Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
This is the apostle Peter's first speech before an audience of Gentiles. Peter has only recently become convinced that the Gentiles are even part of God's plan. He summarizes the whole gospel for them.
Saint Paul often writes about how Christ should influence our behavior. This passage is about how our thoughts should change, as a result of the resurrection of Jesus.
Saint Paul invokes images from the art of baking, and from the historic passover of the Jews escaping slavery, to express the transformation that the risen Christ works in us.
[Give no introduction to this gospel passage.]
The Historical Situation: This is Peter's first speech to a Gentile audience, new territory for him. Your proclamation of it will be better if you walk a mile in his sandals first by reading all of Acts, Chapter 10. You'll see what a big change Peter had to go through before he could speak to this group.
The Historical Situation of The Acts of the Apostles: Remember that Saint Luke wrote Acts for Gentile converts to Christ. They knew little of the background of the religion that Jesus and his first followers practiced, except, perhaps, that Jews were famously insular and considered themselves God's (only) chosen people. The early Gentile converts needed to know how it came about that Jewish Christians were now welcoming them. And they needed to know why that welcome was so difficult for some to give. Acts, chapter 10, read in its entirety, explains how Peter made the jump, and how hard it was for him. This was quite revolutionary, and very controversial in the early church. See most of Acts, Paul's letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, and the Pauline-school letter to the Ephesians. A homiletic excursus: I write this paragraph in early 2016, when countries within 1,000 miles west of Syria are struggling with the question of integrating foreigners into their societies. It's never easy, but sometimes it's the will of God.
Proclaiming It: Peter's speech is a systematic summary of the gospel:
Our Liturgical Setting: All through Lent, Holy Week and the Easter Vigil we've been hearing about change and newness that come from our relationship with Christ. In this reading, what we're told to change what we think about: heavenly things as opposed to earthly things. Yes, that is quite vague, as are the details of how we will appear in glory.
Proclaiming It: But the point is not to put a fine point on the details. Rather, communicate once again that we're different because of Christ. Don't worry about saying how we are different. Just use your voice, with lots of contrasting tones, to make a poetic statement about change. You're poetic when the way you say things expresses the content of what you're saying. So a person hearing you read this should have a very different experience from one who simply reads the same words to herself silently.
The Historical Situation: When the Hebrew slaves were about to be liberated from Egypt, the Lord instructed them to prepare bread without yeast, since there wouldn't be time to wait for the yeast to make the bread rise. This led to the custom of eating unleavened bread at the annual celebration of this liberation, Passover. It led to a related custom, the throwing out of all yeast products right before Passover.
Paul uses these images to make the Christians at Corinth understand how different their lives are to be, now that they are in Christ. How different? As different as before and after the original Passover, that is, as different as slavery and freedom. Passover imagery carries this weight. The yeast becomes a metaphor for sin, which should be absent from the new dough or new bread that is the Christian renewed in Christ.
Proclaiming It: This imagery is subtle, and likely to escape unprepared listeners, who are more distracted than usual on this singular Sunday. So read slowly, emphasizing each new image as it comes along: yeast, dough, loaves, bread.
Saint Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius (1709), oil on canvas, by Francesco Trevisani (credit per Saint Takla Haymanout Website: Coptic Orthodox Church - Alexandria, Egypt). The painting appears (or disappears, if you will) to be in a private collection. Websites differ in how they orient their graphics of the painting.
A liturgical excursus A lot went into this painting that I admit I don't know. But the liturgist in me really dislikes the ritual of baptism depicted here. If rituals are to have great spiritual effects, then the ritual gestures themselves should be great. What's great about the gesture in this painting? Do you see any waters of rebirth? Waters in which one might be buried with Christ so to rise with him (Romans 6:3)? Even cleansing waters? Any water? Even the vessel for the water is camouflaged, wedged between Peter's cloak and his left hand, and sharing their colors. The first baptizer we know of came out of the desert, dressed to frighten, and stood on the banks of the Jordan, shouting, "Even now the ax is laid to the root of the tree!" Can you imagine John the Baptizer using a pusillanimous gesture like this?
The artist's contentment with an artless ritual surely reflects the rituals he had seen in his early-18th-century church in Rome. Those rituals had developed, or degenerated, due to factors mundane, psychological, political and theological, principally, I'd say, the Counter-Reformation.
My own formation in liturgy was in the wake of Vatican II, where a century of solid historical scholarship bore fruit in Sacrosanctum Concilium, that called us to recover our liturgical roots. Our oldest roots are in the era of the grandest, most natural, least rationalized ritual gestures. We have more digging to do.
This page updated January 31, 2019