If people who are not believers ask me about the Resurrection of Jesus, the first thing I do is to point them to things that everyone has to accept actually happened – most of all that these frightened men and women, who had followed Jesus, but then deserted him, were turned into a group of brave disciples who changed the world. Their experiences of the risen Jesus were strange, as we see from today’s Gospel, (John 20:19-31) but from them the Christian Church was born.
But what was that early Church like? Well it is, of course, the New Testament section of the Bible that tells us, because these writings were the product of that Church. – the Gospels, the Letters and another book called the Acts of the Apostles. Sometimes people tell me that they have started reading the Bible but found it too difficult, but that’s usually because they started in the wrong place. Always start with the New Testament, not the Old, and maybe read the two books written by Luke – his Gospel, and then its sequel the Acts of the Apostles. And it’s this book that will provide our 1st reading at Mass all the way through this 7 week Easter season, so I thought we would look together at some of the things it teaches us about the Church.
You will be pleased to hear that this Book can also help us defend certain things about our Catholic Church that often face criticism. I remember when I was not a Catholic how I criticised the Church for all its ritual – its formal prayers, its chanting, its candles, and of course its incense. “Why can’t the Church be like it was in the beginning?” I would say, “Just a simple group of men and women praying together informally.” It was only later that I discovered how wrong that idea was, and it is our Reading from the Acts today (Acts 2:42-47) that shows us this – if you read it carefully.
So what did these first Christians do every day? Yes, to start with they “all lived together and owned everything in common” – just like monks and nuns do to this day – but look how they prayed. “They went as a body to the Temple.” People sometimes forget that at this time all Christians were Jews, and the Temple in Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed by the Romans, so it was natural that they would go there, as Jesus did, to pray. And what would that Temple have been like? Well, it was in some ways like an enormous Cathedral, and within it elaborate rituals took place. Look it up on the Internet (Wikipeida) and you can see pictures and there it says there was an “Outer Altar on which portions of most offerings were burned” and a sanctuary which “contained the seven branched candlestick, the table of showbread and the Incense Altar.” I hope you noticed all that – altar – sanctuary – candles – incense – sounds familiar doesn’t it?
“Aha!” Our critics say “But read on, and it says they also met and prayed at home” Well yes, they did, but how did they pray? They prayed daily together, and then a phrase is used that can be misunderstood. They met “for the breaking of bread.” Now to our modern ears that sounds like they met for an informal meal together where they prayed. But actually any Christian from the early Church would know immediately that what it is actually referring to is what we now call – the Mass.
Next Sunday we’ll have another Resurrection story, of the disciples who met Jesus on the road but did not recognise him. (Luke 24:13-35) But, as I am sure you know, they invite him into their house and then they do recognise him, and returning to the other disciples tell how they did so “at the breaking of bread.” And the important point here is that this “breaking of bread” was based on the Jewish ceremonial meal, not on some informal bun fight. Get an Invitation to a Jewish Sabbath meal in someone’s home today, or even better to a Passover meal, and you will find yourself taking part in a meal which is also a formal ceremony with a table set with candles, and where formal prayers are said. This then is one of the crucial ways in which those first Christians believed that the risen Jesus was with them.
Soon, as non-Jews became Christians, they too were people of formal ritual, and though they wanted to abandon their pagan rituals, they did so not for some informal prayer meeting, but for new formal rituals that the Church used, based precisely on what we hear those first disciples did after they had been created as the Church by the Resurrection of Jesus, and by the empowering of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The Mass, as we now know it, has developed since then. Now we normally celebrate it in Church buildings, whereas they had to do so in people’s homes, often in secret! But it is basically the same set of prayer and ceremonies that were the heart of that little group of people. They had seen the risen Lord Jesus and wanted to live out his presence in their prayers together – in the breaking of bread – the Mass – and, empowered by this presence, to go out and tell the world all about him.
Of course, if ritual and ceremony become just an outward show, if there is no real prayer at the heart of them, then it is all a sham. What makes it real and powerful are you and I praying the Mass together. As a priest I have the privilege to do what those first Christians did, to pray the Mass every day. It is good that some of you can join me on some of those weekdays, and I would love more of you to do so. But at least you come on Sunday – the day of Resurrection. For this is the way above all that the risen Lord is with us, so that as we meet him we can say, as we heard Thomas say in our Gospel, “My Lord and my God.”