By Msgr. Joseph P. Calise
DESPITE ALL THE controversy about it, the novel “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain remains my favorite novel in American literature.
I understand that the theme of slavery and some of the vocabulary used can be considered offensive. I believe, however, that it is written in a way that accurately depicts the time of the setting and that, if it is read carefully, there is a strong anti-slavery message.
Betwixt Two Things
At the center of the plot is Huckleberry Finn’s desire to help Jim, a runaway slave. The mores of the time would have demanded that Huck return Jim to Miss Watson. In the pivotal Chapter 31, Huck is debating precisely that question and decides to write Miss Watson a letter to inform her of Jim’s whereabouts.
The chapter ends this way: referring to the letter, Huck says, “I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and tore it up.”
The fact that a young boy would think he was going to hell because he would not betray a slave offers a sad commentary on the historic time period. However, his willingness to offer himself for the freedom of his friend – the slave – also offers a commentary on the young man, the hero of the novel. Certainly, the audience becomes sympathetic to the slave’s plight and is proud of the young man, who is willing to risk even eternity because he saw not a slave, but a man – a good man. The title of the chapter is, “You Can’t Pray a Lie.” The formation of conscience compels us, if we are going to be authentically human, to establish and live by a set of values we hold to be true.
The Gospel passage we read today is the continuation of the account of Jesus’ apparition on the Road to Emmaus. On the road, He met two disciples who did not recognize Him and He began to teach them all the Messiah had to do. When He breaks bread with them, their eyes are opened and they recognize Him.
They go to the others and as they are telling them what happened, He appears again and teaches all of them that He had a mission – a mission to fulfill the Scriptures, both the prophecies and the laws, so that repentance and the forgiveness of sins could be preached.
Witnesses to the Truth
He tells the disciples that they are now to be the witnesses to these things. This “preaching” is to become the truth that will animate the lives of the Apostles, even if it means their death.
In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter exhorts the crowds to repent. He challenges them with their denial of Christ in choosing freedom for Barabbas rather than Him when they stood before Pilate. But he also accedes that they were acting in ignorance, perhaps not yet having understood Who Jesus is. He invites them to align with him in making Jesus the heart of their lives, and to learn from Him the values that they would be willing to embrace, even to the point of death. That alignment will have to take shape by more than simple words.
St. John leaves no room for misunderstanding when he writes in today’s second reading, “Those who say, ‘I know him,’ but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.”
The love of God is perfected in the person whose actions show his faith. Jesus’ actions fulfilled the Father’s plan. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed that the cup should pass only if it were the Father’s will. Peter and the other Apostles overcome their fears and proclaim boldly their faith in Christ. Martyrs of every age have held to their truth.
Even Huck Finn was willing to risk hell because he knew Jim as more than a slave – he knew him as a man and a friend. Huck knew “you can’t pray a lie.” The truth lived out in action sets us free.
Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19
Psalm 4: 2, 4, 7-8, 9
1 John 2: 1-5A
Luke 24: 35-48
Msgr. Calise is the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Transfiguration parish, Maspeth.