Easter Vigil
Year B
In 2005 and 2004 the homilies given here for late Lent were something of a summons to the assembly to fulfill their right, duty, and need to take part in the liturgies of the Triduum, always hoping that those liturgies would be done in their fullness, with the full, conscious and very active participation of the assembly. This year what is offered below is a homily for the Vigil itself. In a sense, this night is where we go to discover what mystagogy is all about. It is at the Vigil that the preacher, little by little over the years, must unfold the mysteries of the paschal season, of Lent and of Easter and so of conversion and the full process of initiation and reconciliation which is nothing less than gospel service in the world. This Vigil preaching is done in a room now filled with the echoes of many scriptures and many psalms, a room that has just welcomed the Alleluia and a room where the font is filled and waiting, the table empty and waiting. A homily like this is going to be partial, is going to presume that it builds on previous years, overlaps, prepares for future years. It also presumes that this assembly has been here for a long time, first lighting and praising the great candle in whose light the preacher now stands, then through the telling of the stories (that is, ALL the stories and maybe more). But all of that should not be pressure to hurry. Time will matter only if what should be liturgy has become something for audiences to watch and listen to. Don't let that happen.

What is all this about clogged chariot wheels? What is all this about stony hearts? All this about a covenant of peace and streets paved with precious stones? All this about the stars not just shining but rejoicing and answering"Here we are"? What is all this about wine and milk and bread given without charge, about a father and his child and wild promises of descendants countless as the stars, countless as the grains of sand on the seashore? And especially, what is all this about the first day and the second day, about every one of the days ending when God saw that it was good? Finally, and only when all those stories were told, what is this about three women on their way to a tomb?

Yes, we have been here a long time already tonight. And tonight we are simply ending the time of vigiling, praying, fasting that we began on Thursday night when we washed each other's feet here in this place, the vigiling and praying and fasting that continued through Good Friday when we came forward one by one to kiss or embrace or bow or kneel before the image of the cross. Through Holy Saturday this vigiling continued, when we gathered the elect and asked them to pray with us and to pray especially the Lord's Prayer and to recite the Creed.

This "long time" is even longer for we entered these three days only after we had observed the disciplines of Lent's forty days. Like athletes preparing for the contest, like skilled musicians making ready for a concert, we took on Lent this year. With prayer and fasting of all kinds and the sharing of whatever gifts we have, we determined to become faithful to that baptism which made us Christians. Of course and as always, we failed to do what we might have done, we failed to do even what we wanted to do. But by God's grace we all come to this night boldly, wrapped in the love and forgiveness of God. We come in the darkness, holy and powerful darkness, not to await the sunrise of Sunday but to await the risen Lord in those who are to be baptized in our midst. We come to know the risen Lord in one another and in the sacred banquet where we shall dine on the body and the blood of the one whose gospel is little by little, Lent by Lent, Vigil by Vigil, shaping this community, this church.

The stories we have heard in this blessed night abound in the words and the Images that give foundation to the way we would see and hear and be and do. We began as at every year's Vigil with the first words of the first page of our scripture: "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss." Over and over comes the lovely refrain that wraps this story round: God saw how good it was. To take this as a story about history or science is to miss its power and its purpose. God saw how good it was. Every tribe, every religion, has a story for how the world came to be, and each of these, like our story, is trying to say how to be in this world, how to live in this world. So with our story: God saw how good it was. Only when we know and believe this-that God's creation is good, all of it-will we have ears to hear the scriptures that follow and ears to hear the daily news.

In some churches the story of creation is followed tonight by the story of the great flood, a story of what became of those two who were made in the image of God. God sweeps away all that God had seen as good. But even the flood story ends with a new creation: a new covenant between God and humankind. And so through all these stories are the ways God and creation struggle with and against one another. Violent Images abound: Abraham's raised knife is unbearable to us but yet we know it well. We are called to rejoice in slaves escaping through the dried-up sea to freedom, but are we not also to mourn the dead conscripts drowned in the waters?

But we heard also an amazing array of Images beyond any violence. We heard that tonight is, in Isaiah's ancient poem, a wedding night."The one who has become your husband is your maker." And this wedding is made, as is every wedding, with promises:"Though the mountains leave their place, my love shall never leave you." And the promises are for those who hunger, those who thirst, those who know oppression:"You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk."

This night's talk is about a very different way of living in God's creation than the one most of us know day by day. Tonight's poetry comes as a very strange challenge to those of us content with things as they are, those who are content to leave the government to the officials, the church to the bishops, the wealth to the wealthy. For the scriptures of this night are not pretty sentiments; they are the means by which we attempt, year after year on this one night of all nights, to face up to what we are: the assembly of those who have, as Paul told the church at Rome, been baptized into the death of Christ Jesus. That's what matters. We are no longer slaves to sin. We are no longer bound to violence. We are no longer prisoners to some nationalism, some economy, some security, some wild claims that safety lies in more and better weapons, some flimsy false promise of "the good life." All of this, all these idols, we put to death once for all in the waters of baptism. Yet year by year by year we need Lent to come and this Vigil to come so we can recover and strengthen the death we died in baptism, strengthen the shouts with which we renounce evil and sin in all their faces and forms. Year by year we need the fasting and prayer and good works to make it clear to ourselves and perhaps to others that we have died with Christ and we are living now not as slaves to sin, but as servants of God who loves this world so dearly.

Think about this: Here we are tonight, a Saturday night in the spring. Here we are spending hours together to listen like children to the old, old books and their wondrous tales. Notice that the last of the stories is not some description of a dead man bursting out of a tomb, not at all-that may appeal to some artists but it's not the way the Gospel tells it. Instead we have the tale of those three called in tradition the"myrrh-bearing women." These are the three who came when the Sabbath of God's rest was over, came more boldly to the tomb than any man would do. There they find not the hastily buried body of Jesus but someone who says to them what is being said to the assembly tonight: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified." Yes, the crucified. The washer of feet. The teller of parables where the status quo is turned upside down. The one who healed the sick, took meals with sinners, challenged the powers-that-be not with troops or terror but with truth. The crucified. Of course.

