The sacristy of my former parish, St. Frances Cabrini in West Bend, always was a place brimming with people before the start of the Mass. That day was no exception. Some of those present were parishioners preparing to perform their liturgical ministries: readers of the Scriptures, altar servers, the sacristan, the deacon, ushers and the leader of the Liturgy of the Word age-appropriate for children. Others were present for special occasions, like the Brownies who were planning to sell Girl Scout cookies after the Mass, and some were parishioners who just wandered into the space because they wanted to be a part of the conversation.
The usual boisterous amalgamation of voices was interrupted that morning when Katie, one of the parish secretaries, entered the room to announce some news. She raised her voice and said, “Did you hear that Elizabeth from Cedar Ridge died?” Elizabeth was a venerable senior member of the congregation who was beloved by many. Suddenly, a pall of complete silence fell upon the gathering, descending like a cloud of melancholy. For a lengthy moment, nobody uttered a word. Then, John, the reader assigned for that Mass, a very spirit-filled and faithful man, flashed a smile and interjected, “Isn’t she the lucky one.” The statement was met by some uncomfortable stares and some subtle and yet startled gasps. John stood his ground and scanned the room with an earnest and supplicating look, adding, “Well, isn’t she? Elizabeth gets to go to heaven and share in the promise of the Resurrection. Don’t we all believe that with the blessing of God’s graciousness and mercy, she will be a lot better off than we are here on earth?”
Slowly, then, the impact of John’s rejoinder seemed to take hold and remind people of a Gospel truth that is deeply held but not always on the surface of our minds. One by one, faces began to be lit up by smiles and a renewed realization of the power of the God of life.
For me, that memory illustrates well how there are times when we all seem to need someone like John to offer us affirmation to bolster our faith in the Resurrection. Granted, I think we all are cognizant of this belief, and we cherish what it means for us. However, sometimes it seems like our perception of this belief does not always manifest itself concretely. Practically speaking, I think it is true to say that faith in the Resurrection often seems more like a concept or theory that we hold rather than a “rock-solid assurance” or a certainty that we would never question or doubt. And, so it seems, there are indeed times when the vitality of our faith in the Risen Christ ebbs and flows.
In fact, when we search the pages of Scripture for the stories of Easter, we find that this seems to have been a characteristic of faith in the Resurrection from the very beginning.
In the story from the Evangelist John, we are told of the reaction of Mary of Magdala, Simon Peter and the “other disciple whom Jesus loved” as they encounter the experience of the empty tomb. It’s definitely an experience that is mixed. At one point, the “other disciple” went into the tomb and saw the tomb empty except for the rolled up burial cloths of the Lord. And, we are told, “he saw and believed.” And, yet, immediately following that observation, we note the disclaimer, “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” It would seem that Mary of Magdala, Peter and the “other disciple” are caught somewhere between belief and unbelief.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus gathers his disciples post-Resurrection on a mountain in Galilee to commission them for service, we are told that “when they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted.”
In the Gospel of Mark, when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome receive news from a young man clothed in a white robe that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, has been raised, they depart from the tomb amazed and yet seized with trembling and bewilderment.
And, in the Gospel of Luke, when the Risen Christ appears to the disciples and he assures them that he is not a ghost, we are told that they are joyful and yet incredulous.
It would seem that there is a spectrum of faith when it comes to belief in the Resurrection. A continuum, if you will, which is variable. At times, faith in the Resurrection can seem robust and bold. And, yet, at other times, our sense of the Risen Spirit of Jesus can dwindle.
Instinctively, I think we all know this from our own personal experience. At times, we are at different places on the spectrum. There are days like those occasions when we are greeted with a warm spring morning radiant with sunshine and the plants and trees beginning to flower when our sense of Easter faith is confident and resolute. We see life prosperous and abundant all around us, and we have no doubt that the one who created the beauty of the Earth and knew us in our mother’s womb will most certainly grant us life again when he calls us from death to new life in the Kingdom of Heaven. But there are other days quite different from that — days when things are not so good, and the trials and tribulations of life seem to diminish our faith. Days, for example, when life seems under assault and without protection — like the days when we hear about mass shootings of innocent bystanders, days when we hear about precious friends and loved ones receiving diagnoses of cancer and other diseases, days when even our best plans and most conscientious efforts fall apart, days when — try as we might — life seems to mess us up.
It is those and similar types of occasions when our Easter faith takes a beating, and we struggle to find and feel the presence of the Risen Christ. In such times, we sense that faith in the Resurrection seems to come and go. It can be firm, and it can be unsteady.
Yet, wherever one is located on that spectrum of faith — whether strong or weak — there is a way in which faith in the Resurrection can be nourished and replenished. For our Lord knew well the challenge that his believers would face in seeking to uphold Easter faith. He knew the human heart and both the “ups and downs” of the human condition. Jesus was aware that his disciples would need some way to strengthen and affirm belief in his risen presence, some way to bolster and foster it.
That is why in his last night on Earth he took the bread and said, “Take this and eat … This is my body” and he took the wine and said, “Take this and drink … This is my blood.” Then he said, “Do this in memory of me.”
It is the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source of renewal of our belief in the Resurrection. For it is in the Eucharist, that we receive the sacred food, which can both nourish our sagging spirits and embolden our burgeoning faith. For it is in the celebration of the Mass that we truly encounter the Risen Christ, his Real Presence. Through the grace of this Holy Sacrament, we are made one with him. Each and every celebration of the Eucharist is Easter Sunday once again.
Moreover, each and every celebration of the Eucharist also brings something in addition to that great gift. For the celebration of the Mass is not simply a personal or individual experience but a communal one. The Eucharist gathers believers just like us — believers all over the spectrum of Easter faith — some ebullient in the joy of life, some forlorn and near hopeless, and others somewhere in-between. It is this sacred meal which brings us together and gives us an opportunity to do what brothers and sisters in the family of the Church can and always should do: We come together to reassure each other in our faith in the Risen Lord, to encourage and support each other in the belief that — no matter what is going on in our lives — our God is Lord of life.