“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

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Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

At WYD@Home, Bishop van den Hende on the living Lord

van den hendeIn 2011 Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Rotterdam, gave one of the catechesis classes during the World Youth Days in Madrid. His talk then was met with a standing ovation. This year, although he joined pilgrims for the pre-WYD program in Suriname, he returned home before the start of the World Youth Days proper in Rio. But, as the WYD@Home program took place within the bounds of his diocese, in Delft, Msgr. van den Hende did offer catechesis there.

Here follows my translation of the text, which may be found in Dutch here.

1. Topic of the Catechesis

In unity with Pope Francis and with the youth in Rio we here in Delft also have catechesis. We follow the catechesis program as given in Rio. Catechesis means: putting the contents of our faith into words, explaining and communicating them.

The catechesis here in Delft and in Rio is closely tied into the theme of WYD 2012. Every WYD has its own theme, chosen by the Pope, including this year’s WYD in Rio. The previous Pope, Pope Benedictus XVI, gave the WYD in Rio the following theme: “Go and make disciples of all nations”.

The words of the theme are words from the Bible. They come from the New Testament, from the Gospel of Matthew: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

2. The Gospel = the Good News of Jesus Christ

In the Gospels the person of Jesus Christ takes centre stage [1].In the first chapter the Gospel of Matthew explains that God’s salvation history from the Old Testament is linked to the person of Jesus Christ (the so-called genealogy). Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise, He is the Messiah (the Anointed One, the Christ). In that way Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel of Matthew.

That is also the case in the other three Gospels. The Gospels tell us who Jesus is: the incarnated Son of God. The Gospel also proclaims the message that Jesus promotes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Gospels are the heart of all the Scriptures “because they are our principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Saviour”.” [2]

As an illustration, three quotes from the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John. These clearly show the intent of the Gospels:

  • The Gospel of Mark’s opening sentence is “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” [3].
  • The introduction of the Gospel of Luke states: “I […] have decided to write an ordered account for you, […] so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is that you have received” [4].
  • Near the end of the Gospel of John we read: “There were many other signs that Jesus worked in the sight of the disciples, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” [5].

So the Gospel proclaims to us that Jesus is the Son of God, that the message of Jesus is the Good News of God’s Love, that Jesus gave His life on the cross; He died for us.That the Word of Jesus is trustworthy, that Jesus has risen from the dead; that He lives. In short, the Gospel encourages us to follow Jesus: believe in Him, have trust in Him, build your life on Him: He lives!

3. Jesus lives

To start with, we’ll look at the final part of the Gospel. When Jesus died on the cross, it seemed as if everything was over, had come to a dead end. The Gospel tells us that the dead Jesus was buried [6]. The disciples and other friends of Jesus were truly in mourning. The heavy stone that they had placed before the entrance to Jesus’ grave weighed also, in a sense, heavily upon their hearts.

But the Gospel does not end with the death and burial of Jesus. On the contrary, the Gospel proclaims that Jesus lives. When the disciples visit the grave, it is empty. The Gospel tells us: Jesus is no longer in the grave, He has risen [7].

That is the Good News of Easter: Jesus lives! The Gospels also relate that Jesus visited his disciples several times after His resurrection, that He appeared to them: for example to Mary Magdalen [8], to the Apostles in their home [9], on the shore of the lake [10], on the road [11], and on the mountain (Matt. 28:16-20).

On the mountain Jesus ultimately gave his disciples the special assignment: “Go and make disciples of all nations”. These are the words that are the them of WYD 2013.

Jesus, the Risen Lord, asks his disciples to communicate the Good News to others and to baptise them. In the book Acts we read that the Apostles remain loyal to the assignment to go and make disciples of all nations, which they received from Jesus. The Apostle Pater, for example, holds a speech and proclaims the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to his audience. And Peter subsequently baptises about three thousand people who join them [12].

Jesus lives. He stays with us. In Matthew 28:20b, Jesus promises: “And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time”. That is why we – centuries later – stand when the Gospel is read during the celebration of the Eucharist. We have the good habit to stand at the Gospel because we believe that Jesus himself, the living Lord, is speaking in the words of the Gospel [13]. We are called to be listeners to Jesus’ words and also proclaimers and executors of them. As disciples of the Lord we listen to the Word of God to act according to them [14].

van den hende4. To be a disciple of Jesus: learning from Jesus

Jesus is true teacher. That is also the opinion of the rich young man in the Gospel, who asks Jesus: “Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [15]. Jesus Christ is a good teacher in the words he speaks and the actions he performs in His life amid the people: what Jesus asks of us, He also does himself.

