Today we complete the Octave of Easter.
Last Sunday I reflected on the significance of Easter Sunday morning for the future worship of Christians. These disciples could have chosen Thursday evening (the time of the Last Supper), Friday afternoon at three (the moment of the death of the Lord), or Saturday (the Jewish sabbath) as their worship day.
Instead they chose Sunday. Christians were a new people who instead of worshipping at the end of the old creation (sabbath day of rest after the creation), worshipped now at the dawn of a new era.
The resurrection of Jesus heralded a new beginning. A new day. A new creation.
The first Christians knew that the Easter Sunday morning rising of the sun was a cosmic sign of the rising of the Son of God from death. Sunday was now not only the first day of the new week, but the first day of the rest of their lives.
The event of the resurrection of Jesus transforms not only every human life, but renews the whole of creation.
“The Jewish people were the people of the sabbath, the seventh day, the day on which God rested after the work of creation. Jesus has given us a new beginning, a new day: “As the day of the liturgical assembly, it is the day for encounter with God through Jesus Christ who as the Risen Lord encountered his followers on the first day, Sunday, after they had found the tomb empty. The structure of the week is overturned. No longer does it point towards the seventh day, as the time to participate in God’s rest. It sets out from the first day ans the day of encounter with the Risen Lord. This encounter happens afresh at every celebration of the Euchaarist, when the Lord enters anew into the midst of his disciples”
Today’s Gospel reading finds the disciples together “in the evening of that same day [the day of the resurrection], the first day of the week”.
It is impossible to imagine the diverse and mixed emotions of this little gathering. We know they were fearful since “the doors were closed…for fear of the Jews”. But they would have had other reasons to be fearful as well.
This group included Peter (the one who denied the Lord), the three who fell asleep when Jesus needed their company and prayer, and the whole group who ran for cover instead of remaining alongside their suffering Lord.
Now the women had come from the tomb with the news that he was alive.
Certainly this news was all they could have hoped for. But they would also have felt deep shame and guilt at their lack of fidelity. The return of Jesus would surely highlight their failures. And so in fear and embarrassment they gathered. The doors were closed. But despite this physical obstacle of the door, and their personal obstacles of sin, Jesus now stood among them.
Because of the triumph of God over death, there are now no insurmountable barriers to the presence and mercy of God.
The risen Jesus was now with them.
Jesus spoke. His word broke through their doors of shame and guilt. His words melted the armour of sin surrounding their hearts. The one they had abandoned said to them: “peace be with you”. And then, as if they might have missed the mercy and love in his greeting, he said to them again “peace be with you”. This divine greeting healed their sin. Their guilt and embarrassment, their shame, was now transformed into joy by the healing power of His presence and His greeting. And this is the reason Christians continue to gather on ‘the first day’ of every week. The New Zealand bishop’s wrote to us some years ago on the centrality of Sunday worship. They entitled their letter” The First Day.
Every time we gather to celebrate the Mass we gather in shame and guilt. We are sinners. At the start of every Mass we ‘acknowledge our sins’. We do not do this to make ourselves feel bad, to ‘beat ourselves up’ or to undermine our self-esteem. Instead our purpose in acknowledging our sins is that we might prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries: yes we are sinners, but God’s love and mercy is more powerful than any sin!
True personal self-esteem is never a human achievement. The esteem we seek is always God’s gift. I am not lovable because I do loving things, or act and speak in certain attractive ways. I am lovable simply because God loves me. This awareness is the ultimate experience of mercy. This is real love. This is true freedom.
In the Jubilee year 2000, Pope John Paul initiated this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, as Divine Mercy Sunday. In his homily on that first Divine Mercy Sunday, as he canonised a Polish nun Faustina Kowalska as a saint of the Church, he proclaimed:
“It is important then that we accept the whole message that comes to us from the word of God on this Second Sunday of Easter, which from now on throughout the Church will be called “Divine Mercy Sunday”. In the various readings, the liturgy seems to indicate the path of mercy which, while re-establishing the relationship of each person with God, also creates new relations of fraternal solidarity among human beings.”
Helen Kowalska was born in Poland in 1905. She died as Sister Faustina in 1938. In 1931 she was living as a religious in the convent of the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Cracow, Poland. In February of that year she had a powerful and very real experience of Jesus calling her to spread the word of his overwhelming mercy for every human person. In response to this experience she painted a picture of a gentle Jesus reaching out in love to all who carry the burden of sin. During the pontificate of fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II, the life of this quiet nun and her mission was made known by the Pope to the world. The first words of John Paul to the world, immediately after his election as pope were “do not be afraid”. Fear exists in any person who is not experiencing the mercy of God in the moment. It is significant that last year on this day, Divine Mercy Sunday 2011, Pope Benedict named John Paul as “Blessed”. This beatification marks the most significant step towards Pope John Paul being named as a saint of the Church. Some Catholics responded to news of the life of Sister Faustina and her response to God with scepticism. Others embraced fully her message and spread word of her image of the merciful Jesus and her trust in him. It is easy to be sceptical about an individual’s experience of Jesus. Perhaps this is because we do not trust our own personal experience of the power of God made known to us. Maybe we feel as though such personal experience of Jesus no longer happens?
I would suggest that anyone who speaks about the love and mercy of Jesus is on sound ground. This message is as necessary today as ever. If we are honest with ourselves we are very aware of our own sin and need for God’s forgiveness.
St Faustina wrote beautifully of the mercy of God as a fountain of love gushing over all who acknowledge their frailty and need for God. This fountain of forgiveness cleanses all who turn back to God. This is the Easter life of Baptism. In the waters of baptism, and in the sacraments of the Church where these waters continue to flow, God continues to deliver us from all that entombs us.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation celebrated regularly gives us a most personal experience of the mercy of God. It may be that you have not celebrated this sacrament for many years. This is not a problem for God.
Simply turn up at any church at the advertised times and tell the priest that you have not been to confession for many years. Your being there is enough. The priest will guide you.