I wanted to share a bit of the homily from last night’s vigil. The homily was delivered by His Excellency Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. He spoke about the empty tomb narrative given in Matthew’s Gospel, in which Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” see an angel roll away the stone from the tomb, sit upon it, and tell them of Christ’s resurrection.
Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5-7)
On their way to Galilee, they meet the risen Jesus.
And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:9-10)
A question immediately comes to mind here. Why does Matthew have the two encounters which say the same thing? Why do both the angel and Jesus himself tell the women to go to Galilee? The Gospel writer puts emphasis on their return to Galilee, which prompts us to think about what that means.
Christ’s public life began in Galilee. John the Baptist is arrested, and Christ “withdrew to Galilee” (Matt. 4:12), where he called his first disciples, Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Matt. 4:18-22). It was the place in which the disciples first had an encounter with Christ, and heard him say “Follow me.” It was a transformative moment for the disciples. “He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him” (Matt. 4:22), abandoning everything they knew in order to walk with Christ. This encounter with Christ is life-changing. It elicits a response, and our response as Christians changes us.
His Excellency Christophe Pierre spoke about how we as Christians have all had that moment, that first time when we encountered Christ and heard the call of “Follow me”. This is the moment the angel and Jesus are calling Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” to recall. They are to return to Galilee—to remember their encounter with Christ and to renew their response to his call. Similarly, we are all called to return to our own personal Galilee, that moment when we first encountered Christ, so that we might renew our response and be more steadfast in our faith. It is at that moment when each of our lives was fundamentally changed, in which each of us received a new purpose, a new mission, and a new hope. That is our personal Galilee, and we ought to return to it.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. -Pope Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est)
We must ask ourselves “What is my personal Galilee? What is that moment when I first encountered Christ?” It may be difficult to remember, especially for those of us who were raised in Christian families. There is one moment which sticks out clearly in my mind, though, and it happened when I was around eight years old. Even though I fell away from the faith for a long time, and indeed became quite hostile to it, I never forgot this moment.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to live only a few blocks from my grandparents. I would spend almost every day over at grandma’s house, where she would pamper me with cookies, treats, and of course my personal favorite, grilled cheese sandwiches. They would take me on long road trips to see family, or to Bible Camp, or to just go spend some time in the Badlands. But one thing that was most exciting for me was that they would take me to “night church”, which is what I called the Sunday evening service at our local church.
Now, let’s be clear, I was a child. The excitement of “night church” wasn’t because I just loved going to church. Church was boring. But if I went to “night church” it meant I got to stay up way past my bedtime. Grandma and grandpa were pawns in my game, and I manipulated them perfectly so that I got to stay up until 10pm instead of 9pm.
At the end of the service, our pastor would always ask people to stay and pray for a while. Usually we would stay for a bit, grandma would finish her prayers then keep me occupied while grandpa finished his. But this particular time, we stayed quite a bit longer than normal. I was running up and down the aisle to keep from getting bored, but every time I passed them I would stop and look. Grandpa and grandma were silently kneeling in their pew, faces buried on their seats, for what, to me, felt like forever. I would run in circles through the entire church, and every time I came back there they were, still in prayer. Even after everyone else had left, and the pastor had retreated to his office, grandma and grandpa were still silently kneeling in prayer together.
That memory has always stuck with me. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was a kid who just wanted to stay up late, and now that I had done that I wanted to go home. But I think about it every now and then—about how my grandparents were able to get so completely immersed and lost in prayer, that the entire world just seemed to stop. Eventually they did get up. I have not been stuck in that church for 20 years waiting for grandpa and grandma to take me home. But my mind always returns to that time when I was stuck, because grandpa and grandma needed to pray.
That moment affected me, more deeply than I ever realized (perhaps more deeply than I ever will realize). I saw two people I loved dearly completely devoting themselves to their faith. Grandpa, the one man who had always been who I wanted to grow up to be like, and grandma, who had loved me and cared for me as if I was her own son. Both of them loved God, and both of them wanted nothing more than to just spend time with Him.
That was the first time I can remember seeing the seriousness of our faith, even though I didn’t understand it. It was their example that stood as a light for me, even in the darkest of times when I had completely abandoned Christianity, of what Christianity ought to be. They exemplified what it means to respond, in a Christian way, to Christ’s call of “Follow me.” In that moment, they were for me an encounter with Christ. I see in them what it means to be transformed by Christ, which in turn made me desire nothing more than to be transformed as well. Without their example, I’m not sure how I would respond to Christ. But because of their example, I know what it means to respond in faith.
That moment is the first time I encountered Christ. Even though it took me a long time to understand what happened that night, it is what I think about when I think of Christ’s “Follow me.”
That is my personal Galilee.