They found the stone rolled away … this phrase is found in the gospel of easter morning. It is a brief phrase but it tells us that something new, something mysterious, something not yet known is happening. The rolled-away stone is a strong symbol enabling us to hear and to recognize the easter message. It heralds a shift, a new paradigm.
That first easter, the followers of Jesus were confused. Like all of us they believed that what they thought was true was still true – that Jesus was gone, that death was final, that the “enemy” was victorious, and that there were reasons to be afraid. They thought it necessary to hide. The easter stories tell of their struggles to understand. They begin to experience that Jesus was raised from the dead and that the meaning of resurrection was not a singular Jesus event, rather resurrection proclaimed that all creation is filled to overflowing with the Spirit of God. This was a new day and the experience of the risen Jesus was transforming their world.
Through the years, scholars have written many theories about the meaning of the crucifixion, the paschal mystery, and the significance of redemption. But the early followers of Jesus theorized less and experienced more. Jesus the Christ was alive among them. They recognized that the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of the end times. While they expected an imminent return of a triumphant Jesus, an expectation crafted by their Jewish faith and grounded in their messianic beliefs, they also knew that the Spirit was poured out in their world.
Their expectations of the imminent return of Jesus triumphant were not to be realized, but the outpouring of the Spirit soon exploded their world and changed their lives forever in ways they could not have imagined.
Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit — Acts of the Apostles
A rolled-away stone and tongues of flame challenged these women and men into discovering that the sacred, living God was within and among them and within all of creation. No longer fearful, they became preachers of a new truth, ready to see life differently. The were no longer small, rather their largeness of heart and conviction of spirit reeled with power. Their hearts burned within them and they felt the stirrings and the demands of mission: Go into all the world and preach the Good News …
Image by Félix Hernández, OP. Used with permission;
There is much to celebrate in the Christian Church on the Thursday before Easter, commonly called Holy Thursday. We remember the story of the last supper and the first eucharist. The Pauline reading (1Corinthians 11: 23-26) poignantly tells us that “on the night he was handed over, Jesus took bread …” and the first eucharistic meal story became an integral part of the Christian faith and prayer. This eucharistic meal is celebrated and retold in all 3 of the synoptic gospels. Therefore, traditionally, Holy Thursday commemorates both eucharist and priesthood.
However, in the Gospel of John, the message on Holy Thursday is not about the eucharistic meal. It is still about the last supper (John 13:1-15) but John recounts the story of the washing of the feet. He implies that this foot washing is as important as the meal. John’s message is clear that Jesus said that foot washing is also to be “done in remembrance of me.”
Scholars agree that the Gospel of John was written later than the other 3 gospels. It was likely written at a time when Christian persecutions were beginning to be experienced and being a Christian in some parts of the world meant risk. In this light, John describes being Christian as belonging to a close-knit community of trust, of service, of belonging to one another. John’s gospel message is powerful and prescriptive. John tells us that this act of washing the other’s feet, this vulnerable encounter with one another, is another real meaning of Eucharist.
The early Christian community held in memory the story of Jesus. They celebrated Jesus’ presence among them as their hearts burned within and they were vulnerable and committed to one another. The message of discipleship was one of closeness and love, not simply service and celebration. To be a faithful follower of Jesus was not a solitary experience. We were reminded of this last year when we watched Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners. What engaged us was that it was an example not of service but of encounter and connection. In Jesus we are one community.
It seems that the Good News message on Holy Thursday is to remember and to celebrate both the eucharistic meal and the vulnerable community encounter as the true meaning of Eucharist. We do the first formally every Sunday and holy day but with the latter we struggle a bit. Encounter, belonging, relationship, and connection are all other ways to describe loving one another. Therefore, on this Holy Thursday, we pray for the grace to continue to be lovers after the formal celebration is done, the water is emptied, the candles are extinguished, and the towels are put away. And we do this “in remembrance of me”.
Karen Rossman, OP
Earth from Space at NightTraditionally the words used when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday are: “remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return”. In the past, that was the way we always began the penitential season of Lent, a season of prayer, fasting and abstinence, and self-sacrifice. We were to ready ourselves for Easter by becoming holier people, preparing for the Paschal promise of salvation. We began the season with a reminder of death. It was a view based on a theology of God’s justice and our unworthiness, and the result was a self-focused although sincere faith.
Today, science has taught us to become cosmic in our theology. While Genesis still rightly reminds us that in the beginning the creative Spirit / Breath of God hovered over the waters, we now know that there occurred a great flaring forth – what scientists regrettably named “the big bang”. The birth of an evolutionary universe tells of ongoing action. Stars continue to birth, age and explode. And at one point, all was in place for life. Therefore, some authors poetically say that the Ash Wednesday blessing should be: “remember you are star dust …”
The mystery of the universe is awe-inspiring and yet it pales in comparison to the mystery of a present, immanent, creative God who expresses God’s life within creation. We believe that God exists, creates, gives life, and is present to and lives within all that is. The new cosmology tells us that the elements and energies of the universe are interconnected, relational, changing, and accelerating. The current Theology finds the fullness of God present in creation.
Today as we prepare to enter Lent it is good to draw on that theology based on the new cosmology and to look again at the long-established practices of penance.
- When I fast, or resolve to eat healthier with fewer desserts, I must remember and pray with gratitude for the farmers who planted and harvested my food. I must thank the migrants who picked it and those who preserve seeds so that I may eat again. I must marvel at the contribution of the soil and water and sunlight and resolve to actively preserve earth. I must celebrate the shopkeeper and the cook as I savor a Lenten meal. Fasting now leads to prayer and the desire for connection, it is a different kind of hunger.
- When I abstain, I must remember the cost to earth by the large factory farms and the overuse of water. I must sorrow for the animals who are caged, space-restricted, and simply considered from the viewpoint of quantity and profit. I must not support progress that debilitates or extinguishes other lifeforms.
- When I pray, I must stand in awe of a God who breathes life into me, who speaks to me through my sisters and brothers, and who amazes and silences me with the beauty of creation. I must welcome a God who belongs to all that exists. I must become conscious that all creation is sacred and calls me to prayer.
- When I make small acts of self-sacrifice I must see myself as interconnected, interdependent, and in relationship with earth community. After all, we are one global human family and my overindulgence, careless waste, and lack of care robs those who are poor and marginalized. I must become respectful and globally conscious.
Lent is still a penitential season. But a current theology based on a new truth informs our prayer and practices. It is still wise to ready ourselves for Easter by becoming holier people, but our understanding of holiness is redefined and it is no longer a singular, self-focused reality. We stand in silence and awe before the mystery of creation which speaks the mystery of God. The Resurrection testifies to it.
Karen Rossman, OP