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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Real Life is Happening Now

Luke 24:13-16
That very day, the first day of the week,
two of Jesus’ disciples were going
to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus,
and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred.
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.


This week, the Church directs our attention to that famous story of the two disciples travelling to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. The great irony of this passage, of course, is that the disciples think they’re speaking to some random traveler and ― depressed after the crucifixion ― complain how their “Jesus of Nazareth” figure turned out merely to have been “a prophet, a man powerful in deed and speech,” but nothing more (Lk 24:19). The random traveler, of course, is Jesus himself, risen from the dead. 

We learn, too, that the disciples “were prevented from recognizing him” (Lk 24:16). The Greek is more startling when it’s translated literally. It says “their eyes were bound…” The greatest joy that they could possibly conceive is standing in front of them, conversing and even eating with them, and yet they do not see.
So “they stood still, looking sad” (Lk 24:17).

Many people have asked when reading this story: who exactly is preventing them from seeing? Is it God? Is it the disciples themselves? Who exactly is doing the binding? The Fathers of the Church said it was a little of both. Jesus did conceal himself, but the stubbornness of the disciples did not exactly give them eyes to see. [1] They had heard the women that morning claim that Jesus had risen, but we’re told that “their words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Fundamentally, it is the disciples who did the binding.

There is something oddly human about the disciples’ binding up their eyes in this moment. We are always binding up our eyes to the things in front of us. We tend to resist seeing that our lives are actually quite remarkable, that God visits us and walks alongside us. We do this all the time in our ordinary lives. We tend to resist, as these two disciples did, the idea that God visits us precisely in our present circumstances.

The French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote that humans always think “real life is happening elsewhere.” Here's one way to interpret him: we get trapped into imagining that we’ll only be able to start really living once we get someplace else. I had students, for instance, who were convinced their “real life” would only begin when they'd get their dream job, or when they’d marry their dream girl, or when they’d finally figure out who they really are. This is a lie. Real life is happening here and now. And, for whatever reason, just like the two
disciples, we prevent our eyes from seeing this. We have bound them shut in a thousand different ways. And it’s not just the students. We prefer to tell ourselves that our “real life” is not being lived because we aren’t in good health, for instance, or because our spouses or families are difficult. If I could just feel better ― we tell ourselves ― then I would really begin living. “Real life is happening elsewhere.” [2] 

The exact same thing is happening, I think, in the context of this pandemic. We get trapped into thinking we cannot really live our lives until this quarantine is over. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been tempted into thinking that my real life has been quarantined, put on lock down. I’ve been thinking that real life will start up again sometime down the road and that what we’re going through right now doesn’t really count. But this is the same lie. 

And the worst thing we can do is imagine that we cannot actually live a real or
full Christian life under these circumstances. The Mass has been taken away from us and so none of this ― we could suppose ― is our real Christian life. We cannot pray in the churches; we cannot go to confession. The real Christian life must be happening elsewhere, down the road in some unknown future.

This is a lie. Your real Christian life is happening now. And by this I do not just mean that now is the time to pray at home. Of course we can pray at home. But perhaps, too, this very unique time of quarantine has exposed even more about us? Perhaps it has exposed some of our weaknesses with more vividness? Perhaps it has sharpened some of the anxieties that were already so difficult to manage? Perhaps you’re mourning? Or angry about things you’re seeing in the world? Here’s the thing: that is the Christian life. Wrestling with weakness, managing anxiety, mourning, even showing indignation about injustices ― figuring out how to deal with these things, how to be merciful with yourself as you struggle through them, how to place them into God’s hands ― that is the Christian life. 

What has this very strange time shown you about yourself? And maybe the more important question to ask is this: am I doing anything that, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, is preventing me from recognizing Jesus in all this mess? Indeed, this
mess is the Christian life. Am I doing something that has bound my eyes from seeing it that way? Have I been telling myself that this time of quarantine doesn’t really count? that real life is happening elsewhere? that my Christian life can start again once this is through? Because all of that is a lie.

