By Father Joseph Brando
May is that perfect connection between the winds and rains of early spring and the heat of summer. It is a transition that contains the best of both sides. The scriptures used in the Sunday liturgies of May do the same thing theologically. The storms and cold of Jesus’ confrontations with scribes, Pharisees, high priests and Pilate and, of course, death itself will be left behind as we head for the unknown future. But before we get to that point we must stop at the refreshing month of May in which we come to see that Jesus has not left us.Rather, he is not only at the right side of the Father in glory, he also is with us as the Christ living in us individually and collectively in the Church, the Body of Christ.
The four Sundays in May are well organized. The first readings are from the Acts of the Apostles. The second readings are from the First Letter of St. Peter. Except for the first Sunday of May (which is from Luke), the Gospels are from the Gospel according to John. All together they take us from the Upper Room to our present situation in the modern world. We’ll consider the Gospel readings first, then the letter of Peter and, finally, the Acts of the Apostles.
The gospel reading for the first Sunday in May (the Third Sunday of Easter) is Luke’s Easter story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. This well-loved narrative describes both the state of those disciples on Easter afternoon but also our journey. It tells us that Jesus is with us on our journey. The disciples, without asking, ran back to Jerusalem to insure their experience was known by the rest of the Church. They found out that others had their own Easter experience. We, too, need to come back to our parish church and be with others who have much to give us and to hear together the good news read and to receive the sacramental presence of Christ. Then we can return on our journey through the next week, walking with the risen Christ at our side.
For the next three Sundays we have the treat of listening to the Gospel of John. The Fourth Sunday of Easter usually is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Here, we have Jesus proclaiming that He is the gate for the sheep. He also is the shepherd who comes through the gate to lead his sheep to green pastures. This originally was addressed to Pharisees and others who needed to know how Jesus was so successful in drawing people to himself and away from them. It was because the people could recognize his voice leading them. We also can still hear his voice and can proceed through all sorts of problems and trials knowing that we are hearing Christ leading us. If we start to fail to hear Him, it is time to get back to the Church before a thief may come to slaughter us. Then comes one of the many great sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” The whole reason why the Second Person of the Blessed became man was to give us life and allow us to grow in it. He will later say the same thing, changing life to joy. Indeed, his life is eternal joy.
We’re back in the Upper Room for the next Sunday’s Gospel. On the eve of Jesus’ death the scared disciples need some encouragement. Jesus gives it to them and us. He tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” That is a commandment uttered by Jesus. He also gives us the ability to carry out that command when He tells us to have faith in Him. He continues to console us as we follow Him in the world, saying that He is preparing a place for us in heaven. To get there we only have to follow Him, who is the way, the truth, and the life.
On the last May Sunday, the Church continues the Last Supper discourse begun the previous Sunday. Jesus reveals how we can easily keep all of his commandments. Love him. That’s all. And, Jesus announces that there is even more than the disciples had known up to then. He will send the Holy Spirit upon them: we, who go out in the world do not walk alone. The Advocate is with us. We are never alone. We are never without God’s love. That is, never as long as we love the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Armed with this love, there is no excuse for us to not go and bring this message to the whole world.
Now, let’s look at the Epistles for May. All of them are from the First Letter of Peter. The first pope is writing the first encyclical to the Christians of the future. Most likely this letter was addressed to newly baptized Christians. But, those two audiences are about the same.
The first installment, on May 4, is virtually a perfect way to make those commands that John related to us from the gospel passage we just treated. While we’re on our missionary journey in this world, all we need do to know that we live in God’s love is “conduct yourselves with reverence.” We accomplish that by realizing that Christ died for us and knowing He was raised from the dead. From there, there’s nothing to worry about.
On the second Sunday in May, Peter tells us what to do when things go wrong. If we are suffering for doing good, be patient by thinking of Jesus who suffered for us. If people insult us (that happens a lot to Christians) realize that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. We’re following in his footsteps. Knowing we are where we should be could lift our spirits. In all things we should always realize that we have been healed by Jesus’ wounds.
