Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

THE FEAST OF PENTECOST

Acts 2:1-11

1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13

Or

Galatians 5:16-25

John 20:19-23

Pentecost.  The Greek word means the fiftieth day and was applied to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, the fiftieth day after Passover and concluded the season of harvest.  Jerusalem was the focus for the feast and Jews living in distant places to the East and West journeyed to the holy city to celebrate the feast.  The first reading from Acts, read on this feast from its inception in the Christian tradition, concludes with a veritable litany of place names not only to impress the hearer with the distances faithful people were willing to travel to get to Jerusalem for the feast but also to impress with the wide diversity of languages the crowd spoke and how readily they understood the significance of the wind and the fire and the voice of the Assembled that spilled forth into the Square.  The setting is important if we are to begin to understand the significance of what Pentecost recounts for us.

Notice that the disciples are assembled in a place.  Luke does not specify where.  Assembled is the important word.  The disciples have come together the way Christians always do on every Sunday.  They gather to remember, to tell stories and share faith.  They gather to break bread and share a cup.  That’s the way it has been from the beginning.  And in that assembly anything can happen.  This telling makes that very clear.  I am always mindful of Annie Dillard’s often quoted comment in which she marvels that Christians can gather so calmly and casually for Liturgy.  She thought it would make much more sense for ushers to hand out safety belts and lifejackets and for the assembled to hang on.  What if it were to happen this time.  What if the transforming force of Pentecost were to happen again in this liturgy.

I’m sure you have noticed how tranquil iconic depictions of Pentecost are.  The disciples, with Mary in the middle, sit demurely, sometimes with eyes downcast, sometimes with eyes gazing heavenward.  Little tongues of fire hover over each head.  Nothing denotes garments in motion torn by the wind, much less anything akin to terror.  I don’t know about you, but if I had been there, I think I would have been wide-eyed, to say the least.  I don’t think I could have sat so calmly under the fire.  And what about the wind?  Violent wind blowing in the place where they were, the reading says.

  1. But that is a subject for another discussion.

Jesus promised to send the Spirit who proceeds from the Father, the Advocate who will testify to Jesus and guide the disciples to all truth and empower them to testify.  It is clear that what disciples are called to do and to be is beyond their ordinary ken.  That means even understanding who Jesus is and what the Gospel means.  Paul is very clear about this when he says that no one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Spirit.  The Spirit enables belief and everything that flows from belief.  There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.  And, The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  And in other contexts, Paul will list other gifts.  His point always is that God, through the Holy Spirit, gifts the members of the Church with what they need to bring the Good News to all they meet and to recognize the One who lives in them.  Perhaps that is why the heroic deeds of martyrs were the first to be extolled by the Church.  What other explanation can there be for their being able to lay down their lives for the Gospel, to embrace the Cross – and to die in peace?

Pentecost is the beginning.  The Assembly is transformed as the members yield to the Spirit’s influence.  On fire with the love of the Lord, they rush into the public square and let the Spirit have the Spirit’s way with them.  Were they praying in tongues?  Were they preaching?  Luke says the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.  He doesn’t specify the nature of the proclamation, only that all those people who had come to Jerusalem from those distant places with their various languages didn’t need an interpreter for them to understand.  The language of love is universal, speaks to the heart and is the Spirit’s greatest gift.

The wind and fire of Pentecost continue to manifest themselves in the Church today.  The Spirit continues to empower and to inspire.  Notice the people who feel called to minister in the Church, to preach, to teach, to minister to the poor, to Baptize and to celebrate Eucharist.  Notice the renewed awareness on the part of the Assembly that they are the Body of Christ, co-celebrants of the Mystery, called to be formed and transformed by the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist.  Notice that many recognize that they come to Eucharist willing to be transformed and then to be sent to continue to be that presence in the market place.  Notice the numbers of those who marvel at what they experience at the hands of the ministers, the poor who are fed and clothed, the homeless who are sheltered, those languishing in hospitals and those homebound who are visited, the condemned who have others plea for the sparing of their lives, all these signs and actions that have no other explanation but the transforming power of the Spirit.  And notice the numbers marveling that they have heard each in his/her own language and who then come seeking Jesus and the new life that can be theirs through Baptism.

