Before I begin, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and blessed Easter! Some of you might think that I’m a little late with that greeting, but if you heard before the announcements were read at the beginning of Mass, or maybe saw at the top of the page above the readings in the Misselette, today is the Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season. That’s right - we are still celebrating Easter right through next week when we celebrate Pentecost - the birthday of the Church when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to his disciples so they could continue the work he started before he ascended to heaven - the work of building his kingdom here on earth.
Do any of us still have any reminders around the house that we are still celebrating Easter? Or did we put everything away six weeks ago? You know, for a people living in a culture that says it’s always ready to “party”, we sure seem to poop out pretty fast when it comes to celebrating the event that made the biggest difference in our lives - our life now, and our life to come.
For some reason, we seem to prefer the suffering that comes with Lent to the celebration of Easter. When Ash Wednesday rolls around we’re all ready to give up those extras of our lives for five weeks, we fast and abstain, give more to charity, and examine our consciences more closely so that we ready ourselves for the joy that comes with Easter.
Then the big day comes. We come to the Vigil Mass to welcome the newly baptized and confirmed. We come to Mass on Easter Sunday with family and friends, many of whom haven’t seen the inside of a church since Christmas. The crowds are HUGE. It’s easy to imagine ourselves on Easter Sunday as being part of that crowd that’ll be awaiting Jesus when he returns at the end of time. And then what do we do? I think most of us just go back to work on Monday or Tuesday as if it never happened.
The great miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead should put a hope in our lives that should shine through for at least the seven weeks of Easter. It should put a resolve into our faith that will overcome any and all suffering and obstacles that come our way.
Today, this Seventh Sunday of Easter, bridges the gap between the Ascension of Jesus that we just celebrated on Thursday and Pentecost that we celebrate next Sunday. It bridges the gap between the Kingdom of God which is to come and the Kingdom of God that Jesus began here on earth, growing from that mustard seed planted 2000 years ago.
Today’s readings should give us hope and strengthen our faith with courage. Jesus promises that the love with which the Father has loved him, that eternal love that overcame all obstacles, even death, will be in us just as Jesus himself is in us.
He promises that he will come back to take all who thirst for HIS justice and HIS truth and HIS peace. into his kingdom for life eternal. A place described at other times as a place of mansions and banquets for all who believe in his word - and live their lives as though they believe.
In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard the story of the first martyr, Stephen (who was also the first deacon, by the way). One of the questions I give to my 6th grade CCD class every year is to ask them who the first martyr was and where do we find his story. Many of them think that John the Baptist was the first martyr or that Jesus himself was the first martyr. But Stephen was the first person to die for proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ risen from the dead. He knew that it was Jesus, forever present to us by his Spirit in the Church, in other people, in the Word, and especially in the Eucharist, who allows the love of God to live in us, banishing even death from our lives. He trusted Jesus so much that he gave his AMEN! - his I BELIEVE! - even when he knew it would mean the end of his earthly existence.
It was his blood and the blood of the many thousand of martyrs who followed him throughout the centuries that gave witness to Jesus and give hope and strength to others. That’s what martyr means - witness.
It seems somewhat fitting that we’d hear this story of the first Christian martyr on Memorial Day weekend. Our annual observance of Memorial Day began in 1868, three years after the end of the United States Civil War. In all the hype over the end of the 20th Century the last couple of years, did you hear it mentioned even once that more Christian martyrs, especially Catholic martyrs, died during the 20th Century than in any other century?
As we prepare to remember those who died for the cause of freedom over these past 100 or so years, it might also be a good time to take a moment to remember those who used their God-given freedom by making the choice not to deny Jesus but to proclaim him boldly through their words and actions even if it meant certain death.
Catholics know something of the great Saint-Martyrs of the 20th century like Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein (who both died at Auschwitz), or of Jesuit Miguel Pro whose holy death was photographed, to the great embarrassment of his Mexican persecutors.
Such outrages occurred all during the twentieth century. China, for example, has produced large numbers of martyrs. In the 1900 Boxer Rebellion alone, 30,000 Catholics died, including several dozen bishops, priests, and religious. Since the Communist takeover in the late 1940s, thousands more have died in brainwashing camps and under laojiao, virtual slave labor. Almost every week brings more stories of disappearances, arrests, and occasionally deaths.
In some countries, such as Spain, the Church has documented almost 8,000 people killed for the Faith during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In other countries, where the persecution and death continued over several decades, and in many cases still continue, tens of thousands died without a trace.
From the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, thousands of Catholics have disappeared into Gulags, been gunned down by dictators, had their heads cut off by anti-Catholic fanatics, and, in some cases, been crucified. In Sudan, which is engaged in the most insidious anti-Catholic campaign in the world, there have been reports not only of martyrdoms and crucifixions, but Christians in the Nuba mountains in southern Sudan are being sold into slavery.
In India, Catholic churches are regularly burned by Hindu Fundamentalists, and both Hindus and local animist groups have harassed and killed Catholic converts. In Pakistan, which disagrees with India about everything else, an Islamic Fundamentalist government does the same. Even great charity is no protection. Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity have been threatened in India and three of them were murdered in Yemen in the 1990s.
Those of us living in mostly Christian societies like the United States think that persecution and martyrdom are things of the past. But they are going on all the time and holy men and women all over the world are paying the ultimate price to keep the faith alive.
Even though we, here, are joined to them as fellow members of the Body of Christ, we rarely if ever get to let these persecuted Christians know of our solidarity with them. One of the chances we DO have to express this solidarity is when we come forward to receive the Eucharist during communion. Why do we call it communion? Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “ I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one.”
It is precisely in the Eucharist that we not only join in communion with the Holy Trinity, but we join in communion with one another. That’s what we are affirming when the priest or deacon or eucharistic minister holds the host in front of us and says “the Body of Christ.” Our “AMEN” to that says “Yes! I believe.” “I believe that this truly is the Body of Christ, who died for us and rose again that we all might have eternal life and all be joined together in union with him.” And then we should go out of here and let our actions throughout the rest of the week show that we really do believe.
We should remember this weekend, and always, that a great many people have died and much blood was shed for saying precisely that same “Amen!” From this side of the cup, sometimes, it looks as though some of us aren’t sure we believe, what with the tentative “Amens” we get sometimes - if we get any response at all. That’s the time when we can let those martyrs know that they didn’t die alone or in vain. We can show our union with them and with Christ Jesus by giving our affirmation when the minister says “the Body of Christ.” We should answer- “AMEN!”, meaning “Yes, I believe” and then let our actions the rest of the week show that we really do believe.