You know, I have to say that I love the Easter season. Nevertheless, there is something about it that always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. You see, we spend a lot of time in Easter focusing on readings from the Acts of the Apostles, many of which recount how the Apostles were harassed, oppressed, and even persecuted by the Jewish authorities: all for preaching the Good News about Jesus. This makes me uncomfortable because when I look at the state of Christianity today—being splintered and divided as it is—I start to wonder if we Catholics haven’t fallen into the same trap: focusing more on religion than on proclaiming the Risen Christ. Perhaps I can try to explain.
Jump back with me, if you will, to a little more than four hundred years before Christ. The land of Judah was being threatened by the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians eventually conquered Judah, capturing its king and sending all of the Jewish people into exile among the different nations that made up its empire. For the Jews this was devastating. The land of Judah was part of the land that God had promised would be theirs forever and now they had been exiled from it. Still further, the sign of God’s presence (and thus his power to protect them) was the Temple in Jerusalem. The king of the Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed it, however, seemingly leaving the Jews with nothing.
Many scholars believe that it was at this time that the Jewish synagogue emerged. In order to preserve their faith, the Jews, although in exile, gathered together in homes or other spaces to study Scripture and to pray. It was to these small communities of Jews that the Good News came: that God would send another king—King Cyrus of Persia—to emancipate them and allow them to return to the land that God had promised them.
Even though they were allowed to rebuild the Temple, the Jews maintained the practice of meeting in synagogues to study and to pray after they returned from exile. Because the prophecies before the exile warned of failures to follow carefully the Mosaic Law, the Jewish religious leaders made sure that synagogue teaching ensured that the people were closely observing the Law’s precepts. As a result, by the time of Jesus Jewish leaders had become literally intolerant of any person or movement that threatened to turn people away from their careful observance of the Law. Thus, they persecuted Jesus and had him killed; and when Jesus’ disciples began to bring the Good News of his Resurrection into the temple of Jerusalem and into the synagogues, the Jews began to persecute them as well. In other words, they were so focused on right observance of religion and maintaining the “status quo” that they failed to recognize both God Incarnate in their midst and then his Spirit working within his disciples.
In spite of these persecutions (or, more correctly, on account of them), the Church continued to grow. And in 313 when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, it suddenly became possible for the Christian Church to fall into the same trap as their Jewish ancestors did and become more concerned with maintaining the religious “status quo” than with proclaiming the Good News.
From the 12th to the 16th centuries this was actually quite a big problem in the Church. During that time the hierarchy of the Church had become corrupt and it was using its authority to manipulate and persecute seemingly authentic movements of renewal in the Church. As a result, it caused some believers to break away from the Church. This “dispersion” of Christians—which we know today as the Protestant Reformation—started to look a lot like the synagogue movement of the Jewish exile. Simply stated, the hierarchy of the Church had failed to respond to a desire for an authentic example of living the Gospel and Christianity has been splintered ever since.
In our own day we have all seen family members, friends, and neighbors who have left the Church to join one of these small Christian communities, in part because they are seeking a community that is focused more on mission than on religious observance. In fact, what they want is a community whose religious observance impels them into mission: that is, an observance that equips them to preach of the Good News to those around them. What makes me most uncomfortable, however, is the fact that they felt like they couldn’t find that experience here in the Catholic Church.
My brothers and sisters, our Liturgy is—quite literally—meant to be a synthesis of the ancient Temple worship and the synagogue experience which impels us to our mission and equips us to complete it. And if our fellow Christians are not finding that in us then we are doing something wrong. I worry that we’ve become so focused on our religious observance that we’ve forgotten about our mission to be evangelizers: that is, to bring the Good News of the Risen Christ to those who have been dispersed.
This is why Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI opened the Year of Faith. You see, the Second Vatican Council was an authentic movement of renewal in the Church. Fifty years later, he saw it losing its effect because too many people wanted either to resist the authentic renewals that it called for or to distort them for their own ends. When you boil it down, however, what the Second Vatican Council really called for was a New Evangelization. It declared that all believers were to take up their baptismal call to preach the Good News, because God “had opened the door of faith” to all them, just as he did for the Gentiles when the first Apostles announced to them the Good News.
My brothers and sisters, for far too long we have allowed our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters to criticize us for having a faith that is somehow defective because it seems to be mired in worn-out rituals and religious observances, while theirs is somehow superior to ours because it flows more directly from the Scriptures. Our task then in this Year of Faith is to reclaim this evangelical authority that is properly ours. And we do this by spending this year learning about our faith.
Long gone are the days when believers had only the Baltimore Catechism at their disposal to learn about their faith. Today there is an abundance of resources for groups and individuals to learn about and grow in the faith of the Church. As we do this, our next task becomes to go out—like the first Apostles did—to the dispersed believers through our land—to Vineyard, Revolution, Life Gate and any of those other “modern day synagogues”—not to criticize them, but rather to bring to them this Good News: that not only can they find the Scriptures opened up for them and offer to God prayers of thanksgiving and praise within the Catholic Church, but they can also encounter him physically and even consume him—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—in the Blessed Sacrament.
This, of course, is not easy. It takes work and sacrifice on our part. And, like Paul and Barnabas on various occasions, we will probably not be accepted for the message that we bring. But didn’t they exhort and encourage the disciples in Antioch that “it would be necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God”? More than that, however, if we have truly experienced the joy of receiving the Risen Christ in both Word and in Sacrament, then are we not obliged to go out into the streets and invite others to do the same? Yes! Of course, we are! And this invitation is truly a great act of love, because it invites them to know and experience the incredibly deep communion with God that impels them to seek him in these other places. And besides, as Jesus reminds us today, to have love for one another is the unmistakable sign that we are his disciples. Let us, therefore, not be afraid to go and bring this Good News to everyone around us; for the kingdom of God—the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven—anxiously awaits us.