Pentecost brings the Easter celebration to a conclusion and urges us on to new beginnings.  All we have to do is say yes to the Spirit and who knows what could happen next.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD

Acts 1:1-11

Ephesians 4:1-13

Mark 28:16:15-20

 

My heart stirs every time I read the opening verse of the Acts of the Apostles.  In my first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up…  Now my pride comes to the fore.  Theophilus.  Acts, as was Luke’s Gospel, is addressed to Theophilus.  Who is he?  There are various theories – that he was a Roman on the way to conversion, a catechumen, perhaps.  Or perhaps he was a wealthy Christian was paid for the publication of the gospel and would do the same for Acts.  No one knows for sure.  But I take comfort in another and stronger theory.  The name Theophilus comes from two words, theos, the word for God, and philio, that means to love.  God lover.  Perhaps to one person who loved God, but better, I think, the books are written to you and me, two who strive to love God, and to every other person who seeks and strives to love God.  The books support that love that comes to us in Jesus.

We celebrate this weekend the Feast of the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven.  The Easter Season will conclude next Sunday with the Feast of Pentecost.  In reality it will not be a conclusion at all.  Nothing in this faith ever concludes.  Everything is present and ever beginning.  In a sense, a cycle is completed with the Ascension, a cycle that began when, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel the Incarnation is proclaimed, the Word descending from Heaven to take on flesh and be born a baby in Bethlehem.  The Gospel deals with all that Jesus did and taught, the signs that indicated to those who believe who and what Jesus is, Messiah and Lord.  Acts opens with the completion of the cycle, that is, with Jesus going back up to heaven to the Father’s right hand in glory.  But this is not an ending, a final scene or chapter.  It is a beginning.

Those in attendance think it’s over, the work completed.  Any moment now the kingdom will be restored to Israel.  The foreign rule of the Romans will be driven out – maybe tomorrow.  That’s what they think.  That’s what they are hoping for.  And their thinking and hoping shows how much they have to learn and how far they have to go.  They’re mired in the here and now with its temporal rewards.  They have yet to begin to see what God’s kingdom is about and the part they must play in bringing about that reign.  They have to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit who will give them power to act in Jesus’ name – whatever that will mean.  They will understand when The Spirit comes.

Paul anticipates that understanding and reality in the second reading from his letter to the Ephesians.  It is all about living what Jesus accomplishes in his dying and rising.  Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received.  Just when they (we) might have been tempted to think that Christ’s call is one that entails temporal power and glory, to say nothing of a grand share of the wealth this world has to offer, Paul says that the call is to live as Jesus lived and to do what Jesus did.  It’s all about humility – that is seeing one’s self and s/he is before God and everyone else in that same light.  It is about gentleness, patience, and supporting one another through love.  Remember the words?  A new commandment I give you.  Love one another as I have loved you.  And, in another place, Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.  That’s what it means to love as Jesus loves.

What we have in this passage is a brilliant outline of Church, the ideal we, as members, are called to live.  When others look at the Church this is what they should see, a community that is one body in Christ, sharing one Baptism, one faith, experiencing one Lord who is God and Father of us all.  That unity is celebrated in the One Bread that is shared and the One Cup that is poured out.  The Eucharist is the source and summit of the action of the Church.  The table fellowship that is practiced proclaims that all are welcome here.  The scandal will be division and excommunication.  The clarion call will be to all, Taste and see that the Lord is good.  Taste.  See.  Stay and believe.  And take up the challenge to live the reality until all have been nourished and are alive in Christ.

All are called to serve the needs of the rest.  The Second Vatican Council put before the church the reality of The Priesthood of the Baptized.   It is a priesthood that is practiced through service.  Those who are baptized gather with the Ordained Priesthood around the One Table to co-celebrate the Mysteries and then be sent to be priests in the world at large.  Not everyone has the same gift or gifts.  But in this one community that is Church, all gifts come from God.  It is the responsibility of the Church to support those gifts and so help each other and the world experience the One Christ.  The Spirit will empower those who submit to the Spirit’s empowering to practice in such a way that the world will see the Church’s constant exercising of the fundamental option for the poor, that is, the poor have primacy of place in the Assembly and those with the most power and authority in the Assembly must be the servants of the poor, themselves called to be the poorest of the poor.