A) In the first place the words Jesus speaks. We may learn from the words of Jesus. In the first place Jesus makes use of the expressive language of parables. The Gospels tells us: “He told them many things in parables” [16], and: In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables” [17].

When we are a little bit familiar with the texts of the Gospels, we all know a few parables, for example: of the sower who sows on different kinds of soil: rocky soil, shallow soil, soil with weeds and thistles, good fertile soil [18]. The Catechisms states that parable are mirrors for man: “will he be hard soil or good earth for the word?” [19]

In the Gospel we can also read that Jesus speaks His words as a teacher in conversations with people, for example with the scribe Nicodemus. The Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to converse with Him and he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him” [20]. Another example is Jesus’ conversation with Mary, the sister of the deceased Lazarus. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” [21] As disciples of the Lord we can do no else but start listening attentively to Jesus’ words in the Gospel [22].

B) We can also learn from the things that Jesus does in the Gospel, of the actions that Jesus performs. As disciples we may carefully read and see the acts of the Lord, learn from them and imitate them.

  1. Jesus is faithful in praying to His Father. The Catechisms tells us: “When Jesus prays he is already teaching us how to pray” [23]. In the Gospels we read that when Jesus prays to His Father, the disciples at one point asks Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” [24].
  2. Jesus also performed acts of love and charity and so encourages His disciples to truly love their neighbours. Jesus says, “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” [25]. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you” [26].
  3. Very impressive is the footwashing that Jesus performs at the Last Supper. The washing of feet was, at that time, the work of a servant, but Jesus does it himself and says, “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” [27].
  4. Jesus is a true teacher when it comes to forgiveness and mercy. In the home of the Pharisee Jesus expressly forgives a women who is known to be a sinner, but who is penitent [28]. To an adulterous woman who is about to be stoned for her sin, Jesus says, “Go away, and from this moment sin no more” [29]. And to the taks collector Zacchaeus in Jericho, Jesus says, “I am to stay at your house today” [30]. In the end, when He is dying on the cross after taunts and torture, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” [31]. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners” [32].

Do we, as disciples, really want to listen to Jesus’ words, keep them in our hearts, and put them into practice? That is only possible if we really want to learn from Jesus, from His words and His actions. As a disciple of Jesus you let yourself be touched by His words and actions. It is necessary to let yourself be formed in your life by Jesus [33]. Because Jesus rose from the dead and lives, He can now be our teacher, shepherd and friend, in the community of the Church.

5. Trusting in Jesus: believing in Jesus

Jesus Christ, the living Lord, asks us, as His disciples, to really trust in Him. This means:

  • Believing that Jesus lives (Jesus is not just someone from the past, He is also close to us now);
  • Believing that Jesus loves you and is interested in you, that He calls you with your talents;
  • Being willing to entrust your life to the Lord by being honest to yourself and to God, asking and receiving forgiveness for your sins (Sacrament of Confession), laying your fears at His feet (Jesus also knew fear [34]);
  • Offering your talents to Him: the willingness to be an instrument of God;
  • Believing that Jesus has given you the Church to learn, to celebrate, to serve and live in faith and love in the community of faith.

It is important to realise that the word of God, the Gospel, is also the word of the Church. Jesus has entrusted His Good News to us, His Church: to write down, to life from, to communicate [35].

6. Following Jesus: building your life upon Christ

As a disciple of Jesus you are invited to build your life upon Jesus. To be able to do and grow in that the following points or of vital importance:

  • Your life with Jesus needs a continuous conversation with Christ in prayer, alone in your inner room [36] and in the community of the Church;
  • Your relationship with Jesus, the living Lord, has consequences for how you relate to people around you (concerning honesty, neighbourly love, forgiveness, pure intentions, etc);
  • Every day requires conversion (if necessary forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: confession);
  • Your life in faith is never without difficulties (it is necessary to be willing to give something for it, the sign of the cross means victory but also presupposes suffering and sacrifice [37]);
  • Life in faith can never exist by our own strength alone: it is a gift from God, of God’s mercy: it is therefore necessary to keep celebrating the sacraments, to ask and receive the comfort and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, to accept and experience the support of your guardian angel [38];
  • Your life in faith needs good examples: look towards the saints as friends of God. They are our intercessors, which means that they pray with you to God.