When the stories have all been told, we rouse ourselves to call on a long line of our brothers and sisters who have died but who are bound to us in the communion of saints. We name a lot of them and as we do this we walk with the elect to the font. Let its waters evoke for us the waters at creation, the waters that held the ark of Noah, the waters of the sea that parted for Moses, the waters given freely to those who thirst, the waters Ezekiel saw, the waters that flowed with blood from the side of the crucified one. Only a few will enter those waters tonight, but know that we all who are baptized are there.

These waters are death-dealing, a tomb. These waters are life-giving, a womb's waters. Beside them the elect will be asked to promise what each one of us knows is going to take a lifetime: the day-by-day renunciation of evil and the living of a life that believes in God our creator, God our savior, God our very breath and life. And when they have come through the waters, there is the fragrant oil, the very fragrance of Christ in our midst, to be poured on them and to seal their baptism. All of us are to take the water and make the sign of the crucified on our bodies, to touch the perfumed oil on the hair and faces of the newly baptized, embracing them. And all of us, this tired but beautiful assembly, are then to come around the table where in loud thanks for the tender mercies of God, then we who are so hungry and so thirsty for justice, are given the body and blood of the one who is the mercy and the justice of God, Jesus our Lord, to be our food and our drink.

So now, my sisters and my brothers, stand and with the elect, come to the waters, invoking all the saints to pray with us, to pray for us.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Year B
What follows is cast as a homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, May 2, 2004. It suggests that on at least one Sunday in the eight Sundays of the Easter season, the homilist should invite a mystagogy of the season itself. What is the meaning of the Fifty Days? How do these days come to life in our own lives as an assembly, as baptized persons newly come from the font, as households - all living in and being some sort of world? If a homilist uses the quotes from Hopkins given here, much practice is needed for the pace and the clarity that will bring the full impact of the lines to the assembly.
Gabe Huck

How shall we measure the spring? Is it a series of days, some of them named by the culture, some by the church, some by the state? The state tells us that April 15 is Income Tax Day and that the last day of May this year is Memorial Day. The culture tells us that when Memorial Day comes we can have a three-day weekend, but the culture also has some other names for spring days: April 22 is called Earth Day, and yesterday was May Day and next Sunday is Mother's Day. The culture also crowds the spring season with graduation days and wedding days.

Amidst all this, we who are the church seem to have yet another day-naming going. Most of the ninety-plus days of spring are our fifty days of Easter. The Fifty Days begin on Easter Sunday once we have kept our Easter Vigil itself, the culmination of our Triduum, once we have approached the font for baptism and proclaimed the good news: Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life! And at the end of the Fifty Days is the Pentecost proclamation:"[I]n one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Behind this Christian calendar, as is often the case, there is the Jewish calendar: the fifty days that are counted one by one from the festival of Passover to the festival of Shavuot. Passover remembers the going out from slavery to freedom, Shavuot remembers the giving of the Law to Moses. These were the days and the seasons that made the calendar observed by Jesus and his family and his friends. Behind that Jewish calendar for the spring is yet another calendar, perhaps the most vital of all: the harvest calendar of the eastern Mediterranean lands where the winter rains bring the spring crops, the barley first and then the wheat. Such harvests have always held the roots of human celebration, of festivals and seasons, because they are the very promise of life.

Sometimes these calendars get wonderfully entangled. In some places the May weeks of spring and of Easter season became days to celebrate Mary, the mother of God. More than a century ago the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins asked why this should be so when he began a poem this way:"May is Mary's month, and I / Muse at that and wonder why." The poet tells us how to seek the answer to why May is Mary's month. Hopkins says:"Ask of her, the mighty mother: / Her reply puts this other / Question: What is Spring? - / Growth in every thing - Flesh and fleece, fur and feather, / Grass and greenworld all together." That's the answer, he says: May and all spring is just this: growth - in everything. Hopkins looks at spring and says:"All things rising, / All things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / With that world of good, / Nature's motherhood. / Their magnifying of each its kind / With delight calls to mind / How she did in her stored / Magnify the Lord."

Well, there we have it. Life exploding out of earth,"all things rising!" as the poet says - even after we have done earth so much damage - and this"all things rising" is like Mary, this is like Jesus. So the tangling of the calendars of earth and church isn't about some sentimental far-off Mary, but it is about the bold Mary whose motherhood she sang in Images of a mercy, God's mercy, that is out there raising up more than the daffodils and tulips, a mercy that raises up the humble and fills the starving and deposes not just the cold and ice of winter but deposes the tyrants and sends the powerful packing. Some spring this! Hopkins saw it in every weed breaking through the cracks of a sidewalk. What else is it to see and keep Easter?

Like the weeds, new life springs up all over the church in the spring: we baptize with flowing water and we confirm with chrism oil, we bring children and adults to the table to feast on Christ's body and blood for the first time, we anoint the sick and visit the graves of the dead, we bring some into marriage and some into various ministries in this church. All things rising! the poet says, and that's who we are and what we do - we who are a community of Christians, a parish of baptized people, an assembly of Catholics gathered here today on one of the eight Sundays of the Fifty Days of the Easter season. Of course these days are no vacation from the woes of our worlds. Sickness and death take no vacation, AIDS kills its thousands every day in Africa, third-world children and adults sit their dozen hours a day for seven days a week making the clothes we're wearing this morning, two million men and women - a vast city - in this land of the free are wasting in prisons, schools and health deteriorate as our wealth is spent in spring as in every season on walls and wars that intend to keep us isolated and afraid. The Easter days are no different in their sufferings throughout the world that matters deeply to us, the world God so loved.

