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The Mystery of St. Peter’s Shadow

That strange detail in today's reading from Acts is not superstition but a lesson in imitating God's all-enveloping love and power.

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, 2022

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.
Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets
and laid them on cots and mats
so that when Peter came by,
at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them

-Acts 5:12-16

Read and listen with the eyes and ears of faith to this familiar and grand passage of the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel:

And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

Now compare this passage to the words just above from the first lesson of today’s holy Mass for the octave day of Easter and the Feast of the Divine Mercy. Notice that in the wake of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and their hearing the words of St. Peter breathed by that same Spirit, the people hoped at least to have his shadow fall on them. If the verb expressing the fall of a shadow had been identically translated, it would have read, “At least his shadow might overshadow some of them.” The same verb and image is used for the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Our Lady and Peter’s casting his shadow over the waiting sick who had been brought out into the street to be healed or delivered.

What does it mean when God or a saint or an angel is said to overshadow or cover or come upon a person?

First of all, it is an expression of power. God or the holy person does not come down to or enter into the ones who are overshadowed; rather he takes them up into his own life and action. They are covered over; they are contained rather than containing.

That is why St. Thomas tells us that when God dwells with a person by his grace it is more precise to say that the person dwells in God than that God is dwelling in him. (Even though it is not incorrect, of course to say that God dwells in us. Our Lord himself speaks in this way.)

When a purely spiritual being acts on a bodily being, it does so by containing it, taking it up, not so much by coming down. Even the sacred humanity of the Lord was more correctly said to be assumed or taken up by the person of God the Son than that God the Son came down to his humanity. (Although, again, it is fine to express the mystery this way, and easier perhaps for our imagination.)

When an angel, for example, acts in regard to a material place or a human body, he does so by enveloping that place or person in his activity, not by diminishing himself to fit the lesser reality of the bodily place. This means that we “dwell in the shadow of the Most High,” as the royal Psalmist says, and that the angels are like spiritual shepherds who place us under their care in their overarching sheepfold. This also expresses to us how Our Lady can be the mediatrix of all grace. She is the place where all graces happen! She holds us all in her mantle of universal power.

The greater and more like God a holy person is, the more he contains his neighbors by his intentions and prayers and protection. Others are not far from the prayers of the holy, since holiness draws and attracts all that it concerns into its own shadow, its own breast, its own embrace.

Thus the overshadowing of power is really most of all the attraction and security of love. The Savior says, “If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all things to myself.”

Thus it is that Our Lord, in teaching us to prepare for this feast of mercy, has taught us to pray each day for all sorts and conditions of people who are in various ways in need of the mercy of God. We need more and more to include all in our prayers after the likeness of the heart of Jesus, king and center of hearts, full of goodness and mercy.

Peter gives us the model of true devotion to the mercy of our God Jesus Christ: the devotion of imitation. You and I should shield and overshadow our neighbors with our prayers and sacrifices, becoming channels of the healing power of the love poured out from the wounded side of the merciful Savior.

In this we will become open to the power of the Holy Spirit and the motherly intercession of Our Lady as well, who together will overshadow us in our struggle to live for the love of God and neighbor!

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