Given our current isolation from much of the regular routine of our everyday lives, there have been a number of jokes about how the days are all blurring into each other at present. For us Catholics, however, this would be a shame, given that the present time is the apex of our yearly celebration of the mysteries of Christ. Similar to Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of Easter for a full week—known as the Easter Octave—followed by an extended period of ongoing celebration throughout Eastertide. These are special days, and I encourage to treat them as such. Though we currently lack the opportunity to gather and celebrate the sacraments together, know that the Lord is not bound by such limitations. Trust in God’s ability to reach you where you are, and allow him to guide you during this special season in our faith.
Today we reach the end of the Easter Octave—the “eighth day” that we hear spoken of in the Gospel—and we prepare to transition into the slightly more subdued remainder of Eastertide. This liturgical shift mirrors something of our own spiritual response to the Easter event. The Honeymoon of the Resurrection—just like that of our personal conversions—does not last forever. In time, we could even be tempted to ask ourselves if the miracle of Easter—and the graces we have been blessed with—really happened at all. Given this all-too-human temptation, the Church gives us a particularly apt gospel passage this Sunday for the conclusion of the Easter Octave.
In the gospel, we hear the famous account of “Doubting Thomas”, which captures something of the difficulties we face in coming to terms with what an Easter faith really means. What God has brought about in the Resurrection—and its personal, historical, and cosmic implications—is so utterly new that it stretches the limits of our human capacity for belief. After all, the truth of the risen Lord forever changes our understanding of God, who in his inexhaustible mercy brings eternal life out of our offerings of death.
And the breathtaking newness of this revelation in the risen Christ can prove exceedingly difficult for our world-weary hearts to take in, particularly when one hears the message second-hand. All of us first heard the Gospel second-hand, and Jesus directly address us in today’s Gospel when he says to Thomas the famous line I referred to last week:
‘You believe because you can see me.
Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
Now if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wished at times that you could have seen the risen Christ like the Apostles did, so that our faith would be stronger. But Jesus goes out of his way to say that those who have not seen and yet believe are blessed – in a sense, he’s saying that we who have not seen and yet believe are better off than those who believe because they have seen. Why would this be so?
Well let’s have a think about how people come to faith in the risen Christ if they did not witness it themselves (i.e. all of us). It’s certainly possible that Christ could manifest himself to particular people in a vision—a bit like he did to Saint Paul on the road to Damascus—but such conversions are rare. Rather, most people come to believe in the risen Christ from the testimony of others. We come to faith from the testimony of others.
All genuine conversion stems from an encounter—with Jesus of course—but we first have to be shown that such an encounter is possible, and this we see in the lives of others who have encountered Christ. We see in their lives the fruit of their faith in Christ, and this draws us in. In a very real sense therefore, a Christian is someone who’s met a Christian – it’s handed on from one person to the next.
I hope you’ve met people—I know I have—whose love for God and for their neighbour is both compelling and immensely attractive. When we meet such living saints we often find ourselves wanting to be around them, and hoping that something of their goodness can rub off onto ourselves. For instance, I know people who volunteered with Mother Teresa’s sisters in Calcutta while she was still alive, and just being around her and seeing how she cared for the dying and destitute made them want to radically change their lives, and they found themselves praying “God, make me like that!” Ultimately, it was the risen Christ they saw in her, and it was Christ who was attracting them to a life of radical love.
Let’s return to the Apostles. In Catholicism we often speak about the lineage of Apostolic succession – how our bishops follow in the footsteps of the Apostles as their successors. And this is an essential aspect of our faith – the structure of our Church and our sacramental life is inextricably linked to the fact that the authority that Jesus entrusted to Saint Peter and the Apostles has been handed down over the centuries through their successors the bishops in union with the pope. Without this apostolic lineage we would have no valid priesthood and no valid sacraments.
And yet it is worth remembering that the authority granted to the Apostles was in large part founded on their experience of having seen the risen Christ, and of subsequently being set on fire. The Apostles converted people not through the prestige of their office, but by their evangelical witness to the risen Christ. And so, just as the Apostles would have successors in their office of bishop, so too all those they converted would become in a sense their spiritual successors.
Here’s how it works: I have a trusted friend, who had a trusted friend, who had a trusted friend, who had a trusted friend… who saw the risen Christ. We receive this testimony as a gift, and we are entrusted with passing it on. Saint Paul described this dynamic in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he was buried;
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once,
most of whom are still living…”
Most of whom are still living – in other words, he’s saying “Go and ask them!”
They are all witnesses, which means we’re talking about real, historical events. Our faith isn’t some esoteric and disembodied wisdom – it’s first-and-foremost the knowledge of events, which either happened or they didn’t. The Resurrection is an event which either happened or it didn’t, and beginning with the Apostles, testimony has come down to us about the Resurrection through the great cloud of witnesses.
