Living the readings: The rites of spring

The season for planting is here, which will lead to new life

Early spring has already come, and with it the refreshing spring rains that foretell the beginning of life. Crops soon will start growing from seeds that are only now being planted. The season for planting has begun.

In the Sunday liturgy for April 6, the Sixth Sunday of Lent, Jesus plants the seed of resurrection in our hearts as we read the story of Lazarus. In the first reading, God tells his people, through Ezekiel, that He will open our graves and raise us up. The reference is to the return of the Babylonian exiles back to the land of Israel. That would take a miracle of the highest order; but God promised his people that they would live and settle once again in their God-given land. The spirit of the Lord returned to them. And so the miracle took place.

Paul reminds us, in the second reading from Romans, that being alive in the spirit was not restricted to the returning exiles. We are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. Christ is in us. And the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is alive in us. We are seeds who will rise to eternal life. At harvest time we will rise to new life.

One prime example of rising from the dead comes to us in the Gospel. There, the entombed Lazarus comes to life at Jesus’ command. Martha and Mary, both of whom loved the Lord, chastised Jesus for not being there when their brother was sick. Jesus could have cured him. In turn, Jesus was saddened by his friend’s death. This time of harsh heartrending distress, however, became one of total ecstasy when Lazarus squirmed out of his grave into the light. The crowd was so overjoyed that Jesus had to call for someone to untie his hands and feet. What began with fertile rain ends in brilliant sunshine.

That sun grows higher in the sky on Palm Sunday. It’s a time for marching together. As the crowds ushered Jesus majestically through the East Gate into Jerusalem, we can enter our parish church with the joy of proclaiming the Lord our king. We can feel the mighty force of a huge movement of people making Christ present. We know that Jesus will be crucified in a matter of five days. Yet, we are assured by Jesus’ promise that he will rise to new life.

Palm Sunday’s Old Testament reading is from Isaiah. The prophet attempts to rouse us by warnings of beatings and buffetings. He also reminds us of God’s help, which will take away our disgrace; for the sufferings are redemptive.

The second reading is the profoundly exquisite “Philippians’ Hymn.” This ancient Christian poetry portrays Jesus as God who has emptied himself completely for us by enduring not only the problems of human life but also the pains of death by means of crucifixion. Because of this, God has highly exalted him to the point that everyone on earth, above it or under it, must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Gospel on Palm Sunday is the Passion according to Matthew. There are three items in Matthew’s story of the Passion of the Lord that are not in the other Gospels. One is Judas’ repentance and return of the 30 pieces of silver. Interestingly, Judas is the only one in Matthew’s Gospel to call Jesus “Rabbi.” The second story unique to Matthew is Pilate’s washing his hands and protesting that he is innocent of Jesus’ blood. The third bit of information that we get solely from Matthew is the posting of the guard and the sealing of the stone on Jesus’ grave. In all, Matthew’s version of the Passion of Christ leads us to look on the events of the death of Jesus with more compassion for all involved. We need to realize we were part of it, too. The Church does not ask us to meditate on the Passion of the Lord in order to get angry at any of those involved. Rather, we are to discern the tremendous love Jesus had to have to undergo his passion. Jesus’ pain was not only physical but also the psychological anguish of unrequited love.

Unlike most every other week of the year, this week we do not pass on uninterruptedly to the following Sunday. This is Holy Week. Every day marks a key event. Monday’s Gospel takes us back to Bethany where Jesus enjoys a meal with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. This is where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure aromatic nard and wiped his feet with her hair to the chagrin of Judas. On Tuesday, the Old Testament presents us with Isaiah’s consideration of himself as a sharpened arrow kept in a special space in God’s quiver, only to be used at the perfect moment. The implication is that God the Father waited to this perfect moment to spring Jesus into action to redeem the world. Such a time may come for us. Wednesday of Holy Week has been “celebrated” for years on end as “Spy Wednesday.” The Gospel for the day is Matthew’s account of Judas’ going to the chief priests volunteering to betray Jesus.

Now we come to Holy Thursday, when we recall the Last Supper. The first Scripture reading, from Exodus, describes God’s command to Moses establishing the feast of Passover, its details and reasons for the details. The attention to detail warns us this rite is holy.

