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Three lessons to learn in Holy Week
The following text is taken from a homily preached by St Francis de Sales on April 12, 1594. (All quotations are from the Bible.) IMMENSE must have been the joy in Noah’s ark when the dove, which had set out but a little while before as though to discover in what state the world lay, came back at last with a twig of olive in its mouth — a sure sign that the waters had subsided, that God had restored to the world the happiness of his peace.
But think of the joy, the jubilation, the gaiety that enraptured the band of apostles as they beheld the blessed manhood of the Redeemer, when he reappeared among them after his Resurrection! He brought the olive branch of a holy and welcome peace: “Peace be upon you”, were the words that fell from his lips. He showed his followers the unquestionable marks and signs of man’s reconciliation with God: “And he showed them his hands and his feet.” Surely a great happiness flooded in upon their souls: “The disciples saw the Lord and were glad.” This joy, however, was not the most important fruit of that blessed vision. Their wavering faith was made firm, their dismayed hope reassured, their waning charity fanned into flame.
Each of the soul’s three powers has its virtue: faith for the understanding, hope for the memory, charity for the will. Faith gives honour to the Father, by leaning on his almighty power; hope gives honour to the Son, since it is based on our redemption; charity gives honour to the Holy Spirit, because it embraces goodness and loves it dearly. Faith sets the bliss of heaven before us, showing us God’s revelation; hope leads us to expect it, reminding us of God’s promises; charity puts us in possession of it, helping us to love God.
They are necessary, all these virtues, but only meanwhile. In heaven charity alone remains. Faith finds no entrance there, for all things are visible. There is even less need of hope, for every longing is satisfied. Charity alone finds a place there, to love God always, everywhere, in everything.
Our Lord taught three chief lessons, no more, while he was on Earth: the way to believe, the way to hope, the way to love. He taught them well; but he provided his apostles with a refresher course throughout the 40 days after his Resurrection. To begin with, the disciples were assembled in the upper room, where they locked the doors for fear of the Jews. The Saviour entered, greeted them, showed them his hands and feet. Why did he do this?
Firstly, he wanted to uphold their faith. How shaken it was! Poor Magdalene went looking for him among the dead to embalm him, and thought he had been carried away. As for the Apostles, when they heard of the women’s encounter with the angel, and his message, to their minds the story seemed madness, and they could not believe it. So, to support this faith — which was on the point of breaking down — Jesus came to say: “Peace be upon you”, and to show them his body. Which articles of faith are strengthened by this appearance of our blessed Lord? The material identity of our risen bodies: “Once more my skin shall clothe me, and in my flesh I shall have sight of God”, who is my Saviour. “Be assured that it is myself.” A firm belief in this wonderful article will make good Christians of us. We should readily jump to the right conclusion: never shall we defile these bodies of ours for we shall rise again, in the twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet sounds. Surely we can believe that these same bodies of ours will be restored to us at the first notes of the trumpet. Only if Christ has not risen is all our faith a delusion.
Secondly, Our Lord appeared to reassure their hope. How weak it was! “We had hoped.” They were afraid; hope is incompatible with fear. “They mourned and wept,” says St Mark. It is a terrible misfortune to lose sight of God. Away from him, we become timid, lose our strength. The Apostles and Magdalene were in this plight. The poor canoe of the Apostles, without hope, was like a ship in the throes of storm and tempest which, without helmsman or pilot, breaks in pieces wherever it is hurled by the wind. We should never on any account lose hope but we should most certainly weep if ever we have the misfortune to be cut off from God.
But Our Lord came to bring relief to that room besieged by fear: “Look at my hands and my feet.” If you are in need of strength, he was saying to them, here are my hands to lift you up. If you long to be of good heart, here is mine to give you courage. If you must hide like the dove, here is the crannied wall in which to find safety. If you are sick with fear, here is the remedy: “And death is swallowed up in victory”. “If you are prisoners, here is your release — my work of your redemption”. Indeed, why should we ever be afraid? See where he comes, we should say to ourselves, looking in through each window in turn, peering through every chink.
Thirdly, Our Lord’s appearance revived their charity. It was as if he were saying to them (and to us) in the words of Isaias: “What, can a woman forget her child that is still unweaned, pity no longer the son she bore in her womb? Let her forget; I will not be forgetful of thee. Why, I have cut thy image on the palms of my hands.” He took our misfortunes upon himself, and ennobled them; he took our distress to his heart — “he showed them his side”. So let us return him love for love.