Dear Beloved in Christ
This past November, Pope Benedict XVI released his second encyclical entitled “Spe Salvi.” This encyclical, based on hope, has guided my reflections for much of lent and I was able to share some of the substance of that reflection (here) with the people of Sts. Peter and Paul in Gilbert during the Holy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies. I couldn’t help but notice a rather obvious connection with today’s readings and this much needed encyclical on hope. Both today’s gospel and first reading invite us into an encounter with the living Christ, the one who is truly risen from death, belief in God isn’t merely following a set of prescribed rules and procedures or memorizing a book but is closer to introducing ourselves and getting to know a person. Being without Christ and, therefore, without hope, is the biblical statement of being without God. So, as Christians, it is our responsibility to reach out to others in hope so that they may have an eternal reward. This is what gives our present meaning, after all; knowing that our future is certain as a positive reality. This is why the gospel is not just an intellectual exercise but something that should move our heart. Pope Benedict uses an expression to describe what this type of faith should involve. He says the gospel is “not only ‘informative’ but ‘performative.’ “That means: the gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life changing.”
The point the Pope is making is very significant. He is saying that, even though salvation was done solely through the activity of Jesus Christ on the cross, that salvation is dead if it does not move us from being informative to performative, from passive followers to active witnesses. It needs to affect us each day of our lives and the way this evangelical hope affects us is by assuring us of redemption in coming to know God through Christ and compelling us to reach out to others to help them come to know him as well.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to quote, in full, the Pope’s description of the life of someone who found hope in the midst of what was, otherwise, a horrific life.
“St. Josephine Bakhita was canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869 in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant, who eventually returned to Italy. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best, considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father's right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards…she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.
Josephine Bakhita’s story is an excellent example of Christian hope. Christian hope is not based upon creating the city of God in our time, regardless of what some song silly says in our hymnal, we can’t build the city of God to turn our tears into dancing. This world still feels the effects of the sin of our first parents and the promises it offers to us are always illusory. Houses collapse. Gunmen wander into schools and residence halls and kill people. Madmen advocate death to zealous followers. On this Easter Sunday, we, Christians, feel hope in our encounter with Christ who, alone, can deliver us from the frustrations we feel in this world to the greatness of eternal life. And may this encounter that we feel most acutely at this mass lead us to go forth and spread the gospel of hope. Alleluia! Alleluia.