In short: your path as a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong journey with Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the community of the Church, from day to day, with ups and downs.

7. In closing (through Him and with Him and in Him)

The first word of the theme of the WYD is “go”. That means getting up towards your neighbour to confess your faith in Jesus. You can only do so if you’ve first come to Jesus, meaning:

  • Consciously aligning your heart with the Lord and letting Him touch you
  • Actively uniting your life to the Lord and His Church
  • Choosing to place your life in the light of the Gospel

Only when you’ve come to Jesus yourself, only then you can leave from Jesus and go in His name to win others for the Lord, to make others into disciples of Christ.

8. Questions to discuss

  • Do you believe that Jesus lives? What does that mean for you personally?
  • What would you like to learn from Jesus?
  • What do you think is the most important thing to tell others about Jesus?

+ J. van den Hende
Bishop of Rotterdam

Photo credit: P. van Mulken

“The realisation of what is hoped for”

There is a nice summation of what faith is in the second reading from today’s Mass:

“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 1: 1)*

In his homily, Bishop van den Hende took the opportunity to delve a bit deeper in the definition of faith, and one of the points he raised was the difference between the Old and New Testaments when it comes to faith. In the Old Testament, faith is chiefly about trust in God and the things He does. In the New Testament, the meaning of faith shifts more to knowing, as a sort of completion of trust; we still trust in God, of course, but our faith is strengthened by what we know of Him through Jesus Christ, His Son.
Looking back at the sentence from the Letter to the Hebrews, we may see a sort of basic evolution of faith. We start with hope, we grow to trust and finally we know. That evolution is not only visible in the history of humanity as a whole, but also in each of us

God the Father (as depicted by Antoniazzo Romano in 1489)

individually. These three steps are steps we all take, I believe. At least I did. The sense of hope, for example, had been there for years before I even considered walking into a church for anything else but sightseeing. I wanted to believe, but had nothing to ground that belief in.
Later, as I got to know the Catholic faith, I found myself able to put some measure of trust into the Church and so also into God. Trust and knowledge go hand in hand, strengthening each other, being each other’s basis, so to speak. If we know what we trust in, trust grows stronger. Hope too, grows in depth as trust and knowledge increase. After all, when we learn more, gain more knowledge, we get to know more of what we hope for, and so hope increases.

So faith is never as one-dimensional as some people want to have us believe. It is far more than a factual belief in the existence of someone or something.

*I used the translation from the New American Bible, instead of the New Jerusalem Bible, which I generally use in this blog, simply because this translation appealed to me more.

The Transfiguration of the Lord

A detail from the Transfiguration by Raphael

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration. All three the synoptic Gospels include this occurence on Mount Tabor. St. Luke writes:

Now about eight days after this had been said, he took with him Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray. And it happened that, as he was praying, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became sparkling white. And suddenly there were two men talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they woke up and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what he was saying.
As he was saying this, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’
And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

Gospel of Luke 9: 28-36

This is not the only time that Jesus changes His appearance, but it is the only time before His death on the cross. After the Resurrection, there are multiple instances where He physically appeared to the Apostles (they could touch Him and they ate breakfast together, for example), and where they did not immediately recognise Him. The best example is perhaps the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Only when their fellow traveler broke the bread and said the blessing at the dinner table, did they recognise Jesus.

So the Transfiguration can perhaps be seen as a foretaste of what was to come. After His death and resurrection, Jesus gained a new body, and that, by the way, lies at the basis of the Catholic belief in the bodily resurrection at the end of time. My parish priest mused today that perhaps this was also a means of support for the Apostles, who would be scattered in the days surrounding the crucifixion, and who would suffer greatly. But Jesus showed them here that on the other side of the pain and suffering, beauty and glory lies.

The presence of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the prophets, and of course God’s cloud who descends upon the mountain (not unlike how He accompanied the people of Israel out of Egypt – Moses would not have been surprised), firmly places Christ in the history of salvation, in both the Old and New covenants. Not that he didn’t have this place before all this, but we, being both us and the Apostles, need to become aware of it.