In the early Church, those newly baptized at Easter received white baptismal robes which they wore at Mass each day of Easter Week. The Sunday after Easter was, therefore, called Dominica in Albis Depositis ("Sunday in Setting Aside the White Garments"). On that day, the newly baptized attended Mass for the first time as ordinary members of the congregation. If nothing else, this should remind us that the Easter season was originally a special season for the newly baptized, a time for them to internalize and interpret their Easter experience. And, if it made sense for us to follow their before-Easter journey and identify with them during their period of preparation for baptism, it makes similar sense for us to identify now with the newly baptised in their Easter and post-Easter experience.
One of the ways we do that, as a Church at Easter Time, is through the daily reading of the Acts of the Apostles. the book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel according to Luke. It continues the story after the Risen Lord’s ascension. It is Luke’s account of the experience of the apostolic Church and of its growth and expansion – an experience I think was well summed up in the title of a children’s book version of Acts that came out some 25 or so years ago, called Good News Travels Fast.
Today’s 1st reading [Acts 4:32-35] describes the life of that first Christian community in Jerusalem. Of all the things that might have been mentioned, two aspects of how those 1st Christians lived are emphasized: the powerful witness of the apostles to the reality of the resurrection and the dramatic change in people’s behavior that resulted from that and then in turn became itself such a powerful form of witness.
In a world torn, then as now, by conflict and division, the community of believers strove to be of one heart and mind. In a world of social and class divisions, divided, then as now, between rich and poor, between “haves” and “have-nots,” The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was no needy person among them.
In the world in which we now live, it is division and inequality – not unity and community – that still characterize our human condition. Social, economic, ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, and generational divisions form the structural fabric of human relations. All the more necessary, then, is the living witness of the Church to a totally new order of relationships linking people and communities of every race and nation, of every language and way of life – challenging us all, individually and collectively, to live as changed people because of the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst, as witnessed by his continued action in the world through his Body, the Church.
Fittingly, therefore, this 2nd Sunday of Easter is also celebrated in the Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. Recently, I attended the annual fundraising lunch for an organization which does much good in downtown Knoxville. The featured speaker at the lunch highlighted the message, “the world is in need of mercy.” There may be no more obvious confirmation of the reality of that widespread and felt need than the frequency with which that sentiment is expressed – and in such diverse and even secular settings!
Saint John Paul II once called Divine Mercy “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity” [Homily, April 22, 2001]. To make the Church’s mission of being a witness to mercy even clearer to the world, Pope Francis has proclaimed an extraordinary Jubilee, with the mercy of God as its focus. Yesterday afternoon, in the atrium of Saint Peter’s Basilica in front of the Holy Door (which is only open during Jubilee Years), the Pope formally issued what is called the Bull of Indiction, officially establishing this Holy Year of Mercy, which will begin with the Opening of the Holy Door on December 8.
That ritual dates back to when Pope Alexander VI opened what was then still a wooden door to inaugurate the Holy Year of 1500. Symbolically, the opening of the Holy Door evokes God’s offer of forgiveness, which is central to every Holy Year. The bronze Holy Door that stands there now, known as the "Door of the Great Pardon" (photo), dates from the Holy Year of 1950. Fifteen bronze panels portray episodes from both the Old and New Testaments, illustrating human sinfulness and our redemption through God’s mercy, leading up to the 16th panel which portrays Pius XII opening the door in Christmas Eve 1949.
The 13th panel portrays a scene from today’s gospel [John 20:19-31].
That Gospel is a very familiar one. We hear it ever year on this Sunday of Mercy. Understandably fearful for their safety, the disciples, as we heard, had hidden behind locked doors. Perhaps this was the same “upper room” where they had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where they would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. In any case, On that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Surely, that peace was no mere wish on his part! Christ, the Risen Lord brings peace – not some social or political peace, but the peace of Divine Mercy that brings forgiveness and so can conquer fear. It is clear enough from the locked doors just how fearful the disciples must have been.
There are also the many locked doors one doesn’t see, but one feels nonetheless. We may not be so afraid of the authorities as the disciples were, although for Christians in parts of the Middle East and Africa, this scene is all too contemporary. But we too have our own less visible fears, wounding us in all sorts of ways, wounds we carry within us, concealing them as best we can.
Yet, when Jesus came to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side – and the disciples rejoiced. As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal the continuity between the Jesus who really and truly died on the cross and the now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds and impart his forgiveness and mercy in the sacraments of his Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”
That message and the experience of mercy and forgiveness flowing from it are at the heart of our new life together as Christ’s Church in the world.
For the resurrection was not just some nice thing that happened to Jesus a long time ago - and then leaves us and everything else in the world completely unchanged. Rather that world, as we just heard [1 john 1:5-6], has been conquered.
Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 12, 2015.