Paul lists the callings with which Christ gifts the Church.  Apostles.  Prophets.  Evangelists.  Pastors.  Teachers.  And others go unmentioned.  This is not an exhaustive list.  The gifts are variously given and no one has them all.  Not all apostles are prophets.  Not all pastors are preachers or teachers.  But in the community there are those with the gifts to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to full stature of Christ.  This is what we pray for when we pray for vocations.  A challenge for the Church today will be to recognize those vocations as coming from Christ in the Spirit and to celebrate and endorse them.  The same is true of the lack of some of those gifts.  Edict cannot give a vocation.  Banning won’t kill a vocation.  There is talk today of married men being called to ordained priesthood.  Celibacy, after all, is a charism, a gift of the Spirit with no essential link to priesthood.  Talk must also be engaged in regarding the call of women to priesthood.  The vocation of deaconate is a vocation to witness and be of service in the marketplace.  In the early church it seems women exercised this vocation.  Thought must be given to reestablishing the order.  Or do we believe that God is the giver of the gifts?

And so we come to the commissioning that concludes this week’s gospel as Jesus ascends to the Father:  Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.   It is a proclamation that is done primarily in action, expressed in the pouring out of self in service, and it is a duty that will continue until the Last Day.  Believers will preach and the Lord will work with them and confirm the word through signs.

Let’s not talk about what the significance might be when the signs aren’t happening.  Maybe we can talk about that next week when we talk about Pentecost.  Now there was an event!

Sincerely,

Didymus


THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

 

 

Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

1 John 4:7-10

John 15:9-17

As the Father loves me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love.  Tense has everything to do with the impact the statement.  The tense is present active.  That means it’s happening now and on going.  Hear what the Lord is saying to you and dare to believe it.

The trouble is, sometimes we need immediate experiences to support what faith purports.  If you have never known what it means to be loved, how can you accept that God loves you?  When all the signs point to the contrary it is easy to conclude that you are unlovable, even beyond the pale of God’s love.  Or, that God has stopped loving you.

Many years ago I taught a religious education class in a prison.  I was young, naïve and convinced of my ability, dare I say, my gift to teach.  In an early class, I used the above text as my starting point and wanted to awaken in the hearts of my hearers a sense of their worth in God’s eyes.  So I rhapsodized about the wonders of the Father’s love and how every earthly father’s love reflected and expressed the Father’s love.  The class grew restive.  One crossed his arms and legs and turned to the side signaling that he was tuning out.  Other’s found different ways to convey the same message.  Some rolled cigarettes and proceeded to light up.  The hour dragged on and so did I.  Invitations for questions or responses fell like millstones in a pond until finally the bell sounded that ended the class.  One by one the inmates rose and walked out.  Not one said a word to me.  No one said, See you next week. 

Devastated, I made my way to the Director’s office and poured out the details of my failure protesting all the while how well I had prepared for the presentation.  Silence.  He drummed his fingers on his desk.  I fidgeted.  Then he looked up at me and said: What did you expect?  I told him how I thought that the class would be moved, comforted, even consoled as I reminded them of how they were loved by the Father just the way the Father loves Jesus.  But they would not hear me.  When I had squirmed like a fish on the end of a line, he smiled and asked: Do you know what their experience of father is?  I am afraid that the only way I could respond was with a blank stare.  The director went on to explain what now seems so obvious.  You have a good experience of fatherhood from your own father.  Am I correct?  So it is easy for you to transfer that experience to God.  Many of these men have no such experience in their memory.  Some have no memory of a father in their lives.  Some remember an abusive father.  They can’t make the leap you ask of them to accept that God loves them like a father.  They have no idea what that means.

What your present situation is will determine how you will hear this Sunday’s gospel.  If you know what it means to be loved, if you know what it means to be accepted for who and what you are, if you are secure in relationship, if life is going reasonably well for you, you might be able to revel in this luxurious text.  As the Father loves me, so do I love you.  If, on the other hand, things are not going well, if a primary relationship in your life has failed, if nothing is happening that speaks to your dignity and worth, then you just might be tempted to cry out: Prove it!  Or, do what the inmates did, turn away and ignore.