Except somehow they are different days. How is this so? Think what the stories are. Think about what we're hearing from the book of Acts: Peter last week telling the authorities that disciples obey God and not human authority: we will obey the God of our ancestors, the God who raised Jesus, he says; we will not obey you. And this week Paul arrives in Antioch , in Syria , and next week we'll hear about how they visit all these cities and their little Christian communities around the eastern Mediterranean rim: Lystra, Iconium, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia, and Antioch again. Controversies abound - that's why Paul keeps moving. But there's so much going on, so much that's breaking loose,"all things rising!"

And all these Sundays we open the book of Revelation to hear wild visions and maybe some of them give us a way to see ourselves, our world: just last week John heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth cry out (do we remember what they cried out?). And this week John sees a great multitude of every nation, race, people, and language and they are coming to the Lamb for shelter, coming because they are hungry and thirsty and they are crying from their hard days. Next week John will see a city coming down from heaven so glorious as to be a bride, and a Sunday later John tells us how that city has no need of sun or moon for the glory of God is its light.

Where's the sense of all that? The sounds of the Easter stories go out from here into the stubborn spring arriving and they go out into the great crimes of our common world and the suffering that has no time for spring or Easter. But of course the Easter deeds of new birth from water, sweet anointing with oil, Mary songs and disciples on the move: these things have no sound at all except the sounds we make, no strength at all except the strength we lend, no sense to them except the sense that our lives might make. Easter days are the days when the little Christian communities dare to live as if that bride-like city were our city. In some places and some times, the communities said: For these fifty days no one can fast and no one can kneel for we live as if the reign of God had come in our midst. We Christians are rehearsing what so many of the poor and hard pressed have proclaimed these past years:"Another world is possible!"

Another world is possible and it is possible right here. Each Sunday together we tell ourselves that what we do and what we say and what we hear and what we sing is one or a dozen little glimpses of what makes it truer than the morning paper: Another world is possible. We have glimpsed it here as we dare to let the meal we make here, the meal where all share and share alike, let that meal be what we strive for in the big world day by day. We will dare to champion the prisoner and the occupied, the disappeared and the AIDS orphan, those poisoned by industrial and military chemicals, the whistle blower and the union organizer. We will champion them not with our charity alone but with our intelligence, our wisdom, our wills, our prayers, our time, our votes, and our loud demands. We who live astride the world's present colossus will take hold of ourselves, get a grip for once, and whatever may be the consequences, discover who it is that mother Mary and risen Jesus would have us stand with.

When we live as if, as if this were it, this were the vision, this were the time of"all things rising," then in whose company would we be found? With whose troubles will we mingle our own troubles? Who are those in that multitude John saw if not those that the powers of earth had scorned? Easter is nothing if it is not our frightful and delightful effort to face the gospel truth that our lot lies with the weak and poor of this world.

And the interesting part is this: It won't end on Pentecost. The season passes, but the different people we have become, that doesn't pass. The community that walked into Ash Wednesday will, ninety days later, walk out from Pentecost, but further along, my friends, further along. The ashes and harshness of Lent, the death-defying deeds of Triduum, Easter's fifty days of"all things rising," all things - rising! - we'll come through to Pentecost, but we'll never be the same. And if that's true, nor will the world.

We are today with just twenty-one of the fifty days behind us and twenty-nine of them ahead of us. Enough, more than enough as always with God, to rise up and see and hear and smell and touch what God so loved about this dear world and there take our Easter selves.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at  www.celebrationpublications.org
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Year A
The preaching on all the Sundays of Easter - even more than the rest of the year - ought to strive for that quality of mystagogy that we are trying to explore in this series. That is, the preaching of Easter season should explode out of the deeds of the Triduum as they unfold in the life of the community and the reading of the Sunday scriptures. The preaching of Easter season should be in a different mode almost, a tone that isn't heard at any other time. That's more than the words and content, of course. When April 24 arrives, we are already at the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Pentecost is just three weeks away. Momentum can be a problem by this time. Our attention span doesn't quite register fifty days! But the scriptures keep us in the season. The homily below looks to the often neglected second readings of Easter, 1 Peter in Year A. It spends some time on two verses that are not in fact in the reading, 1 Peter 2:2–3 (the reading begins with verse 4). In fact, 2:2–3 is never read on a Sunday, but it ought to be!
Gabe Huck

We are now closer to Pentecost than to Easter. Twenty-eight of the Fifty Days of the Easter Season are gone. We have had four Sundays of spectacular gospel readings. Easter Sunday itself told of the women who first proclaimed the good news, Mary Magdalene especially. Three Sundays ago we heard a gospel text that is read every single year, so crucial is it to our understanding of Jesus and the church: the frightened followers of Jesus recognize him because he shows them his wounds and even says to Thomas:"Put your finger here, bring your hand and put it into my side." We heard some echo of that just last Sunday in the second reading:"By his wounds you have been healed." Two weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus and the two disciples walking to Emmaus, the two who"used to hope," something many of us can say for ourselves. Jesus does some preaching to them, talking about what was written in the scriptures, and when it begins to get dark he joins them at table to break the bread. And last Sunday was that Sunday in Easter season when the gospel is always about sheep and a shepherd.

These gospels may have left us little chance to ponder what was read just before them. All these weeks we have the Sunday second readings from the First Letter of Peter, itself a very brief text in the New Testament. This letter, written probably from Rome late in the first century, is addressed to the Christian church in parts of what is now the country of Turkey. These communities, begun a few decades earlier when Paul was preaching there, seem to be struggling with what it means to be what we'd call today"a minority group" in their own towns and villages. They could no longer just be like everybody else - and everybody else didn't always take this too well. Early on (we read this three weeks ago) the letter writer recognizes that"you may have to suffer through various trials." How should they behave, then? Behave, the letter says, like those who have been delivered from old ways of life."Conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning." Try to be patient when you suffer for doing what is good, the writer says, because that is just what Christ did. However hard your lives may be because you have renounced one way of life and chosen instead to belong to the body of Christ, this church of ours, remember that because of Christ's cross we are loved and we are healed. Follow the example of Christ,"the shepherd and guardian of your souls." That's what the letter has said up to today.

