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celebrates the Ascension on this Sunday.
In our liturgical calendar we are in an "in-between-time" –
between the feast of the Ascension and next Sunday celebration of
Pentecost. Our first reading from Acts tells of the death of the
first martyr Stephen. Jesus’ powerful witness and support for his
disciples is now gone. The early church was in an "in-between-time."
They seem to be without their Lord – and they were undergoing trials
and persecutions which tested their faith.
But, though he has ascended to his Father, there are strong clues
that Jesus is still in the midst of his community. Does the
description of Stephen’s death sound familiar? The Acts account is a
parallel narrative to Jesus’ trial and passion. Notice the
similarities. As with Jesus, there are false witnesses claiming
Stephen announced the destruction of the Temple. Like Jesus, he was
brought before the Sanhedrin for trial and, like Jesus, he
proclaimed the coming of the Son of Man. Both Jesus and Stephen
provoked the anger of their accusers and were put to death outside
the city. Stephen’s last words express forgiveness for his
executioners – just as Jesus had.
Stephen’s death confirms Jesus’ promise that he would not leave
his disciples on their own. Stephen, and the early church, give
witness that the Spirit Jesus breathed on his disciples after his
resurrection, is very much with them. How do we know this? By the
signs of Jesus’ life and death among his followers.
A note on Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man: Christ is
standing at the Father’s right side. He is not sitting, as he is
usually described in that place. For example, our Profession of
Faith: "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right
hand of the Father." Jesus’ standing position shows his readiness to
act and intercede on our behalf as we, like Stephen, speak and
witness in his name. His standing also signifies his readiness to
return – another of his Last Supper promises.
Jesus makes a similar assurance in our Revelation reading.
"Behold I am coming soon." During times of trial Christians want to
ask, "How soon?" We do our best to stand firm when our faith is
tested. Our ancestors in faith gave us examples that we, like them,
will meet opposition and suffer persecution. Stephen spoke the truth
and paid the price. What kind of "stoning" do we modern Christians
face? It might be a faith-testing sickness, or an outright
persecution, as many Christians suffer in parts of the world today.
Living in the "in-between-time," as we wait for Christ’s return,
can test us, cause us to feel isolated and on our own. Revelation’s
image of the standing Son of Man is a reassurance Christ has not
left us. We place our faith in the words he spoke to his disciples
around the table the night before he died, "I will not leave you
orphans, I will come back to you" (Jn 14:18). We also cling to the
promise we hear today, "Behold, I am coming soon." As we celebrate
the Eucharist today we are responding to Revelations’ invitation,
"Let the one who thirsts come forward."
Do you believe in the power of prayer? I know we don’t always get
what we pray for and we have to deal with that mystery. Still, there
are times we pray for someone and they are helped by our prayer.
When we, or someone we love, is in personal need, even if we don’t
receive immediate relief, the very fact that someone is praying for
us brings comfort and assurance. Their prayer gives us access to a
community of concerned believers and that can help us through times
of trial, discouragement, temptation and even despair. Prayer can
also help us keep focused on our need and dependence on God. When we
pray we are not only addressing God, we are also reminding ourselves
that, for what really matters in life, we need God.
In today’s gospel we are invited into Jesus’ prayer as he speaks
to his Father – not for himself, but for us. He is praying for those
who have come to believe in him through the word his first disciples
passed on. It is one thing to listen in on a conversation at a table
next to us in a restaurant. It is quite another to be invited to
listen in on Jesus at prayer – especially since we are the ones he
is talking to his Father about.
When one of our Dominican friars or sisters is leaving for a
mission assignment, or just to go to preach, we bid our farewells
and frequently say a blessing prayer for them. Sometimes we will
chant the "Dominican Blessing" over them. (It is also said over
those completing a Dominican-sponsored retreat who are about to
return to their regular lives.) "May God, Creator, bless you. May
God, Redeemer, heal you and may God the Holy Spirit fill you with
Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. Biblical goodbyes
sometimes end in a blessing. Recall Jesus’ farewell speech in Luke
(24:14-38). John follows the biblical pattern: a farewell speech
ending in a prayer. Both Luke and John frequently describe Jesus in
prayer. Jesus knows that his disciples will be stressed after he
leaves them and so he prays that the community will hold together
and continue to be his witnesses despite great difficulties.
