HOMILY BY POPE ST. GREGORY, PREACHED IN THE
CHURCH OF ST. JOHN LATERAN ON THE FIRST
SUNDAY AFTER EASTER.
I. When we hear this Gospel, our human mind can hardly understand how it was that the Body of the risen Lord, being a real Body, could pass through closed doors into the room where the disciples were assembled. But this will not surprise us when we consider that the works of God would no longer be wonderful, were they understood by man’s reason, and that our faith would be destitute of all merit, were the human intellect able to demonstrate how these works of God are done. However, these very works of our Redeemer, which we are unable to understand, must be taken in connection with some others of His works, so that we may be led to believe in wonderful things by means of others still more wonderful. For that Body of our Lord, which came into the assembly of the disciples, the doors being shut, was the same which at His birth was manifested to the eyes of men, by passing out of the Virgin’s womb without breaking the seal of her virginity. What wonder, then, is it that Jesus Christ, after His Resurrection, enjoyed a glorious and immortal life, showed Himself to His disciples, the doors being shut, since as a weak and mortal child He came out of a Virgin’s womb in an incomprehensible manner? But since the Body of our Lord, after His resurrection, though real and visible, could raise doubts in the minds of the beholders, He showed them His hands and His side, and allowed them to touch that same flesh which had just passed through closed doors. In this event two strange things which, according to our understanding, are contrary the one to the other, were manifested, namely, that His Body was incorruptible and yet palpable. For, whatsoever can be touched must needs be corruptible; and whatsoever is not subject to corruption cannot be touched. But, in a way altogether wonderful and incomprehensible, our Redeemer appeared after His resurrection in a Body at the same time palpable and incorruptible. He appeared in an incorruptible Body, inviting us to seek the same glorification; and in a palpable Body to strengthen our faith. He showed Himself both incorruptible and palpable, to make manifest this fact, that His risen Body was the same in nature, though transfigured in glory.
II. He said therefore to them again : Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you. The Father, Who is God, sent Me Who am God; and I Who am also man, send you who are men. The Father sent the Son, Whom He appointed to be made man for the redemption of man. He willed to send the Son into the world to suffer, though He loved that Son Who was sent to suffer. And our Lord sent His chosen Apostles into the world, not to be happy in the world, but to suffer, as He Himself had been sent. For, as the Father loves the Son, and yet sent Him to suffer, so does the Lord love His Apostles, though sending them into the world to suffer therein. Therefore it is well said: As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you; meaning, while I send you into storms and persecutions, I love you all the same with a love like that wherewith My Father loves Me, Who yet sent me into the world to suffer. This sending of the Son may also be understood of His Eternal and Divine generation, for the Holy Ghost, equal to the Father and to the Son, and Who has not assumed our human nature, was to be sent according to the promise of our Redeemer: When the Paraclete cometh, Whom I will send you from the Father (John 15:26). For should the word send only mean to become man, then the Holy Ghost could not be said to have been sent, since He did not become man. We call Him, therefore, sent, in that sense that He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and, as His sending refers to His Divine procession, so may the sending of the Son be referred to His Divine generation.