So let’s return to our original question. Why would Jesus say that we are blessed if we have not seen him, and yet believe? Well, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead simply because you saw him with your own eyes and touched him with your own hands – this requires no faith. It’s an empirical fact. But to believe because we’ve seen the effect that the risen Christ has on people, and we can find no other way of explaining it – this not only has the advantage of inspiring the gift of faith, but in a sense it’s also a more convincing form of evidence, because it takes the fact of the risen Christ to the next level. As I mentioned last week, such evidence shows that the risen Christ has the power to transform lives – that an unfathomable burst of divine love dropped upon the world in that empty tomb and its effects continue to ripple around the world undimmed to this very day.
The lived witness of Gospel’s impact on the lives of those who share it with us, is itself a powerful testimony to the truth of the Gospel. In his respect for our human freedom, God patiently waits for us to let go of our scepticism, and gently leads us from doubt to real faith; from cautious cynicism to a life-changing encounter with the living God. And so, we are indeed blessed.
Upon meeting the risen Christ, the Apostles—these uneducated fishermen from the backwaters of the Roman Empire—would go and take on the world, emerging victorious by mingling their blood with the blood of Christ. Their breathtaking boldness against all expectations is a most eloquent witness to the fact of the Resurrection.
We who are their spiritual successors have a responsibility to hand on not only the testimony about these events, but also the accumulated moral, liturgical and sacramental traditions by which Christians have been drawn into participation in these events for the past two thousand years.
The heart of our faith is an encounter with the risen Lord, and when we gather for Mass we have the privilege of encountering him anew in the Eucharist. The fact that we are presently unable to take part in this sacramental encounter is an opportunity for God to increase our longing for union with him, so that when we are finally able to gather again and receive the Eucharist, we may truly exclaim with Saint Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” May the current situation also inspire in us an openness to encountering the Lord in the day-to-day moments of our often-mundane lives. As so many of the saints have shown us, everyday tasks such as doing the dishes can be a moment of true encounter if we strive to do such things with genuine love.
As we move on from the joy of the Easter Octave, let us strive to go forth with a renewed desire to witness to the Resurrection in all aspects of our lives, so that the Apostolic faith may live on in us, and continue to ring out through all the earth.
A few notices and links:
– Now that Holy Week is behind us, life at the parish is settling into a strange new rhythm, built around the present limitations we face. But we certainly don’t wish to become complacent with this new normal, so if there are any ways in which we might be able to help you or others, ideas for parish ministry in the present circumstances, resources we could share, etc. we would be keen to hear from you.
– Office hours this coming week will return to standard “holiday” times, and will remain as such until further notice: 9am-12:30pm Monday to Friday. Again, on Tuesdays and Fridays either Fr Matteo or myself will be in the office throughout opening hours and available for reconciliation or a chat without an appointment (we continue to be available at many other times with an appointment).
– Archbishop Costelloe will continue to stream Sunday Mass at 11am each week, which can be viewed on the following platforms:
– Just letting you know that I’ve started a public Facebook page – if you’re on Facebook and would like to receive my occasional thoughts, videos, homilies, etc. feel free to wander over and give it a like: https://www.facebook.com/Fr-Mark-Baumgarten-105480621124119/
– Here’s another song I’ve played on the piano for you – a somewhat bluesy version of “Amazing Grace”: https://youtu.be/zEY-HEDJekA
– Thanks to a number of young volunteers who have put their hand up to help, our parish Vinnies group is able to continue their important work. If you know anyone in need of emergency assistance with food, utility bills, rent, etc. they are welcome to phone the SVDP Call Centre between 9am-1pm weekdays on 1300 794 054.
– Thankfully much of the panic-buying of recent weeks seems to have slowed down, so our parish toilet paper exchange is probably no longer as necessary. Many thanks to those who helped provide toilet paper to the vulnerable in our community during this time. That said, the parish still has quite a bit of excess toilet paper, so if you know anyone in need, they are still welcome to contact us.
– I’ve attached a note from Caritas Australia with information about how you can transfer your Project Compassion donations from Lent if you haven’t already. Thank you for your generous support each year!
– Lastly, each year I like to share some videos highlighting the beauty of our Catholic faith with those who’ve entered the Church at Easter. Since we weren’t able to so this year, I figured I might as well share them with you all in the coming weeks. To start with, here’s an excerpt from a beautiful hymn in honour of the Holy Eucharist composed by St Hildegard of Bingen: https://youtu.be/Yo0iqNFjfVc
Fr Mark Baumgarten