Dear Brothers, Associates and Collaborators:
Happy Easter to everyone! For those of us living in North America and Europe the signs of Spring are evident– birds chirping in the morning, the scent of freshly cut lawns and the green foliage of the trees, the daffodils and tulips, warm breezes and longer days. After a long and extremely cold winter, Nature’s renewal fills the senses with all these signs of new life, as our Lenten practices fill our hearts and minds with hope.
My central wish during Lent was that we encounter and deepen our love for the risen Christ in the life we share with each other and our world as Brothers, Associates and Collaborators. During the next few weeks as our spiritual journey continues, we are invited to reflect on the very core of our lives together— the gift of hope that Christ’s resurrection offers us. I want to share few thoughts with you.
Tragedy Mystery Miracle Union with God
As followers of Christ, what we remember, relive and celebrate is found in the above thoughts. It was truly a tragedy that the Father’s love was not grasped by those who should have been the first to recognize it in Jesus — the religious leaders. Would it not be an equal tragedy for me who claims to be a follower of Jesus not to spend time necessary in prayer and contemplation in order to grasp with my heart and mind the Father’s love that comes to me each day in Jesus? Jesus’ acceptance of God’s will that led to his death on the cross, to his being raised from the dead and to his new glorified life constitute the deep mystery of our lives—the gift that we continue to receive. When talking to students on retreat I often asked them to review how they have received the gift of God’s love? I cannot exempt myself from the same question. Do I receive this gift with an open heart and willingness to go where it leads? Jesus’ resurrection also inspired the formation of communities of believers who were finally getting what Jesus taught them. Filled with joy and hope, these women and men now dedicated themselves to encountering the risen Christ in each other and in their world. New life, a new way of being God’s People. Another gift we have received.
The mystery: the joy of Jesus’ resurrection gives meaning to His death for all of us.
Holy Week for me has always been a special time. Louisville is one of the centers of my spiritual life, having spent thirty-eight years there. My thoughts of Holy Week often return to Saint Boniface or Saint Stephen Martyr. One celebration touched me in special way and remains with me today. A student I knew at Saint Xavier in Louisville, Stephen, invited me to celebrate Holy Friday with his family and community at Saint Michael’s Antiochian Orthodox Church. His uncle, Father Alexanger Atty, was the pastor. I met the family at the church just before 6:00 pm. The service was a little over three hours. Stephen attended Catholic schools all his life and was familiar with our liturgies. So he forewarned me of the length! Time, however, was not an issue. Time seemed suspended. What caught my attention, heart, and mind was the prayerful intensity of the people focused completely on their love of Christ on the first Holy Friday.
There were about 600 people present. Their chanting in Greek, Russian, and Arabic was soulful. Two other Saint Xavier students, Jordanians, chanted the Passion along with Father. I truly felt the risen Christ present in the people, the Scripture and in Father Atty’s reflection on Jesus’ embracing of His Father’s will. The sense of the sacred something I have not personally experienced in the Roman rite in many years.
Toward the end of the liturgy, the congregation formed a procession and each person entered and passed through Jesus’ Tomb (a tent in the center aisle) and paused to pray with crucified Jesus. I experienced the mystery of the cross — Jesus’ love for me, a sinner, very deeply. I reflected on the many times I just take this gift of Jesus’ love for granted. The ritual was, indeed, very emotional. Looking around the congregation I sensed real peace and joy as we sat in silence. I left the church at 9:30. The experience of this mystery, the crucified and risen Christ, has never left me nor have Father Atty’s words and example. It is very much with me whenever I read these words from our Fundamental Principles:
You have promised to follow Christ, the poor man, totally given to His Father
and to all peoples and whose loving obedience led Him to death on the cross.
These words have deeper meaning for me now. I just learned as I am writing this letter, that Father Atty, a relatively young man in his late 50’s, died on March 21st from a four year battle with cancer. He epitomized the above words. It is clear that Father was totally given to His Father. He was always filled with joy. He never complained. Rather than ask “Why me?” when confronted with difficulties, Father Atty would ask,”Why not me?” his friend, Fr. Vernak would note. His suffering never prevented him from caring for others, listening to them or fulfilling his ministry as a priest. Accepting his suffering as God’s will, he found his ultimate union with God. Father Atty is remembered as “a mentor who tirelessly helped us with an eye set for new life of the Kingdom. He did not just serve God. He served God with love, joy and the power of the Spirit,” said Father Vernak in his eulogy. Since I became aware of his death, my reflections on the example of Father Atty’s life invite me to ask myself “How totally given to Christ am I? Do I serve the LORD with love, joy, and the power of the Spirit? Or do I hedge the bet?”
