Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Athanasius, Doctor
May 2, 2016
Acts 16:11-15, Ps 149, Jn 15:26-16:4
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today in the Gospel Jesus describes how as Christians we are called to give joint witness together with the Holy Spirit. “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father,” Jesus tells us in this discourse taken from the Last Supper, “he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.” In the first reading, we see that witness taking place for the first time in Europe, as Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke went to Philippi to proclaim where the Jews would assemble on the Sabbath when there was no Synagogue, down by the river. Even though obviously none of those evangelists had been with Jesus physically from the beginning of his public ministry, they had been with him in a far more meaningful way, with him, the Word, from before the foundation of the world. He had them in mind from before the foundation of the world to receive Him within and to bring Him to the ends of the earth. And he likewise has had each of us in mind from that same beginning.
- There’s a beautiful and theologically very rich expression that St. Luke uses to describe Lydia who had come to the river that day from Thyatira. St. Luke tells us that she was a dealer in purple cloth, which meant she was very wealthy, because purple was pretty much restricted to the imperial family since purple dye was so costly to obtain, needing to be harvested one drop at a time from an Aegean shellfish. Therefore, in Christianity, she would have had a lot to “lose” insofar as Christians were so generous in sacrificing what they had for the needs of the brothers and sisters. St. Luke tells us that “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” Notice he didn’t say, “the Lord opened her ears to pay attention,” but her heart. It means she was interiorizing into the center of her personality what Paul was saying, that she was loving, willing and embracing what she was coming to know. The same Holy Spirit who was testifying with and through Paul and his companions was opening up her heart at the same time so that she would be able to receive the seed of the word on good soil and bear much fruit. We pray often in Psalm 95, “If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.” That’s the great danger, that we may just listen with our ears, but not open ourselves up for the Word to change who we are and all our aspirations. Lydia heard with great attentiveness of heart, literally her heart was “leaning” toward the word ready to move. That’s the way we should be listening to this morning’s readings as well. That’s the way we should be listening to the Lord in prayer. That’s the way we should be listening to Pope Francis and our Bishops exercising the Magisterium, following in the footsteps of St. Paul (and St. Peter).
- There’s a beautiful way this scene ends that shows the greatness of her attentiveness. She who was so hospitable to the Word of God immediately grasped the way Christians are always supposed to be hospitable to those who announce the Word, and how those who announce the Word also must have attentive hearts. So after she and her whole household were baptized — immediately, we presume, there at the river, much like the faith of the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip the Deacon had baptized earlier in the Acts of the Apostles — she said to St. Paul and his companions, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Lydia’s home became the first Church in Europe, where she welcomed not only Paul, Timothy, Barnabas and Luke, but Christ who sent them, and the Father who had sent Christ. And St. Paul received this invitation as readily as Lydia had received the Word. The Word wasn’t just something that Lydia had listened to and accepted as an intellectual truth claim; it was something who changed her life, changed her home, changed everything. And she began to give witness to Christian hospitality together with the Holy Spirit immediately.
- I want to focus on one other aspect of this tandem proclamation of the Gospel together with and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus reiterates today that not everyone is going to receive it the way Lydia did in Philippi. There will be suffering on account of it, but this suffering likewise will be a far more powerful pulpit to show the way the Gospel changes lives, because it will give us an opportunity to show that it is a truth that we’re willing to suffer and die for, just like Christ suffered and died in sharing it with us. Jesus says, “I have told you this,” and here we can understand everything he had been telling us in Chapter 15 of St. John’s Gospel — about the Vine and the Branches, about his loving us and commanding us to love each other by laying down our lives for each other through union with Christ and his love, about being hated by all on account of his name, “so that you may not fall away. They will expel you from the synagogues; in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God. They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me.” Then he tells us, “I have told you this so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you.” I’ve always loved that last line. He told us these words not to frighten us but so that when we begin to suffer for the Gospel, we will remember that he had promised us that this would happen, and therefore, we should not be afraid. It would be an occasion for the Holy Spirit to give witness through and with us. It would be an occasion for us to grow in our communion with Jesus the Vine. It would be an occasion for us to experience even more profoundly his love and an opportunity for us to imitate and share in his love, even to the point of laying down our lives for him and with him for the salvation of others. Jesus would tell us in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20). Martyrdom, taken from the Greek word for witness, is indeed the supreme witness. And so we should welcome that word with attentive hearts just like Lydia had welcomed the Word proclaimed by St. Paul, and then we should invite the Crucified Christ, and the spiritually to-be-crucified and eventually physically beheaded Paul (Gal 2), and his to-be-martyred companions, into our home, into our families, into our lives, not hardening our hearts but responding to God’s grace to open them fully to the realities that will help us to experience the full truth of our baptism and its calling.