I am convinced that there is no easy answer.  Sometimes the demands of faith mean believing in spite of so many signs to the contrary.  But look at the One in whom we believe.  Where were the tangible signs that the Father loved him?  There may have crowds.  There may have been miracles that followed his touch and his command.  But all in all, he was a failure.  Some said he was crazy.  Some said he was possessed by the devils.  No wonder he took to the hills and spent the night alone in prayer.  How else could he rest in and be strengthened by that love that was his source and his life?  The agony in the garden was Jesus’ torment that the ultimate failure he faced in his impending arrest and crucifixion might be construed to be a sign of the absence of the Father’s love, the Father who could will to let this chalice pass from Jesus without his having to drink.

That may be why Jesus says to us, Remain in my love.  How do we do that?  By loving the way Jesus loves.  That love is not a feeling.  It is a decision.  The decision means pouring out your self in service of others because that is what Jesus does.  It means making a fundamental option for the poor because you recognize Jesus in the poor, that the poor are your brothers and sisters.  It means loving the ones society deems unlovable, the outcasts, the scorned, and the shunned.  And it means forgiving the unforgivable even if what they do to you feels like crucifixion.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In spite of whatever else might be, listen to what Jesus says in this sixth week of the Easter celebration.  Following Jesus means keeping his commandments.  But his commandments are not the Decalogue, not that they are negated.  But the fact is, he has only one commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.  By this will all know that you are my disciples.  The result will be an ongoing relationship of love with Jesus.  Some would rather think of themselves as Jesus’ slaves, as subservient to Jesus.  But believe it or not, that is not what Jesus wants.  I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.  Can you accept the fact that you are an equal with Jesus, a co-heir with Jesus, and like Jesus, God’s beloved?  Pretty heady stuff, isn’t it?  Heady or not, this is what this gospel text proclaims.

If we enter into Easter and believe, there are a number of things we have to accept.  They can be boiled down to basic truths: we are God’s friends, God’s intimates, and God’s children.  That means a whole different kind of relationship from the one we might first have thought was ours when we began to believe.  What becomes apparent is that our God is not one who wants to lord it over people, to have people grovel before God.  Ours is a God who pleads with us to let God be our God so that we can be God’s people.  Would you believe that God wants to serve us rather than to be served?  Remember who washed the disciples’ feet?  All God asks of us is to do what might seem the impossible were it not for the fact that Jesus empowers us when we live in his love.

What did I do to deserve this?  In this context, not a bad question to ask.  The answer should astound.  You and I did nothing to deserve this.  It didn’t begin with us.  It began with God and with God’s son, Jesus.  It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will endure.  See yourself seated under the fig tree and hear Jesus tell you that he saw you there even before you knew anything about Jesus.  That’s what he said to Nathan.  And Nathan heard and believed.  You didn’t find God.  God found you.  God seizes you, identifies you with Jesus and loves you with the same love he has for Jesus.  Like it or not, that’s the way it is.  There may not be that much going on in your life right now that would support that fact, but the fact remains.  There might not be that much going on in the world right now that would support that fact, but the fact remains.  You are the beloved of God.

There is a paradox that I leave you with today.  You cannot rest in this love.  You must live it.  If you rest in it you will begin to doubt it.  If you live it and pour yourself out in imitation of that love, others will come to believe in that love, too, even when you are finding it hardest to believe.  They are the fruit that remains.  Many of those we call saints endured long dark nights that terrified.  St. Theresa of Avila.  St. John of the Cross.  Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Charles de Foucault.  And many more besides.  Their dark nights increased their capacity to love and be loved.  That may not be a comfort now in the midst of your struggle.  Perhaps what you have to do is use Jesus’ words as a mantra in your prayer:  As the Father loves me, so I love you.  Remain in my love.

So we assemble at the Table to continue our Easter celebration.  We do what Jesus does.  We take bread, bless it, and break it.  We bless the Cup.  Jesus continues to pour himself out for us.  We take and eat.  We take and drink.  And renewed and refreshed, we are sent to do this in my memory.  To do this until Jesus comes in glory to take us to live in that love in a glory that will never end.

Sincerely,

Didymus