Sunday, April 11, 2010

2nd Sunday in Easter (C)
Divine Mercy Sunday
Sprint Spectators and Relay Runners

Dear sisters and brothers, do you like athletics? When the summer Olympics come around, for example, what track events do you like to watch? The sprints are among my favorites. Some of us might still remember the men’s 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt blew away the rest of the field. But victories are not always so clear-cut, right? Especially in 100m races, the finish can be so close that it’s not possible to tell who the winner is, at least not with the naked eye. We call such suspense-filled situations photo finishes, because we have to rely on photography to reveal the winner. We have to wait anxiously – even if it’s just for a few minutes – to find out the result. In such situations, it’s as if technology performs for us a work of mercy. It changes our nail-biting anxiety into final certainty. And – if our runner has won – even into joy. Technology can give us a reason to celebrate. But how should we celebrate? What is the appropriate way for us to rejoice?

The story is told of how someone was watching a very close race. And when his runner finally crossed the finish line first, he was overjoyed. For a few brief moments he jumped up and down, shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs in celebration. It was only when he noticed people frantically pointing and screaming at him that he was brought back down to earth. It was only then that he remembered who he was and what he was supposed to do. You see he was not just a spectator watching a sprint. He was also the next runner in a relay. To celebrate his teammate’s triumph, he had to do more than just jump up and down. He had to pick up the baton and run!

Which brings us to our Mass readings today – the eighth day of the Octave of Easter, the second Sunday of the Easter Season, and Divine Mercy Sunday. This is a day when we celebrate both the joy and the mercy that are the gifts of the Crucified and Risen Christ. As we heard in our responsorial psalm, God’s mercy endures forever. But what does this mercy look like? And how should we express our joy? How are we supposed to celebrate?

If our gospel story is anything to go by, the experience of the joy and mercy of Easter are not unlike what happens when spectators receive electronic confirmation that their runner has won. Consider the disciples in the upper room. Their hearts are filled with fear and anxiety because it seems very clear to them that the runner they have been backing has lost the race. Even worse, he has been disqualified and disgraced. He has been labeled a criminal and executed. What will happen to them, his supporters, now? Better to play it safe. Better to hide away behind locked doors. Not just the locked doors of an upper room, but also the sealed entrances of their hearts.

But, marvel of marvels, even though the doors are locked, Jesus finds a way in. He meets the disciples where they are. Knowing that they are trapped in their own anxiety and despair, Jesus enters to set them free. Somehow, mysteriously, he finds a way into the fear-filled room and the doubtful heart. And he brings with him news of great joy. He assures his friends and supporters that, contrary to all appearances, he has actually won the race. To fearful hearts he brings peace. To guilty consciences, he brings mercy. Like the miracle of high-tech photography after a tight race, Jesus helps his disciples to see the truth that is invisible to the naked eye. He gives them a reason to rejoice. Such are the awesome workings of Divine Mercy. Such is the wonderful power of Easter Joy.

But that’s only half the story, isn’t it? It’s not just to reassure anxious spectators that the Crucified and Risen Christ enters into confined spaces. His aim is to do more. Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you.... Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them. Whose sins you retain, are retained. More than simply giving spectators a reason to rejoice, by these words, our Lord is passing on a baton to fellow runners in a relay.

And we see the results of this baton-passing in the first reading, where we are told that crowds of people were flocking to the apostles bringing with them the sick and those possessed by unclean spirits. Indeed, they were even laying people out on the road so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them. And they were all cured. The second reading also gives us a peek at how the apostle John ran with the baton that he had received from his Master. John finds himself exiled on the island of Patmos because he proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus. But even on his island prison, John continues to run the race. In response to instructions received in a vision, he begins to write down his experiences so that others might find inspiration and consolation in them. And, as we know, even the infamous doubting Thomas continued to run the race. Tradition has it that he carried the baton of faith to far-off India, where communities of St. Thomas Christians can be found even to this day.

Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed! Sisters and brothers, we know well this declaration that Jesus makes in response to Thomas’ profession of faith. And we often count ourselves among those whom Jesus considers blessed. After all, aren’t we the ones who have come to believe in Christ even though we haven’t actually seen him? But are we, really? Do we truly believe? Don’t we need first to consider carefully what belief looks like, before we can claim to have it? And, if our readings are anything to go by, there are at least two aspects to belief. There is first the joy that comes from experiencing divine mercy. But then, there is also the effort involved in sharing that same mercy with others. To be a true believer is to experience the joy of knowing that our runner has already won. But it is also to pick up his baton to continue the race. It is only when we are doing both these things that we can consider ourselves among the blessed. Otherwise, perhaps it’s better for us simply to learn from the example of Thomas. Perhaps it’s better to humbly acknowledge our doubts to the Lord, so that he might enter, once again, into our hearts to dispel them for us.

Today’s issue of the LA Times carries an interview with Fr. Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, a non-profit organization that ministers to gang members in LA. In the interview, Fr. Boyle quotes the following line from a speech by the late Martin Luther King, Jr. I have felt the power of God transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. 

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, how strong is our desire to feel this merciful power of God to transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope? How ready are we to pick up the baton and to continue running the race today?

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