Saint George, or rather his feast day, has come a long way in the last few decades. In 1961, the Church demoted his feast to an optional memoria, because scholars didn’t know much about him, and yet today we observe his feast with the rank of a solemnity. And, if you happen to vote for the Labour Party in the upcoming General Election, Jeremy Corbin has promised to give us a Bank Holiday in honour of the Patron Saint of England.
And yet, we still know little to nothing about Saint George. Legend tells us he was a high-ranking soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When it was discovered George was a secret Christian, and after refusing to offer incense to pagan gods, he was brutally tortured and killed, possibly by decapitation. The exceptional nature of his torments led Eastern Christians to call him the Megalo-martyr – the great martyr.
More than seventeen centuries after Saint George’s death, we are not asked to offer incense to pagan gods or to the effigy of an emperor. We face perhaps a more insidiously harmful trend which is ordered to the obliteration of Christian faith: modernism or relativism, the denial of absolute truth with particular reference to religious truth. We may be permitted to teach what Christians believe, but increasingly we are pressured not to teach that belief as something that is true. Rather it is to be seen as one of a range of possible beliefs, as one might choose from a menu in a restaurant.
Last week we witnessed Our Lord’s dialogue with the representative of another Roman Emperor. Pontius Pilate asked Our Lord if he was a king, to which Our Lord replied that he came into the world to bear testimony to the truth. Pilate’s dismissive answer is worthy of the militant secularists of our own time: “truth, what is truth?”
A common theme for reflection on the feast days of martyrs is to say that we may not face torture and death for being a Christian, at least not in our country, but we do face suffering for Christ.
One of the key lessons we learn on today’s feast is the importance of truth: the truth of Jesus Christ, and the truth of the faith taught by the Catholic Church. Each of us needs to be convinced of this to the point that it changes our life, indeed to the point that it is ultimately the only really important thing in our lives. When we try to live good lives, when we try to be good priests or religious, when we try to take care of our families and those we love, it is this one thing that is necessary: that we have a living and active faith in Christ as the one who truly is the eternal Word made flesh, who truly suffered and died on the Cross, who truly rose from the dead, and is truly present in this Holy Mass today as our sacrament and sacrifice.
The daily spiritual battle is where each of us will live or die in terms of the life of our soul. Let us ask Saint George, the great martyr, and the patron of our country, to assist us in this battle in which he emerged victorious.
Saint George, pray for us.
So central to our faith is the Festival of Easter that the Church invites us to consider all Easter week as one day of celebration, and to extend that through a seven week Easter season as if it were one week. Saint Paul reminds us that: “if Christ be not risen, then vain is your faith.” The power of the most heinous of sins has been reversed by Divine redemptive mercy; and so the Easter season is a time for rejoicing.
On one level, of course, we have every right to be sad as we witness the continuing unrest and tragic loss of life in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, or the never ending religious and ethnic confrontations throughout the world, or indeed the moral landscape of our own country. How depressing the news can often be as sin is exalted and virtue degraded.
Our Lord’s first disciples thought that their world was pretty bleak. All that they had lived for during the previous three years seemed abruptly snatched from them with the tragedy of Calvary. They were still in shock at Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, Our Lord’s treacherous arrest, his kangaroo trial, and his ignominious execution as a common criminal. All their dreams for the future came crashing down in just a few short days.
This was the backdrop for Our Lord’s appearance to ten of the Apostles in Jerusalem. Our Lord’s words on that first Easter night were: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” But as today’s gospel reminds us, Thomas wasn’t there, and what’s more, he refused to accept the testimony of his fellow apostles. Only after seeing and touching Jesus could Thomas proclaim: “My Lord and my God!”
We, too, can be severely tested in faith. We read Sacred Scripture, we listen to homilies, and we might even read Catholic books, newspapers and periodicals. But we don’t move to a more mature faith until we’re tested, often through human tragedy. So, in the midst of the great tragedies that engulf us in the Church and in the world, we need faith in God’s Divine Mercy.
But what is faith in Divine Mercy? Divine Mercy is God the Father, pouring out his saving, redeeming love through Jesus Christ, his Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Divine Mercy is God’s sacrifice of himself for our salvation. God wants to rescue us from the mystery of iniquity.
Today’s gospel describes not only the drama regarding Thomas’ struggle with belief, but also the Lord’s gift of Easter peace, which is nothing less than the forgiveness of sins. The Risen Lord entrusted to his disciples the authority and the mandate to be apostles of mercy to others: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them.” Faith leads to repentance; repentance leads to forgiveness; and forgiveness leads to new life. This is the gift of Divine Mercy.
Both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were canonised on this same day in 2014. They each guided the Church through difficult times and both taught us what it means to be a Roman Catholic. On this same day in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonised a little known Polish nun, Saint Faustina Kowalska, who became a special apostle of Divine Mercy in our own day. How much our world needs to hear that the mystery of evil is really overcome by the mystery of the Cross.
We too are called to be apostles of Divine Mercy through repentance, conversion and a life of virtue.
