Divine Mercy Sunday
Readings: ACTS 2:42-47; PS 118:2-4,13-15, 22-24; 1PT 1:3-9; JN 20:19-31
Avoiding the Heresy of Nostalgia.
Christians, especially during the Easter Season, are often tempted to indulge in pious nostalgia. We sometimes say to ourselves: "If only we had been part of the first generation of Christian believers when the Church was united and there were not the corruption and sinfulness that followed in the later centuries!" This Second Sunday of Easter we bask in the glow of the Resurrection and marvel in the account of the early Christian community found in today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need."
This sounds great.
The Springtime of the Church was truly the "good old days" - or this was the opinion of many leaders of the great reform movements in Christian history. The early monasteries, and later religious orders like the Franciscans, were based on the ideal of harmony and sharing that characterized the early Christian community. In our own country, 19th Century utopian movements such as the Shakers and the Amana Colony found this description the blueprint for their Christian social organization.
But it is always dangerous to read the Scriptures selectively. The idealized description of the Christian community in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles needs to also be read in light of the subsequent chapters that give a different - and more realistic account - of this first generation of Christians. In chapter five, Ananias and Saphira are struck dead for not sharing their goods with the community. In chapter six, the ethnic division of the all-Jewish community between Greek speakers and Aramaic speakers is described. The situation was apparently not quite as rosy as the first description of the community seems to indicate - and this even before Peter, James, and Paul have their arguments over the admission of Gentiles to the Church found in later chapters!
Rather than being scandalized by this, I take comfort in the trials and problems of the first Christians because they witness to the experience of living the Christian life that has been shared by every generation of believers since the beginning of the Church. There really was no "golden age" of Christianity since every historical period and cultural context in which Christians have striven to be faithful to the Gospel has been marked by sinfulness as well as by holiness. We ought not to give in to a kind of "heresy of nostalgia" that selectively remembers just the good things about an irretrievable past. To quote
St. Augustine, from the Office of Readings for Wednesday of the 20th week in Ordinary Time:
You hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors - would we not still hear them complaining? You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.
This Easter Season and throughout the year we are called to face the contemporary challenges of living the Christian life with courage and faith. While we should be inspired by the witness of those Christians who have preceded us, we do them and us a disservice to over-idealize the past - making it into some kind of a monument that needs to be preserved at all cost. Blessed Pope John XXIII, in speaking about being faithful to our traditions, put it this way: "We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life." May the joy of the resurrection today give us the courage and strength to tend this garden.
Mark R. Francis, CSV
© Copyright 2014 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved.