2011 Opening Mass Homily

Mass of the Holy Spirit
Opening of the School Year Celebration

August 23, 2011

I Corinthians 12:3b-7; 12-13
John 20:19-23

In a locked room, to a frightened group of his disciples, Jesus enters and says: “Peace be with you.”

Then he shows them his wounds.

And then he says again: “Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes on them and gives the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is a story of Jesus giving to his followers the gift of peace, and the gift of the Spirit. It comes when they are huddled, frightened, in a locked room, feeling anything but peace. Into this place of fear and cowardice, Jesus comes with the gift of peace. He does the same for each one of us today.

Yet there is an oddity in this reading. The Gospel says: the disciples were locked in the room, “for fear of the Jews.” This is odd, because every one of them in the room, including Jesus, is a Jew. Perhaps they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, but it is odd to describe this as fear of the Jews generally.

Of course, as many of you know, scholars believe that this phrase and others like it in the Gospel of John reflect the situation of the Christian community at the time John’s Gospel was composed, probably toward the end of the first century, several decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Originally, the followers of Jesus saw themselves as Jews who were privileged to witness the coming of the Messiah, and they attended the Jewish Synagogue. With time, however, the difference between their beliefs and those of the Jews who did not embrace Jesus became apparent and they were either expelled or no longer felt welcome in the Jewish synagogue, and they began to gather in Christian homes.

Consequently, at the time of the composition of the Gospel, a somewhat acrimonious differentiation arose between the followers of Jesus, the Christians, and the Jews, and this differentiation is reflected in passages like this one in the Gospel of John.

And, of course, one of the great tragedies of history is that this animosity between Jews and Christians remained, often justified by passages like this one from the Gospels, and at times this led to disgraceful anti-Semitism.

So, in this passage in which Jesus gives the gift of peace, we find reflections not only of the fear of the disciples when the risen Jesus appeared. We also find a reflection of the tension between Jews and early Christians when the Gospels were written near the end of the first century.

And, as we read the Gospel, it cannot but remind us of the terrible history of tensions between Christians and Jews through the centuries, culminating in the horrific events of the 20th century.

What, then, are we to think of Jesus’s gift of peace? Can we believe that it is real if it did not overcome the fear, animosity, and tension? Can it be real for us, when we—at every Mass—receive the peace of Christ and share it with those around us? Perhaps these reflections give us pause. Perhaps, however, these questions invite us to think more deeply about Christ’s gifts and their reception.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian of the last century, wrote of the distinction between what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace, as he wrote, was “grace without the cross, without discipleship, without Jesus Christ.” Costly grace was grace that demanded discipleship of us; it demanded that we pick up our cross and truly follow Jesus. For only if we do that, can we truly receive the grace — the gift — of Christ.

And perhaps we know this from our own experience. We may receive a nice gift of clothing, or a watch, or even a car, without anything being asked of us. Those gifts are nice surprises, but they are usually not particularly profound.

Perhaps the most significant gifts we receive in life are those that ask a lot of us. For you students, one of the greatest gifts your parents have given you is your education. But to really receive that gift demands a lot of work and dedication from you.

Or think of the gift of friendship. A genuine and lasting friendship is one that we have to work at and for which we make sacrifices. And so it is with the grace, the gift of Christ’s peace. We must work to embrace it and make it real in our life. For what we seek is not the passing freedom from conflict or turmoil, but a profound peace in God’s love and presence greater than anything the world can offer.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus said to the disciples in this Gospel passage. And, in a little while, I will say, “The Peace of Christ be with you.” And you will respond, “And also with you.” And we will turn to those around us and wish them the peace of Christ.

But, ironically, receiving what is truly the peace of Christ introduces a lot of struggle and turmoil in our lives. It requires that we commit ourselves to struggle against the divisions among us. It requires that we confront those areas in our life and in our world that are inimical to true peace. Really receiving the gift of Christ requires that we that we embrace the cross of Christ so that we can know the peace of the resurrection.

I mentioned the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his idea of costly grace. It was in fact Bonhoeffer’s awareness of the atrocities of the holocaust of the Jews by the Nazis that led him to join a conspiracy that sought to assassinate Adolf Hitler, install a new regime, and negotiate a peace.

The conspiracy narrowly failed, and Bonhoeffer’s involvement in that conspiracy led to his arrest and eventual execution by hanging near the end of World War II. His executioner later wrote of how tranquil Bonhoeffer was at the moment of his death. In his life, and in the lives of so many other ordinary but equally heroic Christians, we find the struggle to truly embrace the peace that Jesus offers, and we see how demanding accepting that gift can be.

As we begin this academic year, we are encouraged and buoyed by Christ’s promise of peace. But it is good to recognize today that truly embracing Christ’s gift of peace, and truly sharing it with others, brings into our lives struggle, turmoil and challenge.

If we want that peace, we must accept that struggle. If we want to receive Christ’s grace, we must pick up our cross.

As we go on with this opening Mass for the academic year, let us commit ourselves to do what we can to receive the true peace of Christ, even if this means inviting turmoil in our lives. Let us do so in our friendships, in our campus community, in our efforts for peace in our world and our nation, and in all we do and all we meet.

And let us remember that commitment every time we offer or accept the peace of Christ at Mass. For in doing so we accept the cross of Christ, so that we may know a peace that surpasses understanding—a peace the world cannot give.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame