Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C 2019 - Fr Francis Afu
24 May 2019
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C 2019
St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the three transcendentals: truth, goodness and beauty. They are transcendentals “because of their sheer universality, they are present in all things. Since they are present in all things, they form a basis around which we can build our knowledge”. But Hans Urs von Balthasar rearranges the order of the transcendentals to beauty, goodness and truth. He did this probably because of the growing influence of Western relativism at the time.
Against this backdrop, and especially in our own postmodern society of fluidity and the dictatorship of relativism, it is difficult to have a meaningful conversation with people when we begin with absolute statements. For instance, the statement that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. While this statement is theologically true, it could be met with rejection. Worse still, is beginning a conversation with absolute moral statements. People simply turn off.
Generally, people find absolute statements too confronting, demanding, and out of touch with the reality of day to day life. By analogy, such statements seem 10,000m above sea level, while the reality of people’s lives, their struggles are at ground zero. People are put off by the height. They can’t see themselves making it to the top, so they give up and settle for zero. After all, he or she who is down needs fear no fall. This seems to be the story of many leaving the Church.
These people know that what the Church teaches is true and good. But they don’t seem to see any beauty in the Church. Yes, they admire the beautiful Architecture and Liturgy, but they are threatened by the ugly sight of the failing teachers; the insensitivity of Church leaders to the plight of people. “What they see”, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “prevents them from hearing what the Church is saying. They love your Christ, but they are put off by your actions”.
So, what shall we do? How can we engage with these people? The answer is to begin with beauty. Beauty draws people in. Beauty isn’t threatening, it is appealing. It doesn’t condemn, it invites. Beauty encounters, it listens, it accompanies, and it leads the person who has been encountered to goodness and truth. A good example is the Emmaus story. We find in the story the beauty of Jesus journeying with two disheartened disciples. He wasn’t ashamed of them.
First, He walked up to them when they were at their worst. Second, He walked with them as a silent listener. Third, instead of hitting them with the bowl of truths, he accompanied them and gradually led them through the Scriptures; revealing to them God’s goodness in history and the truth about His passion, death and resurrection. The beauty of that experience made the disciples to hunger for more and so they beckoned Jesus to spend the night with them.
This isn’t a surprise as our normal reaction to beauty is to want to see more, to hear more and to become more. Beauty is engaging. I recently had a similar experience with a man who was angry because of the news of clerical sex abuse. Not knowing what he was going through, I walked into his hospital room and he shouted at me “go away, you sex-abuser”. I smiled, and retorted, “You are a good man, Carl”. Hearing those words, he reached out to me in friendship.
Perhaps, this is what Balthazar had in mind when he began with beauty, instead of truth. And the readings of the Fifth Sunday of Easter confirm this. The responsorial Psalm draws us in to behold the beauty of God. “The Lord is kind and full of compassion, slow to anger, abounding in love. How good is the Lord to all, compassionate to all His creatures” (Psalm 145:8)? From this text, we can appreciate how beauty reveals the goodness of God and His truth.
For instance, God is “kind and full of compassion” is a “beauty statement”. But it is also a statement of truth and of goodness. It tells us something about who God truly is. Paul and Barnabas in the First Reading from Acts 14:21-27 have had firsthand experience of God’s beauty. They have been changed by God’s mercy, and they, in turn, are reflecting God’s beauty to the disciples in Lystra and Iconium by encouraging them to persevere in the faith amid trials.
Paul and Barnabas’ experiences affirm what Balthasar says about beauty, “It seizes a person. It changes a person and calls the person out of his or her own reality and then sends the person on a mission”. The mission is to radiate God’s beauty. The Church is that mission. The early Christians lived out this mission and it made Christianity very appealing. The Romans and the Greeks were moved by the brotherly love that radiated in Christian communities.
This is what Tertullian wrote: “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that led many to put a brand upon us. See how Christians love one another, they said, for they themselves were animated by mutual hatred; Christians on the other hand were even ready to die for one another”. These noble deeds of love are the robes, the Church, the Bride is expected to wear as she awaits Her Groom, Christ. This is the crux of the Second Reading from Apocalypse 21:1-5.
The Gospel Reading from John 13:31-33,34-35 puts everything in perspective. “By this love you have for one another”, Jesus said, “everyone will know you are my disciples”. Notice He didn’t say, by the “well-defined and unchangeable truth”, but “this love you have for one another”. The love that isn’t ashamed of those who are unable to live up to the defined truth. The love that encounters others, listens to their stories, pain and struggles, accompanies them step by step and leads them to the revealed Truth.
Fr. Francis Afu