What are you afraid of?  One of my greatest fears has been traveling by airplane.  Until my senior year of college, I had only been on a plane once when I was in Kindergarten, which I barely remembered.  In my senior year of college, one of my best friends who had moved to Virginia was graduating from Parris Island after completing Boot Camp for the United States Marine Corps.  The only way I could attend his celebration and be on time for the start of the new Academic Year was to fly down.  Going down was terrific.  Forty-five minutes in the air, smooth flight, it was the greatest and definitely beat an 8-hour car ride.  Coming home was a different story.  I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say when we landed, I swore I would never get on an airplane again, which I didn’t for nearly 15 years.  I’m embarrassed to even think about the number of opportunities I wouldn’t consider because they involved air travel.  I only broke the 15-year drought kind of by accident.  It was the first year I was working with college students.  Some of the FOCUS Missionaries at Seton Hall University had invited us to join them for this national conference over Christmas.  Only after working hard to get our students pumped and excited to consider signing up and registering did I realize it involved travel by air.   When the organizers of the trip started going over the details, they mentioned when we needed to be at the airport; I said, “Wait… we’re flying there?” (the there being Dallas, Texas). One of my best friends, Fr. Bill Sheridan, who was there with students from Ramapo, started laughing.   Knowing how many times I wouldn’t even think of going on vacation to the tropics during the winter, opting for the Jersey Shore and 10-degree weather said, “Oh this should be interesting.”

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 23, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

I was honestly terrified about flying.  To the point that I insisted to the organizers as they were arranging flights that all of us, meaning the students from MSU and I, needed to be on the same flight because if their plane crashed and I was on the other plane and survived, I didn’t want to face their parents or if my plane crashed and they survived,… well I don’t know if I was assuming they’d feel bad or have survivors guilt or what, I just didn’t want that to happen.  I remember the missionary looking at me like I was utterly insane and saying, “you really think those are the only two options?  That someone’s plane is going down?”  I realize how ludicrous it sounds now.  I had allowed one rough flight when I was 20 years old to impact me pretty profoundly and to be convinced by some incredibly irrational thinking.

Fear is a potent human emotion.  At that point, I wanted to numb the fear to get this trip over and hoped never to have to do it again, which is what I did.  This is what I think many of us in our day and age are convinced is the only way and answer when we encounter any fear.  It’s why we see a real pandemic of depression, and abuse of alcohol and drugs, especially with the insanity of decriminalizing more and more drugs.  Instead of simply trying to eliminate fear, we should ask ourselves:  What are you afraid of?  And to be honest with ourselves and, more importantly, with God.  God loves us.  He’s gone to hell and back – dying on a cross and rising from the dead for you and me, to prove once again (after doing so countless times and ways) that He loves us.   And He’s constantly calling us to Himself.  To trust Him.  To love Him.  And if we’re honest with ourselves and Him, He can even meet us in our fear to make draw us closer to Himself.

Look at these scripture readings today.  This story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is packed with details as they meet Jesus risen from the dead on Easter Sunday.  But the thing that always stands out for me is the fear of the two disciples.  That they were shattered and devastated by what had happened to Jesus on Good Friday is entirely understandable.  As is that they felt guilt and shame that they had abandoned Jesus in his hour of need.  Those initial hours and days of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, as Jesus was lying in the tomb for many, were when they experienced the entire range of human emotions.  Some, like the remaining 11 apostles, would hide and lock themselves away in the Upper Room.  Some, like Mary Magdalene would be consumed with grief.  But her love for Jesus would override whatever fears she might have had as she went to the tomb to mourn.  This would result in her becoming the apostle to the apostles as she tells them the news of the empty tomb and is the first to encounter the Risen Christ.