The Apocryphal Gospel of Saint Peter has the angel asking all the questions. He asks Mary Magdalen and the other women. “Why have you come? Whom are you seeking?” The angel continues, “Not the one who was crucified? He is raised and gone away.” Upon hearing this, the women went away terrified. Similar words in each of the gospels introduce the stories of the post resurrection appearances. These stories help me relate the risen Christ.
Luke’s account of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus shows just how unexpected Jesus’ resurrection really was. It also shows how often the encounter with the Risen Lord takes us off guard and surprises us. Cleopas and the other disciple are caught in a world of grief, disbelief, disillusion and deception at the death of their teacher and friend. Their eyes are shut and they are protecting their hearts from further pain. Like the other disciples, Cleopas and his companion did not grasp Jesus’ many predictions of his death and resurrection.
So the person they meet on the road is to them a stranger. He asks them what they are talking about? Perturbed, the disciples let the stranger know they can hardly believe his question. Then it’s his turn. He chides for being “foolish and slow of heart to to believe what the prophets spoke?” He then asks them another question, “Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer all these things to enter into his glory?” What the stranger explains sounds familiar to them. Their eyes, however, are still shut. Amazed at what they were hearing, as we know, they asked the stranger to stay for the night.
It is at supper that the two disciples encounter the Risen Lord. When Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them, their eyes were suddenly opened and they understood with their hearts. Intuition evokes rapid flashbacks: Jesus’ compassion in feeding the multitudes who had nothing to eat. The intimacy He shared at the Last Supper. The fellowship they often shared with Jesus as a friend. In a blink, their eyes become eyes of faith. In a flutter, their hearts are open and vulnerable to the LORD. He is no long a stranger. At that moment, the Risen Lord vanishes. Their transformation, however, will continue. “Were not our hearts burning within us when he talked to us on the road and opened up the scripture to us?” They finally get it! Their joy is evident.
The community of believers was of one heart and mind… Acts 4:32
The descriptions of the early Christian communities found in Acts make my heart burn within me. As a Christian educator, I am convinced our primary task today is to create communities of believers who are not only educated but more importantly are open to the movement of the Spirit who confirms each of us in the love of God and helps us to understand that we are the eyes, the ears, the voice, the heart, the mind and the hands, in short, the Body of Christ for a world that is in great need of The Lord’s compassion and peace. I am convinced that community and, in particular, vibrant Christian communities are critically needed today in the face of the growing narcissistic individualism that is absorbing most of the world. To be a community of believers of one heart and one mind is to put on the mind of Christ. It is to be counter-cultural.
What were the early Christian communities like? They devoted themselves to Christ’s teachings, to the communal life, to the Temple, the prayer and the breaking of the bread. The believers held their possessions in common and distributed their material goods. They took care of their poor. The followers of Christ got together to share a meal giving gratitude to God for everything. Acts 2:42f and Acts 4:32f.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shortly before he was executed for opposing Hitler, wrote a book on Christian community, Life Together. He does not give a recipe for forming community. This thought, however, speaks to our present journey.
The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community … The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely we shall think of community and pray and hope for it.
Bonhoeffer’s thinking about community is so clear and pointed. Not without its challenges, yet filled with joy. Whether we are a Xaverian Brother, an Associate, a Collaborator, we are called to create this community. We don’t do it alone. We do it with each other. We do it with Christ.
I want to end this letter thanking you for the life you give our Congregation and asking your prayers as we journey together. The following is the acclamation used at the time of the homily at Saint Michael’s Orthodox Church. I invite the Brothers to use it at the beginning of their community prayers. It is a great reminder.
L Glory to Jesus Christ.
R Glory forever.
L Christ is in our midst.
R He is and ever shall be.
May you recognize the Risen Lord today when you meet Him and remember that, “…in you as Risen Lord, He wants to walk this path again, and His Spirit, the Spirit of God, now guide you.”
Glory to Jesus Christ,
Brother Edward Driscoll, CFX