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The Paraclete, our sure defense

May 15, 2020

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Pentecost will be here in two weeks, the celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. In this week’s gospel Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit. He said that he would ask his Father to send the Advocate (Jn 14:16) and added that the Father would send it in his name (Jn 14:26). Jesus would also send the Holy Spirit himself (Jn 15:26; 16:7).

The Greek word that Jesus used for the Holy Spirit was parakletos, translated by the Revised New American Bible as Advocate, but because the word is so rich symbolically it sometimes is left untranslated and rendered Paraclete in English.

In common Greek, the word parakletos is a legal term that usually refers to a defense attorney. John explained that Jesus is our Advocate before God (1 Jn 2:1), the one to plead our cause. The Holy Spirit does likewise. The Paraclete is our sure defense.

According to this metaphor, the sinner is in criminal court, on trial before the judgment seat of God, charged with a lifetime of offenses and guilty on all counts. The Paraclete, matchless in brilliance and wisdom, is the sinner’s defense attorney. The Paraclete knows everything about the defendant, good and bad, exercises attorney-client privilege, holds everything in absolute confidence, and would never use the information against his client.

The Paraclete is the sinner’s Counselor, the one who knows the law (i.e., the commandments), the Judge (i.e., God), the court procedures, and the sentencing guidelines, and gives the sinner the best possible advice. The trial is a time of tremendous anxiety and worry for the defendant, and the Paraclete serves as Comforter and Consoler for the accused, the one who offers reassurance, encouragement, and hope. The Paraclete is the Advocate, the one who is seated next to the sinner in the courtroom of divine justice, a true friend and faithful companion who takes the sinner’s side, speaks on behalf of the sinner to the Judge, and does so more effectively than if the defendant was speaking for himself.

The Paraclete is the master litigator and eloquently cites mitigating circumstances, explains the sinner’s good intentions, provides a comprehensive list of the good deeds the sinner has done, adds a second list of acts of penance performed, and reminds the Judge of the sinner’s faith in him and love for him. Then the Advocate makes a plea for leniency for his client, asks that the sentencing guidelines be set aside, and that the defendant be granted a full pardon.

The Paraclete is truth and knows the truth, and the truth is this: God is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in kindness (Joel 2:13); that God sent his Son into the world to save sinners (Jn 3:16); that God takes no joy whatsoever in punishment; that God wants each person to enjoy eternal peace with him in heaven for all eternity; and that for God, mercy outranks justice.

Then the Paraclete announced, “The defense rests.” The case did not go to twelve people, a jury of the sinner’s peers, all sinners themselves, but to God alone who is all holy. The Paraclete had provided a sure defense. The Son had died on the Cross for the sinner’s salvation. After due consideration the Judge read the final verdict: “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (see Mt 25:34).

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The First Deacons

May 8, 2020

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“The Call of St. Stephen.  Deacon.”

“The Call of St. Stephen. Deacon.” It is from St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Anoka, Minnesota. This window was designed by Father Michael Van Sloun in collaboration with Pickel Studios in Vero Beach, Florida.

This weekend we hear the account of the event traditionally regarded at the beginning of the office of deacon (Acts 6:1-7). Peter and the other apostles, eventually regarded as bishops, needed helpers or assistants, eventually known as deacons.

With the tremendous growth and expansion of the early Church (see Acts 2:41 and 4:4), the apostles’ workload had become excessive. The Church decided that the apostles should concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word, and call others to assist them with table ministry and their many other responsibilities. There were seven in the first deacon class, Stephen, the head of the class, as well as Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch (Acts 6:5). Their special vocation was service.

The word “deacon” is derived from the Greek words diakonia, service, and diakonos, variously translated as servant, helper, attendant, or minister. Phil 1:1 acknowledges the evolving concept of diaconal ministry in the early Church, and 1 Tm 3:8-10,12-13 lists the necessary qualifications for the office of deacon once it had become more formally established.

The office of deacon is conferred by a bishop by the laying on of hands, and it is one of the three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The other two degrees are the presbyterate, priesthood, and the episcopate, bishop. The diaconate is a degree of service, while the presbyterate and the episcopate are degrees of priesthood. Deacons are ordained clergy who are not priests, and their special role is to assist priests.