~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] Saint Gregory the Great: “[Jesus] refrained from manifesting to them a form which they might recognize, doing outwardly in the eyes of the body what was done by themselves inwardly in the eyes of the mind. For they in themselves inwardly both loved and doubted. Therefore to them as they talked of Him He exhibited His presence, but as they doubted of Him, He concealed the appearance which they knew” (Homilae XL in Evangelia, #23).

[2] See Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace (New York: St. Paul’s, 2002), 42.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Sweaty and Dirty Fingers of Jesus - For Divine Mercy Sunday

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II dubbed the Sunday in the Octave of Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday.” The feast is named on account of the visions of Jesus that were given to his fellow Pole, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. Fourteen times, St. Faustina says, Jesus requested a feast of Divine Mercy on precisely the Sunday following Easter. Some sixty years after Faustina’s death, the Pope instituted the feast.

But what exactly is the Church celebrating when it commemorates divine mercy? Are we sure we know what forgiveness and mercy are? In the creed, we mention “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” We ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We go to confession. But the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” have become so common we’re sometimes unable to attend to their essential meaning. They’ve become  Christian platitudes.

When we hear the word “mercy,” we assume it means something like the psychological decision to “forgive and forget.” It’s something that takes place in the mind. Indeed, the person doesn’t need to be standing in front of you in order for you to forgive them. But how useful is that conception, really?

A few weeks ago, when Pope Francis asked the world to join him in prayer for a world suffering under the grip of this new coronavirus, he directed our attention to the image of Jesus sleeping in the storm-tossed boat (Mk 4). “Do you not care if we die?” the Apostles yelled at him. It is a powerful scene. It is a scene that is often invoked in times of crisis, a powerful reminder of the peace Jesus offers: “Why are you afraid?” 

But we often neglect to reflect on what Jesus and the apostles were actually up to that night. Why were they in the boat in the first place? Jesus had the apostles travel with him across the lake where, after this stormy night, they reached the opposite shore in the morning. Upon arriving, he delivered a man there from a legion of devils (Mk 5:1-20). But then, oddly enough, Jesus and the apostles got straight back into the boat and returned to the side of the lake they’d come from (Mk 5:21). 

Now Jesus could have healed this man from a distance. He healed the centurion’s servant that way ― “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (Lk 7:6). What this means, then, is that the entire purpose of that terrifying night time voyage was to encounter this single man in need of God’s healing presence. [1]

And we should notice that, as Jesus was climbing back into the boat to return to the other side, he turned to the man and said one last thing: “Go home to your friends. Tell them how much the Lord has done for you. Tell them how he has had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19).

“Tell them how he has had mercy on you.” We should allow Jesus’ words and actions here to rewrite our conception of mercy a bit. Mercy is not something that only takes place in our heads, something we can do without getting dirty. Jesus put the apostles through a treacherous journey in order to be physically present with this man, in order to have mercy on him. More than that, though, mercy does not necessarily have to be about forgiving someone who has wronged you. It can also be about drawing near to someone who has been beaten by the world, someone who is “living near the tombs,” like this Gerasene demoniac that Jesus healed (Mk 5:3). To draw near to them, to enter into their pain and accompany them toward someplace new is an act of profound mercy, even if no sin has been present.

We have seen that the entire purpose of the apostles' stormy voyage was to bring the merciful and healing presence of God to just one man. But this is just a microcosm of Jesus’ whole life. Indeed, the entire project of Jesus’ terrifying earthly “voyage” – his Incarnation – is to encounter you with his merciful presence, and to encounter you in person. The Incarnation is God’s grand insistence that mercy is best delivered not from afar, but up close. The Incarnation is God’s grand affirmation that your trauma is worth visiting in person, that your sins ought to be healed by his presence and not simply by declaring them forgiven and forgotten.

It is Divine Mercy Sunday. We should remember that God could have had mercy upon us in any number of ways. A teacher of mine liked to say that God could have declared us forgiven via a loudspeaker from the moon: “I’m OK; you’re OK!” But that’s not who God is.