As we continue with the Mass, let us pray with Saint Faustina, not just today, but every day:
Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
When the Risen Lord told the Apostles to go out and preach the Gospel to the whole world, he didn’t specify exactly what that ‘Gospel’ was. Neither did he tell them how they were to proclaim it. Now, some of the Apostles may have been a bit dim, but they weren’t stupid; they knew what the essential Gospel message was; they had heard Jesus announce it for three whole years. Maybe Our Lord didn’t give them a specific formula because he knew that the Gospel is far bigger than any one set of words. Because the Gospel touches every person in a different way, one concise paragraph will never suffice to capture all of its grandeur.
So where does that leave us? How do we proclaim the Gospel? Well, we may start by following Mary Magdalene’s example. Tradition calls her the Apostle to the Apostles and the first evangelist because she was the first person to announce Our Lord’s resurrection. But notice how she did it: she simply spoke about what she had experienced: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). These five short words were joyful enough and powerful enough to catch the Apostles’ attention and cut through their sadness.
I would have liked to say that, like Mary Magdalene, we don’t need special credentials or training. But we live in the 21st century and the Church’s ministers need to be well educated to be credible. But, for the ordinary person on the street, just telling someone how much of a relief it is when you have been to Confession, or how you feel God’s presence when you are at Mass, can make such a difference in other people’s lives. Like Mary Magdalene we tell them: this is what I heard, this is what it felt like, this is what God did for me. The simple witness of our lives makes more of a difference than we will ever imagine.
As human beings, we take so much that happens around us for granted. Waiting for the tea to brew in my cup this morning, I thought how everyone knows that if you place a tea bag in a cup of hot water, that water will be transformed. It’s no longer just water, but a cup of tea with a distinct colour and flavour. Once they’re combined, it’s no small task to remove the tea from the water. I imagine it would take a chemist a complex series of steps to separate the elements.
This is a good analogy for the way God changes our lives. Take the apostles Peter and John: they had been fishermen, but once Our Lord came into their lives, something changed them. They spent three years being steeped in his love, his teachings, and his power to heal. They saw him in the day-to-day activities of their lives. They witnessed his awful death and his resurrected glory. Then they received the Holy Spirit, who came to live in them. After all that, how could they not be changed?
We too have been changed by God. Like the tea bag in hot water, the Holy Spirit dwells within us, making a difference in our lives. Every time we celebrate Mass, every time we ponder the Scriptures, we are steeping ourselves in him. Every time we go to Confession or spend time serving people in need, his life becomes stronger in us. Our Lord is making us look and taste more like him. We become living, breathing examples of the truth that anyone who is “in Christ” is a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Through the grace of our Baptism and Confirmation, and our ongoing conversion of life, the Holy Spirit moves within us. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us like Christ, only he can manage such a transformation. And all we have to do is to spend time with Our Lord and let him do his work. While we wait for the tea to brew!
In almost all his resurrection appearances the risen Lord greets his disciples by saying, “Peace be with you”. Our Lord is eager to dispel any fear they may have in their hearts. And when you think about it, without faith we have every reason to live in fear. There is fear of sickness and disease, fear of economic uncertainty, even fear of annihilation in a nuclear disaster. Human existence could very easily be overwhelmed by fear if we didn’t have faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
God has shown us that we need have no fear about the future. We find a person trustworthy when he has proven himself. For example, if a doctor has been able to treat you successfully in the past, you have confidence in him when he tells you that you are going to recover from a current illness. If you are lost on a strange road with a driver who has always been able to find his way, you are more than willing to put yourself in his hands.
The Lord Jesus in his resurrection demonstrated that he had overcome sin and death. In fact, through his entire ministry Our Lord revealed that he fulfilled all the promises God had made through the Old Testament era. That’s the main point Saint Peter wanted to make in the sermon we heard in the first reading. God has shown us that he is trustworthy. We all suffered the sickness of sin, and the human race was sick to the point of death. But Our Lord cured us of the ultimate effect of that sickness, which is eternal death.
The words of Our Lord, “Peace be with you”, are not an empty greeting. They express the great gift that should dissolve all fear from our lives. Because of our union with Our Lord we can live our lives with peace in our hearts.
You still hear of people rummaging through junk in the attic or the garage, and discovering an object which has immense value to someone else. That dusty old painting in the corner, might actually be a lost Gainsborough. You may have pushed it aside many times, not recognizing it, yet suddenly looking at it with new eyes, you realize how priceless it is.
Something similar happened in the first reading. Every day as they went to the Temple to pray, Peter and John would walk past through the so-called ‘Beautiful Gate’ which scholars believe was adorned with hammered bronze and gold (Acts 3:2). It must have been a lovely thing to look at and would have been admired by everyone who passed by. And yet, they would also walk past the lame beggar who sat at the foot of this gate. It seems that they had never really taken notice of him before. He must have seemed so insignificant compared to his stunning surroundings.
For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit decided to open Peter and John’s eyes to the man on this particular day as they passed him by. They feel drawn to look at him and confidently invite him to be healed. The man responds to his miracle with such excitement that everyone around suddenly recognizes this beggar as well, and sees how precious and beautiful he is. After all, God wouldn’t bother to work a miracle unless the chap had some value.
The beauty of the world is always before us, and we should always appreciate it. Clearly, God wants us to open our eyes to the veiled treasures hidden around us. He wants to teach us how to look beyond at the people we pass every day and see how precious they are to him. And he does this not just so that we will admire them, but so that we will treat them with the dignity they deserve. Imagine the healing, the restoration, and the peace that we can bring to this world as we see the beauty and glory present in each and every person around us.