Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mercy + Repentance = A Relationship Restored

David and Holly Stephenson

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year C): This homily was given on April 15, 2007, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 20: 19-31.)

For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Easter 2007]

I looked at the picture on the front page of the Rhode Island section of the Providence Journal last Monday morning, and I immediately said, “Hey, I know that guy!”

It was a picture of David Stephenson and his wife, Holly.

I know David because he’s been the photographer for a number of weddings here at St. Pius over the years. Some of you may know him because he was once an English teacher and a guidance counselor at Westerly High School.

Let me share with you now a healthy portion of the article about David and Holly that was directly under their picture in the Journal that day. It makes a very important point:

They were college sweethearts. Holly was 21, David, 23, when they married on June 26, 1965.

“We had three beautiful kids and a good life. But things began to wear.”

They divorced after 18 years of marriage. Holly bought a house at the other end of Narragansett from David so the kids could get the school bus from either place. “We shared the kids but little else. Both of us dated. Both of us had meaningful and lasting relationships. But for 11 years, neither of us married.”

Then their first grandchild was born. To make sure they would both have time with her, Holly and David began to invite each other over when her parents brought her for a visit. “It wasn’t long before we were looking forward to these visits. Our phone calls got longer. Goodbyes were soon accompanied by hugs. I invited her to use my extra Garrison Keillor ticket.

“A month later, I had a dream about Holly. In my dream she was walking toward me. She turned to walk down a side street, and as I watched her walk away, my companion said, ‘You want to follow her, don’t you?’ I awakened and my cheeks were wet with tears.

“Several days later, armed with several glasses of sherry, I asked her out to dinner. We went to Benjamin’s in Taunton — we didn’t want to get caught. We didn’t know where we were headed, and we were frightened.”

“After dinner in Taunton, we were seeing each other often but not letting anyone know. We did some sneaking around. We visited David’s family in Atlanta for Christmas, and his sister asked if we were ‘engaged.’ We had been avoiding the ‘m’ word.”

“It had crossed our minds but not our lips,” says David. “On the way home, Holly asked: ‘Do you think we’re engaged?’ I said no but that was just because I hadn’t bought her a ring yet.”

“I bought a ring, invited her to dinner, had flowers delivered to the table and proposed.”

On June 25, 1995, Holly and David married again. This time, they were 30 years older than the first time: 51 and 53. Their daughter was maid of honor; one son gave Holly away. The other son was David’s best man. “And 19-month-old Madeline was our flower girl. After all, she was the catalyst that brought us together.”

“I was never so sure of anything,” says Holly. “It was like being home again. It was all so easy because of the history we have together, most of which was wonderful.”

“All the good stuff came back and very little of the bad,” adds David. . . .

On June 25th, 2006, Holly and David celebrated their 11th anniversary; the next day, they celebrated their 41st.

I share that story with you on this Divine Mercy Sunday, because it’s all about a relationship restored! After 11 years of being separated from one another, David and Holly Stephenson had their marital relationship restored in an unusual—but very beautiful—way.

To restore a relationship. That, in one simple phrase, is what the mercy of God is all about; it’s what the mercy of God is aimed at. The purpose of God’s mercy is to restore our relationship with the Lord and make it what it should be—after we’ve damaged or destroyed it by our personal sins. And since we all sin every day (at least in small ways), it logically follows that we all need God’s mercy each and every day!

That’s why it’s a good idea to say an act of contrition before bed every night.

And sometimes we may need mercy in great abundance—like Thomas. We all know what he and his 10 apostle friends did on Holy Thursday and Good Friday: they ran away from Jesus at warp speed when our Lord needed them the most! Out of fear, they all sinned. Consequently, they all needed mercy—a lot of mercy! The other 10 had received it on Easter Sunday night, when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room and said, “Peace be with you.” To be at peace with Jesus means to be “right” with him. So with those simple words—“Peace be with you”—Jesus extended mercy to these apostles and repaired his relationship with them (the relationship they had broken a few days earlier).

Thomas, unfortunately, wasn’t there on Easter to receive Jesus’ gift. And he spent the next 6 days making matters worse for himself by adding the sin of disbelief to the list of things he needed mercy for! Thankfully, Jesus appeared to him on the following Sunday to restore him to grace. And just to make sure that all the disbelief was gone, he made Thomas touch his 5 wounds.

Thomas responded by saying to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Those words of faith were said in repentance and in reparation for his sin of disbelief.

Jesus’ offer of mercy, combined with Thomas’ sincere repentance, finally restored the relationship between the Lord and his apostle.

Mercy + repentance = a relationship restored.

I said earlier that the purpose of mercy is to restore a relationship. But that purpose is only fulfilled and the relationship is only restored IF repentance is added to the equation! That we must never forget!

Mercy + repentance = a relationship restored. And if you don’t believe me, just ask David and Holly Stephenson. I’m sure that each of them had 18 years of hurts to overcome before they were finally able to renew their wedding vows in 1995. That meant each of them had to repent for some things they had said and done, and each of them had to be willing to extend mercy and forgiveness to the other.

On Easter Sunday night Jesus gave his apostles the power to be instruments of his forgiveness for human beings who sin after Baptism and then repent. As we heard a few moments ago, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

That power is exercised most completely, of course, in the sacrament of Confession: a sacrament that we need to take seriously and make a regular part of our religious practice.

On that note, I will give St. Faustina Kowalska the last word. St. Faustina was the Polish nun who received a number of private revelations from Jesus back in the 1930s—revelations that dealt specifically with the mercy of God. It’s because of them that John Paul II named the Sunday after Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday”.

In one of these private revelations, Jesus reportedly said this to St. Faustina about the sacrament of Confession: “Tell souls where they are to look for solace: that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of my representative and to reveal to him one’s misery. . . . The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full.” (Diary, 1448)

Confession is the place where mercy and repentance come together perfectly. And so in a certain sense it’s like David and Holly’s renewal of vows—except our bond is not being restored with a human being for a certain period of time; it’s being restored with Almighty God himself, and it has the potential to go on forever.

Not a bad deal, if you ask me, for a few minutes of humble honesty inside a reconciliation room.