One would think that the latest guidance from the CDC issued May 13 that those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks or follow social distancing restrictions would be welcome news. Same could be said for Pennsylvania lifting all building sanitation, distancing, and capacity restrictions on Monday, May 31. But what I discovered in talking to different people is that this relaxation of the restrictions and precautions, even though they seem to be reasonable given the significant drop in reported cases of Coronavirus, has actually led to an increase in fear. Now, with the regulations removed, more responsibility falls on the individual to be responsible for their own care and the care of his or her neighbor. One can no longer depend on the law to provide that “protection.” Without the law in place, no one can say, “you have to do this”. Everyone is free. And that freedom is scary for many. Not only is there an increase in suspicion of the other (since one can’t tell whether someone else has been vaccinated), but now I have to decide for myself what I’m going to do. Before, I just followed the law. What is really scary are all the “unknowns”. Who can you trust? How can one make an informed decision with so much information out there and the meaning of that information changing all the time? Paradoxically, this increase in freedom for many is felt as something suffocating. And the tendency in the face of the fear of the unknown (which includes the possibility of suffering and death), is to retreat from reality in what amounts to a self-imposed lock-down. An imposed uniformity of behavior does not generate unity but only its appearance. What this tells us is that freedom is not the result of a lack of law or external limitations and that lasting unity doesn’t come from law and its enforcement.
What generates real freedom in our lives? What gives us the certainty to face reality and risk ourselves in the face of suffering and death? What can overcome our fear and bring unity where there is division among us? The presence of the risen Lord among us that communicates Divine Mercy is the answer to our longing for freedom and unity. On the evening of Easter Sunday, we find the disciples in a self-imposed lock-down for “fear of the Jews”. They were afraid that they would suffer the same fate as Jesus. They were afraid to expose themselves to danger after what happened to Jesus. But at the same time they are filled with guilt and shame for their lack of courage. Could they have done something more to protect their friend? They denied him and abandoned him out of fear and self-preservation. Into their self-imposed isolation, Jesus comes and stands in their midst. He doesn’t reproach them. Rather, he treats them with mercy. He says to them two times (as if they didn’t get it the first time), “Peace be with you.” Jesus is not simply offering the traditional Hebrew salutation, “Shalom”, but reminding them what he said three nights before at the Last Supper when he spoke of the Holy Spirit that the Father would send in his name: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (14:27). Jesus then commissions them to continue his mission of mercy and breathes the Holy Spirit on them. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers them to do what only God can do: forgive sins. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples become instruments of God’s mercy and can reconcile those scattered by sin and division, bringing them back into a right relationship with God and neighbor. Mercy is the path to peace and unity. Mercy is what overcomes fear and isolation.
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles and appears as tongues of fire. They are filled with the Holy Spirit. Fire appeared on Mt. Sinai as a sign of God’s presence when the First Covenant was given - the tablets of the law. Now, fire appears on the disciples as a sign that God’s life and love dwells in them. The New Covenant that unites us comes not by the imposition of the law but by an outpouring of love and the sharing of life. The Spirit enables them to proclaim God’s peace and speak to the heart of people from diverse cultures and lands. Mercy is the language that speaks to every heart. We all desire a right relationship with God and neighbor. We all desire to be loved and wanted in our brokenness. In the next scene, we hear Peter preaching without fear to the very people who condemned Jesus. Peter is a living witness of the power of God’s mercy. Peter is a man resurrected - a man given new life by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is not theoretical but something others can see and hear. Peter lets them know that the gift of the Holy Spirit is available to anyone who repents and has their sins forgiven. Peter exhorts the crowd, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40).
We pray every year for a new Pentecost - that the Lord will send out his Spirit and renew the face of the earth. No year do we need it more than this one as we make out way through this pandemic. We will not be able to come together except by being merciful to each other. What we all have in common is our need for mercy. Our woundedness, not our strength, is our path to unity. Our shared vulnerability, not our precautions, will bring us together. Do we look at each other as human beings in need of mercy or as threats to be avoided? The new guidelines from the Archdiocese recognize that the current guidance from the CDC regarding the use of masks “does not allow for an easy observance” since they apply differently to different groups of people at the same time. They say, “people are to be respectful of a person’s choice not to wear or to wear a face covering or mask in the parishes.” “Be respectful” is another way of saying “be merciful”, i.e., one cannot judge the character or motive of another based simply on mask usage or not. No one can judge by appearance or a first look. “Respect” literally means to”look again”. To respect is to take a deeper look at someone. Mercy is not easy. No rule regarding the non-use or use of a mask is to be imposed unilaterally in parishes. In other words, we must leave the decision up to the person’s freedom. By talking to people and listening to people, I’ve learned why some people who are fully vaccinated will continue to wear a mask. I’ve learned that some people because of their medical condition cannot wear a mask. Others, because of their medical history have legitimate reasons not to take the vaccine. Unless you are prepared to listen respectfully to another person’s reasons for not wearing a mask or not getting vaccinated, don’t even ask, “did you get your shots?” The Holy Spirit allows us to retain our individuality while uniting us together as a community in praise and worship of God. We are here because it is through the church that we’ve experienced God’s mercy. This is the place where we come to continue to have that experience and be renewed in that experience so that we can bring God’s peace to the world. [I encourage all who are joining us via the live-stream or are watching the Mass on-line to return to the in-person celebration of the Mass.] The risen Lord is here. We receive him in the Eucharist and we see him in the faces of our brothers and sisters who look at us with mercy. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to come. “Breathe on me breath of God. Fill me with life anew. That I may love the things you love and do what you would do.”