A deacon assists the priest at Mass when he offers the invocations of the Penitential Act, proclaims the Gospel, preaches the homily occasionally, reads the petitions of the General Intercessions, receives the gifts, prepares the altar, assists with incensing, gives instructions regarding posture and movement, distributes Holy Communion, and dismisses the Assembly.

A deacon assists the priest outside of Mass when he administers the Sacrament of Baptism; brings Viaticum to the dying; presides for prayer services; officiates at wakes, funerals, and burial services; and witnesses marriages. Deacons can bless religious articles.

As ministers of service, there are many options for deacons to perform charitable good works: outreach to the poor; the visitation of the sick, either at home, in nursing homes, or in hospitals; the care of inmates in prisons and jails; the teaching of sacramental preparation and religious education classes; and various administrative duties; to name some of their important roles.

A permanent deacon must be at least thirty-five years of age, have completed his Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation), been installed as a Lector and an Acolyte, and completed a thorough formation program. If a candidate for the diaconate is married, he must receive the consent of his wife before he is eligible for ordination. Once ordained, if the deacon’s wife should die, the deacon is not eligible for remarriage.

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Inventio Crucis, the Finding of the True Cross

May 1, 2020

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“The Discovery of Three Crosses.”

“The Discovery of Three Crosses.” From the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

The Disappearance of the Cross. After Jesus died, the Cross was removed at some unspecified time and it was placed somewhere, but its whereabouts remained unknown. Great upheaval ensued. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and the city was left a smoldering pile of rubble. Under the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) Jerusalem was rebuilt and renamed Aelia Capitolina and a temple to the pagan goddess Venus was built over Calvary (c. 135). The reconfigured contour of the city hampered any effort to seek and find the True Cross, and the search went on for almost two more centuries.

The Pursuit of the Cross. Queen St. Helena (255-330), the mother of the Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity in 318, and in her fervor decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 320. She had a particular yearning to find the Cross. Upon her arrival, she asked the local Christian residents to point out the location of Calvary. Despite hardship and persecution, there had been a continuous Christian presence in Jerusalem, and information about the location of Calvary had passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next. She was informed to her chagrin that the Temple of Venus stood over Calvary. The pagan shrine was an outrage to Christians and, at the order of her son, the emperor, it was demolished.

An Amazing Discovery. The year most likely was 320, although various historical records also mention 322 and 326. As the workers excavated the site, or as they dug the foundations for the new Christian basilica, they broke into an old cistern slightly to the east of Calvary that had been used as a garbage dump. There in the midst of the debris were three wooden crosses. It is plausible that the Roman soldiers had discarded the crosses in such a handy location. Since Jesus was crucified between two criminals, and because three crosses were found, Helena and her workforce believed their discovery was no mere coincidence and regarded the crosses as authentic. The discovery is called the inventio crucis, the Invention or Discovery of the True Cross, a landmark historical moment for all Christianity commemorated each year on May 3. Next, Helena had to determine which of the crosses belonged to Jesus and was the True Cross, and there are several legends about how this was accomplished.

The First Legend. One cross reportedly still had the wooden placard attached, the titulus, inscribed with the formal charges that Pilate had ordered written, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19), and it subsequently was declared the True Cross.

The Second Legend. According to this account, Helena prayed to God for guidance for how to determine which cross was the Cross of Christ. A man recently had died, and with divine inspiration, she decided that his corpse should be touched by all three crosses. When the body came in contact with the crosses of the two criminals, nothing happened, but when the corpse came in contact with the third cross, the man miraculously came back to life. Thus, the third cross was declared the True Cross.

The Third and Most Popular Legend. According to this version, Helena decided to approach Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem to seek his advice. The bishop suggested that the queen find someone who was gravely ill to test the three crosses. Fortuitously, there was a woman who was near death, and all three crosses were brought to her bedside. When she was touched by the first two crosses her condition remained unchanged, but when she was touched by the third, she sat up, her strength was restored, she glorified God, and she proceeded to run about the house with even greater agility than before her illness. Thus, the last Cross was declared the True Cross.