This letter doesn't whine:"Oh, golly, it's tough to stand out, it's tough to be left out. I guess all we can do is hang in there" and so on and so on. Rather, the writer wants to tell these little churches to live daily by what it is that made them leave the old ways and accept baptism. Seize this life, however out of the mainstream, with great enthusiasm! Here is one image the writer uses to get these Christians on track:

Like newborn infants,
long for the pure, spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow into salvation -
if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

What is this about tasting that the Lord is good? What is this about being like newborns who want their mother's milk? This letter writer knows the scriptures and their down-to-earth Images. Here are words the last chapter of Isaiah that our letter writer had in mind:

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her . . .
that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.

That is who we are, our letter writer says. We are like infants! Have you seen babies demanding to be nursed and then delighting and content at the mother's breast? Just so do we long to be nursed by our God. We want to taste that the Lord is good. The letter writer got that from Psalm 34:"O taste and see that the Lord is good!" Remember, those churches reading this letter in the year 90 or so had some of the same practices we now have. They may have been singing in Greek or Latin or Aramaic"Taste and see, O taste and see" as they shared the broken bread and cup of wine on the Lord's Day. Then or now, surrounding a table as we do each Sunday, we are to Christ as a baby at the mother's breast: rejoicing, content, drinking deeply and with delight.

What a wonderful way to understand what our little church is and how we survive and hold to Christ - if. If - in fact we do drink with delight at this table. If - in fact we do come to this meeting room of ours on Sundays so very thirsty because we know that in some ways we don't fit at all with the ways people treat each other in this difficult world. If - in fact we are each Sunday so thirsty for the companionship of this church, for the word of God read in our midst, for the prayer and the bread and the wine of this table.

There are many ways to think about the holy communion that we are and we do each Sunday here, but this old image from Isaiah and Psalm 34 and the First Letter of Peter is surely the most simple and most beautiful."Now drink your fill from her comforting breast.""Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.""Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk so that you will grow into salvation." How can we ever act like we're just lining up for communion? How can we ever act like we don't need to drink from the cup? Aren't we thirsty? Don't we delight to be given food and drink by the Lord? How can we not meet the eyes of the one who is saying to us,"The body of Christ,""The blood of Christ" and respond with a firm"Amen"? How can we hurry through those moments? How can we not fill this room with song from beginning to end of that procession of holy communion? Of all that we do as a church, this is where we most discover what church is. Taste! And see! We are newborn infants and we are thirsty!

Right after that image of the church, the letter writer thinks of another wonderful image and so the letter comes to today's text. What is that image?

Beloved, come to Christ, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God.
So like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.

Here we are being told that Christ is a stone, a stone judged of no value either for beauty or for building, yet this stone was the one God used to begin a building and we who have come to Christ are like other stones, just as worthless no doubt, but God's building a building with us. This was written generations before the Christian communities had any thought of or any need to construct buildings for their meetings on the Lord's Day. They went wherever they could fit. Maybe that made it simpler to understand what gets lost sometimes now that churches own buildings and some people even think churches are buildings. What we need to understand is right there: We are God's building. So what about all the bricks and tiles, the steel and glass, the wood and cement? That's our building. But we ourselves are God's building. We're God's building - in progress. It took generations to build some of Europe's great cathedrals. It is taking thousands of years for God's building the church to get itself together.

Is there any sort of relationship between the two buildings, between the church and the church's meeting place? Between us and this room we're in now? Clearly there is. One way or another, the brick and mortar churches resemble what we think God's flesh-and-blood church looks like. Do we think our letter writer would ever have had a Gothic cathedral in mind? Or any room where the benches and the layout made it clear that ninety percent of those present were presumed to be passive onlookers at the other ten percent? Or any room where people couldn't hear one another singing? Or any room where it looked like some people were more important than other people?

Listen to the rest of the sentence begun a moment ago:

So like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

What does that tell us about the kind of a building God's building with us? All the baptized are to be this house, this holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices. If our church's meeting place is to resemble what God is building with us, how will such basic communion look? How will the gospel's radical equality look? For some recent centuries many thought of God's building as a spiritual pyramid: pope, bishops, clergy, and at the bottom everybody else. And lots of brick and mortar churches were made to look like that. Those who worshiped there got the message.

But forty years ago the Second Vatican Council dared to remember that it wasn't always so. This was like the top of the supposed pyramid saying:"This isn't supposed to be a pyramid at all. Let us re-form ourselves." That too will take generations and centuries. But in the meanwhile we have what we have in the way of brick and mortar to be nudged and edged toward a truer reflection of this truer building, God's building, the living stones that we all are.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Year B
We resume this series that last appeared in the February 2003 issue of Celebration. The intent of the series is to explore how catechesis from and for the liturgy may be done as a form of mystagogical preaching. This is cast as a homily for May 18, 2003, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B. For more on the mystagogy of the wine, see Wine and Bread by Photina Rech, published by LTP. This homily takes up and builds, as preaching should do, on the homily given in the October 2002 issue of Celebration for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Gabe Huck

Four weeks and five Sundays into Easter season it should be clear to all: Eastertime isn't prose, it's poetry. Eastertime isn't a news report, it's a concert. Easter isn't a lesson in the catechism, it's a love song. By this fifth Sunday in Easter we begin to see how the Sunday readings are like a multi-layered sound track. The first readings from Acts tell the ways and words of the tiny but exuberant Christian community. The second readings chime in with the first letter of John where, no matter what the starting point, the end point is love. Then the gospels, most of them taken from John, draw us into a great jumble of Images, all ways to grasp from one angle or another that Easter is, like it or not, the death of all the death we deal out to one another. And that is good news, painful good news. We heard it last week in the image of a shepherd, the week before it was a hungry, wounded Jesus eating a fish in the presence of the disciples. On Easter Sunday and the following Sunday the Images were those of faithful women and an empty tomb, of blood and water. What is more basic to human life - and human life together - than water and blood?