The New Testament reading is Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians as to how to celebrate the Eucharist. Since the Letter was written, in 57 AD according to experts, and Paul taught in Corinth from 50 to 52 AD, this may be the earliest record of the words of institution of the Eucharist, well before the first written Gospel. It’s less than 20 years after the first Eucharist in the Upper Room. At any rate, we must appreciate the sense of “being there” as we read these sacred words this Holy Week 2014.

The Holy Thursday Gospel gives us John’s take on the Last Supper. He wants us to focus on what Jesus did at the beginning of the service. He washed his disciples’ feet. The message was clear. We are to wash each other’s feet in mutual love.

Thus, the washing of feet is the most noticeable part of the Holy Thursday liturgy. This act of love by God and each other is what we take away with us and give to the world. Yet there is one more deviation from our normal Mass routine. On this night, after Communion, we transfer the Eucharist from the altar to the tabernacle by means of a solemn procession through the church. It’s different in order to reinforce in our minds the precious value of the Body of Christ and the respect it is due every day.

Good Friday is different from every other day in the Liturgical Year. We do not celebrate Mass on the day Jesus died. We do venerate the cross. But before that ceremony, we have a Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah’s Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant is the first reading. This beautiful hymn was probably a problem for Isaiah’s contemporaries to understand; but it becomes crystal clear to us who know what Jesus endured for us.

The New Testament reading from Hebrews instructs us as to how to react to what happened on Good Friday. The author tells us to “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” And later, we find out that “when he [Jesus] was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” We should take advantage of this opportunity to tap this infinite source of deliverance.

The Gospel today is the Passion according to John. More than the Synoptic Gospels, John directs our focus to Christ’s kingship. The signs of his status might only be a purple cloak the soldiers put on him as a mockery and a crown of thorns, but Jesus acts and speaks as if he were completely in charge of the situation. Certainly neither the chief priests nor Pilate nor the soldiers acted with any authority. Pilate continued to try to free Jesus and to recognize him as indeed a king. He had Jesus’ crime written on the inscription placed at the execution site. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.” And so, he is our king forever.

Now we come to the Easter Vigil. It is so splendid a liturgy and so filled with meaning that any explanation would take pages to describe. So, we will consider only the Scripture readings, and then only to show their specific purpose. After the blessing and lighting of the fire and the Paschal Candle and the singing of the Easter Proclamation, we start the Liturgy of the Word. The readings are to proclaim the beauty of the “History of Salvation” to those who will be baptized.

They recount the stories of creation, of Abraham, of the Israelites leaving Egypt through the Red Sea, of Noah’s covenant with God. They continue with Baruch’s exhortation to us to listen to the Wisdom of God, and Ezekiel’s good news that God would sprinkle clean water on us to cleanse us from our impurities. These are only the seven Old Testament readings before the Epistle.

The Epistle, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, tells us we have died with Christ and we also live with him. This prepares those to be baptized for their big moment. So also does the Gospel passage from Matthew’s account of the resurrection. Then comes the Liturgy of Baptism and entrance into the Church.

The next morning, Easter takes a more familiar mode. We all renew our baptismal promises and are sprinkled with baptismal water. But that happens after we hear the Easter message by means of the Liturgy of the Word. The first reading is Peter’s Pentecost proclamation from the Upper Room telling the crowd about Jesus’ resurrection and offers those listening to receive forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name.

The New Testament reading can be Paul writing to the Colossians telling them they were raised with Christ and exist with him at the right hand of the Father. So when Christ appears at the end of the world, we will appear with him in glory. There is nothing more to hope for beyond that. Through baptism, we have made it into glory forever. The second choice is from the first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul uses the Hebrew feast of Passover to teach the Corinthians to live in the sincerity and truth of life in Christ.

Our Easter Gospel is John’s rendition of the events of early the day Jesus rose from the dead. There was Mary Magdalene’s witnessing of the stone removed from the tomb and no body inside. She runs back to get Peter and the beloved disciple to see for themselves. They came, they saw, and they believed even without understanding that Jesus had to rise from the dead. And, through them, we come to believe as well.