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St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

May 1, 2020

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St. Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 295. He had a strong Christian upbringing, was educated in theology and Scripture, was ordained a deacon in 318, and became secretary to Bishop Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria.

St. Athanasius accompanied Bishop Alexander to the Council of Nicea in 325. There was a fierce battle between the orthodox bishops who upheld the teaching that Jesus has two natures, divine and human, and that he is true God and true man, and the Arians who insisted that Jesus is less than God, not divine, and the greatest of all human beings. The Council promulgated the Nicene Creed, condemned Arianism as a heresy, and excommunicated Arius.

St. Athanasius

St. Athanasius as seen in the east window of the chapel of the Resurrection, Pusey House in Oxford, by Sir Ninian Comper.

Bishop Alexander died in 328 and St. Athanasius was elected his successor at the age of 33, the spiritual leader of the city of Alexandria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the monks in the desert. Even though Arianism had been rejected by the Council, many still espoused the heresy, opposed St. Athanasius, and did everything possible to discredit him and undermine his authority.

Over the forty-five years that he served as bishop, his opponents had him exiled five times. On the first occasion his Arian adversaries falsely accused him of personal misconduct, multiple crimes, and collusion in the death of Arsenius, a prominent Arian bishop, who was alive and in hiding. The emperor Constantine summoned him to the Council of Tyre in 335. The bishops, most who were Arians, condemned him, and the emperor who had acquitted him initially reversed himself and had him exiled to Trier, Germany, in 336.

After Constantine died, his son, Constantius II, allowed St. Athanasius to return to Alexandria in 338. The same year a synod was called in Antioch, deposed him as bishop, and sent him into exile. An Arian bishop was installed in his place who later died in 346, and St. Athanasius was permitted to return a second time. He remained in Alexandria for ten years, but his opponents were relentless.

Two more councils were called, the first in Arles in 353, the second in Milan in 355, and the Arian majorities condemned St. Athanasius each time. Subsequently a band of soldiers attacked his church in 356, he escaped to the Libyan desert, and spent six years in hiding, protected by his priests and monks.

The Arian bishop of Alexandria was murdered, Constantius II died, and the new emperor Julian allowed St. Athanasius to return in 361. Julian ordered a return to pagan practices. St. Athanasius defied the order and was exiled by Julian from October 362 to June 363. Finally, the next emperor, Valens, sided with the Arians and sent Athanasius into exile a fifth time in 365. The emperor revoked his order four months later, Athanasius returned to Alexandria in 366, and spent his last seven years as bishop in Alexandria at peace.

St. Athanasius was a prolific writer, a true scholar, a clear teacher, and a powerful defender of the faith. He wrote many homilies and letters, and composed three major works: On the Incarnation, the Discourse Against the Arians which explained the Trinity and Jesus as Son of God, and the Life of Anton, a biography of St. Anthony of the Desert which also explained the beginnings of the monastic movement.

St. Athanasius is one of the four great doctors of the Eastern Church, along with St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. John Chrysostom. He is remembered as the “Champion of Nicea” and the “Doctor of the Incarnation.” He may not have been a martyr, but he suffered greatly for the faith. He died on May 2, 373.

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Forgiveness on the road to Emmaus

April 24, 2020

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It was late Easter Sunday afternoon. The sun was dipping in the western sky. The day was largely spent. It was time to call it quits and settle in for the evening.

Two disciples were ambling down the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, one named Cleopas, the other who goes nameless. Some think that his name was Simon or Simeon. Others say Ammaon or Luke. The names are guesses. We will never know.

Road to EmmausThese two disciples were dark sheep. It had been an ugly day. They were befuddled. They did not know where to go. They did not know what to do. They were on a road to nowhere, off course and lost. They made one bad decision after another, and they were in a heap of trouble.

Cleopas and his friend were not apostles, but they were close partners with them. It is likely that they were handpicked by Jesus, two of the seventy additional disciples that Jesus had appointed (see Lk 10:1). They stood out. They were tops among the seventy, friends to the twelve, and companions to Jesus. And they had history together. They heard Jesus speak. They watched Jesus perform miracles. They traveled with Jesus throughout Galilee, and then to Jerusalem.

True friends stay together, particularly when the going gets tough. Not Cleopas and his partner. When things were at their worst, with their Master Jesus dead and buried, a time that they should have pulled together and leaned on each other, they left. They went off by themselves. They abandoned the group, disloyal, undependable.

They were skeptics, doubters. Jesus had told them twice that he would rise on the third day (Lk 9:22; 18:33). The women that went to the tomb reported to them that Jesus had risen (Lk 24:10-11,22-24). They would not believe the women. Worse yet, they did not trust Jesus’ promise. It was too good to be true. It could not possibly have happened.

They were in despair. When Jesus called them, like the apostles they decided to leave family, friends, home, and job. They left everything to follow him (see Lk 5:11,28; 18:28). Yet after they had invested so much time and energy in this new venture, they decided it had been a dismal failure. It was a dream that never came true. Emmaus was home. It was time to go back to their families and pick up with their old jobs. Their disciple days were over.

They were headed west into the darkness, trapped in multiple sins, dark sheep, and lost. The risen Jesus did not punish them, but in his boundless mercy he appeared to them and walked with them. It is what the Good Shepherd does. When a sheep wanders off, Jesus goes in search of them (see Lk 15:4-6). Instead of withholding his grace, he explained the Scriptures and broke bread with them, and through his appearance forgave them, reunited them with the others, strengthened their faith, and enabled them to renew their commitment.

Likewise, when we are going in the wrong direction, the risen Jesus will never abandon us. He appears to us when we are down and out, oftentimes suddenly and unexpectedly, and in a veiled way that may be hard to recognize. His love is constant. His forgiveness is assured. Jesus wants to be united with every traveler on the road of life, particularly if we ever wander off course.

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St. Peter Mary Chanel, Priest and Martyr

April 24, 2020

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St. Peter Chanel was born into a peasant family in Cuet, France, in 1803. His faith and virtue were noticed by his pastor who recommended that he study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1827 for the Diocese of Belley, and he spent the next four years in parish ministry, the first as an associate pastor, the next three as a pastor of the parish at Crozet near Geneva.

In 1831 St. Peter Chanel transferred to a recently founded French missionary order, the Society of Mary, also known as the Marists. He hoped to be sent as a missionary immediately, but his dream was delayed when he was assigned to teach in a seminary at Belley. He was named vice rector at the age of 30. In 1833 he accompanied Jean Colin, the founder of the new congregation, to Rome to obtain papal approval. It was granted by Pope Gregory XVI in 1836, and the Pope gave the new order the South Pacific as a mission territory.

St. Peter Mary ChanelLater in 1836 St. Peter Chanel’s request to be a missionary was granted, and he and several other Marists were sent to French Polynesia. They arrived on the tiny island of Futuna in November 1837. It is west of Tahiti and between Fiji and French Samoa. The conditions were primitive. Cannibalism had recently ended. The residents had never heard of Jesus or Christianity.

St. Peter Chanel was a kind, gentle man with a cheerful disposition. He lived simply in a hut. He learned the local language immediately and cared for the sick with great compassion. He gradually gained the trust and admiration of the islanders, but initially made almost no progress in the proclamation of the gospel or making converts. Exhausted from his labors in the sweltering heat and disappointed by their opposition to his spiritual message, he was incredibly resilient, remained positive and upbeat, and persevered with exceptional determination.

Gradually the young priest gained some followers, made a few converts, and was able to stop a local cult of evil spirits fostered by the local tribal leaders to keep the populace under their power. As his popularity and influence grew, Niuliki, the local ruler, came to regard the French missionary as a threat to his authority. Matters came to a head when the ruler’s son asked to be baptized. The chieftain went berserk with rage. Niuliki dispatched a band of warriors with spears and clubs. The torment began with a severe beating with clubs. Then he was murdered with an ax and his body chopped into pieces with hatchets. His martyrdom took place on April 28, 1841, on the Island of Futuna. He was only 37.

