A Joyous Message Needs Joyous Messengers

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Easter Sunday

Χριστός Ανέστη! Είναι όντως ανέστη! (Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!) Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

This year, all of Christianity, both in the East and in the West, are celebrating Easter on the same day. It doesn’t happen every year because we follow different calendars (and if you want to know more, you can Google it), so it is such a blessing when the dates coincide. And if you meet any Greek Orthodox or Eastern Rite Catholics, you can greet them “Christos anesti!” And they will respond accordingly “Alithos anesti!”

There is a joyfulness of spirit that pervades this day unlike any other. I imagine you could only spin the resurrection of Jesus Christ so much to make a quick buck. Then I checked for Easter sales on the internet. I am glad Easter is not quite the commercial holiday like Christmas and Thanksgiving. But businesses will try to cash in—like those who sell Easter lilies, tulips, and all sorts of floral arrangements, frilly dresses for little girls, ostentatious headgear for Christian women who like to be noticed, and the repeat offenders—greeting cards, chocolate eggs and bunnies, peeps, baked goods, and every candy and dessert you can imagine.

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In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis acknowledges the very real lack of joy that many experience in the world today. Just these past few weeks we have known many occasions of tremendous suffering, from the loss of 239 lives aboard Malaysian flight 370 somewhere in the Indian Ocean, to the tragic ferry accident in South Korea involving more than 250 high school students, to the deaths of a dozen local guides in an avalanche on Mt. Everest. And we are continually reminded of the suffering of many in the civil war in Syria; the constant danger faced by civilians and soldiers in Israel and Gaza, in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the potential for deepening conflict in eastern Europe. And for years to come, many will pause this time of year to honor those who died at Virginia Tech and at the Boston Marathon. Now along with such high-profile tragedies are the less publicized everyday miseries of divorce and the disruption of family life, the evils of drug addiction, mental illness, abortion, gun violence, and the many injustices against women and men for their race, their religion, their politics, and their sexual orientation. The world we live in is not always a joyful place. And our spirits can be so overwhelmed by so much suffering around us.

Yet despite such real suffering and misery in the world, Pope Francis writes about a joy that is not superficial. It is the joy of achieving personal fulfillment, a sincere understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives, a genuine respect for our God-given dignity and the dignity of others, and interaction with our neighbor that is loving, honest, respectful, and peaceful. The message of Easter has much to offer us toward achieving this joy. It is a message of reconciliation, the restoration of friendship, and the unbreakable covenant of love God makes with us and with one another. It is a message that transcends every suffering and misery. It reaches beyond this earthly existence into the far reaches of eternity.

The message of Easter is the joy of an encounter with Jesus that is completely and deeply transforming. Now I can only speak of what I know, and I have known the joy of Jesus’ love in my life. This past Lenten season, I have encountered God once again in the sacrament of his compassion and forgiveness. Yes, I go to confession, too, perhaps not as often as I would like. My confessor is a retired priest who lives in Richmond, and it’s a 3 hour round-trip drive, plus the hour and a half I usually spend with him in spiritual direction. I am confident he knows me well, and I would not hesitate to spend time with him because in that heartfelt encounter, I come to know deeper the joy of God’s love. I have brought to him my many failings and struggles through the years. I am not afraid to share with him the shadows in my heart, and in turn I have experienced the light, the compassion, and the renewing grace of Jesus Christ. So when I try to extend to others an experience of God’s compassion and forgiveness in the sacrament, I do not hesitate to share the joy that I have come to know in my own encounters with God. I have come to know the depth of God’s love for me. The least I can do is tell others about it.

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And yet having a joyous message is not enough. The messenger must also convey that message so others would desire to experience the Risen Christ themselves. I had a couple of professors in seminary who had tremendous knowledge and love for God and the church. But sadly, they did not impart their joy in a way that made me want what they had, beyond passing their course.

Our Christian lives are not about passing a course. As pastor, I still hear people ask “Does this mass count?”—usually after Saturday weddings. Worse still is that some people regard Sunday mass as no more than an obligation imposed by a vengeful God and an overbearing church. So if they even make it to church at all, they will purposely get to church as late as possible and leave as early as possible just enough to avoid hell, as that nun in 2nd grade told them would happen. If the compelling message of Easter is that Jesus is risen from the dead, and I have met him face to face, I am less concerned about impressing my neighbor or checking off a box on my list so I can pass the good Catholic test. If I have truly encountered God’s deep and transforming love, I will never want to be without it ever again. I will never want to leave. And if I discover an obstacle in my friendship with God, I will do my best to be rid of it, and be reconciled to him.

And if I sincerely desire that other people experience the joy of knowing Jesus Christ whom I have come to know personally, how can I not meet them at the door with a smile and a word of welcome? How can I not sing alleluia with all my heart even if I can’t hit the right note? How can I not devour God’s Word in scripture every time I sit down to prepare the readings for Sunday? How can I not try to get to mass early and stay as long as possible, so that Father has to send me home, so he can take a nap or get something to eat? How can I not reach out with encouragement to that frazzled mother whose child is having a meltdown? How can I not forgive those who try to upset me with their careless words and their hurtful actions? How can I not share bread with the hungry? And extend comfort to the sick and those in prison? And walk with those who suffer injustice and oppression? And give people the benefit of the doubt when they behave in church like they do at Chuck-e-Cheese? And gently invite them to encounter the gracious and compassionate God whom I have come to know? How can I not?

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Mary Magdalene and the women who came to the tomb Easter Sunday morning were filled with tremendous joy at knowing that Jesus is alive. I bet you they didn’t sit still for one moment. How could they? And how could we?

Χριστός Ανέστη! Είναι όντως ανέστη! (Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!) Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Rolo B Castillo © 2014