Mystagogy and Apologetics

Happy Easter to you all. I say that to you here on the third Sunday of Easter to remind you that there are 50 days of Easter. Thus the church calendar gives us more days in the season of Easter than it did in the season of Lent. We spent 40 days of Lenten discipline preparing for the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ in the three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter resurrection. And we are given 50 days — so 10 more — to unpack that glorious event.

So let’s go back and take a moment to think about those three days and what they might mean for us three weeks later. If you took up Father Neil’s invitation to participate in the liturgies of the Triduum, then you were there for the Mass on Holy Thursday. And from the gospel that night we read about how our Lord gave his disciples a mandate to serve, and he gave them the instruction on how to celebrate the memorial of his sacrifice. So, in many ways, the night of Holy Thursday was a very compressed seminary to prepare his apostles for their priesthood.

Good Friday was the day of the sacrifice for which they had been prepared the night before. On the Cross on Good Friday, Christ was both the priest making the sacrificial offering and the victim being offered in the sacrifice. And the sacrifice was made to save us from the sentence of eternal death that we inherited from Adam and Eve when they turned away from their heavenly father and chose to follow Satan.

The joy of the resurrection on Easter morning filled the apostles, but they were still in many ways confused about what had just happened. In the afternoon, we had the two disciples on the walk to Emmaus. They encountered a stranger who seemed, on the one hand, to know nothing about the recent events of the death and resurrection of Jesus but, on the other hand, was able to walk these men through their Scriptures and show them how the Old Testament pointed to the new covenant established by Jesus through the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. In the evening, when this stranger agreed to stay for a ritual meal with the disciples, they celebrated the first mass. For this meal was the memorial of the sacrifice of Good Friday in which they had been trained on Holy Thursday. The Scriptures tell us that the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. We today at Mass will recognize Jesus in the liturgy of the Eucharist, when father will take bread, he will bless it, and break the bread, and he will give it to us.

In the weeks that followed, the apostles were growing in their understanding of how to live the life of Christ as his disciples,  and also as members of his body, the Church. This is a period of mystagogy, or we might call it “unpacking the mystery that we were given.” Among the many things that Peter and the Apostles and all the disciples learned during this period was how to defend the faith when it was challenged, or when they were being persecuted.

At this time in the very early days of the Church, most of the Christians still saw themselves as Jews. So the persecution that they encountered was in many ways internal. They were being persecuted by their own religious leaders. In one of his speeches to the Jewish leaders, Peter makes this claim explicitly when he says that “you killed him using lawless men to have him crucified.” So while the Roman state in the person of Pontius Pilate was the instrument of the death of Jesus Christ, Peter wanted to be clear that the Jewish religious leaders were at least co-conspirators with Pilate and perhaps even more.

When we read the stories of Peter’s defense of the faith, we do not see anger or vindictiveness. We see simple truth. God is love, and Jesus is God, and Jesus said he himself was the truth. So for a Christian, truth and love are somehow the same thing. And that unity of truth and love grounded Peter as he spoke to the people in power who were persecuting the Church. That model of Peter is one we in our defense of the faith of the Church should follow. When we stand up for the truth, we should always stand in love. In fact, we need to build the bridge of love first, so that truth can then cross over it.

Love and Truth come from the same place, so authentic defense of doctrine is never marked by hatred or dishonesty. Our defense should be based on Jesus’ sacrifice of love on the Cross: we should never lose faith in our Heavenly Father, and we should always be ready to love and forgive our tormentors. At the same time, we should always be willing to speak the truth of the Church as Peter does in the reading today.

The word of God in the Scriptures, and the eternal word — Jesus Christ — in the Eucharist, are the source of any authentic defense of the teachings of the Church. So the 50 days of the Easter season are certainly days of feasting, and I encourage you to have an extra doughnut because of Easter. But these 50 days are also a season of renewal, so that we can be good disciples of Jesus and good evangelists of the love of God to a world that desperately needs to hear how much God loves it.

Easter is a time of mystery, it is a time of pondering how much God loves us, and it is a time to strengthen us in our effort to love him back. May we all enter into the mystery of Easter time, and be renewed in spirit and body so that we can go out and share our Easter joy, speaking truth with love to a world so burdened by sin and pain.

Readings from USCCB.

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