The islanders were amazed by his heroic faith and courageous witness, and large numbers converted. The sick and crippled began to visit his grave, and many cures and healings took place attributed to his intercession. Eventually the island became almost entirely Catholic.

St. Peter Chanel is the protomartyr of the Pacific and the first martyr of the Marists. He was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954. His symbols include a palm branch, the symbol of the martyrs; a torch, which represents the truth which he spoke; an ax, the instrument of his martyrdom; a hut, where he lived in simplicity; and a black and white lily, the symbol of the Marists. He is the patron saint of Oceania, the islands of the South Pacific.

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Three skip out, ten do zip

April 17, 2020

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“Thomas places his finger into Jesus’ side” (Jn 20:27). St. Savior’s Church, Jerusalem, Israel. Father Michael Van Sloun

There is a disturbing and similar detail in this week’s and next week’s gospels. Both are accounts of Easter Sunday, the first from John, the second from Luke. The gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter tells how Thomas was missing, and the gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter tells how Cleopas and the other disciple were also missing. All three were absent, off by themselves, not with the other disciples in Jerusalem.

This is a problem. Jesus had prayed at the Last Supper that his followers would be one, and on Easter Sunday three of them were apart from the group. John’s gospel does not say where Thomas went. Luke reports that Cleopas and the other disciple were on the road to Emmaus. Wherever they were, they were not where they were supposed to be, with the others.

On Easter Sunday a group of disciples was huddled together behind locked doors in Jerusalem, probably ten of them, the twelve apostles minus Thomas and Judas Iscariot. They were also missing Cleopas and the other disciple, two of their closest partners. It is presumed that the ten knew that Judas Iscariot had committed suicide. The absence of the other three would have been conspicuous. They should have been alarmed by their absence. They should have been wondering, “Why aren’t they here?” “Why did they leave?” “Where are they now?” A close-knit band of disciples would have wanted the three absent ones to be with them.

There is no report that the ten apostles took any initiative to locate the other three. There is no record of them asking anyone about their whereabouts, nor is there a record that anyone went out to look for them and invite them back.

Usually when it comes to sin and blame on Easter, the three disciples who were missing are chastised for being absent. But what about the other ten? They also failed. They could have been doing something and did nothing. They shirked their responsibilities when they did not reach out to the other three and attempt to reunite them to the group.

Peter understood that there is strength in numbers and danger when a person goes off alone. Only days earlier he had gone off by himself, alone, when he denied Jesus. The other nine were also aware of the value of group togetherness. A community of believers can help a person stay on the right path. Off alone, it is easy to stray off course. With group support it is easier to make good choices. Off alone, a person is vulnerable and more likely to slip and fall. In the group there is accountability. Off alone, there is independence and no one to offer constructive suggestions or confront sins and failings.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the ten. It is easy for regular churchgoers, especially after the large crowds for Easter Sunday shrink back to the regular size, to point an accusing finger at those who worship occasionally or who have fallen away from the Church, and claim that they are at fault for being absent. Those who are missing are absent for a variety of reasons. Instead of assessing blame, it is better to offer the benefit of the doubt, and instead of being harsh and critical, to be warm and receptive. It is up to regular churchgoers to reach out to those who are not connected and do something to reunify them with the group.

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Do not be afraid!

April 9, 2020

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“The Resurrection,” Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Rogers, Minnesota.

“Do not be afraid” is one of the central messages of Easter. When the angel of the Lord spoke to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the angel’s first words were, “Do not be afraid!” (Mt 28:5). When Jesus appeared to the women, after he greeted them, he said, “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10). The Resurrection of Jesus is reason to do away with fear.

Fear can be described in many ways: worry and anxiety, alarm and panic, apprehension and uneasiness, dread and fright, fretting and agonizing, and being troubled and nervous. It is terrible to be afraid. It saps a person’s energy and can paralyze a person. It is natural to want to be free of fear, to have purpose and meaning, joy, peace, health, well-being, safety and security.