III. When Jesus, standing in the midst of His disciples, had said: Peace be to you, He breathed on them and said: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Let me remark that Holy Scripture speaks of two occasions only on which the Holy Ghost was given by our Redeemer: the first, when He was still on earth, and the second when He was already reigning in heaven. On the first occasion, as it is seen in this Gospel, He breathed on His disciples, and on the second the Holy Ghost came down from heaven upon them in the form of fiery tongues. Now, should we wish to know the reason why the Holy Ghost was imparted at two different times, and under different circumstances, we must consider that charity contains two commandments, namely, the love of God and the love of our neighbour. It seems, therefore, that the Holy Ghost was given on earth to move us to fulfill the duty of loving our neighbour; whereas He was sent from heaven to inflame our hearts with true love for God. But, since the two commandments spring forth from charity, which is one and the same, so was the one and the same Holy Ghost given by our Redeemer on two occasions to wit, the first time when He was still on earth, and the second after His Ascension into heaven, giving us to understand that the love for our neighbour serves like steps leading us up to the love for God, according to the words of His beloved disciple: If anyone say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar. For he that loveth not his brother, whom he seeth, how can he love God, Whom he seeth not (1 John 4:20). Yet let us not conclude that the Apostles had not received the Holy Ghost before, since they possessed Him by faith. But after the Resurrection the Holy Ghost was given to them in a special and visible manner; and we understand in this sense the words, As yet the Holy Ghost was not given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:39). Hence Moses said: He set him that he might suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the hardest stone (Deut 32:13). For, perusing the Books of the Old Testament, we find that these words cannot be applied to the Israelites, since we do not see anywhere that they ever sucked honey and oil out of stones. We conclude, therefore, according to the testimony of St. Paul, that this rock was Christ. Indeed, seeing the acts and wonders of Jesus, the disciples sucked honey out of this Stone, and oil out of this Rock; for, after His Resurrection, they received the anointing of the Holy Ghost. We may also compare our Saviour with a soft stone, that, through the sweetness of His miracles, in His earthly life, He offered honey to the disciples. But since, after His Resurrection He cannot suffer any more, and has become like a hard rock, He sent them the anointing of the Holy Ghost.
IV. This is the supernatural oil spoken of by the prophets: The yoke shall putrefy at the presence of the oil (Isa 10:27). We were under the yoke of the cruel slavery of Satan; but having received the anointing of the Holy Ghost, and the grace to be set at liberty, the tyrannical yoke, under which we were groaning, has dis appeared. This truth is confirmed by St. Paul, saying Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Cor 3:17). However, take notice that these very disciples, who had already received the Holy Ghost, so as to lead a holy life with His assistance, and by their preaching to be useful to others, again received the Holy Ghost after the Resurrection, and in a most striking manner, for the benefit of the nations they were to instruct in the course of time. Hence our Lord, giving them the Holy Ghost, says: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins yon shall retain, they are retained. Let us wonder at the high degree of honour to which the disciples were raised at a time when destined to suffer the deepest humiliations. They were promised that not only their own sins were forgiven, but that they had power to absolve others from their sins that is, power to sit on God’s judgment-seat, and, like God Himself, to forgive or retain sins committed against His Divine justice. It was meet that those who, for the love of God, were ready to accept every humiliation and contempt, should be honoured in this way, and that their fear of being condemned by the severe Judge Whom they adored should be the motive prompting God to set them up as judges of souls, which were to be condemned or to be absolved.
V. Consider again, beloved brethren, this important truth, and carefully endeavour to be preserved from the eternal perdition. These Easter-days are celebrated with great pomp and magnificence; yet our duty is to make ourselves worthy of arriving at the eternal Festivals. You endeavour to be present at these feastdays, which pass and disappear; try, then, your utmost to be one day present, all together, at the never-ending celebration in heaven. What would it profit you to assist at our festivals now, were you never to be admitted to the festivities of the angels in heaven? Our present feast-days are only the shadow of those we are expecting, and, though year after year we are celebrating them, we are longing for those never-ending days in the kingdom of God. Renew in your hearts the desire of the eternal festivities by the celebration of the annual earthly festivals. Let the happiness granted to us in the present time penetrate us in such a way that we continue sighing for the eternal happiness prepared for us in heaven, and ardently desired by us on earth. Prepare yourselves for that eternal rest by amending your lives and practising virtue and holiness. Never forget that He Who in His Resurrection was meekness itself, will be terrible when coming to judge the world. On this awful day He will appear surrounded by Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Principalities and Powers. On that day heaven and earth and all the elements, being the ministers of His wrath, will be in a general conflagration. May this terrible Judge be ever present to the eyes of your mind, that, penetrated by a salutary fear of His severe judgment, that is to be held, you may confidently expect His corning. Let us fear now, that we may be without fear then, and this fear will help us to avoid sin and work out our salvation. For I tell you that the more we are now afraid to rouse the anger of our Judge against us, the greater will be our confidence when we appear before Him at the end of the world.