Summary: Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. But we can take courage from the examples of Jesus and St. Paul.
Tuesday of the 5th Week of Easter 2020
Today’s tale from the Acts of the Apostles needs some back-story for those who weren’t at Mass yesterday. The scene is Lystra, a village in southern Anatolia, sometime in the year 48, about 15 years after the Resurrection. It was part of the Roman province of Galatia, so it became part of the church addressed by Paul in the letter to the Galatians. They were an excitable people, as we shall see.
Paul was preaching there in Lystra and saw one of his listeners was unable to walk. Paul, sensing the man’s faith in Jesus, told him to stand up, and he was able to do that. Then Paul learned a hard lesson about understanding his audience before praying for a miracle. The largely pagan city organized a festival to the gods, and declared that Paul and Barnabas were apparitions of Hermes and Zeus. So here come the pagan priests with oxen and flowers, intending to offer sacrifice. Paul and Barnabas were horrified. They rent their garments and turned the crisis into an opportunity to preach the gospel.
Well, that was too much for the local synagogue. Along with colleagues from other parts of Anatolia, they accused Paul of violating Torah and then executed the sentence for a violation of the first commandment–death by stoning. St. Luke is very restrained in his account here. Let’s get real. Paul was stoned to death. In modern language, he showed no vital signs, and was dragged outside the city by his murderers. The disciples of Jesus were at a total loss, and gathered around, probably to pray and mourn, but Paul was raised from the dead. Some commentators speak here of what we now call a “near-death” experience. Paul later wrote to the Corinthians about being “caught up to the third heaven,” and the timing suggests that this was when he had that ecstatic state. So, yes, St. Paul experienced the same kind of resuscitation as the daughter of Jairus or Tabitha, who was raised from death by the prayer of St. Peter.
So what was Paul’s comment in the cities he visited over the next weeks? “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” That is a perfect message for us in this plague year. We’ve been pretty complacent over the past two or three years. The economy was roaring. Unemployment was at historically low levels. People were buying stuff and even saving money. I imagine the “prosperity gospel” preachers were raking in the donations. And then, in a matter of two months, everything turned around. We now have record unemployment, crashing markets and increasing levels of suicide and divorce. Are we surprised? Have we forgotten the part of the Salve Regina that reminds us daily that we live in a “valley of tears”? We certainly forgot that our mission in this world is to share the gospel of Christ, and that hasn’t changed just because we have a new disease to fight off.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel today how to adjust our minds and hearts to any crisis like the one we are in: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Did Jesus give us this confident admonition when everything was terrific and the donations were strong and the apostles were fat and happy? No. Jesus knew at that moment of the Last Supper that his enemies were gathering and that He would be dead in less than twenty-four hours. And He told those around Him that He knew it: “the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
So should we cower and ignore our responsibility to the Gospel? That’s not an option. We must at this terrible time continue to support the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. And this is something that all of us can do, whatever our circumstances. It’s clear that when people are in an economic vise, one of the first things many do is to cut back their support of charities. That word is problematic. Support of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy is not charity. It is a response to the virtue of justice, and its requirements. We must, at the minimum, not cut back our support of the Church and her mission. The needs of the poor and unborn and sick and elderly have not gone away. If anything, they have expanded in this emergency. So the basic support for the Church and her outreach must continue. If you did more because your income has been extraordinarily large, and that extra income has disappeared, well that can’t continue. But don’t cut back on what we owe God.