“The Resurrection,” Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Royalton, Minnesota.

The women were afraid. They were afraid of separation and loneliness because their friend Jesus was gone. They were afraid that they would not be able to move the stone because it was too heavy, and afraid they would not be able to anoint his body. They were afraid because the earth was shaking, an angel appeared unexpectedly, and the body of Jesus was missing.

The disciples were also afraid. They were huddled together in the Upper Room behind barred doors for fear of the Jews. They were afraid to go outdoors. They were afraid of the corrupt Jewish leaders, being arrested, put on trial, treated unfairly, condemned and tortured. They were afraid to suffer and die. They were afraid of the unrest in Jerusalem and the brutality of the Roman soldiers. They were afraid for their families. They were afraid because of their sinful past and the punishment they deserved. They were afraid of going on without Jesus, an uncertain future, and what to do next.

The coronavirus pandemic fills us with fear. We are afraid of germs. We are afraid of contracting the virus, and if we do, of being sick, whether there will be adequate health care, how much we will suffer, and how long the recovery will last. We are afraid of a premature, untimely death, and if we die, whether we will go to heaven. We are afraid that God has abandoned us or is punishing us. We are afraid for doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other health care providers. We are afraid of isolation and being neglected or forgotten. We are afraid about our employment situation, the loss of income, the state of the economy, and our future economic security. We are afraid for our families, friends, and neighbors, and for our country. We are afraid if things will ever return to normal.

The Resurrection helps us face our fears. The risen Jesus brings peace to the troubled, hope to the worried, reassurance to the confused, and forgiveness to sinners. The risen Jesus who passed through locked doors to appear to his disciples appears to those who shelter in place. The risen Jesus who suffered so much has compassion on us in our suffering, promises to be with us in our trials, and help us carry our burdens. The risen Jesus who healed so many grants his healing grace to many who are sick. But Jesus does not promise recovery to all. Some will die because of the coronavirus. All will die someday. The risen Jesus does not promise life forever on earth, but rather life forever in heaven. The message of Easter is that for all who die, either now or in the future, that the Cross is our salvation, and because of all that Jesus suffered on our behalf, we will share in the glory of his Resurrection. Therefore, do not be afraid!

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Matthew Compares Peter and Judas

April 3, 2020

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Jesus is the main character of the Passion Narrative. It was Jesus who presided over the Last Supper, underwent the Agony in the Garden, was arrested, placed on trial, sentenced to death, scourged and mocked, crucified, died, and was buried. The story is told in two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, chapters 26 and 27, and the gory details of Jesus’ bloody death are conspicuously absent.

Instead, much attention is given to the people who were involved with Jesus’ crucifixion: the disciples, the chief priests and the elders, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, the crowd, the soldiers, the revolutionaries, and the women from Galilee. As the story is retold, the listener is left to wonder, if I had been there, which of these would I have been? As the song asks, Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?

“Peter weeps bitterly.” as seen in the lower church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, Israel. Father Michael Van Sloun

All four gospels mention Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot, but only Matthew gives extra attention to Judas, and only Matthew goes out of his way to compare them. They both sinned. Matthew was keenly aware that all of the members of his Christian community, like Peter and Judas, were sinners, as well as all of his readers. Peter and Judas reacted to their sins differently and had drastically different outcomes. When a person commits a sin, the person has choices. Matthew would point us to one character and away from the other.

The similarities between Peter and Judas abound. Both were apostles. Both were leaders, Peter the head of the group and the chief spokesman, Judas the chief financial officer, the treasurer. Both held positions of trust, Peter with the keys, Judas with the purse, and at the Last Supper they both sat close to Jesus, positions of friendship. They accompanied Jesus on his travels, listened to him speak, and witnessed his miracles.

