Christianity proclaims something unique, something that no other religion professes: that God became incarnate; he took on a real human body; he experienced all that we experience in our bodies – hunger and thirst, fatigue, excitement, sorrow, joy, anger, pain, amusement, etc. This is important because we can tend to think of religion as something purely spiritual. We read, we ponder, we pray, we believe, and it can seem that it is all in the realm of the mind. This tends to make our faith seem a bit unreal, and the Scriptures seem like merely stories and legends.
Jesus is at pains in the Gospel today to assure his disciples that he is truly present with them, body and spirit, that his Resurrection is not imaginary, and that he actually did rise bodily from the dead and walk out of the tomb. When they think him to be a ghost, he says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” To make the point even more forcefully he takes a piece of fish and eats it in front of them.
Throughout this week the readings will urge us again and again to believe. We are in the midst of the Easter Season, in which we celebrate for seven weeks Jesus’ glorious Resurrection from the dead. It is a real challenge for us to believe in the Resurrection. It was difficult enough for us to take in the contradiction of Jesus dying on the Cross. We know that all men die, but how can this dying man be God, the Creator of the universe? How can God die, and in such a horrible way, humiliated, abandoned and mocked? And then we see his body laid in the tomb, dead. But now this dead body has been raised back to life! It would be a wonderful story to inspire us to hope in spite of any hardships. But that is not what our faith says. This is not a story made up to inspire us. It actually happened. This is vital, because, as Pope Francis teaches us in this week’s Spiritual Reflection, we are created as a union of body and spirit: “The body is a wondrous gift from God, intended, in union with the soul, to express in fullness the image and likeness of Him.”
Once the Lord convinces the Apostles that he is real and alive, he takes two further steps with them. First he builds up their understanding of the meaning of what has happened. This process is summarized in the wonderful verse, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” After that, he sends them forth as his witnesses, to preach the Gospel to all nations.
He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures! This is what the Lord is doing for us as we pause to ponder the word. We believe that he is risen, but we still long for deeper understanding of his Risen Life in us. We can be confident that the Lord gives us this understanding as he “opens our minds.” This gift in turn prepares us for our mission of sharing the Good News with others.
Two of the Apostles who met the Risen Lord that evening, Peter and John, speak to us in the other two readings. In the reading from Acts, Peter is addressing the crowd that gathered after he miraculously cured a lame man at the temple in Jerusalem. His words at first sound harsh as he exposes the sins of the people, but the context reveals he is simply carrying out the commission the Lord gave in the Gospel: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is to be “preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” How can people be freed of sin if they do not honestly face what they have done wrong? On the other hand, as Peter points out, the people acted largely out of ignorance when they “denied the Holy and Righteous One,” and put to death the Author of life. Their sin, though grave, does not have to lead to their condemnation, if they are willing to turn to God. Peter certainly does not condemn them. He has personal experience of the mercy he is preaching about. He himself “denied” Jesus three times – and he was not ignorant when he did it! Yet God wiped away his sins. So Peter has a hopeful message for us all: “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”
In the second reading, the Apostle John also carries out the Easter commission he received from Jesus. He too fills us with hope, for, even though we have sinned – whether in ignorance or not – “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.” Peter calls Jesus “the Holy and Righteous One.” John calls him “the righteous one.” Both tell us that the Lord’s righteousness is applied to us, revealing how merciful he is.
The beauty and power of the Lord’s mercy is what we discover as the Lord opens our minds to understand the Scriptures. This is why John can say with confidence that if we keep the word of God in our hearts, the love of God is truly perfected in us. The “love of God,” when it is applied to us sinners, is divine mercy – for which we never cease praising him!
The Gospel Acclamation is our prayer: “Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us; make our hearts burn while you speak to us.” Teach us, Lord, to truly believe in the power of your Resurrection, so that we may be transformed into your witnesses in the world, in all that we say and do. Alleluia!
As I ponder the Word, do I experience a longing for a deeper understanding of Jesus’ Risen Life in me? Even as I profess that I am a sinner, do I have the hope that Jesus is always merciful to me? Do I have the habit of praising God for his great mercy toward me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.