Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
April 23, 2011
“Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.” Matthew 28:5-6
Jesus told a parable in the Gospels that is well worth repeating as we celebrate Easter. There were two men, one a rich man and the other very poor (Luke 16:19ff). The poor man’s name was Lazarus, while the name of the rich man is not mentioned. The rich man feasted every day on fine foods, while Lazarus lay at his door begging. The rich man never gave Lazarus so much as a scrap from his fine dinners, but the day came when both men died. Lazarus went to his reward in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man went to the “netherworld” where he was “in torment” (Luke 16:23).
The rich man called out to Abraham for mercy. “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames” (Luke 16:24). Abraham explained that this was impossible to do for two reasons. First, there was a question of justice. Lazarus was receiving his reward, and the rich man was receiving his punishment. The second was a question of distance. The gap between the two of them was too great to cross. The rich man then asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers so that they would not end up in the same place. Abraham responded that they should listen to Moses and the prophets. The rich man, unable to take “no” for an answer, was insistent. Certainly if someone would rise from the dead, he said, then they would listen. And Jesus concludes the parable with these sobering words: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
This, my dear friends, is a lesson for Easter. Do we need to be persuaded? The final sentence of the parable confronts us with the reality of human hesitation—“neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). It is a characteristic mark of modern human beings that they require persuasion, as though an article of faith were a mathematical formula or a scientific experiment. Of what are we really afraid? What is the source of our fear that prevents an act of faith?
The Gospel of St. Matthew tells us that when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb on that first Easter morning, there was a great earthquake and an angel of the Lord descended and rolled back the stone from the tomb (Matthew 28:1-2). They were struck with fear. However, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5). They were fearful because this is the last thing they expected to see. The apostles who had heard the prophecies of the Resurrection had locked themselves in a room out of fear as well (John 20:19). But the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” The crucified is risen! Why with just a few simple words, “Do not be afraid,” is faith made possible? It is because the leap into faith requires a selfless act. Fear turns us inward on ourselves. Faith allows for all things to be possible.
The rich man and his brothers cannot believe “even if someone should rise from the dead” because they are too preoccupied with themselves. Simply expressed, the rich man and his brothers are self-absorbed. They are selfish and turned in on themselves. Their selfishness has blinded them. If they cannot even see the poor man lying at the door of their house, then they will be equally blind to the message of the prophets and to the Resurrection.
Mary Magdalene and the apostles are fearful, but their fear does not arise from their self-absorption. They have seen their dearest friend crucified. Their fear is based on what they think to be the victory of evil over goodness. However, there is to be no victory of evil over goodness. God is good. He wins the victory. Life overcomes death, a life that comes through Jesus Christ. It takes Jesus Christ to show us how this life is lived. It is a life rooted not in self-absorption, selfishness and egotism but in everything that contradicts it—love and truth.
In his homily for this year’s Chrism Mass, Pope Benedict XVI concluded by asking us in the West what had become of our faith. “Have not we—the people of God—become to a large extent a people of unbelief and distance from God? Is it perhaps the case that the West, the heartlands of Christianity, are tired of their faith, bored by their history and culture, and no longer wish to know faith in Jesus Christ? We have reason to cry out at this time to God: ‘Do not allow us to become a ‘non-people’!” We risk becoming a “non-people” because we are so self-absorbed and selfish that we cannot even believe “if someone should rise from the dead.” Of what are we afraid? What fear is so great that it makes us oblivious to a message of hope?
This reminds me of the story of the great English author Graham Greene. He once attended a Mass offered by the saintly Padre Pio. He was deeply moved, but when after the Mass was asked if he wished to meet Padre Pio, he refused. He said, “I don’t want to change my life by meeting a saint.” It took another great English writer to comment. C. S. Lewis wrote, “I am not sure, after all, whether one of the causes of our weak faith is not a secret wish that our faith should not be very strong. Is there some reservation in our mind? Some fear of what it might be like if our religion became quite real?”
What would happen if our faith became “quite real”? Isn’t this the real fear of the modern human? Faith that is “quite real” would require something of us. A faith that is “quite real” would challenge us to put the “self” aside and embrace the other. We could no longer take refuge in proofs, attempting to make of faith something it is not—a mathematical equation or scientific experiment—all because we are afraid. What if our faith were “quite real”? Then, we would have to forget ourselves. We would have to acknowledge the beggar at the door and, yes, believe in someone who had risen from the dead. It would change our lives. We would never be the same again.
Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we would come to know the Lord in the Eucharist, “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Like the doubting Thomas, we would stop requiring proofs. We would come to know Jesus in His Resurrection. We would forget ourselves and say, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
Pope Benedict XVI concluded with a prayer: “Do not allow us to become a ‘non-people’! Make us recognize you again!” (Chrism Mass Homily, 2011).