On Thursday evenings I meet with a few adults who have lost spouses in the past months. We set aside nine consecutive weeks to come together, weeks corresponding to the nine lessons in our book The New Day Journal. Each week brings the group a bit closer together through sharing stories of loved ones, their feelings, and the ways they survive and try to thrive. Tonight will be our eighth gathering, and I will feel something like the meal when Jesus knew it would be his last one with his disciples. Although we’ll share emails and phone numbers, we know it will be different. We know that next week will be the last time all of us are in the same room. We’re friends now and confidants, no longer shy strangers. While tonight may be like the Last Supper (although we don’t share food), next week I hope will be like the times the Risen Lord had something to eat with his apostles. No food, but the nourishment that comes from a group of friends who understand, free to be themselves, and sharing a peace like the apostles hearing the Lord’s arrival with “Shalom.”
If you’re looking for a parable, don’t turn to the Gospel of John. You won’t find anything about seeds and weeds, prodigal sons and pearls, yeast and nets. You won’t read that the Kingdom of God is like a vineyard. No, you will have the Vine Himself. Jesus is the vine. His Father is the vine grower. We are the branches. Attached to Jesus Christ, we produce fruit. Of course, we must follow Jesus’ invitation: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” Doing so, we give glory to the Father.
We have been basking in the glow of the Risen Lord, but the Scriptures are pushing us on. We may need to be pruned, die to ourselves and grow into the People we are to become, if there is to be fruit.
I have often lived in big houses with several sisters older than I. I personally marked May 1, the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, as the beginning of spring cleaning not only for my assigned areas of the house, but also for the many rooms for which older sisters were responsible. I would come home from a day of teaching, change clothes, and tackle a job for a couple hours—maybe baseboards and door frames. Then on Saturday I would spend the morning on windows. I aimed to be finished by the end of the month. With persistence and determination—and perhaps a lot of holy elbow grease from Saint Joseph and a desire to meet my goal–I succeeded.
Even as a child, I loved to clean. Then and now working with my hands is my chance to daydream without guilt. At his carpenter’s bench, did Saint Joseph daydream about his precious Jesus? Did he wonder, “What will this child be?” Did he recall with pride the day Jesus said “Abba” for the first time? Did he feel confident that Jesus could take over the carpentry trade as he felt himself growing weaker? Did he smile slightly in the knowledge that Jesus would take care of Mary? Did he gauge his strength, determined to repair a few things in the house and finish his last contracts while he still could? Did Joseph set aside these thoughts to pray some psalms from memory? And did the lines of psalms direct his musing back to his son who seemed so like his God?
Whenever I go to the library, I almost invariably come out with two books–a biography and historical fiction. I feel that both types of books make me a better person perhaps by the example of fictional and real people, but also by getting me out of my daily life to see a bigger picture. Although I realize that I am only one little person, I never know when I may be called on to do more. Like people about whom books are written, I—and you—don’t know the future and how it will call upon our strengths, if we are willing to use what we have in us.
I am thinking of two books I recently returned to the library. When We Were Young by Hazel Gaynor is the story of a British teacher-missionary and students interred in China by the Japanese in 1941. For five years the teacher had to become, in effect, the parent to the students somehow continuing their education in academics along with life skills to survive. The other book was Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly, the wife a representative for Arizona and the husband an astronaut. Gabby survived a bullet to her head in an assassination attempt, and Mark spent days in space during his wife’s recovery. The determination of both to excel and do whatever they possibly could for their country is very inspiring. Both books remind me that I am just a little person, but it is more than just a little thing to determine to do my best in all situations.
Over the past year I have found more time to read. It was a banner day when the library down the street opened for business. I have discovered another favorite author—Hazel Gaynor. I love historical fiction, because I’m learning history while enjoying an intriguing plot. I have also found that learning the plight of destitute children in London more than a century ago makes me more mindful of the children at southern border. Gaynor’s book A Memory of Violets lets me imagine what the detained children housed in cages in Texas must be feeling. I hope they have the resilience that the children selling flowers for twopence had. Gaynor let me feel what it is to be separated from a sibling for life but never giving up hope. Often fiction makes me more aware of the facts.
The earliest depictions of Jesus Christ were those of a shepherd. Pictures of the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus were too painful and inappropriate. The early followers of Jesus felt the image of Good Shepherd was the heart of the Christian message. “I am the Good Shepherd” is the Risen Lord’s self-portrait. I AM professed Christ’s divinity, along with I AM the way, I AM the truth, I the Bread of Life. If a sheep got lost, Jesus was the Way. If a sheep didn’t know which way to go, Jesus was the Truth. If the sheep became hungry, Jesus was the Bread of Life. And while Way, Truth, Life give direction, Jesus was intent on not letting any sheep go astray, because Jesus was also the Gate. The sheep would have to walk over the Good Shepherd who is lying down, closing the fence and becoming the gate. The Good Shepherd will do anything to keep his sheep close to him.
It’s impossible to respond to this question from Psalm 116. There is nothing I can do; however, fortunately God gives us the ability to make some return. We can take up the cup of salvation. We can call upon the name of the Lord. We can vow our lives. We can be God’s servants. We can offer thanksgiving. We can do these things—and all things—because God takes the initiative. We love because God first loved us. We serve because Jesus came to serve and not be served. My return to the Lord is gratefully offering back to God all that God has done.
April is such a beautiful month. It’s easy to say with Gerard Manley Hopkins “Glory be to God for dappled things.” I rejoice in the variety of nature. In almost anything else I enjoy variety—food, recreation, work, anything. Our Church Year gives us a variety of saints and sinners in its list of saints from Saint George the Dragon-Killer (April 23) to Saint Mark the Gospel writer (April 25). Even within one gospel pericope or one day on the Church calendar we see great variety. In today’s First Reading we hear of Saul “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord.” Just three paragraphs later we see Saul—now Paul—proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “Yes, Jesus really is the Son of God!”
Like Paul we can all change. We can become new beings with the new life of Christ. What variety we find in ourselves throughout our lifetime. Glory be to God!
The Easter candle continues to burn throughout the Great Fifty Days. Are you still aglow with its flame? Let’s return to the Easter Vigil. The New Fire is lit, and a spark is taken to light the Paschal Candle. The gesture symbolizes Christ’s rising from the dead in glory. As the deacon processes with it, we are reminded of the pillar of fire leading the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land. The Paschal Candle, symbolizing the Risen Lord, leads us too into transformation as we become the Body of Christ. The single flame is shared among the participants, and the whole church is illumined from one flame.
The Acts of the Apostles read during the Easter Season shows how belief in Christ spread. In today’s First Reading, for example, Philip baptized an Ethiopian and then was snatched away to Azotus to proclaim the good news to many towns until he reached Caesarea. From the single flame of Christ’s glorious resurrection, the light spread quickly and continues to spread across the globe.
Today’s First Reading begins with “a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem,” which forces the believers to move out of the area. They land in Samaria and bring “great joy in that city.” In the Gospel Jesus says to the crowd that no one will be rejected; all who believe will have eternal life. Both readings overflow with hope.
Christina Rosetti writes of hope: “While Hope, who never yet hath eyed the goal,/ With arms flung forth, and backward-floating hair,/ Touches, embraces, hugs the invisible.” When we face difficult times and despair rises faster than hope, try personifying hope. Picture hope (perhaps yourself) running with arms outstretched and hair flying backwards, as hope is just ahead. Let hope embrace you. No air hugs, please.