holy cross sermon for easter 3 2011

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, the disciples on the road to Emmaus say to Jesus:

Some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see. (Luke 24.22ff)

In the Gospels it often seems like the women GET it when the men don’t. It is Jesus’ women disciples who have the most intimate connection with him, who anoint his body, who stay by him at the cross when the men flee; and as we have heard today, it is the Lord’s women disciples who are the first witnesses of his resurrection.

This could be merely a coincidence, but I generally maintain that, as Christians, we are not in the coincidence business; there are no coincidences in God’s economy, but FOR US (who have been incorporated into God’s Son) everything is governed by the divine mercy, and is a part of God’s self-disclosure. It is this aspect of divine metaphysics that enables St. Paul to say that “in EVERYTHING God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8.28).

So how is God’s mercy and self-disclosure at work in the fidelity of Jesus’ women disciples? What is their fidelity meant to show us? Firstly, and by contrast, Jesus himself names the problem of the these male disciples on the road to Emmaus: they are “foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24.25).

Purity and quickness of heart, a great love for God leading to FAITH – to believing “all that the prophets have spoken” – that is to say, believing God’s Word – this is what enables us to see God, to do what the disciples on the road to Emmaus are not able to do at first. They get there, after Jesus himself, as it were, takes them by the hand, and “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” (Luke 24.27). Then their hearts, as they say, burn within them, and they recognize the Lord both in the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread – in Word and Sacrament.

This is one of the main messages of the Gospels, although it is a little obscure: how blessedness flows from fidelity, from believing God. And another of the Lord’s women disciples is the exemplar of all of this – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The Gospels repeatedly attest to her blessedness in connection with her FAITH. Mary holds on to God through thick and then, and this holding-on wells up as constitutive of her superlative blessedness. At the Annunciation, the Angel of the Lord addresses Mary as “blessed among women” – just as she goes on to confess her faith in God, in the words which we repeat at the Angelus: “May it be to me according to thy Word.”

Likewise at the Visitation, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth draws out this connection between Mary’s faith and her blessedness. Elizabeth says, “blessed is she who BELIEVED that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1.45). Blessed is she who believed. Blessed is she BECAUSE she believed. Pope Blessed John Paul II wrote:

Indeed, at the Annunciation Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with the “full submission of intellect and will,” manifesting “the obedience of faith” to him who spoke to her through his [angel]. She responded, therefore, with all her human and feminine “I,” and this response of faith included both perfect cooperation with “the grace of God that precedes and assists” and perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, who “constantly brings faith to completion by his gifts.” (Redemptoris Mater, Para. 13)

This is the opposite of the “foolishness” and “slowness of heart” in believing what had been spoken by the Lord, for which the risen Lord rebukes the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in today’s Gospel. And notice that John Paul II likewise refers to Mary’s “human and feminine ‘I,’” in her response of faith – when she says, “may it be to me according to thy word.”

This faith, this trust in God, is exemplified by Mary, and it leads to blessedness. It is why “all generations” call Mary blessed (Luke 1.48). Why is this so? Because this faith, this trust in God, disposes the soul to receive God’s grace. And this disposition is likewise so exemplified by Mary that she is called the “Spouse of the Holy Spirit,” by whom, according to Scripture, she conceives Jesus (cf. Luke 1.35), after placing herself totally at the God’s disposal – “may it be to me according to thy word” – and the Son of God becomes the Son of Mary.

It is this very human and very feminine disposition toward God that is the chief vocation of every Christian. We must not be “foolish men and slow of heart to believe” what God has spoken, but like Mary we must have hearts open and susceptive to God’s initiatives. We are all called to be little brides of Christ. The men on the road to Emmaus arrive at such a disposition when Jesus himself shows up and sets their hearts on fire, and they recognize him both in Scripture and in the mystery (= sacrament) of the broken bread.

This recognition of the Lord, this seeing him in the places where he lies hidden to the unilluminated, this constitutes true wisdom (and its why Mary is called Sedes Sapientiae – Seat of Wisdom). And, again, it comes from a heart that believes God, that trusts him, that is totally given to his purpose, totally cooperative with his initiative, in a conjugal way. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, commenting on the Song of Songs, spoke of this conjugal intimacy with the Lord, the vocation of all Christians, and the vision of the Lord’s glory in heaven to which it leads. And this is the sense in which we are “saved by faith”. St. Bernard says that the soul given totally to God in loving faith…

…has been gifted not merely with great knowledge of him who is both her Bridegroom and God, but [also] with his friendship and familiar intercourse. She has enjoyed his frequent colloquies and kisses, and with a daring born of this intimacy can say to him: “Tell me where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon”. It is not he that she demands to be shown, but the place where his glory dwells, although his domicile and his glory are no other than himself. (from Sermon 38 on the Song of Songs)

St. Bernard will go on to say that this aspiration to see the place “where his glory dwells” – while it is holy and commendable, nevertheless does not belong to those, even saints, who live as yet within the frame of this world. What is possible for us, however, is the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus – to allow our hearts to be set ablaze by the Lord, and so to be enabled to discern him in those places in our world where otherwise he lies hidden. One of the collects for Morning Prayer in the BCP sums up this aspiration succinctly, drawing on the experience related in today’s Gospel:

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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