Every Saturday, a local newspaper features excerpts from Sunday homilies, including occasional Catholic ones, in a section called “From the Pulpit.”
Easter weekend featured a Unitarian minister’s reflections. Unitarians profess a free search for truth and meaning and do not assert any creed. Needless to say, their theology can be very different than Catholic or mainline Protestant belief. Sometimes, it’s useful to see a new perspective.
The writer acknowledged, “While I celebrate Easter, my understanding of it may not be the same as yours.”
He proceeded to comment on Luke’s story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, which recalls two disciples on a journey who recognize the resurrected Christ as they break bread with him.
The minister described it thus: “The Emmaus story reminds us that sometimes we see aspects of loved ones who have died in utter strangers, and these sightings renew our love.”
In other words, what to Catholics is a miraculous meeting with the risen Christ becomes to this homilist an encounter with an “utter stranger” who reminds us of the love we had for our dead friend.
While I love and admire my Unitarian friends, this minister’s description made me so happy to embrace my Catholic faith. For us, that was no stranger on the road to Emmaus.
It reminded me of the famous story about the late Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. Attending a fashionable New York soiree, O’Connor overheard her formerly Catholic host refer to the “symbolism” of the Eucharist.
“If it’s just a symbol,” the normally reticent O’Connor retorted, “the hell with it.”
Nothing reinforces our belief in mystery so much as the celebration of Holy Week. The liturgies of the triduum are the most beautiful of our year. It’s surprising that, although my parish church is largely full, we don’t have to open gyms and social halls for the overflow crowds on Holy Thursday and Good Friday as we do on Christmas Eve.
The darkened church, the music, the stark, simple readings of the Passion, the stripping of the altar — they lift us beyond the narrowness of our own lives to a place we rarely visit.
“A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all,” said Thomas Merton. How often do our lives fall short of being all spiritual? But somehow, during the triduum, for a few moments we come close to that standard.
As Flannery O’Connor affirmed, the beliefs of our faith are not symbols, but we Catholics do use symbolism well. The candles, the fire, the water, the darkness — does anyone do ritual better, especially if you go to a parish like mine that does it beautifully?
And with his wonderful Jesuit imagination, Pope Francis has reinvigorated for the whole world the ritual of the washing of the feet, reaching out to those on the margins, men and women, prisoners, the outcast.
The triduum is behind us, of course, and now we relish the Easter season. We live a lot of our lives in the emptiness of Holy Saturday, waiting and alone. But from now until Pentecost, we are called to bask in the greatest mystery, the Resurrection.
And to ask ourselves, How do I respond to the challenge of the enormity of what we profess?
Who is this living Jesus for me?
“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,” Luke 12:48 tells us.
We’ve been entrusted with so much: spiritually, theologically, sacramentally, ritually. During the upcoming weeks, let’s support and challenge each other to radically live out the calling proposed by these great gifts and mysteries.