Sunday, May 28, 2017

Easter Glory, Fully Alive!

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202)

(Seventh Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on May 27 & 28, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I., and St. Patrick Church in Harrisville, R.I.; See 1 Peter 4:13-16 and John 17:1-11)

Our readings for this weekend are particularly focused on the theme of glory.  Six times in the Gospel we just listened to Jesus uses that word.  St. Peter, in our Second Reading, uses it three times.  What do we believe about the glory of God?  St. Paul, in his First Letter to Timothy, describes the God, “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).  That is a good description of the glory of God.  God is impossibly far from us; He is holy and transcendent; His glory could never be seen . . . But then, suddenly, the God who “dwells in unapproachable light” and lives in eternal glory steps into time in Jesus of Nazareth.  The God of glory took on our human nature.  As we profess in the Creed every week, “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  The glory of God that could never be seen was made visible in the person of Jesus Christ.  The disciples saw Him, touched Him, and heard Him speak (see 1 John 1:1).  

Christ is heard by the disciples, and us, this weekend as He prays to God the Father at the Last Supper.  St. John tells us that Jesus raised His eyes to heaven and prayed:

Father, the hour has come.  Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.
—John 17:1

What “hour”?  The hour of the crucifixion, the hour when the Son of God would offer His life for the salvation of the world.  He continues:

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do.  Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.
—John 17:5

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do . . . 

The work that the Father gave Christ to do consists, firstly, in the great miracles that are signs of God’s presence among us.  The Father gives Christ the power to change water into wine; He opens the eyes of the blind; Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead to life.  These miracles revealed the glory of God (see Matthew 15:31).  Moreover, when Jesus proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom of God, He brings glory to the Father.  He announces the Gospel to the poor, revealing to them that they are not forgotten by God; that they are chosen, beloved, sacred, saved.  These are the works entrusted to Christ that bring glory to the Father.

Yet the glory of God is made manifest mostly in the event about to take place in the Gospel, the “hour” when Jesus would ascend to the wood of the cross.  St. John the Evangelist, whose Gospel we have been listening to for several weeks now, teaches that the cross is the greatest expression of the glory of God (see John 12:28).  

How is that possible?  How is the crucifixion of the God-Man, His suffocation and agonizing death, an expression of God’s glory?  The glory of God, in fact, is not revealed in suffering for suffering’s sake.  The glory of God is revealed through love in the midst of suffering.  At the cross Jesus reveals the greatest of all loves.  First and foremost, the glory of God is revealed in the love that Christ has for His Father.  In the obedience of love, the Son surrenders Himself completely to the Father, obedient even to death on the cross.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus kneels in overwhelming agony and prays “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  That same divine and glorious love of Christ for the Father is revealed in His love for us.  Jesus offers Himself up in love for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins, to give us a second chance and a new beginning.  God is glorified in this totally selfless act of generous love that redeems the world.  That love will cost Christ everything, and so He prays: Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began (John 17:5).

Now glorify me, Father . . .  The Father glorifies the Son by raising Him from the dead.  This is the great mystery of Easter that we have been celebrating for seven weeks now.  God is glorified in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead.  But then Christ goes on to say something that would have shocked His disciples, and should certainly surprise us. He continues:

“I pray for them . . . I have been glorified in them” (John 17:9-10).  Christ glorified in them?  These disciples of Christ would have known, all too well, their weaknesses and failings.  They would experience failure in a painful way later that night when they abandoned Him at His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We ourselves experience the same weaknesses and failures.  How is Christ glorified in these disciples?  How is He glorified in us?  The glory of God is made manifest in us through the awesome gift of the Holy Spirit that we received at Baptism.  As disciples of Christ, baptized into Him, we were cleansed of original sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.  God dwells in us, lives in us, breathes in us.  Christ is glorified in us because He has given us new, eternal and divine life.  We now share in the very life of God!

One of the most amazing lines in the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveals that God has an innermost secret.  Did you know that?  God has a special secret that He has now chosen to reveal to all who can bear it.  The Catechism explains:

By sending his only Son and the Spirit of love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
—CCC, #221

It is not the case, then, that in heaven we will have coffee with God every Tuesday; we will not have an encounter with God at some specific moment of eternal life.  No, in Christ we are now swept up into the eternal exchange of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Christ is glorified in us because we are sharers in the divinity of Christ!  Lest we should forget so awesome a reality, the second Eucharistic preface for the Ascension reminds us in the sacred Liturgy today: “For after his resurrection he plainly appeared to all his disciples and was taken up to heaven in their sight that he might make us sharers in his divinity.”  

One of the early Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, is well-known for his beautiful quote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  The glory of God is revealed in men and women fully living the Gospel and totally focused on the life of Jesus Christ.  When a husband and wife strive together, year after year and decade after decade in Christian marriage, Christ is glorified (in one of the parishes I celebrated Mass in this weekend, the intention was for a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage; in the second parish, a couple was there celebrating 68 years of married life!).  When we struggle through various trials and difficulties; when we bear agonizing crosses and strive through intense periods of sorrow, and maintain our Catholic faith, God is glorified.  When we experience moments of betrayal and are able to forgive the pain and harm that others have caused us by their words and actions, however difficult that may be, then God is glorified.  “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  What an awesome calling we have been given in Christ!

In conclusion, there is a famous sermon preached by C.S. Lewis back in 1942.  That sermon, given at Oxford University, is called, “The Weight of Glory,” and in it Lewis reflects on this amazing mystery of the glory of God dwelling in us.  He expresses how this remarkable reality “Seems impossible. . . our thoughts can hardly sustain it.  But so it is.”  Nonetheless, there is a certain danger, he notes, that we could become too concerned with our own glory and lose sight of what Christ is asking us to do.  Be that as it may, Lewis continues, it is not possible for us to be too concerned for our neighbor’s glory!  We simply cannot become too concerned for how well the glory of God is being formed and manifested in those around us.  This, he insists, must be our focus if we are to take seriously the Christian life and the high calling of Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis goes on to explain that there are no “ordinary people” in the world we live in.  Because we are called to a supernatural destiny, to the life of God Himself, the people we meet each day—whether they are receptive to that call and becoming more like God, or whether they reject the grace of God and become something He has never intended—are far from ordinary:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  

This is our privilege and our call in the Christian life, to help one another to reach perfection in the Christian life.  How is God challenging us to recognize His presence and even His glory in the people around us this week?  How can we help our neighbor to grow in the Christian life, or at the very least not be an obstacle to that growth?  Where, this week, will we be able to recognize and even facilitate the glory of God in our midst?  For, in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”