Third Sunday of Easter – May 8, 2011
Acts 2:14,22-33 ~ Ps 16:1-2,5,7-11 ~ 1 Pt 1:17-21 ~ Lk 24:13-35
As we walked out of the Easter vigil mass a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine observed a car with its front fender partially detached. It wasn’t clear if it had happened recently or not, but her immediate response struck me: “Let’s get out of here before someone wants us to serve as witnesses.” Now granted, this friend has extensive experience with the legal system and knows all too well the games played and the inequities that can pass as justice. Still, what do we make of the knee-jerk response that wants to avoid being a witness?
If nothing else, it reminds us that being a witness can be a hassle. One moment you are minding your own business and then, in an instant, you are saddled with the responsibility to testify to what you have seen and heard. Wrong time, wrong place. Maybe you’ll even be forced to take time off work if it goes to court.
Although in modern parlance we reserve the term martyr for those who sacrifice their lives for a noble cause, the original meaning of the Greek term was simply “witness.” Perhaps we see shades of a supererogatory sacrifice in those who are willing to stand witness today, even for a little fender bender.
The moral act of bearing witness came to mind as I contemplated the readings for this coming Sunday. Being a witness is not simply divulging what you know, but training your heart to recognize God and to love as God loves.
The Gospel for Sunday is a familiar one: the road to Emmaus. The disciples in the story can recount how Jesus the Nazarene was crucified and how some of the women did not find his body in the tomb. Though they could communicate recent events, they could not bear witness to God’s reality before them. Only in the breaking of the bread, when they joined together around the table, were their eyes opened and they recognized him. Immediately, the disciples set out to Jerusalem to tell the eleven. Only then was it possible for the disciples to bear witness.
We find witnesses again in the First Reading from Acts with Peter and the Eleven at the beginning of their mission at Pentecost. Here they are beginning the work given to them by Jesus at his Ascension: “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
How do we understand this “bearing witness” as a moral act? It is not simply communicating what you know. The two disciples spoke of events to the stranger on the way to Emmaus, but they were not yet witnesses. Later they offered accounts of their experience of God to other members of their community. Yet, even this does not exhaust the concept of bearing witness.
In her book Prophetic & Public: The Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism, Kristin Heyer speaks about the nature of being a social witness to the Christian faith:
A radicalist embodiment of Christian faith severed from any external communication or advocacy limits its witness efforts in the face of internal challenges, just as reformist advocacy severed from embodiment of the norms and practices one promotes significantly undermines credibility. (p. 98)
To bear witness is have an outward vision just as expansive as the inward vision is deep. To bear witness is to commit one’s life to living out the love and mercy that we have encountered in Christ just as much as it is finding ways to help that love and mercy reach “to the ends of the earth.”
Bearing witness requires us to have thorough integrity. A witness does not merely report what has been seen but struggles to live out that vision and to seek it in solidarity along with sisters and brothers. Bearing witness requires humility. A witness knows how precarious human vision can be and that full recognition may only come with time, with prayer, and with openness to the stranger.
As soon as we come to recognize who it is that walks alongside us for the journey, we have a moral responsibility to bear witness. Maybe my friend was not so far off to conclude that it takes some real time and energy to be a witness. It can definitely interrupt our lives. And perhaps that is the entire point.