Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Vincent Ferrer
April 5, 2016
Acts 4:32-37, Ps 93, Jn 3:7-15
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- As we move from the Easter Octave to the Easter Season, there’s a transition in the focus of the readings. During the Octave, we ponder Jesus’ appearances and how he helped the disciples to get through their slowness of heart and shock to accept the fact and meaning of his Resurrection. During the Easter Season, the Church wants to help us to realize and live the meaning of the Risen existence that our baptism into Christ’s resurrection makes possible. Especially in this Jubilee of Mercy, this new life is constantly made possible to us through the resurrection that accompanies each reconciliation.
- Today we see a huge contrast between Nicodemus and the early Christians. Nicodemus wasn’t really open, wasn’t docile, to the new life to which Jesus was calling him, whereas the first Christians give a beautiful illustration of what it means to live born anew from above through baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. Let’s delve into what the Church teaches us today.
- Today in the extended Gospel* Nicodemus, a powerful member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus at night. He’s too afraid to come to Jesus by day because Jesus was a controversial figure and he didn’t want publicly to be associated with him. We’ll see the same thing when Jesus is being tried. He’ll ask a question to try to slow down the proceedings, but he doesn’t defend Jesus whom he knows is innocent of the charges being made against him. He’s obviously struggling with understanding the full import of Jesus’ miracles. “No one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him,” but he doesn’t have the courage to become a disciple in the light. Jesus points to the reason why: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus seeks to ask a question about entering anew into a mother’s womb — which was not a question of curiosity or modality, because he well knew that was impossible, but one in which he seemed to be engaging in foolish talk — but Jesus was describing the rebirth God needs to give us, so that one may live by the Spirit rather than by the flesh. This is what happens to us when we are reborn by water and the Holy Spirit in baptism, which is meant to be the reality of Christians. As St. Paul told us during the Easter Vigil, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” That’s our rebirth. And it’s carried out by the work of the Holy Spirit, the “pneuma” (Greek) or “ruah” (Hebrew) — words meaning both “spirit” and “wind” — who “blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” To be a disciple of Christ is to put up our sails to allow the Holy Spirit to blow us where he wishes us to go. It’s a docility, confidence and boldness that comes from life according to the Spirit. It’s something that the future Pope Francis, in a 2006 retreat to Spanish Bishops, said in very strong language Nicodemus, “the reluctant disciple,” did not have.
- So Jesus tried to help him to accept the fact of the need for rebirth from above without the necessity of understanding how by means of another analogy, the one that begins today’s reading. “Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above,’” Jesus said. “The wind blows where it wills and you can hear the sound it makes but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” When we feel a cool breeze outside, we don’t spend time wondering whether it originated in Chicago or Philadelphia or whether it’s on its way to Connecticut or to New Jersey. We just accept acknowledge the breeze and are grateful for it. Jesus says we should approach the way the Holy Spirit blows with the same acceptance and not get distracted by how the Holy Spirit is bringing about our spiritual rebirth or where he wants to blow us later. We’re called to acknowledge what he’s doing with trust.
- But Nicodemus doesn’t buy that either. “How can this happen?,” he retorts. That’s where Jesus seeks to humble him because it was his pride that was preventing him from being a true disciple in the light. “You are the teacher of Israel,” a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, “and you do not understand this?” … If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” He wasn’t really even buying what Jesus was saying about the wind; how could he accept what Jesus was saying about the divine Ruah (Holy Spirit)? Jesus indicated the reason why he wasn’t understanding: because he wasn’t accepting Jesus as a witness who spoke the truth. “Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony.” Because he wasn’t humbly accepting Jesus as a divinely sent witness to these things, he wasn’t accepting what Jesus. Jesus would point to a similar truth elsewhere in the Gospel with regard to his teaching by parables. He taught spiritual truths by using images of mustard seeds, yeast, soil, and wedding banquets so some may understand but others may “hear but not understand [and] look but never see” because their heart was “fat” and didn’t want to convert (Mt 13:10-17). Jesus used images as spiritual litmus tests to expose people’s hearts and would put in the time to search for the truth the images contained, to see whether people really wanted to convert or just to have a “dialogue” or “learn a thing or two.” That was Nicodemus’ essential problem. He didn’t want to convert. His lack of comprehension began in his heart, not his head.
- Jesus finishes the dialogue by describing to Nicodemus and us how we will be born again from above. “No one has gone up to heaven,” Jesus said, “except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In order to be born from above, we need to be lifted up with Jesus and that happens, as Jesus alluded, when he would be lifted up on the Cross. It’s from his pierced side flowed the water and blood that is the source of the Sacramental life of the Church, the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist. That points to the reality that it’s not merely about being “born” again from above but “living” from above, living by the Holy Spirit. After we’re reborn, the Holy Spirit wants to help us to grow from above. We learn that, too, by being lifted by him with Jesus on the Cross. It’s from Jesus on the Cross that we see our need to convert like the Jews in the desert who had been bitten by saraph serpents since they had been following and worshiping the “serpent” instead of God. It’s from Jesus on the Cross that we learn how to unite all our sufferings, hardships, contradictions and difficulties to God. It’s from Jesus on the Cross, ultimately, that we learn how to live with love, because the Cross is not principally a sign of pain and suffering but of the self-giving love that made even that much pain bearable. Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life in him because by believing in him they open themselves up to receive his love and then begin to share that love with others.
- Once the Holy Spirit leads us to birth and life from above, once he helps us to learn how to love like Christ, everything changes. We see a glimpse of that change in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke tells us, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.” Once they were willing, like Christ, to die out of love for God and others, selling and distributing their property was easy. Moreover, because of their rebirth by the Holy Spirit they related to each other differently. They looked at each other as spiritual brothers and sisters, as beloved family members, for whom sacrificing for them in their need was as natural as a parent or sibling’s sacrificing for a beloved family member by blood. We see three characteristics of life from above. First, we see that they were of “one heart and mind,” because the Holy Spirit brings about unity. Second, we see generosity. And third we see the trust that encourages that generosity: they were laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, trusting that they would distribute as good stewards for the sake of the whole family like any good father of a big poor family would. The Church is meant to be in every age the type of loving, sacrificial family we see among the early Christians and to the extent that’s not what we find in a particular parish, or diocese or the Church universal, it’s a sign that not everyone has allowed the Holy Spirit to help them grow and live in accordance with the rebirth they’ve received. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish in every generation in the Church. That’s what the Lord wants to bring about in a parish. That’s what God wants to do in the Sisters of Life in general and in this Visitation Convent and mission in particular!
- Today we celebrate a saint who constantly was growing from above and seeking to help his contemporaries learn how to live truly as Christians. St. Vincent Ferrer, the great Dominican preacher of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, was trying to help the Church rebuild when it wasn’t following the wind of the Spirit. There wasn’t unity but the great Western schism with a Pope and at least one anti-pope. There wasn’t generosity, but stinginess. There wasn’t trust, but total distrust even of God’s ability to lead the Church: when an Italian pope was elected, the French Cardinals concluded it obviously couldn’t have been God’s will and they elected a French anti-Pope. Rather than living from above, rather than living according to the risen life flowing from baptism, they were reluctant and recalcitrant disciples. St. Vincent Ferrer brought the people of his time to conversion. We pray that the Dominicans at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer close to us here, and all of us, can indeed both live by the Spirit and inspire other people to the same conversion and same life.
- Today as we come forward to worship God, we ask through that we may correspond as fully to the work of the Holy Spirit as the first Christians did, as the Holy Spirit seeks to lift us up to be with Christ on the Cross, so that we may live from the blood and water flowing from his side, so that we may unite our whole lives to him including our sufferings, so that we may receive and imitate his self-giving love, sacrifice our things generously and with trust in him working through the Church, and come to be one mind and one heart with Him and with each other in this world so that we may be united in the communion of saints and each other forever.
The readings for today’s Mass, including combining today’s Gospel* with the one from Monday of the Second Week of Easter that wasn’t heard yesterday because of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, are below:
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the Apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.
(which is translated “son of encouragement”),
a Levite, a Cypriot by birth,
sold a piece of property that he owned,
then brought the money and put it at the feet of the Apostles.
PS 93:1AB, 1CD-2, 5
The LORD is king, in splendor robed;
robed is the LORD and girt about with strength.
R. The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
And he has made the world firm,
not to be moved.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
from everlasting you are, O LORD.
R. The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
Your decrees are worthy of trust indeed:
holiness befits your house,
O LORD, for length of days.
R. The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
“‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said to him,
‘How can this happen?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?
Amen, amen, I say to you,
we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen,
but you people do not accept our testimony.
If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe,
how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”