Ars praedicandi: Easter Sunday, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A recent research project
unexpectedly launched me into a study about credibility.
The trigger for this excursion
was a question about the trust levels of scientists in the US
and whether preachers could contribute
to bolstering confidence in the sciences
around critical issues like vaccinations and climate change.

To my chagrin, current polls demonstrate
that scientists have a higher trust factor than clergy.
For example, in a recent Gallup poll
religious organizations and their leadership
garner a 42% affirmation
at the “great deal” or “quite a lot” approval level.

While dismayed I was not shocked.
Religious institutions such as the Catholic Church
gave squandered a lot of societal esteem.
When I was ordained, the approval rating was 68%.
Makes me wonder how much I contributed to this decline.

On the bright side, we look a lot better than Congress at 13%
and televised news at 18%, but that isn’t saying much.

There are multiple factors for the declining approval ratings
of religious institutions and the clergy who serve them,
including the all too common personal and financial scandals
that have filled the airwaves over the past decades.
According to the findings leading up to the 2018 Roman Synod,
one consistent concern among young adults
was a pattern of tone-deafness on the part of the church
with young folk “vehemently seek” a church that listens.

A parallel worry seems to be the extent
to which church leaders speak a clear truth
not just about finances and abuses,
but about the gospel.

It is a concern of mine on this Easter Feast
when we turn from fasting to feasting.
trade purple for gold vestments,
and sing upbeat hymns of triumph and life.

An often-unspoken expectation
for celebrating this great feast and others like it
is for the worship to project
a great sense of joy, even cheerfulness,
heavy on the Alleluias and buoyant hymns in major keys.

At least for me, and maybe many of you, however,
this feels like a season of quite muted Alleluias.

True, the job market is looking brighter,
stimulus checks are appearing in bank accounts,
vaccines are rolling out,
and some are emerging from their pandemic hibernation.

On the other hand, people are yet experiencing much loss:
grieving friends and family,
facing financial upheaval,
and uncertain about their future.

And then there is the unrelenting violence
not only in Atlanta and Boulder
but also, the brutality that mars our city streets
and those of distant Myanmar and Yemen.
And we cannot forget the lives of the victimized
some who speak up against power,
but also, the multitudes who remain silent victims.

What does resurrection really mean
in the face of so much suffering and violence?
And how do I preach in such a way
that does not further erode trust in our Catholic faith?

A favorite poet is Mary Oliver.
Most of her poetry takes its inspiration from nature
rather from the human world.

Her poems are populated with loons and geese,
insects and stars.
She even has a collection about dogs [1]
whom she once described as
perfect companions since they don’t speak.

Even though the subjects of her poems
are not butchers or bakers or candlestick makers,
they are always and ultimately about humanity
and especially the struggle for meaning.

There is no poem of hers that does that for me
as much as her miniature musing “The Uses of Sorrow.” [2]

Oliver writes:
Someone I loved, Once gave me
A box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift.

I find those few lines
an unusually poignant lens
for reading today’s Gospel,
which, on this resurrection feast,
is not filled with alleluias or triumphant scenes
of Jesus sundering the bonds of death
so favored by Renaissance painters.

Rather, central in that gospel
is a box full of darkness:
an empty tomb.
It took the emerging Christian community
decades to understand as a gift
and not just as the apostolic puzzlement
the faced Simon Peter and the beloved disciple.

Forrest Gump would have us believe,
like his mother taught him
that life is like a box of chocolates:
you never know what you’re gonna get.

I’d rather live that analogy
hoping for the sweetness and the cream
the caramel crunch and the pecan delight
than a box full of darkness.

But like many of you, I don’t often get a lot of boxes of chocolates.
But I do feel like there is a steady supply
of boxes of darkness,
of empty tombs,
and of not being able to make sense
out of violence and loss,
shattered plans and uncertain futures.

So where is the resurrection gift there
and what in that gift might prompt us to sing Alleluia?

Over the last few weeks,
as I’ve been searching for a way,
to find meaning and maybe even joy
in the darkness of box and tomb,
I stumbled across a reflection
based upon an amazing yet difficult book
Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering
And the Search for what Saves Us. [3]

Rifting on the content of that volume,
a particular blogger startled me with
with a new take on resurrection
suggesting that it was a form of resistance.
He gets to this wisdom point
by affirming that
Jesus’ resurrection cannot be divorced
from the violence of his death.
And then concludes that resurrection itself
“is a divine response to human violence.”

He continues:

“The Resurrection symbolizes divine intention for life to survive beyond violent interruptions. It is [clearly] a mistake to say that Jesus’ death was a good thing. It must be understood as a tragedy. But, it is faithful to rejoice at God’s insistence that this tragedy would not shut holy love out of the world.”

He goes on to reason that resistance
is the true work of resurrection.
For when we feel grief in the face of violence or injustice,
the memory of Jesus’ own experience of violence –
which did not trigger divine wrath in return,
but only a sacred impulse towards life, towards love –
provides an authentic God-path
for resisting such violence
with the same resurrection instincts.
He concludes that Jesus is a model
for resisting every onslaught of violence.