With all that in our hearts we take up today's gospel."I am a vine," says Jesus,"I am a vine and you are my branches." Branches are for bearing fruit. Branches are where the blossoms appear, then the tiny grapes begin to grow. We may not live ourselves among vineyards, but we know about great clusters of grapes and we know about the winepress and the juice that comes from the pressing of grapes and the wine that this juice will become if time and nature and human labor take their course. We know from old and new Images how vines grow and reach out and out and out.

Probably it happened this way. When Jesus started talking about being a vine, those who heard thought about the vineyards they had known all their lives. Maybe they then thought about the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. Why? What's the connection?

Genesis has God saying:"You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden," and"So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes . . . she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband . . . and he ate." What, no apple? The apple was probably how the European Christians later envisioned the tree and so every image most of us have ever seen is of is a tree with shiny apples. But the people who heard the Genesis story in the Middle East would never think apple, they would think vine. They would think grapes. They would think vine as thick as any fruit tree, grapes delicious and abundant and so inviting. So in the early Christian writers and artists, the forbidden tree of Eden is a grape vine, and then - what else? - the cross is also a grape vine, the ancient tree of death now become the tree of life.

These Christians knew a Bible full of vines for the psalmists and prophets used to speak of God as the farmer and Israel as the vine God planted. Psalm 80 says:"You brought a vine out of Egypt . . . / you cleared the ground; / it took root and filled the land. / The mountains were covered by its shadow" (Psalm 80:9–11). But always there comes a time when the vine is torn down, neglected. Ezekiel says,"The east wind dried her up, / her fruit was torn off; / Then her strong branch withered up, fire devoured it. / Now she is planted in the desert, / in a dry land and parched" (Ezekiel 19:12 –13).

With these Images from Genesis and from the prophets and psalms in his mind and heart, is it any wonder that Jesus says that he himself is the vine? And is it so strange that he cannot speak of the vine without speaking of branches being broken off and burned, of branches withering, of the painful pruning that is the only way to bearing fruit? Any wonder then that we could think of the cross and of the one who hangs on the cross as a great vine, pruned and fruitful?

But if Jesus is the vine, he is also the fruit of the vine:"Take this, all of you, and drink; this is the cup - of my blood." He said this, and he handed them a cup of wine. When we bring wine to the table here we speak of it as"fruit of the vine and work of human hands," for this wine, like bread, is not simply what nature gives but what we have done with the gift of nature, the fruit of the vine. Through the centuries, our ancestors have brought to this table not only bread but also wine. One author writes:

Bread is an absolutely indispensable part of life, while wine provides that something"extra," a certain exuberance.

Bread is the strength of the earth, and wine the fire of heaven.

Bread strengthens us for bearing the burden of the earth; wine exhilarates us and allows us to forget the grim aspects of this earthly existence.

Wine raises our awareness of being alive and rouses us to song, to poetic enthusiasm, fearless courage, lofty thoughts. Wine empowers us in word and work. (Rech, page 29)

Perhaps then we begin to grasp the poetry of the eucharist, that bread should be body and wine blood. When those who heard the wild speech of the disciples on Pentecost said,"They have had too much new wine!" they were close to the truth. The church sings of a certain"sober drunkenness." In John's gospel Jesus' first wonder is that of water become wine at a wedding, the best wine saved for last. So then what wonder is it that at table Jesus took wine and spoke of his blood? And why is it that at table the church has always taken wine, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands, and then has held up the cup to all in the procession and said,"The blood of Christ"? And why is it that to that we each and all say firmly,"Amen"? Why is it that we drink from a cup filled with wine but the word on our lips is"blood"? The image of the grape crushed that its juice may become the festive drink is joined by the church to the image of the savior of the world crushed that his blood flow in saving waves over all the earth."Take this, take this all of you! Take this and drink. This is the cup of my blood." Ambrose of Milan, sixteen centuries ago, preached it this way. He called Christ"that strange grape which, like the grape from the vine, was hanging incarnate from the wood of the cross. From this grape is made the wine that delights the heart of humanity, intoxicates sobriety, emits the mist of faith and of true piety" (Rech, page 59).

Many of us grew up Catholics at a time when only the priest drank from the cup; and a few generations before that it was unusual for any except the priest to take the bread in holy communion. But Pius V a hundred years ago urged frequent communion, and in six or seven decades that became a reality. After Vatican II, the cup also became part of holy communion, offered to all. Yet the habits of the past hold on. Trained to think that receiving holy communion was taking the bread only, so we continue. The cup seems some sort of extra, okay for some but not really that important.

Yet remember who we are, we Catholics! We are the ones who have sought the grace and love and healing of God in such things as water and oil, in the sound of words and the laying on of hands. We cling to the holiness of creation and of our own bodies and gestures. We hunger and we come to eat the body of Christ. We thirst also, and so we come to the cup and say Amen to what we are, the blood of Christ, and we drink the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands. And we do such things not in some self-centered isolation but in the ever-messy midst of a community, most of whose members have failed as often as we have to hold dear to the gospel, yet all alike are joining this grateful procession to eat the one loaf broken for all, and to drink from the fruit of the vine poured out for all. Eat this, all of you! Jesus said. Drink this cup, all of you! Jesus said.

Come, then, to the cup, whether to let a drop of the sacred wine touch your lips, or to take a full sip of the good wine become for us the blood of Christ. Come in joyful peace to hear the minister say to you,"The blood of Christ." Stand before the cup and say Amen to what you are. Then take that cup in your hands and taste. Parents, help your children to approach the cup with reverence, to listen to the words of the minister and to answer Amen, then to take the cup firmly and drink a tiny sip. We Catholics are the neediest of peoples. We need the holiness of walking in procession, of singing, of bread broken and wine poured out. Despite all that the marketplace would tell us, we want to know here in this place, here in the midst of this assembly, that for which we truly hunger and thirst.

Our hunger and our thirst, though, are not so much satisfied as intensified at this table. For here as nowhere else does it become clear that the one whose body we eat and whose blood we drink is the one who hungers and thirsts for justice and that hunger and thirst become our own, little by little, in this holy communion.
Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Ascension of the Lord
Year B
Other homilies in this series have dealt, as this one does, with the Easter season and may be helpful in mystagogical preaching during Easter season in 2006. See the May 2004 homily on the Easter season itself, Mary and May, and our commitment to justice. In May 2003 the homily spoke of the image of the vine and branches and the sharing of the cup. That 2003 homily (same readings as 2006) was prepared for the Fifth Sunday of Easter which falls this year on May 14. The homily below is for the Ascension of the Lord, celebrated in most dioceses of the United States on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2006. Note that the text presumes the assembly has heard Ephesians 4, the reading for Year B, and not the second reading from Year A which the Lectionary allows in any year of the cycle. The statistic on life sentences is from Human Rights Watch (NYC) and was given in the January 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine,page 11.

Gabe Huck

Years ago, but not all that long, there were two church organists who loved the feast of the Ascension of the Lord for it brought a twinkle to their eyes. One of them, playing during the collection, would subtly work in just a little bit of a then-popular song whose words included "Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon." The other, more of a traditionalist perhaps, would play something meditative after communion, but those who listened closely on Ascension Day would detect here and there the melody of the old song,"Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." One saw Jesus taking off from the earth. The other saw Jesus going home. Both made people smile as did the homilist who would always bring to this day's sermon the wonderful quote from the escaped slave named Sojourner Truth. Once asked about death, she had answered:"Die? I ain't gonna die! I'm going home like a shooting star!"

"He ascended into heaven," or so we claim in our recitation of the creed. We generally don't let it bother us that the different accounts of Jesus' ascension in our Bible are not only quite different, but at odds with one another. Yet the story is the story and of course there will be different ways to tell it after so many years. And the geography? Sure we modern people know that heaven isn't"up" and, what's more, in a universe of suns and planets and galaxies and who-knows-what, even"up" isn't up and"down" isn't down. The Easter stories bring their reminders of how little all this has to do with physics:"Do not cling to me," Jesus tells Mary of Magdala."Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed," he says to doubting Thomas. So while we may well begin the scripture reading today with the very first verses from the book of Acts, even there the last words are a rebuke to the literal-minded disciples:"Why are you standing there looking at the sky?" The poor disciples still didn't understand. And neither do we most of the time.

All of Easter's days and Sundays with their scriptures and their songs, their sprinkling of blessed water and their honoring of the great candle lighted at the Vigil liturgy, all of this has brought us to these last days of Ascension and then Pentecost. Stories of Jesus talking with and eating with disciples-after the crucifixion-fill the early weeks of Easter season. Every Easter we strive to know: What does it mean that we have died and come to new life in the waters of baptism, this year or years ago the same? What does it mean that we have put on Christ? What does it mean that we have come through those waters and now on the Lord's Day we seek out that conversation with the Lord, that table companionship with the Lord? What does it mean that we do this not as individuals but only as the church, this very assembly?

As the fifty days of Easter continued we moved from those stories of meals and conversations to some beloved texts like the Good Shepherd and to puzzling, hard texts-a little vague perhaps-about vines and branches, about the commandment to love one another as the sum and substance of it all. And in the first readings each Sunday we've been hearing snippets from how the church remembers its infancy and tells it in the book of Acts. We never hide the fact that even in the beginning it was a mess, as it still is today. We heard, for example, of Paul's early days as a Christian. Newly baptized in Damascus and now come to Jerusalem, both cities under the heel of the Romans, he gets introduced to Peter and others who wonder what this ball of fire and their former enemy is up to. And we heard another story about Peter and how his own views had to change when he saw that God's Holy Spirit wasn't bound by Peter's very convenient way of fencing in the church. It is an old story but we need to tell it again and again.

So we have come again into these final days of the Easter season. A late Easter this year puts us already at the end of May, Memorial Day weekend, when we finally tell of the Ascension. In the second reading, we heard a paragraph of Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus, a city in what is now the nation of Turkey. That reading, the one that had nothing to say about skies and clouds and angels, is today sandwiched between the stories of Jesus' ascension. The writer of the letter wasn't expecting Jesus to come back any time soon. The writer wanted the church to come to grips with what it might mean to live day by day and year by year, a whole lifetime, as a baptized person.

It isn't clear whether Paul himself wrote this letter or some disciple of Paul's. Today we heard this opening line:"I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received." A prisoner for the Lord. Whether Paul wrote the letter or not, the writer almost casually indicates that being held in prison by the powers-that-be, as Paul was, is not unusual for a follower of Jesus, but also not without importance. Reminding the readers of the letter that it comes from a prison cell should have told them as it does us: There should be nothing surprising to any of us about a follower of Christ being in jail. Nothing surprising, but still something to be pondered. Fifty years ago Christian preachers in America often went on and on about how Christians were being put in prison in communist nations. Then one day the leaders of America's Christian churches were forcefully addressed by a letter written to them by Martin Luther King Jr. not from a prison in Russia but from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. Don't you see, he was saying, that doing what the gospel tells us right here will likely get us locked up?