The word of God is a living, present-tense word. So, Jesus’
prayer is alive; he is praying for us who, like his disciples, are
gathered with him and one another around the table. He prays for our
unity, that we hold together; not only when the church faces
persecution, but also during these painful times, as one after
another piece of breaking news reveals still more accounts of clergy
abuse and coverups. We need his prayer for unity more than ever, as
more and more leave our church because of the impact the scandal has
had on them. A woman said recently, "I have been a Catholic all my
life, but I have had it with the church!"
We will voice our prayers for healing, unity for our church and
for the victims of abuse. As it is with prayer, we express our
dependence on God and our trust that the "standing" Jesus of
Revelation will come quickly to help us. At times it feels like we
are in a perpetual Advent, waithing time and that our prayer is a
constant, "Come Lord Jesus." That’s a brief prayer, easily said
throughout the day, especially when we need the standing Jesus to
come and help us and our worshiping community.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
Twelve Reasons for a Moratorium on Capital
1. Innocent people are sometimes sentenced to death. More than
120 people have been exonerated and released from our nations' death
rows since 1973.
2. Death penalty states do not have lower homicide rates than
states without capital punishment.
3. Death rows in the U.S. are disproportionately comprised of the
poor and people of color.
4. Racism pervades the capital punishment process. Killers of
whites are several times more likely to receive a death sentence
than killers of people of color.
5. Many on death row are convicted based on the unreliable
testimony of Jailhouse informants.
6. Many on death row were represented by lawyers who lacked the
skills or resources to mount a strong defense.
7. Many of those executed or now on death row are seriously
8. Within death penalty states, there are rarely uniform
standards to determine who is charged with capital murder. Rural
communities are several times more likely to seek and obtain death
sentences, even when the facts of the cases are very similar.
9. "Expert" witnesses are frequently wrong in their assessments
of key evidence.
10. Many jurors cannot understand the complex instructions they
need to follow in order to arrive at decisions of guilt, life, or
11. Prosecutors sometimes argue for sentences of death in order
to "honor the victims." Is the purpose of capital punishment to
exact revenge on behalf of victims' families?
12. The enormous amount of resources used to secure death
sentences and maintain them through the extensive appeals process
could be better spent on services for victims' families.
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Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for
persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted
in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s Acts reading:
Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven
saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right had of God....
Would any of us consider ourselves spokespersons for our faith?
Stephen got in trouble for speaking about the things he believed. He
was an EVANGELIST. There... a word we Catholics don’t often use! We
almost never hear it uttered in main line churches. Yet, it is not
just the mission of some paid clergy and full-time lay ministers in
our parish. It is our task, our vocational call since our baptism
So we ask ourselves:
- Do I avoid conversations that might require me to speak of
- When was the last time I shared my faith – in a public or
POSTCARDS TO DEATH
to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an
inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form
it is carried out."
Inmates on death row are the most forgotten people in the prison
system. Each week I post in this space several inmates’ names and
addresses. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of them
to let them know we have not forgotten them. If you like, tell them
you heard about them through North Carolina’s, "People of Faith
Against the Death Penalty." If the inmate responds you might
consider becoming pen pals.
Please write to:
- Lawrence Peterson #0320825 (On death row since 12/12/96)
- Henry L. Wallace #0422350 (1/29/970)
- Terrence Taylor #0539901 (2/18/97)
----Central Prison, 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC
For more information on the Catholic position on the death
penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network:
Also, check the interfaith page for People of Faith Against the
is a service to preachers and those wishing to prepare for Sunday
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wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the
Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent
weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at the above
you and blessings on your preaching,
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