- These truths are shown to us in the life of the great bishop and doctor of the Church we celebrate today, Saint Athanasius. As a young boy born during the time of ferocious anti-Christian persecutions, he received the Gospel of the Lord with an open and attentive heart. He received it so well, and responded to the talents God gave him so efficaciously, that he went as a young deacon to assist the Patriarch of Alexandria (Egypt) at the Council of Nicaea in 325. This was the first Ecumenical Council, called 12 years after the legalization of Christianity, to deal with the teachings of an Egyptian priest Arius who was claiming that Jesus wasn’t God, that he wasn’t eternal, that he was just figuratively the Son of God and just a man, albeit the holiest man who had ever lived. The brilliant deacon Athanasius led the charge against Arius’ teaching, which he persuaded the Council to condemn, and it was largely out of his work that we have the Nicene Creed we proclaim every Sunday. But even though the Arians lost, their false theological ideas were not extinguished. And Athanasius learned how he himself would suffer for the faith from those who thought they were worshipping God. Over the course of time, Arians, those who didn’t believe Jesus was 100 percent God and 100 percent man, gained the upper hand in civil and Church politics. Various bishops and priests were Arians as were some emperors. For that reason, St. Athanasius was persecuted, multiply exiled, and had to suffer a great deal. Five different times he was banished from his see by command of the emperor. 17 years he spent in exile. But he remembered what Jesus had said and kept united to him through it all. He sought to unite his flock by his writings. And he continues to help us us to see Jesus and in him the Father through the great teachings he’s bequeathed to us.
- Today at Mass, we recall that Jesus said all of these words to us during the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed. Little did the apostles know that within hours these words would be getting fulfilled. At that moment, they didn’t really remember what he had told them because they had not been listening with adequately open and receptive hearts. But they’re all interceding for us so that we will learn from their mistakes and fully embrace what Jesus is saying. As he gives us his body and blood, the full manifestation of his love, the sign of his triumph even over the crucifixion and death, he summons us boldly to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to give the same witness. God so loved the world, St. John tells us, that he gave his only Son. And Jesus so loves the world that he gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might be able to go out into the world, in communion with him and his sacrificial love, and give our bodies, our souls, our homes, our lives to the work of salvation. If today you hear the Lord’s voice harden not your hearts, but receive God’s help to open your hearts to it with full attention! Today we say to the Lord, “If you consider us believers, come and stay within us!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 ACTS 16:11-15
and on the next day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi,
a leading city in that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.
We spent some time in that city.
On the sabbath we went outside the city gate along the river
where we thought there would be a place of prayer.
We sat and spoke with the women who had gathered there.
One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth,
from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened,
and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention
to what Paul was saying.
After she and her household had been baptized,
she offered us an invitation,
“If you consider me a believer in the Lord,
come and stay at my home,” and she prevailed on us.
Responsorial Psalm PS 149:1B-2, 3-4, 5-6A AND 9B
Sing to the LORD a new song
of praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in their maker,
let the children of Zion rejoice in their king.
R. The Lord takes delight in his people.
Let them praise his name in the festive dance,
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.
For the LORD loves his people,
and he adorns the lowly with victory.
R. The Lord takes delight in his people.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy upon their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats.
This is the glory of all his faithful. Alleluia.
R. The Lord takes delight in his people.
Alleluia JN 15:26B, 27A
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The Spirit of truth will testify to me, says the Lord,
and you also will testify.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel JN 15:26—16:4A
“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father,
he will testify to me.
And you also testify,
because you have been with me from the beginning.
They will expel you from the synagogues;
in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you
will think he is offering worship to God.
They will do this because they have not known either the Father or me.
I have told you this so that when their hour comes
you may remember that I told you.”