The great affirmation of Christianity is that “God has visited his people” (Lk 7:16). And God has visited them in order to hear us confess sins with his own ears, to cast out our demons with his own mouth, to look at our pain with his own eyes, to wipe away our tears with his own fingers. And he has done this, not metaphorically, but literally ― with sweaty and dirty fingers. The living God has run his fingers through your misery. Indeed, it is in the sweaty and dirty fingers of Jesus that one begins to see what it means to truly forgive someone. It is in the sweaty and dirty fingers of Jesus that one gets a glimpse of the nature of the God who would not heal us without also holding us. And it is in the sweaty and dirty fingers of Jesus that one can begin to see most vividly the true nature of mercy. 

[1] See F.X. Durrwell, In the Redeeming Christ, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), 127-128.

~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

On the Dying and the Rising of Jesus - For Easter

A few weeks ago, an Italian filmmaker named Olmo Parenti released a 3-minute clip from inside the COVID-19 ward at Milan’s Polyclinic. [1] The images are painful and disheartening. They are images of death. What struck and surprised me, though, was how quiet the ward was. We’ve been using the language of war. Government officials keep comparing the virus to an “enemy.” We talk about health personnel being on the “front lines.” I was thinking the hospitals might be chaotic and loud, like the shouting in a field hospital in battle where nurses and doctors frantically try to save the wounded. But Parenti’s film captures mostly just the sad and tired eyes, the faint gasping, the soft hum of machines. It’s all very quiet.

Death is quiet. To die is to be brought to a terrible quiet. It is to be silenced. The death of Jesus would have been quiet. We are told that “there was darkness over the whole land” (Lk 23:44). Surely there was also quiet. The gospels mention an earthquake at Jesus’ final breath (Mt 27:51). It does not say the crowds screamed and panicked. After seeing Jesus die, we read that “the multitudes … returned home beating their breasts.” His mother stood by and mourned. No one records her saying a word (Lk 23:48-49).

Out of New York, where the COVID-19 outbreak remains most acute, we are now seeing images of the makeshift morgues. They are refrigerated trailers lined with plywood shelving. Each day, hundreds of corpses are labelled, wrapped in white blankets, and then piled upon a wooden shelf. Hundreds. Each day. There is nothing more the hospitals are able to do. For the time being, it’s the most dignified they’re able to make it. With each body, the trailers are closed up, locked, and sealed. This is their makeshift tomb. This is their terrible silence. 

It’s the sheer ocean of these deaths, nearly 7,000 each day across the world right now. It’s the piling of them onto plywood shelving. It’s death telling us to be quiet, that we’re nothing. Death tells us, as these poor corpses are shuffled around in trailers, that the names on the shelf will eventually be scratched out and replaced with our own. It tells me that I myself am replaceable, that I’m unnecessary, that I’m insignificant. It tells me that the things I do in this world are unimportant, that anything I might have to say will ultimately be brought to silence anyway. It tells me that ultimately death and plywood are what’s waiting for me. That even my death will not stand out, that they’ll just lift me onto a wooden sheet and go get the next one. That no Joseph of Arimathea will be able to collect me, should he even remember.

The death of Jesus ― his burial in the tomb ― tells us all the same things. Everyone was so excited about this man. He set the world on fire with his preaching, with his miracles, with his acts of tenderness and mercy. “All the crowds, when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and ran up to him and greeted him” (Mk 9:15). But now he was dead. Silenced. He’s been brought to nothing. Just like you and I will be dead. He was sealed in a tomb. 

It was devastating for his followers. In the days after Jesus’ death, we read about how the disciples had earlier “hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel,” but now they just “stood still, looking sad” (Lk 24). Even when Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb and found it empty, she did not rejoice, but wept: “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know what they’ve done with him” (Jn 20:13).

Death conquers with an unbearable harshness. But this is precisely why Easter, in a sense, is the only thing that actually matters. As Saint Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Cor 15:17). As Mary Magdalene stood beside the empty tomb, she noticed a man standing behind her. She “thought he was the gardener.” “Tell me where you have laid him,” she shouted amidst the tears, “and I will take him away!” (Jn 20:15)

The man simply spoke her name, “Mary.” 