In whatever recurring box of darkness fills our lives,
in whatever empty tomb confronts us,
we find the hope of an authentic and true response
to counter the violence and diminishment of the world
with a vindicating and redemptive love.

And that hope … that promise … that future
is a source of true joy, a cause for full-throated alleluia.
Not because the feast of Easter
will eradicate all violence or even death,
but because it offers us
a way forward in the face of every brutality
when confronted with any loss:
a path of redemptive resistance,
a path of graced defiance
to any force or any person,
to any movement or any ideology
that threatens another crucifixion
tather than promising resurrection.

Over the years I have had some splendid graduate students.
A few years ago I admitted a student from Myanmar,
an Evangelical protestant pastor and teacher
and a father of three daughters
whose family made the costly decision
to send him to the U.S. to complete a doctorate with us.

After he received his student visa and then arrived,
during his first week here
his sponsor withdrew financial support,
an essential criterion for getting a student visa.
That same first week in the states
he learned from his wife that they were pregnant
with twins.

So we swung into action,
supplied him with food, housing, a scholarship
and he eventually finished his doctoral work.

In the midst of his studies
the twins were born, his 4th girl and first boy.
As an overgenerous sign of his gratitude
he named his first son after me
so someplace in Myanmar
there is a child named “Foley,”
a point of consternation for many confused relatives.

As you probably know,
in the aftermath of the February military coup
Myanmar is experiencing
great distress and violence these days.
The internet connections are spotty,
I am receiving only sporadic news from my former student
about the crucifixions in the streets
and his struggles to protect his family.

I am not sure if you have seen the stories
reported by international news agencies
posted on the internet,
but recently a Roman Catholic Nun, Sister Ann Nu Thawng
of the congregation of Saint Xavier
has on two different occasions
knelt down on the street
before the Myanmar armed forces,
begging them not to open fire on protesters.

According to some reports,
her selfless act allowed over 100 protesters
to find refuge in her convent,
saving them from beatings, arrest, maybe even death.

What is resurrection?
Is it a renaissance painting of a Christ in triumph,
erupting from the tomb in a technicolor display?
Or is it a woman religious
kneeling on the streets of Myanmar
resisting violence?

My personal prejudices are obvious here
as I worry about a former student, his family
and the only namesake child I will ever have.

On the other hand,
all those who experience violence and oppression,
dark boxes and empty tombs,
became our children and siblings,
parents and cousins,
when we were plunged into that baptismal pool
and marked with the cross,
the ultimate sign of resistance to hatred and abuse.

I pray that this Easter feast
bring us to such mission and ultimately such joy
as resistance turns to resurrection
through Christ our Lord.


[1] Mary Oliver, Dog Songs: Poems (New York: Penguin Books,

[2] Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), 52.

[3] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for what saves us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

2 comments

  1. Father, Your words about redemptive resistance and graced defiance were most helpful in my dealing with masking at Mass. My disappointment last year when they said we were no longer welcome at Mass shook me to the core! When we were allowed to come back under certain conditions, I asked God, ‘Now what?!’ His answer of course, “Be not afraid.” I trust in Him and am usually the only maskless person in church. Masking children, old people with canes, and priests, in God’s house… is brutal! It’s a small thing to resist, it isn’t easy, and I do it with grace…would never, and have never caused a scene.
    At the beginning of all this, they said we couldn’t sing, because singing may be harmful to others, so I have stopped responding out loud, so not to offend anyone by spreading germs. Seems to me that only the alter boys responded back in the day.
    Thank you again for your edifying words.
    Sincerely, Mrs. Hilton

    1. Dear Mrs Hilton,

      I don’t think Fr Foley was talking about resistance to commonsense guidelines on how, together, we can beat this pandemic, but about resistance to actual violence to the person. Government recommendations are not violence, though some may view them as attacks on their personal liberty.

      I am constantly reading testimonies from asthma sufferers and others with respiratory difficulties who say that they have no problem with wearing a mask, and indeed that they are grateful to be able to offer some degree of protection to others around them. In some cases they themselves have been wearing masks for years. It seems that the number of medical conditions that require non-wearing of masks is vanishingly small, and that most people’s objections are psychological. It may be that you are among the tiny number of those who really cannot wear a mask, but the chances are that you are not. Most mask-refusers seem to be people who object to having their personal freedom curtailed by government diktat.

      But, if we believe what we profess, our own personal freedom is massively outweighed by the common good. We may not like wearing masks, but we do it for the sake of others, and the added chance that we might not transmit a potentially lethal virus to them.

      The same is true of singing. The science shows us that it is potentially lethal. You and I do may not like it, but we need to sacrifice our own personal preferences for the good of others, and probably ourselves too.

      May I suggest that using Fr Foley’s words to justify your own personal preferences in this matter is misplaced.

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