But Cleopas and the other disciple who remains unnamed, what’s always fascinating to me is that after they hear news of the Resurrection… after they hear the report that the tomb was empty and there were visions of angels announcing He was alive after multiple accounts verify that – it’s then that they decide to leave.  Their fear was greater than their faith, which is why this Gospel is essential for us all, who sometimes struggle with that same reality.  Because look at what Jesus does; here it is, Easter Sunday, and He’s just risen from the dead.  Like I said last Sunday, if it were me, I’d like to pop in on Pontius Pilate, Caiphas, or some of the louder voices who were shouting, “Crucify Him” on Good Friday.  The Italian in me would like to go wreck their worlds a bit…

Thankfully Jesus is more interested not in getting even but in calling people to a deeper faith in Him (which is the whole point of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection), So He comes upon these two as their walking.  He asks a question that stops them in their tracks, basically, “What’s been going on” and then listens as they tell Jesus what happened to Him – probably missing a few details.

Their fear made the Resurrection seem too good to be true.

Their fear blinded them from even seeing Jesus in their midst.

Their fear made them forget all the ways God had shown up before, confounding any and every human expectation.

As Cleopas and the other disciple continue to be honest about their feelings with themselves and with this “stranger,” Jesus helps them remember.  Remember all that God has said.  Remember all that Jesus had done.  There’s then a shift in their minds and hearts where faith begins to rise, and fear starts to recede.  They then want more:  “Stay with us,” they beg Jesus.  As Jesus enters this place they are staying, what does Jesus do?  He celebrates Mass with them.  He’s opened the scriptures; He breaks the bread.  Then “he vanished from their sight.”  I remember one friend saying how they had always found that point frustrating.  “Couldn’t Jesus have stayed with them a little longer to celebrate?”  But that’s the point.  Now that Jesus had restored the eyes of their hearts, their faith had been rekindled. They recognized Jesus was real and present to them in the Word and the Eucharist.  Jesus is moving these first disciples into the age of the Church we’re living in who encounter Jesus the same way – in the Word and in the Eucharist.

What are you afraid of?  There’s nothing wrong with having fears.  And it’s not that there aren’t things to be afraid of – but these scriptures, this Mass Jesus is asking us to go deeper and evaluate these things – how they affect us and how we should respond to them.

When I finally faced my fear of flying,  I realized it wasn’t a rational thing. Fear is not a bad thing.  For example, instinctual fear is a good radar for us when we encounter danger, like if we’re hiking and meeting a wild animal or awakened to smoke and a fire alarm.  My fear of flying boiled down to two things; First, I didn’t like my lack of control in that situation.  But the more significant thing was the fear of dying.  I recognized how many times I yielded to that, inhibited myself because of that, beat myself up about it, and was frustrated with myself to the point of simply wanting to eliminate my fear of flying.

But when I got to those roots and remembered, oh yeah, I’m a Catholic Priest who’s supposed to surrender myself to God every day in every way and never to lose sight that this earthly life is temporary, limited, and that I’m supposed to be living for heaven.  That’s when I was able to shift my thinking:  I remember thinking, why am I not this afraid of disappointing God?  Why am I not this afraid of taking Him for granted, (which I do way too often?)  Why am I not this afraid of being separated from God?  And not simply cowering in fear but then letting them cause me to go deeper in my prayer… in my need for Confession and the Sacraments, and striving to be holy each and every day and not presuming a tomorrow.

St. Peter is an excellent example of someone who made a similar and more profound transformation that we can relate to.  When the crowds asked Peter during the Passion, “Aren’t you with Jesus?” his fear got the best of him, and he denied Christ. Now in the first reading we hear he goes to the crowds and boldly testifies to them, “This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.”  He is so bold and convicted in his preaching that in the verses after, we hear that day that 3,000 people converted.  Peter then tells us in the second reading what we are to do.  “Conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ.”  Translators opt for “reverence” or “awe” but another word that can be used is “fear,” which I like in this instance.  “Conduct yourself with fear during your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ.”   Not some irrational fear because of His greatness but the opposite of that.  Realizing the only fear we should have is ever being apart from Him.

I still hate flying.  Just a few months ago, when I was travelling from Atlanta back to Newark after a wedding, some of those knots in my stomach were still there, I still feel tense.  But I know I must remember God is in charge and that I need to trust Him more than my fears.  One way I was doing that on that trip was praying the rosary.  A fellow passenger sitting nearby leaned over and laughingly said to me, “Gotta tell you, seeing a priest praying the rosary on a plane is scaring me.”  And I just smiled and said, “you should give it a try then…”