In the life's work of a Christian, one occupational hazard is being sent off to prison. In this very year, in this very nation, there are Christians who are prisoners for the Lord, locked up for months or years, like Paul and like Martin. Some of these prisoners for the Lord today are doing time for trespassing. They walked across some forbidden lines and denounced the deeds that are being done there. Some have trespassed where our government stores our weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or chemical. Some have trespassed where our government teaches effective ways of repression and even torture. These prisoners for the Lord challenge the rest of us as Paul challenged the early churches and Martin challenged the church in the l950s and l960s: What is your baptism about? What are your Sunday assemblies doing? Are we building up the body of Christ when we close our eyes and close our mouths and accept so quietly the way the world is being militarized and the very life of planet earth threatened so that a tiny minority-ourselves among them-can continue to live in the present manner?

There is such irony in Easter. Will we proclaim that Christ burst the bonds of death and trampled on the powers of evil? Will we then strive, as Paul writes today, to ourselves achieve together as church"the full stature of Christ"? What is that stature? What does that Christ look like? The bonds of death are still pretty strong around the world. The powers of evil try to work out of sight, but really it isn't so hard to see what's going on if we tear away the distractions they daily toss in our paths. What we renounced at baptism is not the stuff of fairy tales. We renounced, every one of us, the everyday ways that evil pokes through our lives, the everyday ways we so easily get used to taking care of our own agendas and comforts and barely notice what violence has to be done to keep the food on our shelves, the gas in our cars, the electricity in our appliances, the clothes on our backs.

When this church assembles on the Lord's Day, what is to become of us as we do our work here? What can hearing and pondering the scripture week in and week out make of us? What happens to a church that pours its whole energy into intercession? What becomes of a church-that is, ourselves-that gives loud and intense thanks to God whose love was found in the crucified Jesus, whose mercy is manifest in every new morning? What sort of people are we then when at last we eat and drink at this table one cup and one bread, this food and drink, this body broken for us and this blood poured out for us? Are we still standing here gazing up into the heavens, without a clue?

Let us bring ourselves down to earth and look at just one of so many needs that summon us to get about the tasks we accepted when we were baptized. We heard today from Paul in his prison. Have we thought about, prayed for, written to, listened to, those in prison now, not just those like Paul or Martin who went there for the gospel, but those who went there because our society has made prison an industry, because we have decided to keep two million people there day after day and punish them? Do we accept responsibility for being the nation that keeps in prison a larger part of the population by far than any other nation in the world? Here is one of many numbers we could ponder: In the United States there are 2,225 persons serving sentences of life in prison for crimes committed while juveniles. Live all your life in prison and then die? In all the rest of the world, where 19 out of 20 people on earth live, there are a total of 12 persons serving sentences like this.

What is to become of us? We ask that as we try to see what it would mean to live in the Easter mercy of God. What is to become of us? We ask that as we open our eyes to see for ourselves what deeds are being done around us and even in our name. If this ascension story has one simple meaning it must be that Christ leaves us here to do the gospel work. No wonder that the church constantly cries out: Come, Holy Spirit.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Pentecost Sunday
Year C
This is a homily exploring what the church imagines on Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is May 27, 2007. That is also the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The names for the Spirit from"Veni Sancte Spiritus" should be read with good pauses between.
Gabe Huck

