Twenty years ago when Pope John Paul II was elected, he began his pontificate with these words: "Do not be afraid!" The pope had lived thru World War II, the Nazis, then the communists. He knew the terrible fears which dominate people's lives, sometimes paralyze them. So he said again, "Do not be afraid!"
The pope's message had an immediate effect. There was a man alone in his apartment. He was so discouraged he was thinking of ending it all. On the table in front of him was a half bottle of whiskey and some sleeping pills. But he had his radio on and out of curiosity was listening to the inauguration of the Polish pope. He heard the words, "Do not be afraid!" Something stirred inside of him. He pushed the whiskey and pills to one side, picked up a pen and paper and re-dedicated himself to his writing. For the last twenty years he has continued to make his contribution as a journalist.
In our second reading today we hear how Jesus spoke those words to another writer. In his own way John was discouraged because of all the attacks on the Church--and because of its laxness and inner divisions. But Jesus said to him, "There is nothing to fear." John then wrote down the entire vision in what was to become the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation.
In today's Gospel Jesus says three times, "Peace be with you." The apostles were filled with joy when they saw the Risen Jesus, but on a very human level they were trembling. Not only because someone had returned from the dead. No, they had a deeper reason to fear. Think about it. Just three days earlier they had abandoned Jesus, let him down. All of us know how upset we get when someone promises to be there for us, then disappears when things get rough. The apostles had good reason to fear. That's why Jesus began by saying to them those amazing words, "Peace be with you!"
Then Jesus did something which could seem strange to us. He showed them his wounds. A week ago Saturday at the Easter Vigil we placed five grains of incense into the Easter Candle. As each one was pushed into the candle, we said, "By his holy/ and glorious wounds/ may Christ our Lord/ guard us/ and keep us. Amen" After Mass if you wish you can come up and take a closer look at the Easter Candle. The five grains of incense are there in the form of a cross, reminding us of the wounds of Jesus: on his hands, his feet and his side.
When Jesus showed his disciples his wounds, he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven them..." By his wounds Jesus forgave the apostle's sins and made them ministers of forgiveness. This is the seed which would grow into the beautiful sacrament of reconciliation. It was a wonderful experience, even a joyful experience, to see so many come to confession during the Lenten season. I estimate that about 500 people received the sacrament here at Holy Family during that time. But remember that confession is first and foremost an Easter Sacrament. It was the Risen Lord who gave the apostles power to forgive sins. As Jesus said, "Do not be afraid!"
Fear can actually cause people to doubt God's existence. In fact I think fear is the main cause of religious indifference and denial of God. Allow me to give a rough comparison. Last Wednesday, April 15, all of us who earned over a certain amount had to have filed a tax return. No one likes paying taxes and most of us of find the tax forms difficult to figure out. Because of that we readily complain about the IRS. Still there are some people who criticize the IRS for a more suspicious reason: They are tax cheats. Their IRS form has more holes in it than a spaghetti strainer! They wish the IRS did not even exist.
Now some people wish that God did not exist for a similar reason. They are afraid of an audit. Not because of some confusing external law like the tax system, but because of a law they know too well, a law written on their heart. They in fact use that law all the time to judge other people. How often do we criticize others for being dishonest, two-faced, lazy, cowardly, selfish, ill-tempered, petty, rude? In spite of our moral relativism ("You do your thing. I do mine.") we still recognize some things are right and other are wrong. Consider the fact that everyone admires bravery and no award exists for Coward of the Year. We all value honesty and no workplace singles out someone as Most Two-Faced Person in the Office.
Our society has become very strange about this, even schizophrenic. We judge other people, even public figures, but are slow to judge our own selves. How many people pointed at Bill Clinton these past months, but then maybe slowed down when it dawned on them they weren't so perfect themselves? You know, when we point the finger at someone else, ("look what someone said about Clinton") we actually have at least three fingers pointing back at ourselves. I'm not saying the President's alleged behavior was OK. Far from it. Nor am I making a political endorsement. Those who have listened to my homilies have probably figured out I am no fan of the current administration--especially on the key moral issues of abortion and immigration. Nevertheless when we make moral judgments we should start not with the president, nor even with the person in the pew next to you, but with someone much closer. Let me ask you this question: How many of you would come of so well if Ken Starr had $40 million to investigate your life? But there is someone who knows every detail of our lives. And he will judge rightly.
The fact is we know what is right and we also know what is wrong. We have that law in our hearts because the One who created us put it there. The idea of standing before him, having him review our life can be pretty awesome. That is why some people hope that God does not exist. They will say for example that he is just a product of the human mind.
But I would not bet on that. There are really only two possibilities. Either God exists and he made the world. Or the world somehow came into being on its own. For my part I am placing my bet on God. And that Jesus is God. I hope you too will bet your life on him. Before Jesus came, the thought of God was pretty frightening. But we know now that Jesus will not only judge us, but he will say "Peace be with you!" and he will show us his wounds.
This past week some people in our parish, and really throughout the world, have been making the Novena to the Divine Mercy. The novena began on Good Friday and concludes the Sunday after Easter. It involves some special prayers and an image of Jesus with rays of grace coming from his wounded side. This devotion to the Divine Mercy was given to a simple Polish nun, Sister Faustina, who has been beatified by Pope John Paul II. Blessed Sister Faustina had a glimpse of so many souls falling into hell and she was told that the only thing which could rescue people from that fate is the Divine Mercy.
In the Gospel we see Thomas, a man who doubted, receiving the Divine Mercy. On the eighth day Jesus appeared to him together with the others and said, "Peace be with you." Then directly to Thomas, "Place your finger in the marks of my hand and your hand in my side. Do not be an unbeliever, but believe." This Sunday Jesus makes that same offer to us. He shows us his wounds, offers us the gift of forgiveness and says, "Do not be an unbeliever, but believe. Do not be afraid."
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