. The angel told the men, “Go and take your place in the Temple area and tell the people everything about this life.” Peter and John did exactly that: the next morning they were out early, teaching with joy all that they had learned. They taught about the risen Christ, hoping to be the fishers of men Jesus had told them they would become in their very first encounter with Him. They told the crowds about what Jesus had said and done, adding that they had the authority because “they were witnesses to these things.” Though full of joy and the energy that comes with it, they were not haughty, but rather they were humble, accurately attributing their power as the power of God. They took no credit, but attributed everything to Jesus the Lord.
We are spiritual descendants of those first Christians and we will always be Easter people. Reading these passages, therefore, should encourage us to reflect upon our encounters with people. If we had been living at that time and we had not witnessed what the apostles had experienced, if we had never heard of Jesus the Nazarene before that moment, would we have listened to these men? What would have compelled us to take them seriously? After all, they were talking about a man who they claimed was the Son of God, a notion that was considered blasphemous by the Jewish people. These preachers were just the sort of men of which a good many Jewish mothers and fathers may have put their hands over their children’s ears and said, “Come away now. Do not go near that kind of people.” They might have told one another that these were dangerous men who were maybe even a little crazy because they claimed to see a dead man, they claimed that God’s Spirit had descended upon them; they claimed that pouring water over your head could initiate you into their group and that it would give you some power. They must be mad!
This past week I had an unusual encounter. I was pumping gas when a woman came over to me asking for a dollar because she wanted to buy food inside the mini mart. During the encounter she asked me my name, something which surprised me. When I offered my first name she informed me that she was the Blessed Virgin Mary and that her son was Jesus. She told me about her heavenly Father and that she had a tattoo which empowered her with the presence of the Spirit. Her story was inconsistent with what the real Blessed Mother might have said, but she was convinced of the truth of what she told me. Though it was clear she was probably mentally ill, she was kind, polite, clean, and relatively well dressed, though with an extraordinary amount of makeup on her face. We treated each other with equal dignity and as we parted she let me take her hand as she said thank you.
The woman made a claim that was truly odd, (and I am in no way suggesting that we believe everything we hear from others), but there was something about it that was reminiscent of the readings for this week. Upon reflection, what took place made me think of the apostles in the Temple area making claims that might have felt equally ‘off.’ While I know this woman was not who she claimed to be, and that the apostles were in fact authentic, it still taught me that we cannot discount anyone from being an instrument of God. That I am still thinking about this woman is proof enough for me. There were things in what she said that were strikingly symbolic. For example, her tattoo which ‘proved the presence of the Spirit within her’ reminded me of the indelible mark we are given through baptism and confirmation! So while she was indeed not who she believed herself to be, there was truth somewhere deep inside of her, muddled by her brokenness and affliction.
If we have the eyes to see we can find Jesus within every encounter. In this case it was clear that the woman I met was mentally ill, but the gift she offered was to see that all people are children of God. She acted with dignity and was respectful, and so it was important to return that dignity and respect rather than to dismiss her. This is the love, often referred to as mercy, which Jesus teaches us. While it was obvious she was not who she claimed to be, she caused me to think about the role of the true Virgin Mary and how she points us to her Son always. Indeed, we do need to be mindful of people who approach us since not everyone is as harmless as she; that is, we do need to be discerning of when it is okay to be in such an encounter and when it is not a good idea. But we can learn from them, and maybe see them as soon-to-be canonized Mother Theresa of Calcutta did when she said that the poorest of the poor were Jesus in His most distressing disguise.
It seems like God’s message in this is that everyone is worthy of the Kingdom of God. Listening to the woman’s tall tale with seriousness was the loving thing to do, but it was not a one way street. We touched each other. And in the time of the early church the apostles were simply trying to touch hearts with the Good News as well. They did not tell anyone to change who they were, but rather they wanted them to share in the message of Jesus so that God’s power would be the agent of change for their behaviors. The apostles had learned to remain humble, though filled with zeal for the Kingdom. They learned to treat everyone with dignity and to meet people were they were, as they were. They learned that the power of God was more important than they were; they were simply the instruments. They teach us that we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus bringing His healing, life-giving message in our words and deeds. We do not have to go forth as the apostles did making His message known through speeches and mighty deeds done publicly. Rather, we live our day-to-day lives taking every opportunity given to live the gospel message by fostering unity through charity, mercy, and prayer, buoyed by the communities of faith to which we belong, with the Eucharist as our anchor. If we do this then we will indeed be ‘telling the people everything about this life.’ This is our life and this is what the Risen Jesus calls us to do. Let us go forth and share the Good News with our lives.
May we continue to celebrate the joy of the Easter season in our liturgical celebrations! May we learn to see the presence of Jesus in others, especially those who come to us in ‘distressing disguise’! May we share everything about our life in Christ in word and deed without hesitation! And may we find the inspiration for mercy, charity, and prayer in our communities of faith so that we may live our spiritual life to the full! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Risen Jesus! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first icon is called The Risen Christ by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose this because of the colors surrounding Jesus, which bring out the vibrancy of Him being alive, fully divine but also fully human. Jesus, who breathed upon the apostles when He appeared to them, seems about to breathe on us, too. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-risen-christ-014-william-hart-mcnichols.html
If you want to purchase a copy as a plaque, giclee or card, go to the link and follow the directions. And explore the rest of the site, too: there are some gorgeous icons and images there.
The second image is a painting called St. Peter preaching in the Presence of St. Mark by Fra Angelico. Although it is a depiction of Peter in a Renaissance setting it does convey the zeal of Peter and the rapt crowds listening to his words.
Next is actually a photo which I took in a church in Salzburg, Austria. I chose this because it is not very clear. It almost seems to be pastels rather than oils which were used in this painting, probably because it has faded with age. But it conveys a blurring of reality and seems unfinished, incomplete; just as the woman I met was not clear as to who she really was, but did convey something which pointed to the presence of Christ, so too this rendering points to Christ, but we have to discern what we are seeing.
Next is another of my photos, taken also in Austria. I chose it because it is full of life, but you have to look closely to see the many houses on the hillside behind the city.
Finally, a photo taken by my husband of a square in Munich, Germany. I chose it because this is a modern day 'Temple square,' a place where people come and go as they attend to their daily lives. This is the world in which we live, so to speak; it is in the marketplace that we tell people everything about this life of being a Christian.
Heart Speaks to Heart