“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.

naamloos

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

The first feast of St. Mary Magdalene – what it does and does not mean

Guido_Reni_-_The_Penitent_Magdalene_-_Google_Art_Project
Penitent Magdalene by Guido Reni, c. 1635

It’s odd. Pope Francis recently promoted today’s celebration of Saint Mary Magdalene from a memorial to a feast, the same category as the celebrations of most of the Apostles, and almost all I read can be summarised as “Mary Magdalene is now finally an Apostle, so we will soon have women priests”. This is ignorant thinking, not hindered by a sense of history or an awareness of who St. Mary Magdalene is, and limiting her only to how she relates to her male contemporaries – oddly enough, something that proponents of the ordination of women would want to avoid.

The elevation of St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is not a change in her person, but in her importance for us. She does not suddenly become someone else, but her existing identity and example is underlined more, equated with the examples offered by most other Apostles (except for Sts. Peter and Paul, whose days, being solemnities, are of an even higher rank), or important event in the Lord’s life.

On today’s feast, we would do a great injustice to St. Mary Magdalene and her special role in the life of the Church by making her nothing more than a female version of a male Apostle. As if she has nothing to say or offer by herself.

In today’s Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Robert Sarah expounds on two attitudes of St. Mary Magdalene, “which can help all Christians, men and women, to deepen our commitment as followers of Christ: adoration and mission.” Worth a read to get to know today’s saint, not as a female copy of a man, but as an important example, the Apostle to the Apostles, in her own right.

In closing, the elevation of today’s feast says nothing about the ordination of women or other impossibilities. Rather, it has much to say about what St. Mary Magdalene has to offer: unrelenting commitment to the Lord, even when He seems to be absent, and a burning desire to follow His word and share His Good News with the rest of the world (and, in doing so, sometimes giving others a needed kick in the rear to get them going).

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

“It is fulfilled”

Christ crucifiedIt was the Day of Preparation, about the sixth hour. ‘Here is your king,’ said Pilate to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him.’ Pilate said, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king except Caesar.’
 So at that Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. They then took charge of Jesus, and carrying his own cross he went out to the Place of the Skull or, as it is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified him with two others, one on either side, Jesus being in the middle.
 Pilate wrote out a notice and had it fixed to the cross; it ran: ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’. This notice was read by many of the Jews, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the writing was in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. So the Jewish chief priests said to Pilate, ‘You should not write “King of the Jews”, but that the man said, “I am King of the Jews”. ‘
Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’
 When the soldiers had finished crucifying Jesus they took his clothing and divided it into four shares, one for each soldier. His undergarment was seamless, woven in one piece from neck to hem; so they said to one another, ‘Instead of tearing it, let’s throw dice to decide who is to have it.’ In this way the words of scripture were fulfilled: They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothes. That is what the soldiers did.
 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
 After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed and, so that the scripture should be completely fulfilled, he said: I am thirsty. A jar full of sour wine stood there; so, putting a sponge soaked in the wine on a hyssop stick, they held it up to his mouth. After Jesus had taken the wine he said, ‘It is fulfilled’; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit.

John 19:14-30

Palm Sunday: Entering into our salvation with Christ

Today, the final stage of our journey begins as we enter Jerusalem with Jesus Christ. The people cheer and welcome Him, but behind the scene the plotting already begins…

It was two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death. For they said, ‘It must not be during the festivities, or there will be a disturbance among the people.’
He was at Bethany in the house of Simon, a man who had suffered from a virulent skin-disease; he was at table when a woman came in with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
Some who were there said to one another indignantly, ‘Why this waste of ointment? Ointment like this could have been sold for over three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor’; and they were angry with her.
But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why are you upsetting her? What she has done for me is a good work. You have the poor with you always, and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. In truth I tell you, wherever throughout all the world the gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as well, in remembrance of her.’

Mark 14: 1-9

Our celebration of today is twofold: on the one hand we are happy because Christ is among us. We honour Him like the woman, who are may or not have been St. Mary Magdalene, with the costly oil. And it is good that we do so. If we do not honour Christ, our good works for the poor are empty, because He is the poor man, the hungry man, the sick man. Just like faith without good works is just empty words, so good works without faith are just empty actions.

But in the meantime, the events of the coming week are also present. The authorities are plotting to have Christ arrested, but quietly, so as not to disturb the festivities and the people. There is little doubt that Jesus knows full well that they are doing so. He knows why He is in Jerusalem. His anointing is a preparation for His sacrifice. The sacrifice is made pleasant before God. Jesus is honoured and through Him, His Father also.

So the Passion begins…

Art credit: Speculum humanae salvationis of Colgone, ca. 1450

Jesus and His mates

Recently, it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI would be penning a children’s book called ‘The friends of Jesus’. In it, he is said to focus on the relationship of fourteen men with Jesus. Yes, men. The fourteen are the twelve original Apostles, St. Matthias who went to replace Judas in the twelve, and St. Paul who, while never part of the twelve, is generally considered an apostle all the same.

Following the release of this little news item certain people have gotten into a huff about the fact that the book only deals with men. “Surely, they say, women were also Jesus’ friends? So why are they not in the book? It must because the pope doesn’t like or is afraid of women.” That is a basic summation of their logic.

In the first point they are correct. There is enough Scriptural evidence that Jesus’ followers included both men and women, and some women indeed had a notable relation to Christ. The Blessed Virgin in the first place, of course, but also St. Mary Magdelene, and the other women who were present at the Crucifixion. But the pope doesn’t write about them. Why not?

The answer seems straightforward when one considers the aforementioned list of men. They are the Apostles. The Apostles are a very clearly identified group of men. Like it or not, the fact remains that there was not a woman among them.

“But women were also Jesus’ friends”, the masses clamour. Yes, and here we have the core of the problem. The term ‘friend’. It’s somewhat simplistic term to refer to the actual relationship that Jesus had with the Apostles. For a children’s book it’s use is understandable, of course, and we shouldn’t read to much into that, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Back to the problem of the term ‘friend’. There seems to be something of a consensus that Jesus and the Apostles were friends, mates, who met up for meals and conversation, maybe a party here and there, and nothing more. That idea limits the person of Christ to the strictly human; he becomes nothing but a good and nice man, who had some clever things to say. He was good, he had smart things to say, of course, but He was much more than that. Christ, after all, is God. And the Apostles knew that, although it took them a while. Christ is God, He brings salvation to all, and that fact must have coloured the relationship between Christ and the Apostles. They were much more than friends. He was their Lord and Saviour, and they in their turn were tasked with very specific and special duties in the Church He established.

Of course, He was also the Lord and Saviour of the women He knew, like He is to everyone who ever lived and will live. But the aforementioned tasks given to the Apostles made their relationship, the ‘friendship’ unique.  Selecting them as the group to focus on a  book is quite understandable. That is not a matter of ignoring the women in the life of Jesus and the women in the Church of today, but the complete opposite: the acknowledgement of the ‘friendship’ of Christ with His apostles.

In writing any book, an author must make choices. The pope could have taken a random selection of people to describe in his book, but he didn’t. He chose a specific group, the people who were closest to Christ in His active ministry here on earth. And as I said, calling them friends is correct but incomplete. It is, however, understandable for a children’s book which deals chiefly with getting to know Christ as someone near to us, as a friend. That can be the basis for further development of our relationship with Him. Seems like a fairly good place to start for children.

Politics and gender issues are misplaced and misguided in this and many other cases.