The Catholic Defender: A Tale of Two Communities
Charles Dickens gave us the classic work, "A Tale of Two Cities", which begins with the famous line, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times". The readings today might be called, "A tale of Two Communities", for they are about two faith communities that existed in the first century. The readings shed light on our own community, or communities, as we enter the twenty-first century.
The community of faith described in the Acts of the Apostles still basks in the glow of the resurrection. The memory of Christ is fresh; Jesus seems almost present. The Apostles are alive and brimming over with faith. It is an ideal Christian community, a community in awe of the signs and wonders performed by the Apostles, a community, whose numbers were increasing daily.
Consider if there had been a media in the earliest years of the Church. Could you imagine some of the headlines that the Jerusalem Post in 49 A.D. might have read? Bishops oppose each other on Circumcision? Paul challenges Papal Authority? Crowds challenging the Apostles? The Apostles have no time for the poor? Things have not changed that much in the 21st Century with all the media today.
John's Gospel was written from a much different community. Forty or fifty years have passed since the resurrection. The memory of Christ has begun to fade. Many of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection have died. The signs and wonders have diminished. John's community is in reality two communities, those who knew the Lord first hand and those who came to believe in the Lord through the testimony of others.
It is for this second community that John tells the famous story of Thomas, the skeptical Apostle who needed physical proof of the resurrection. And so St. John tells of how Jesus appeared to Thomas, how he invited Thomas to touch his resurrected body, and how Thomas, without having touched the Lord, confesses, "My Lord and my God". Then Jesus speaks to Thomas in words that were meant for John's faith community and for us. Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed".
These words are meant for us here in our own faith community because, if we think about it, we are much like John's community. We have in our community today, people whose faith is alive and well; they do not need physical proof in order to believe. We have people whose faith is so strong that the walls of this church could fall down around them and their faith would be unaffected. They would simply pick up the pieces and start rebuilding. We have people who have not seen the Lord and yet have believed all their lives, or even have come back to the faith strong and alive today.
But if we think back to the Easter weekend, we have to admit that there is a second community in every parish, those whose faith is not as strong, those whose faith is fleeting, always on the verge of being submerged in doubt, often overwhelmed by the skepticism of a secular, agnostic world. We saw the members of this second community standing along the sides of the church last weekend or, if they were lucky, crowding into some of our accustomed places in the pews. They are the ones who are not blessed, because they have not seen Christ and find it hard to believe. Fallen-away Catholics, what we jokingly refer to as Christmas and Easter Catholics, are the second largest religious denomination in the United States-surpassed only by the community of believing Catholics.
The Question for our faith community at the start of the twenty-first century is no different from the question faced by Christians at the end of the first century, how do we keep faith alive? How do we believe in the Lord when we have not seen him? How do we become one community rather than two?
I would like to see some of the great miracles shared among the Church to enhance faith in the Eucharist.
The issue is a complex one and I do not mean to suggest simple solutions. But I believe a good answer is suggested in the first reading from Acts. What were the early Christians doing to experience Christ as still present among them? The reading from Acts says, "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers". In other words, the early Christians experienced Christ's presence in the liturgy, in the social hour after Mass and regular prayer.
We experience Christ in many ways, in our care for the poor, in our private devotions, in the way we live our daily lives, but the principle way we experience the presence of Christ is through the liturgy.
The Catholic Church teaches that Christ is present in five ways in the liturgy. Christ is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the celebrant but especially in the body and blood of Christ; Christ is present in the sacraments when a minister baptizes, it is really Christ who baptizes; Christ is present when the word is proclaimed, it is Christ himself who speaks, when the holy scriptures are read in Church; and finally, Christ is present when the Church prays and sings.
Christ is present when the assembly gathers to pray and sing. When we come together to pray and sing, we do not do so as individuals; we pray and sing as one body. Christ assures us he is present when we gather in his name. But we can do things to enhance the awareness of Christ's presence, especially for those whose faith is weak. We may not always be able to sing like angels, but our awareness of Christ's presence is enhanced when we know the people around us. We pray more fully as one body when we know the needs of the people around us. But how can we know each other's needs if we do not know each other's names?
Why not do something today to enhance the awareness of Christ's presence in our assembly as we pray and sing. After the final song, why not introduce yourself to someone you don't know. Or better yet, try something really radical, invite someone you don't know to have coffee with you after Mass.
Sometimes we can be so in awe of the mystery of Christ's presence in the Eucharist that we forget the mystery of Christ's presence in ordinary things, such as sharing coffee and a doughnut. We need to be reminded, as the book of Acts teaches us for today telling us: "The early Christians ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart" (Acts 2:46). And in doing that, they experienced Christ presence among them.
A small step of common hospitality can be a giant leap toward a greater awareness, of Christ's presence. A little kindness can change a "Tale of Two Communities" into a sacred story of one community in Christ.