Lectionary #44, Gospel: John 20: 19–31
“The doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.” We probably read these words with a note of surprise or embarrassment, since fear of other people, especially the Jewish people from whom our Lord himself came, is something that ought to be foreign to Christian believers. In the historical context of John’s gospel it is understandable, though not excusable, that a degree of animosity or fear existed between early Christians and their Jewish friends and family members. Tragically this fear extended through much of Christian history and brought great suffering to many: let us keep this painful thought in mind, returning to it later, when it can be seen in the light of the resurrection of Christ we celebrate in this Easter season.
Easter is the time when we renew our baptismal promises, and thus it is a perfect opportunity to reconsider the place of the Holy Spirit in our faith and our lives. In the gospel Jesus breathes upon the fearful disciples gathered in the upper room and says to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Together with Matthew 16:18-19, where Peter is given the promise of the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” this text has long been referred to by the Church in recognizing its sharing in Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and thus to reconcile people to God and to each other.
But there is truly a message for all of us here, both ordained ministers and lay faithful: all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the freedom in Christ that comes from it. This liberating presence of the Spirit is deepened in confirmation and is furthered every time we partake of the Eucharist, for it was at the first Eucharist that Jesus revealed and promised the Paraclete to us (John 15:26; 16:7).
All of us then, even if not in the sacramental terms associated with ordination, are called to be people of the Spirit by imitating the first disciples who so dramatically were given the Spirit in the upper room. This means, I suggest, that we resolve this Easter to forgive freely as Christ has forgiven us, thereby meriting the accolade that Jesus offers to those who “those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).
Everyone has experienced and felt the power of forgiveness, renewal, and a new beginning, and so everyone understands the liberating relief of reconciliation. Forgiveness frees us not only from sin, but from the many fears that accompany sin and fester within us on account of it. The disciples present with our Lord on that first Easter Sunday were filled with fear, and in many different ways we are pursued by our fears as well.
Embracing the Holy Spirit given to the Church by Christ on the first Easter Sunday, we can be restored to the freedom of the Spirit ourselves and can contribute to the refreshment and renewal in the Spirit of our brothers and sisters who are beset, each in their own way, by fear. Humbly receiving forgiveness and offering forgiveness to others, even when they do not ask it of us, is the first step toward doing this, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit bestown on us in baptism carries us to this end.
Returning to “the fear of the Jews” mentioned above, fear of anyone, particularly of those so close to God and close to us, can ultimately be overcome by only by authentic reconciliation. Let it be the task of every Catholic in this Easter season to enter freely into the process of reconciliation, moving beyond fear in the freedom that Christ won for us, and thus showing the world a peace so desired even by highly secularized people today that it will serve as a powerful witness to the credibility of Christianity, and may bring new souls to “see…and believe”.
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.