April 26, 2020
Third Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35
Like everyone else on the planet I’ve been spending a lot of time on Zoom. I teach my classes on Zoom, I meet my friends on Zoom, I see my kids on Zoom. I spend so much time on Zoom that when I look out the window I expect to see faces in the sky, laid out in a grid.
I miss touching people. I miss smelling people. I miss the bodies of people.
I miss the the Body of Christ–the knowing of Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Not the seeing of an image of the bread. Not the live-streaming of the bread. The touching of it. The swallowing of it.
But in another way our virtual lives this last month might be teaching us something about the Risen Christ. They might be giving us insight into the Resurrection, and the Incarnation.
Our Lord isn’t virtual. Our Lord isn’t just a shadowy square. He’s real, completely real.
But he is real in a radically new way.
Abbot Jeremy talked about this in one of a lovely series of YouTube videos posted on the Mount Angel website during the Octave of Easter. Again, he was broadcasting. He was on a screen. But he was talking about Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John mistaking Jesus for the gardener—and how Jesus tells her not to touch him when she finally recognizes who he really is:
It’s as though [Abbot Jeremy says] they, too, were taking the COVID-19 precautions that prevent human touch today! But that is not what his words mean. He is telling her that they are now in a whole new realm. It’s not like it was before—it’s more. Jesus is no longer one among many material things. His resurrected life is now invading us and the universe, entirely!
My heart burned when I heard this. It leapt. It’s true that Jesus allows Thomas to touch his wounds. It’s true that Jesus eats in the presence of his disciples. But he can also come through walls, and no one seems to recognize him at first, and he’s never present for very long. Soon he vanishes, he disappears, he isn’t even a face on a screen, and that’s because he is now more fully and completely present in the world than he ever was in his one, historical body. He is no longer obvious. He is everywhere:
Dear brothers and sisters [Abbot Jeremy continues], our Lord is living his risen life within us. He is the hidden living force in everything alive. He is the secret life within every person who has ever lived, is alive today, and who ever will live.
Or as the first Letter of Peter puts it,
He was known before the foundation of the world, but revealed in the final time for you, who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
Maybe this is what we are being called to see in our present crisis: Christ in the trees and Christ in the rain and Christ in the people we love, however far away they are.
On Holy Saturday a dear friend of mine died, Father Peter Ely, a Jesuit and one of my teachers at Gonzaga years ago. He walked out into the garden of the Jesuit residence at Seattle University, where he had gone on to teach and serve for many years, and died, of a heart attack. When they found him, they thought at first that he was just lying down on his side.
Peter was the one I went to when I realized that I wanted to become Catholic, and I’ll never forget his kindness and his generosity as he sat with me in the living room of the old house we were renting near campus and talked with me every week about the history and the teachings of the Church. I’ll never forget my first communion, at a home mass where Peter presided, in that same old house, on Pentecost, 1977—he was the first person ever to give me the Body of Christ. Later he baptized two of our three children. He was the sort of friend you don’t think about very often but who is very, very important—the sort of friend you don’t really recognize, not fully, until he vanishes—vanishes into a new and fuller life—as Father Sundborg, the president of Seattle University, put it at Peter’s memorial, where the Emmaus story was also the gospel reading.
The memorial, too, was online, on Zoom—Peter had just learned how to use it himself, for a class he was teaching this spring—but it was very moving.
In the beginning there was a picture of the spot in the garden where he fell. There were already flowers and cards and a cross there, a kind of shrine. And there was also a picture of the last thing Peter may have seen in this life, given the way he was facing: a cherry tree, in blossom, and the sky behind it.
Various people gave testimonials to Peter’s friendship and teaching and influence, one after the other, lay people and priests, and in all of them there was this strong Ignatian conviction that Christ is present everywhere in the world, that as the Jesuit scientist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin once put it, “everything that happens is adorable.”
And near the end of the memorial, one of the older Jesuits read a poem by another Jesuit writer, the nineteenth century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s called “When Kingfishers Catch Fire,” and when I heard this old friend of Peter’s read the last few lines, in his strong, gravelly voice, the tears came into my eyes:
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
We couldn’t gather around a coffee table in an old house near campus, we couldn’t stand together in a great cathedral, we couldn’t share in the breaking of the bread, the bread that Peter broke again and again in his fifty years as a priest.
But Christ was present in that moment. I know he was. All our hearts were burning.
Even now, in the pandemic, even now, Christ plays in ten thousand places. He is lovely in limbs and in the features of our faces, even in the faces we can only see on a screen, as he was lovely in Peter’s face, and still is, as he is lovely in yours, and in mine, and in all the faces in the world, now and forevermore.