Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Unique Easter Encounters of Saints Peter, Thomas & Paul


In these highest of holy days, as we began our Easter Season journey with Easter Week, we highlight the eight-day Octave of Easter with the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday. On that day we give thanks for both the mercy and compassion of the Lord and for the greatest of gifts – Christ’s sacrifice on the cross redeeming all sinners for all time. The day also tests our faith and challenges us to examine our own willingness to have the generosity to offer mercy and compassion to others. Over the years, the various traditions and biblical stories of the first Easter demonstrate that there are many forms of encounter with the Light and Truth of the Easter mysteries. Each one of us experiences our own unique Easter Encounter with the Lord – some more gentle, some more traumatic, and some downright earth-shaking! The saints offer examples for us to contemplate.

Saint Peter Seeks Out Truth

In his Easter Vigil homily, the Holy Father emphasized the need to emerge from the sombre disillusionment of the Crucifixion and actively go out to seek truth and life in Christ. Last week, Pope Francis spoke of Peter, who did just that. Peter did not remain in hiding, overwhelmed with fear, disillusionment, and remorse at having denied the Master. He rose and went to the tomb, seeking the truth – that is, seeking encounter with Christ, in spite of his doubts and the darkness which surrounded him and the other disciples. The light of God was able to enter his heart because he made room for hope by not giving in to sadness and darkness.

Peter reminds us that we, too, in spite of our weaknesses and shortcomings, must humbly emerge from the darkness of doubt and self-recrimination for our lack of personal perfection to the light of encounter with the Lord. However, if we do not have the understanding, strength or courage to do so, we are not left on our own. The Lord will reach out to us. We see this in the iconic story of Saint Thomas, a saint who is inextricably associated with the Easter story.


Assuring Saint Thomas

Prior to the naming of the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, it was often called, "Saint Thomas Sunday". This was especially true in the Eastern Churches. The reason, of course, for the reference is the centrality of the story of Saint Thomas, popularly known as “Doubting Thomas”. In John 20:27, we see the familiar story of Saint Thomas’ faith struggle. Because he was not present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, he had great difficulty believing that the story they told was anything more than wishful thinking in the face of the perceived terrible defeat of the Crucifixion. Jesus responded to him with the contact and encouragement Thomas needed. Upon seeing and speaking with the Lord, Thomas’ faith is bolstered and he exclaims the conviction: “My Lord and my God!”  In this story, we, too, receive personal assurance and gentle encouragement with Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but who have believed.”


Saint Paul’s Dramatic Call


In a sense, was not Saint Paul’s dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus an Easter Encounter as well? However, it was quite the opposite extreme from a gentle encounter. While he did not seek the encounter, Paul was strikingly humbled as he faced the Risen Lord. The intensity of the Light temporarily blinded him by contrasting the greatness of the Light with the depth of his spiritual darkness and intransigence. The effect of that Easter Encounter was dramatic and instantaneous. Paul, in spite of his shock and bewilderment, immediately recognized that he was in an encounter with the Risen Lord. He even addresses Jesus as, “My Lord” and demonstrates humble obedience to the instructions of Jesus.

The symbolic “language” of the icon pictured here shows the Pauline encounter between earth-bound Paul and the Risen Christ who reaches out to him through a window from heaven. The entire scene is bathed in the golden heavenly Light of the Redeemer. After the encounter, Paul is pictured (the inset on the right) as being led like a child by the hand to begin his journey of faith.

This humble stance of being taken by the hand is described in relation to the current believer in the Holy Father’s Easter Vigil homily, when he urged the faithful to allow the Lord to lead us by the hand and “take us out of our anguish.” The Holy Father urges us not to allow a lack of hope to imprison us within ourselves. Allow the Light of the Risen Lord to shine upon our problems! The Holy Father even spoke of “evangelizing” those problems by allowing the Light of Easter to generate Christian Hope in our hearts so that we will know that the Lord is always by our side and will never fail us.

We can only have such hope if we come out of ourselves – reject selfishness – and open our hearts to the joy, generosity and courage that are generated by the Easter Light. Mother Thecla was no stranger to this experience of the Risen Lord. In a 1931 invocation, she expressed how the Easter experience opens the heart to the Pauline ideal of allowing Christ to live fully in and through each one of us. When will I be able to say that now it is no longer I but the Lord who lives in me?

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“That my thoughts and my affections become more humble and united to those of Jesus. Unite myself to him; let myself be transformed into Him.”

--Mother Thecla Merlo




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Marie-Louise Handal has been a Pauline Cooperator for the past decade. She holds a Master’s Degree from St. Joseph's Seminary, an M.S. in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and is a candidate for the S.T.L. from the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. She also holds a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the New York Archdiocesan Center for Spiritual Development. Her professional work experience encompasses 20 years in international banking and finance, followed by a second career as a mathematics educator in Manhattan. Marie-Louise is a native New Yorker, born and raised in New York City.

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