Easter does not end the month of April. Nor is it the end of our Easter journey. The next Sunday, April 27, is Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a perfect and peaceful reflection on what Easter means. The first reading is from the New Testament. It is from the Acts of the Apostles where Luke relates the serenity and unity of the early Church. Easter is a time of peace. The second reading shows us it is also a time for rejoicing. Although we may not see the risen Christ, our belief in him makes us rejoice.

Easter also brings reconciliation. Today’s Gospel tells the full story of Thomas on Easter evening and the following Sunday. The first day Thomas was absent and subsequently would not believe his fellow disciples that the risen Christ appeared to them. On the following Sunday, he saw, heard, felt and believed the risen Lord. The weeklong patience of the other disciples paid off in Thomas’ faith and in his new insight that Jesus is God. And the entire Church (all of them fitting into the Upper Room) were one.

Thus ends a month filled with theological excitement. Beginning with the light rain and the clouds of imminent suffering and death, April took us from the last days of Lent with Lazarus’ sickness, death and miraculous return to life, through the events of Holy Week, to the new life of Easter and the life of Divine Mercy. There is nothing left but total relief and the enjoyment of the sunshine that awaits us as we live out the eternal Life we live in Christ symbolized by May.

WEEKDAY READINGS

Tuesday, April 1: Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12; Psalm 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9; John 5:1-16
Wednesday, April 2: Isaiah 49:8-15; Psalm 145:8-9, 13-14, 17-18; John 5:17-30
Thursday, April 3: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 106:19-23; John 5:31-47
Friday, April 4: Wisdom 2:1, 12-22; Psalm 34:17-21, 23; John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
Saturday, April 5: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 7:2-3, 9-12; John 7:40-53
Sunday, April 6: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
Monday, April 7: Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62; Psalm 23:1-6; John 8:1-11
Tuesday, April 8: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 102:2-3, 16-21; John 8:21-30
Wednesday, April 9: Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95; Daniel 3:52-56; John 8:31-42
Thursday, April 10: Genesis 17:3-9; Psalm 105:4-9; John 8:51-59
Friday, April 11: Jeremiah 20:10-13, Psalm 18:2-7; John 10:31-42
Saturday, April 12: Ezekiel 37:21-28; Jeremiah 31:10-13; John 11:45-56
Sunday, April 13: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14–27:66
Monday, April 14: Isaiah 42:1-7; Psalm 27:1-3, 13-14; John 12:1-11
Tuesday, April 15: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 71:1-6, 15, 17; John 13:21-33, 36-38; Isaiah 61:1-3, 6, 8-9; Psalm 89:21-22, 25, 27; Revelation 1:5-8; Luke 4:16-21
Wednesday, April 16: Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 69:8-10, 21-22, 31, 33-34; Matthew 26:14-25
Thursday, April 17: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
Friday, April 18: Isaiah 52:13–53:12; Psalm 31:2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25; Hebrews 4:14-16 and 5:7-9; John 18:1–19:42
Saturday, April 19: Genesis 1:1–2:2; Psalm 104:1-2, 5-6, 10, 12-14, 24, 35; Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 16:5, 8-11; Exodus 14:15–15:1; Exodus 15:1-6, 17-18; Isaiah 54:5-14; Psalm 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; Isaiah 55:1-11; Isaiah 12:2-6; Baruch 3:9-15 and 3:32–4:4; Psalm 19:8-11; Ezekiel 26:16-28; Psalms 42:3, 5 and 43:3-4; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Matthew 28:1-10
Sunday, April 20: Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9
Monday, April 21: Acts 2:14, 22-33; Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-11; Matthew 28:8-15
Tuesday, April 22: Acts 2:36-41; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; John 20:11-18
Wednesday, April 23: Acts 3:1-10; Psalm 105:1-4, 6-9; Luke 24:13-35
Thursday, April 24: Acts 3:11-26; Psalm 8:2, 5-9; Luke 24:35-48
Friday, April 25: Acts 4:1-12; Psalm 118:1-2, 4, 22-27; John 21:1-14
Saturday, April 26: Acts 4:13-21; Psalm 118:1, 14-21; Mark 16:9-15
Sunday, April 27: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Monday, April 28: Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 2:1-9; John 3:1-8
Tuesday, April 29: Acts 4:32-37; Psalm 93:1-2, 5; John 3:7-15
Wednesday, April 30: Acts 5:17-26; Psalm 34:2-9; John 3:16-21

Father Brando is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg.

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