On Holy Thursday night the points of comparison became more dramatic. Jesus knew they both would sin. Jesus told Peter, “You will deny me three times” (Mt 26:34), and he told Judas that he would betray him (Mt 26:25). Peter led the other disciples to Gethsemane to pray with Jesus (Mt 26:37); Judas led a band of soldiers and guards to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus (Mt 26:47). Peter listened to the trial from the high priest’s courtyard (Mt 26:58,69); Judas witnessed Jesus’ condemnation before Pilate, the chief priests, and elders (Mt 27:1-3). Peter denied Jesus three times (Mt 26:70,72,74); and Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Mt 26:48-49). Both regretted their sins: Peter wept bitterly (Mt 26:75), Judas flung the thirty pieces of silver into the Temple and admitted, “I have sinned” (Mt 27:4).

At this point their similarities abruptly ended. Peter went back to the other apostles; Judas went back to the chief priests and elders (Mt 27:3), and then off by himself (Mt 27:5), leaving the community. Peter repented; Judas despaired. Peter accepted Jesus’ mercy, went on living, and served for over thirty more years; Judas decided he was not worthy to serve. Peter glorified God by his death as a martyr; Judas dishonored God by his death by hanging (Mt 27:5).

We are all like Peter and Judas; we all sin. After we sin, we have choices. Shall I repent or despair? Shall I accept God’s mercy or not? Shall I pick up and get going again with the help of God’s grace or shall I give up and quit? Matthew has a recommendation for us: look to Peter.

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Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord A Dual Feast

April 3, 2020

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“Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” As seen in the sacristy in the Franciscan Bethphage Church, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel. Father Michael Van Sloun

The Dual Nature of the Feast.  Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.  It is a dual feast.  It has traditionally been known as Palm Sunday because the Mass begins with a gospel text that recounts how palm branches were used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, and because palm branches are blessed at the beginning of Mass and carried in procession as part of the Entrance Rite.  It has also traditionally been known as Passion Sunday because the Passion Narrative is proclaimed during the Liturgy of the Word.

A Unique Aspect of the Palm-Passion Liturgy.  This is the only Sunday of the entire liturgical year in which two separate gospel passages are read at the same Mass.  The liturgy begins with a special opening rite with the gospel proclamation of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as the crowd waved palms and cried out, “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Year A, Mt 21:1-11; Year B, Mk 11:1-10 or Jn 12:12-16; Year C, Lk 19:28-40). At the regular gospel time the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed in its entirety (Year A, Mt 26:14-27:66; Year B, Mk 14:1-15:47; Year C, Lk 22:14-23:56).

One Mass with Two Distinct Moods.  The Mass has two very different sentiments or feeling tones, jubilation, then lamentation.  The opening scene is festive.  As Jesus mounted the donkey the excitement rose to a fever pitch.  The crowd swelled.  Full of joy, the people waved their palm branches with gladness, laid their cloaks on the roadway with reverence, marched next to Jesus in happiness, and raised their voices with exuberance as they confidently proclaimed Jesus as the “Son of David” (Mt 21:9), “the prophet” (Mt 21:11), and their King.  As the Mass begins with the procession with palms, we honor Christ as our King and sovereign Lord, and the procession with palms into or around the church is intended to recapture the energy and enthusiasm of Jesus’ regal cortege from Bethpage down the Mount of Olives and through the gates of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

An Abrupt Change.  Only moments later there is a jarring mood shift.  The former exhilaration comes to an abrupt halt.  The tone suddenly becomes dark and dreary with the proclamation of four somber readings.  The first reading is the third Suffering Servant Canticle of Isaiah (Is 50:4-7) with the sad words, “I gave my back to those who beat me” (Is 50:6a);  the Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 22, the first portion which foretells a chilling aspect of the passion of the Messiah, “They have pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps 22:17b); and the second reading is the Christ Hymn with the grim statement that Jesus became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8b).  The culmination of the Liturgy of the Word is the proclamation of the Passion, the painful account of how Jesus was scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed, crucified, and killed.  This bitter account causes our hearts to ache with sorrow.

The Paschal Mystery.  Holy Week begins with mourning, weeping, and lamentation.  The Cross is the most ignominious of all deaths, yet it is through the Cross that Jesus ultimately triumphed as our King and Savior.  This solemn week is filled with anguish and grief, but it ends with an ever greater mood shift, the joy and exaltation of the Resurrection and Easter.

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