Pascha III: The Joy of the Gospel
This is the first in a series of reflections on the Apostolic Exhortation, Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) of Pope Francis of Rome. Introduction and chapter 1. Bracketed [ ] numbers refer to paragraph numbers in the Exhortation.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
A very good place to start.
When you read you begin with A B C.
When you sing you begin with Do Re Me
Do Re Me, Do Re Me.
The first three notes just happen to be
Do Re Me, Do Re Me…
Like Julie Andrews in the musical, The Sound of Music, Pope Francis begins his exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel at the beginning. For Christians the beginning is always a personal encounter with Jesus, Son of the Living God. Francis begins, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”  and quickly follows that up with an invitation, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.” And, “No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”” 
But, what does it mean to encounter another person?
To encounter another person is to meet them face-to-face; to look into their eyes, to hear their voice; to spend time with them and over numerous occasions to understand who they are, what motivates them, what makes them laugh and cry, what their personal history is that marks them, what their hopes and dreams are for the future. And in turn to share those aspects of our lives with the other person. In other words, it is a friendship; friendship with Jesus.
This, I believe, is the personal encounter that Francis reminds us is at the heart of Christianity and what he invites us to renew or maybe even enter into for the first time. And here chronological age or years as a Christian does not presume we have had an encounter with Jesus.
Francis takes note of the imbalance in Catholic preaching and teaching when he speaks about, “a parish priest speak[ing] about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times,… The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.”  How true, we Catholics are more readily identified by our relationship with the Pope of Rome than Jesus and law, rules and rubrics than with the Gospel to the degree that some people don’t even consider us Christian!
But to speak about Christ means we need to know Christ ourselves. There is nothing more risky than talking about someone we have never met or only know superficially; worse is making judgments about a person we have only heard about from the hearsay of others. The same is true with Jesus.
Consider the woman of Samaria and her encounter with Jesus at the well. They spend time with each other, there is brutal honesty in the exchange even about the past men in her life. They talk about issues of human and spiritual thirst. There are questions and challenges from both sides of the discussion. The woman of Samaria encounters Jesus and Jesus encounters the woman; both are changed by the end of the exchange. The woman’s experience causes her to invite others to meet Jesus: “Come see a man who told me everything I have dome. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” [The people] went out of the town can coma to [Jesus].” [John 4:29-30; See 4:1-42]
Consider today’s Gospel passage, the two disciples who encounter Jesus and invite him to walk with them on their way back home to Emmaus. Did you ever find it odd they do not recognize Jesus? People who spent time with Jesus do not recognize his presence! Was it a superficially relationship? Nonetheless, these disciples, as Francis invites us, renew a personal relationship with Jesus and spend time with him, listen – afresh, as if for the first time? – to him, dare to now ask questions, share doubts, fears and disappointments – and a meal. In recognizing Jesus, they, like the woman of Samaria, run and set out to tell others of their experience. [See Luke 24:13-48].
The question is thus posed to us,
“Have you, have I, personally encountered Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God?”
Having been raised in a Catholic ghetto, gone to Catholic school, having received your list of Sacraments isn’t enough, isn’t even part of the equation. You can have all the Catholic trappings you want but never have had a personal encounter with Jesus. Francis reminds us we have often placed emphasis on the lesser aspects of our tradition at the cost of what is primary: a person.
Reflect on your own life for a moment. Francis offers warning signs; an examination of conscience, if you will throughout the Exhortation.
Are our lives marked by consumerism and the pursuit of frivolous pleasures? 
Is our conscience blunted, dulled?  Is there room for others, for the poor or are we self-absorbed?  Are we resentful, angry, and listless?  Are we joyful, realizing that joy adapts and changes especially in moments of great difficulty?  Do we embody the complacent attitude that says, “We have always done this way.”  or are we open to new avenues and a willingness to try fresh paths of bold creativity? 
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read you begin with A B C…” When you enter on the Christian spiritual journey of faith you begin with Jesus Christ.
As we have seen in the life of the Emmaus disciples and the woman of Samaria, to encounter Jesus Christ is an experience that cannot be kept to oneself. We must go out and tell others. This is called evangelization, a word that means, “good news”. And when you have “good news”: the birth of a grandchild, your acceptance to college, a new job, your engagement to the man or woman of your dreams… you can’t wait to tell someone else, can you?!
Have you ever felt that way about your relationship with Jesus?
That is why Francis writes, “we cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”.  This is what the first disciples did “…when the doors were locked, where the disciples were for fear…” [John 20:19] If you have not yet noticed, the doors of our churches are open but people are not coming in. The fear-filled locked doors of our hearts must give way to the open doors of Pentecost – we must go to them. Francis reminds us we are a Church that has been sent forth by God. Abram and Sarah are told to pack up and move. The disciples are sent two by two to all the towns of the district. The prophets are sent to Israel to preach, prod, console and challenge. We are always being sent out. Pope John XXIII offered his famous metaphor at the calling of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council saying that it was time for the church to “open the windows and let some fresh air in”. Open windows and doors allow for fresh air to come in but they also allow those inside to go out into the sun; to go out as Jesus instructed us “into the whole world” [Mark 16:15]. What we will find at the steps of our locked doors of fear or our open doors of complacency is people starving for the good news of Jesus Christ.
Francis has rung the death knell for a clergy-dominated church. His invitation and challenge is for every baptized Christian to encounter Jesus and then to be a missionary to other people. Francis wants us all out in the streets, in homes, in people’s lives rather than “remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat”” [Mark 6:37] .
What we are to feed people with is our experience, our encounter of Jesus Christ that they in turn may know the Jesus who is bread of life and satisfies all our hungers. Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.