Friday, May 29, 2009

4-26-2009: 3rd Easter (B)

Acts of the Apostles 3:13-19/Psalm 4/1 John 2:1-5/Luke 24:35-48
The scriptures make a lot of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances - as well they should. It is the most extraordinary event and, in Christian understanding, the hinge on which the entire universe depends. Many, we are told, came to believe after Jesus appeared to them risen from the dead. Many others came to believe after hearing those, who had seen him, relate their experience. Yet, for all that, as extraordinary and startling as the resurrection was, if it is be meaningful for us here and now it cannot simply remain an historical event. We seek evidence of its effect, that first fruit gifted by the risen Lord – peace.

Supernatural events, inexplicable though they may be, are ultimately but invitations to delve a bit deeper into the mysteries this life presents – to acknowledge evidence for the possible even in the face of the improbable. Some years back I was volunteering at Mother Teresa’s AIDS hospice in Greenwich Village. It was in the mid-80’s before the development of retroviral drugs and those infected were dying difficult, painful deaths. I would take the subway into the city on Mondays and spend the day doing assorted chores, and in the evening holding catechism class for anyone interested. One Monday there was a huge delay on the subway; I was stuck in the tunnel for hours. Realizing that it wouldn’t be fruitful to proceed, I hopped on a return train when we finally pulled into the next station. In those pre-cell phone days I called the hospice as soon as I returned home to tell the sister-superior, Sr. Sabita, what happened and that I would see them all the following week. The phone rang a few times until the answering machine came on. Sr. Sabita’s pleasant voice, in her distinctive and unmistakable Indian cadence, asked the caller to leave a message after the beep. I waited for the beep and left my message of explanation, hung up, and thought nothing more of it. Next Monday I walked into the hospice to be greeted by Sr. Sabita. “Father, where were you last week? We missed you.” I told her of my subway ordeal and defensively said I had called as soon as I returned home that day and left a message on the machine. “Didn’t you get the message?” I asked. “You left a message on the answering machine?” Sr. Sabita says. “Yes.” I say. She and the other sister standing beside her start to laugh in that high-pitched Indian way. I’m confused. “What’s so funny.” I say. “Father,” Sr. Sabita says. “After all this time with us you don’t know we’re Missionaries of Charity.” “Of course,” I say - a bit annoyed by all the laughter. “I know that. Why?” “We take our vow of poverty very seriously,” Sr. Sabita says. “We don’t own an answering machine.” They start laughing again. And then we go to work: preparing lunch for the men, changing wounds, praying Mass, attending those close to death and those already dead - cleaning their wounded lifeless bodies with great care and reverence.

I know, without any doubt, that when I called that day I heard Sr. Sabita’s voice instructing the caller to leave a message. Waiting dutifully for the beep, I know I left my message. So I’m forced to conclude one of two things: either Sr. Sabita was lying and really did own an answering machine (and maybe her Mercedes Benz was parked in the neighbor’s garage for her weekend get-a-ways); or this was evidence, confronting my already-formed sense of reality, for something inexplicable in the natural order of things. Evidence which was almost completely personal – Sr. Sabita didn’t seem to be too impressed. “God provides,” she said after I brought it up again. “We were very busy last Monday. Who had time to answer the phone.”

But that’s the point. If Christianity is true – and meaningful – it must ultimately be completely personal and contextual. If I had the same experience, say, after calling the phone company or my local car mechanic, I’m sure I would have forgotten it by now (and maybe have). But in this context it was equally clear to me that this personal experience, fascinating to me though it was, was not the most important thing that happened that particular day. It was only ancillary to the workings – the extraordinary workings - happening all around me. How hardened criminals came to show extraordinary kindnesses to one another in the face of death; and how many (though not all) of the young men in that home came to experience peace in their final hours – something they hadn’t known all their lives.

In the end, what is more convincing regarding the truths of Christianity and all that it promises? Evidence of the supernatural might be startling, but what moves us most are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, bringing peace to the tormented in no less a powerful way than the one who rose from death.

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