This day, Pentecost, is the last of the fifty-day season that began on Easter Sunday. These fifty days are called"the Sunday of the year" because fifty days is very nearly one-seventh of the year's total length. Easter's fifty days should be to the rest of the year what Sunday is to the other days of the week. Once this meant such things as no fasting and no kneeling during Easter's fifty days, just as no fasting and no kneeling on Sundays all year round.
The story of the mighty wind and the flames-like-tongues is presented in art over and over as the core image of this Pentecost Day. But that image of wind and flame, whether presented as calm or chaos, is but one in an amazing chain of Images and stories that converge today.
Even our modest book of readings here gives some taste of the broader stories of Pentecost. It provides them as options to be read at Vigil Masses last night. If we wish to imagine what this Pentecost day is about for the church, these stories offer their own windows to surround that window with Mary and the apostles being surprised by a strong wind and hovering flames.
There is, to begin, the story from Genesis about the building of a tower. It starts this way:"Now the whole world spoke the same language, using the same words." And in this "once upon a time," this"time out of time," the people propose to build a tower: a human dream that has never died. They wanted their tower to have its top in the sky, and they wanted it to be something that future generations would see with great wonder. But after they have been building for awhile, there is an intervention from on high. God doesn't knock down the tower, instead God makes vast confusion. The people wake up one morning to discover they can't understand each other's words any more. God has given them the gift of an abundance of languages. The tower project has to be called off because people can't work together. But even so, the tower they began is remembered by the name they gave it, Babel, a word we still use to describe human sounds we cannot make out, a baby playing with sound or the way our ears cannot take in a foreign tongue.
What's this Babel story all about? Is it an explanation of why there are different languages? Is it about our arrogance, forever thinking we are in control and can make anything we like of the world or society? Is it about what happens when people leave the land and start cities? Yes to all, plus it is just a good story. And it is told at Pentecost to set up its reversal: that day when people come from many lands and cities to Jerusalem. These visitors speak dozens of languages but when they crowd together to see what was the sound of the wind and flames all about, and when they hear what Mary and Peter and James are saying, they realize that each person hears in their own language. It is Babel turned upside-down.
The second story for Pentecost is from Exodus and it reminds us that Pentecost didn't begin with Christians. In the time of Jesus and long before, this festival of the Jewish people came fifty days after their festival of Passover. It celebrated the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. We can hardly know our Pentecost without knowing what the Jewish people have been celebrating and still celebrate when they have counted fifty days from Passover. Listen to Exodus:"Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently." And we heard today:"There came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind. . . . Then there appeared tongues as of fire." Smoke and fire and the earth trembling, then God gives the Law in the book of Exodus, God gives the Spirit in the book of Acts of the Apostles.
A long time ago Christians started contrasting these two gifts, the Law and the Spirit, and that can be interesting. But the story of Pentecost doesn't oppose these two, Law and Spirit, it says: the Law and the Spirit come to us in similar ways, both gifts of God. And one is not the opposite or the enemy of the other. The Law of God is in fact Spirit-filled. The Law is praised in our scriptures as our delight, our companion, our safety, our hope. Never just rules, it is a way to walk, a way to be with others, a way to breathe in and breathe out the very Spirit of God. We could learn much from praying Psalm 119, a many-splendored poem to celebrate the Law as our dear companion given to us by God.
A third story that Pentecost tells comes from the prophet Ezekiel and we know it well: the valley of the dry bones. In the spirit of the Lord I was taken to the center of a great open space and this space was filled with bones. I had to walk through them to know how many, how terrible and how many were these bones. Then the Lord asked me: Can these bones live? So I called out to the bones, and there was a sound, bone joining bone, a rattling of the bones, and then skin covered them. But they were not alive. And the Lord told me to call on the spirit, to call the four winds to come and to blow and breathe into these bones and so it happened, and the bones came alive!
What is this? God tells the prophet:"You say that our hope is lost, our bones dried up, we are done for. But I will bring you back, O my people! And I will put my own breath, my own spirit into you!" This is perhaps the truest story of Pentecost. Maybe it is this story that helped the church in the 1960s know that the great Second Vatican Council could be called a New Pentecost. It seemed like we had been lying like dry bones in a big hot valley for so long, and suddenly there was something moving, suddenly there was wind or breath whistling around. An old man had become Pope and he said he was going to open the windows and let the spirit blow through the house of the church.
Did John XXIII suspect what would happen? He spoke of the"prophets of doom," powerful folks in the church who never wanted a window open. And John XXIII died before it really got going. It probably would not surprise him that now we have a sort of counter-Pentecost. John knew that the rattling of the dry bones could be a fearful thing. It was better, some people always say, it was better when the bones just laid there all shiny in the sun and quiet. Perhaps it even happened like that a few weeks after this exciting Pentecost of rushing wind and fiery tongues and everybody from everywhere understanding the apostles. Maybe a month later some were saying:"OK, OK, that's well and good, but we're going too fast! We got to have some control here!" Of course, that too will pass and perhaps quickly if we keep our ears open for the rattling of the dry bones and the Spirit of God whispering to our little communities.
So here is Babel, here is the fire and quaking of the mountain Sinai, and here is the coming together of the dry bones. On the other side of the apostles' big day in Jerusalem there are centuries and centuries of the church. And here too people knew that Pentecost wasn't simply history but possible reality in their lives and their churches. Some wrote poems about this. One is the"Veni Sancte Spiritus,""Come, Holy Spirit," and it is something like a litany of what we might call the Holy Spirit of God. What these poems, these song lyrics, do is this: They shatter the walls we build to shut God in. They give a rainbow of how we might name God and they invite us: Go on, continue, keep the poem moving, call out the way you have met the Spirit of God.
Here are some of the names for the Spirit in this ancient poem. Listen to each, reflect on it for a few seconds in silence, be ready for the next: Father of the poor. Our heart's unfailing light. Consoler. Welcome guest. Sweet refreshment. Sweet repose. In our labor, rest most sweet. Pleasant coolness in the heat. Finally the poet intercedes:"Bend the stubborn heart and will, / Melt the frozen, warm the chill." How else we will begin to know this Holy Spirit unless we find such words? Give up the image of the little white bird at least long enough to let these other Images of the Spirit become part of our imagination.
Another of these poems is the"Veni Creator Spiritus,""Come, Creator Spirit." It too brings a spectrum of Images and names. Some of them are like opposites: the Spirit is a living fountain of water, but also raging fire. And the Spirit is anointing, the health and delight that comes when we treat our bodies to the oils of plants and flowers.
More than a hundred years ago in England the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins added to these poems. Many of us might remember:"The world is charged with the grandeur of God." But Hopkins looks about and sees what we people have done:"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod. / And all is seared with trade . . . and wears man's smudge, and shares man's smell. The soil / is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod." But always, always there is hope because there is the Spirit. He ends his poem:"[T]he Holy Ghost over the bent / world broods, with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." So we are back to the image of a bird, but now a great mother bird that hovers and protects and broods over the world, and warms us with her breath, and makes a new dawn with her bright wings.
The stories of Babel, Sinai, dry bones, and the best Spirit songs of the church leave us to ponder: Where are our imaginations now? Why, day by day, in church and at work and as citizens and as human beings, why are we so often and so thoroughly being choked, our breath cut off, by what is petty, what is dull, what never sees to the depths of things, what never rises and sees how truths converge? We dully become satisfied with a world that should make us deeply unsatisfied, should make us hungry and thirst for change and for justice, because we are not somebody's helpless robots going about our daily task, accumulating our sad wealth, content with what the media call entertainment. We are children of this Spirit, we know very well that we were not claimed by Christ and anointed by the Spirit in order to disappear into a petty, sad routine that is choking off the power of our imaginations, our ability to see what might be, what should be, even what truly is!
What then is Pentecost for us? An hour in a three-day weekend, that weekend being what really matters in our lives? Well, the weekend should matter, but how? Why? And what is the name of this weekend? Do we dare let the horrors of war enter the mix of being Christian in America this weekend? What does that have to do with what the generations have done to the earth and its people?
We can make some Pentecost beginnings, but not in here only. Outside where"the Holy Ghost over the bent / world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).