"Rabbi!" (Jn 20:16)

Our death will be the feast day of our human weakness and our fragility. It will be the feast day of our smallness. But our death will also be the feast day of our union with Jesus. [2] Our rabbi, our teacher, our God has gone before us into the nightmare of death. And if the living God can go into that abyss and then come out of it to speak our names then it means that we are not insignificant, that each of our names matters. Easter means our own death, our own life ― even if it is hidden and undignified ― is seen and measured. It means that our death is not the end of our significance, but the climax of our significance. Our death is the moment where we are most like Jesus ― the Jesus whose death was not the end, but the beginning.



[1] Olmo Parenti’s disturbing short film, “One Meter Away,” can be seen here.
[2] F.X. Durrwell said something similar in the 60s, but about humility. See In the Redeeming Christ (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), 234.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived

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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Death, Holy Week, and COVID-19

It is Holy Week, the most important week of the liturgical year, the week we memorialize Jesus’ culminating paschal days. Granted, there are joyful moments ― Jesus’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, for instance. But the whole thing is overshadowed by the day St. Ambrose simply called “the Day of Bitterness,” the day Jesus was murdered. Holy Week is a grave week. The ancients sometimes called it “Painful Week,” and not just because they ramped up their fasting.

This is, as you know, an especially odd Holy Week. We won’t be together for it. And yet, there is a sense in which the gravity of Holy Week is being brought home far more poignantly than usual on account of this situation. Our attention is being drawn to the thousands of dying COVID-19 victims. Right now, we are being bombarded with reminders of human fragility and death. This is very Lenten. We are meant, during this season, to meditate upon human mortality, including our own. Indeed, the news cycle has been a constant reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” (Gen 3:19).

There is something natural, right, and good about mourning amidst this present crisis. We should be grieving the evil of this pandemic. Indeed, it would be wrong to be unmoved: “Woe to those who rest easy in Zion… who are not grieved over the ruin of [their brethren]” (Amos 6:1, 6). But Holy Week invites us to do more than just grieve for the victims of COVID-19. Indeed, if our vision is confined to the pain of this current crisis, we can get trapped inside the logic of anxiety and despair. In the coming weeks, as the virus begins to peak, we are going to see staggering numbers of deaths in our country. But the Church’s liturgy this Holy Week invites us to place our vision not just upon the agony of the world. It invites us also to place our vision upon the agony of Jesus. That is the point of Holy Week. Indeed, if you keep your eyes fixed only upon the news and never upon Jesus, how can you help but descend into anything but hopelessness? [1]

The interesting thing about Christianity is that, each year, we turn during Holy Week to meditate upon the mysteries of the Cross not because we want to lock ourselves into a logic of pain over the death of Jesus. On the contrary, Christians meditate upon Jesus’ agony and death because we know that his death is not the last word. And that is precisely the reason why we should take up Holy Week’s invitation to meditate upon Jesus’ agony and death in this season of COVID-19.

These are scary times. These are times that remind us that we too will someday die. Lent is meant to remind us of the same thing. The scenes of the outside world ― horrible scenes of pain and loss ― place before our eyes not only the pains of COVID-19 patients, but they can lead us also to the gasping pain of Jesus on that “Day of Bitterness.” If we keep the death of Jesus before us, then we’ll remember that his death was not the last word. And we’ll know, too, that all these COVID-19 deaths are not the last word. And the lost jobs, and the soaring domestic violence, and the mounting sense of social isolation ― if we keep the death of Jesus before us, we’ll remember that all of this decay and failure and woe is never the last word. And all these “Fridays” will somehow turn “Good,” even if that’s not until the next world. Let’s not forget to place the suffering Jesus before our eyes this week. He is the only way any of the victims have hope. He is the only way you and I have hope.


[1] Hans Boersma made this point in First Things this week. “Meditation on COVID-19,” April 2, 2020, available here.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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