Persecution, Hope, and the End of the World
The Church calls today—the Second Sunday of Easter – Mercy Sunday. It concludes the octave – the “Eight Days” – of Easter. The Easter Season lasts fifty days until Pentecost Sunday. Throughout the season, priests wear white vestments at Mass, signifying the glory of the Christ’s risen body. Recall the white gowns that babies often wear at Baptism. On Pentecost Sunday, the priest will wear red, signifying the Holy Spirit, who appeared to the Apostles and Mary as “tongues of fire.”
After Jesus rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit, the Apostles performed “signs and wonders” among the people. Nonetheless, many people did not join them. Despite miracles, many people did not want to be seen with them.
Why? The Church was persecuted. People were afraid and wanted nothing to do with it. St. Peter and the Apostles were ordered by scribes and elders not to preach the Name of Jesus. Peter was arrested and sent to prison. But this didn’t stop him. St. Peter himself said:
“Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer. But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name. For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, how will it end for those who fail to obey the gospel of God? "And if the righteous one is barely saved, where will the godless and the sinner appear?" As a result, those who suffer in accord with God's will hand their souls over to a faithful creator as they do good” (1 Peter 4:12-19).
Peter explains in this letter that persecution is – and always will be – the experience of the Church. Peter’s words could just as well be spoken today: “Do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.” He goes on to say that such persecutions are the first rumblings – like birth pangs – of the Last Judgment: “For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, how will it end for those who fail to obey the gospel of God?”
Consider the Book of Revelation. It was written by St. John the Apostle – known as Jesus’ “beloved disciple.” John was an old man – and the last living Apostle – when he wrote Revelation. Here is what he wrote: “I, John, your brother, who share with you the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus, found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.” Note his words: “I share with you the distress…because I proclaimed God’s words and gave testimony to Jesus.” At the time, St. John was exiled to the isle of Patmos because the Church was persecuted. Decades had passed since Peter was thrown in jail. Decades had passed since Peter was martyred in Rome. The Church was still being persecuted on the threshold of the second century A.D.
Look at today’s Gospel. It’s St. John’s personal recollection of Jesus’ first appearance to ten of the Apostles after He rose from the dead. John says that ten Apostles (he was one of them) were hiding in a room where “the doors were locked.” In other words, the Apostles – even John himself, the only Apostle who faithfully stood with the Blessed Mother at the crucifixion – were hiding in fear because of the persecution of Christ’s disciples.
Ever since the death and resurrection of Christ, persecution has been a way of life for the Church. Not once, in the history of the Church, has there been a “golden era” when she did not face some crisis or persecution. Christ himself foretold this at the Last Supper, when he told the Apostles: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own. But because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
If you take your Catholic faith seriously, if you seek holiness of life and wisdom in Christ, you will “let your light shine before men.” Nonetheless, you’ll often feel apart from the world. You’ll not feel at home here. I am sure that many of you have experienced being singled-out because you’re Catholic. You’ve heard your share of mockery or disdain for the Church. Not only have I long experienced this myself (even before I became a priest), many Catholics, from all walks of life, tell me about their experiences of being “out of place” because they take their faith seriously. Many people experience this within their own families. Faith is questioned and challenged. Some people are disowned by friends, family or neighbors because of their Catholic convictions. Throughout history, some of the most difficult trials for Catholics have not necessarily been outright persecutions – like the French Revolution or totalitarian governments – but the subtle forms of alienation which are felt at work, school or in one’s community, even in free societies like ours. But cheer up! Christ has conquered the world! His mercy has overcome all ills and evils!
The lesson that we take from these experiences is this: the Church is in the world, but not of the world. If we are too comfortable here, or if we seek to fit in (too much), we will compromise our fidelity and love for Christ. St. Peter, in his First Letter, calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). And the trials that we must undergo, says Peter, serve a purpose in God’s Providence: “Although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than perishable gold, even though tested by fire, may prove to be for the praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Today, as always, Catholics are confronted with two options: (1) to fit in with the world, but compromise friendship with Christ, or (2) to remain faithful to Christ, but compromise their standing in the world. Fitting in with the world is the easier option at first, but sad and lonely in the end. Remaining faithful to Christ is more painful and difficult, but in the end fulfilling and joyful – and it leads to Eternal Life.
If we Catholics opt for the Truth – that is, for Christ – we will have to confront one other thing, which is not at first easy to wrap our minds around: we are totally dependent on the supernatural – that is, Grace. “Without me, you can do nothing,” said Christ. Once again, we see this in today’s readings.
After Pentecost, even though many people wouldn’t join the Church for fear of losing their standing in the world – and for fear of persecution – still, nonetheless, Acts of the Apostles says that “more than ever, believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them.” In the Book of Revelation, even though St. John was exiled and shared in the Church’s distress, he saw the Risen Christ vested as a High Priest who said to him: “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys of death and the netherworld.” In today’s Gospel, the Risen Christ entered through the locked doors, behind which the Apostles were hiding, and said, “Peace be with you…Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
In other words, the Risen Christ is the only true consolation of the Church. He is our only strength. He is our only possession. And he is our only Hope. No amount of human ingenuity can save the Church from the trials of time. Only the Risen Christ can do that.
And so, on this Mercy Sunday, let us raise our eyes to heaven, and look to the Lamb who was slain, to him who is, who was and is to come. For our only Hope lies in this fact: Christ the High Priest has conquered the power of evil. While we – the Church on earth – often feel nothing but darkness, and out-of-sorts with the world, we know that the Church is alive, because Christ is alive. He is risen from the dead.
Recall one more thing. Standing high above the choirs of angels, standing beneath the throne of God, is the “woman clothed with the sun,” the Virgin Mary. She is the Mother of the Church. She intercedes for us daily, that we may one day share in the holiness of Christ, and rise with him to the peace of a New Heaven and New Earth at the end of time.
Fr. Fredersik Edlefsen, Pastor