Updated: Aug 5
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Within the gospels, we see a parallel between Christ the head, and his body, the Church. Throughout his earthly ministry, as Jesus had become more renowned throughout Galilee and Judaea, his body of followers likewise increased. And as the body of Jesus had been buried, so also the body of disciples were buried: entombed, so to speak, behind locked doors. And so, when Christ was raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit; that same Spirit must now raise the apostles to live beyond that sealed room and the tomb of their fears.
That’s what happens in our gospel scene today from the very first Easter day, as Jesus literally breathes new life into his disciples. “Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Sin has the tragic consequence of isolating a person. In committing sin, a person ruptures his or her relationship with God, with their fellow human beings, and with the world itself. That’s why banishment can seem a fitting punishment for certain crimes against society, whether by imprisonment or exile. Banishment seems like a mere ratification of what a transgressor against society has already chosen for himself.
In more ancient days, exile could be seen as a punishment worse than death. A person could die honorably for their country, which is what we celebrate tomorrow—Memorial Day—but the exile had neither honor nor country. That also meant that the exile was also cut off from God, since religion was a communal expression of faith, and the exile had been amputated from the community.
That’s why in his ministry when Jesus so often healed physical ailment, he also forgave sin and advocated for a person’s return to society at the same time. Those three go together. That’s the mentality that’s in our gospel scene. The disciples had sinned by abandoning our Lord. And consequently, they were exiled in a certain sense. They no longer walked in the way they had before, but were now stagnating behind locked doors.
And so, reconciliation with our Lord is likewise inseparable from reunion with him. Jesus going to them in their isolation is essential to forgiving them of their sin. That was the message of last Sunday:
Jesus entered into the exile of many, one encounter at a time, and led them to a place of communion: from the woman at the well to the woman who wept at his feet, from the leper to the Syrophoenician woman, from the house of Matthew the tax collector to the home of Zacchaeus, from the demoniac to the paralytic, and so on.
This continues even into our gospel scene. Jesus goes to his own disciples in their isolation, forgiving their sins by through his real presence, recreating them by the Holy Spirit, and then sending them back into the world. Does that dynamic sound familiar? That’s what in the sacrament of Confession.
A few years ago, when virtual Mass was promoted in many places, some people wondered about the possibility of making a virtual Confession. Can priests give sacramental absolution over the phone or virtually?
In short, the answer is: no. Jesus came to us in person. The second Person of the Holy Trinity became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be with us. After the resurrection, Jesus came to his apostles in the flesh. He wished them peace and breathed on them the Holy Spirit and forgave them their sins in person.
And so, we must do the same. “No servant is greater than his master,” says the Lord. When a priest forgives or absolves the sins of a penitent through the power of the Holy Spirit, when he imparts of the peace of Christ to him or her, that must happen in person.
That’s the entire theology of our liturgy, which we also spoke about just last Sunday: the exitus and reditus—the exile and return. God came down from heaven for our sake and our salvation, he united himself fully to the human race, and then he returned to heaven, with his humanity forever fused to the divine.
As he did in his earthly ministry, so also in the Mass, God descends from heaven to be with us: to heal us, gather us together, and to unite us to himself in the Eucharist; and then he ascends back to the Father, and we ascend with him sacramentally.
This also happens in Confession: The Holy Spirit descends from heaven and heals the penitent, raises the penitent back up again from their knees, and then that person goes back out again as a son or daughter in Christ.
But that movement isn’t only liturgical. It’s how we ought to our lives—after the example of our God. Today, we celebrate the solemnity of Pentecost: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, into the world. That divine grace that was present when the gospel was first proclaimed was at work in the hearts of those who believed. They went out into the world in person. That is our summons as well. We each are called to go out in person to proclaim the gospel.
What is not personal today and yet so common? “Social” media. It’s ironic, since it’s call "social" media, and yet it can cause more division than unity. We know how easy it can be to withhold charity behind the screen of apparent anonymity. Just like road rage, that distance that social media creates can bring uncharity to a whole new level. Even among people we know, that temporal distance between connections—the time between posts and responses—can be enough of a wall from behind of which we can too easily throw stones.
There is a place for evangelization virtually and digitally. Some people seem to have a charism for that, and we know them by their fruits. Think of venerable Fulton Sheen, who is still impactful today many years after his passing. Think of Bishop Robert Barron who continues to win over many converts. Think of Father Mike Schmitz who influences people of every age, especially young people. There are others.
But not everyone has this calling, myself included. But we are all called to go out in person. However much you and I may fancy ourselves as digital evangelists, our virtual ministry is no substitute for our real presence. God did not come to us virtually. He came to us in the flesh. This is not a virtual Mass. The real presence of Jesus will be with us upon this altar. In Confession, the forgiveness of sin must happen in person.
Likewise, if you and I want to bring peace into the world, it won’t happen through the keyboard and monitor. It must happen in person. There’s no substitute. Today, we’re challenged to go out to our actual neighborhoods, communities, schools, workplaces, and so on, to seek out the most isolated persons in society who may themselves be stagnating behind locks doors of their own. We’re called to reach out to them and draw them into communion, ultimately, God willing, to the Communion we receive from this altar. May God give us the grace and courage to do so.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, c. 1601-1602, by Caravaggio, oil on canvas, Sanssouci Picture Gallery [Public domain]