On the next Sunday, Peter comforts us. Jesus was “rejected by human beings; but chosen and precious in the sight of God.” So are we. We are being built into a spiritual house by God. Then, Peter advises us, let it happen to us. Then our function is to “announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” So, if anything bad happens to us, we only have to patiently remember: Jesus, too, suffered for us and the Father is making us into His temple. We will not stumble.
Implied throughout the three previous installations of I Peter is the witness we are giving to the world. Now, on the last Sunday of May, Peter gives us tips on speaking to those we are inspiring. We need to “sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts.” Then, always be ready to explain to anyone who asks how we are so hopeful. We convert others by our virtues (especially of hope). They see our life and joy and ask us what makes us tick. Then, we tell them gently and reverently. If, on the other hand, others defame us, our good conduct will put them to shame. So, no matter what the situation we must live our Faith. As Jesus was, so should we be brought to life in the Spirit.
Now, we move on to the ‘first readings’ of the Sundays in May. Usually, the first reading is from the Old Testament. During the Easter season we turn to the Acts of the Apostle. This is Luke’s follow-up to his Gospel. He writes it to show the activity of the Holy Spirit alive in the Church, making the Church stronger despite and through the many problems it has faced.
The first situation we meet happened on Pentecost. The disciples in the Upper Room had locked themselves in. Now, with huge crowds milling around, what should they be and do? Alive in the Holy Spirit, Peter opened the windows and raised his voice in proclamation. He tells the story of Jesus: his powerful ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his sitting at the right hand of God, the Father. In a sense, this passage puts into action exactly what Peter told us to do in his letter we have just discussed.
The same scene can be found on the second Sunday of May. It gives us the people’s response to Peter’s proclamation from the window of the Upper Room. In short, “they were cut to the heart.” They asked what they should do. The answer was “repent and be baptized,” so 3,000 of them did. This result is a function of the Holy Spirit acting in the words of Peter as well as the hearts of those on the receiving end. What started out as fear in meeting a crowd turned into a Spirit-filled man speaking to people who (perhaps without knowing it) were hungering for the Holy Spirit. The result was the Church growing from a room-full to a cast of thousands.
In the next Sunday’s edition of the Acts of the Apostles we read of the problem that arose due to the language barrier between Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking widows. As in Judaism, the Christian communities cared for those in need, especially widows. Discrimination in serving widows due to language and related problems could have split Christianity right at the beginning. Instead, the Holy Spirit was there and not only solved the problem but made the Church stronger by doing so. Inspired by the Spirit, the Twelve gathered the community and asked them to choose men “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” who would make sure all widows were cared for properly. And, thus the order of deacons was established. Even then, their work grew well beyond the original need. Through this action of the Spirit “the word of God continued to be spread, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.”
The story of one deacon, Philip, is told in the next and final Sunday in May. Philip made a trip to Samaria. There he proclaimed Christ. Once again the Spirit was not only in the evangelizer but also in the people listening. Now, we all know that Samaritans were not accepted by Jews. They had the same belief system, but they had ethnic differences that had proved irreconcilable up to that time. Plus, there was another problem. They did not receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. Perhaps Philip made a mistake. It turned out that the Samaritans were only baptized in the name of Jesus. How could this problem be fixed? The answer came in the persons of Peter and John. They journeyed to Samaria and prayed for the people that they might receive the Spirit. And it happened. The Holy Spirit used the presence of the Apostles as they laid hands on the Samaritans to come powerfully upon the Samaritans. And the Church grew alive in the same Spirit.
We make the journey from the Upper Room to the Church in May. It began early in the morning of Easter, first with Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus. More of them witnessed angels or walked with the Lord. They gathered together that night in the Upper Room and stayed there secretly until Pentecost, when the Spirit came. It grew by leaps and bounds from then until now. We, who are the Church now, are part of that divine movement. May these Sundays of May increase in us an awareness of who we are, where we came from, and what we should do to make the Church continue its mission into the future.
Father Joseph Brando is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg