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PENTECOST SUNDAY – May 31, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-23

Dear Friends in Christ,

We were talking about Pentecost.  I had read to the class the first reading for the feast and then asked them what they thought about it.  There was a long pause before a boy near the back of the room raised his hand and asked, “Was there a lot of damage when this was over?”

Not a bad question, really.  Think about it.  There came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and it filled the entire house where they were.  Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.  I don’t know about you, but the combination of violent winds blowing and fire dancing overhead sounds a bit terrifying to me.  The boy’s vivid imagination caught that, too.  Place yourself in the scene.  Hear the wind howl as it does in a hurricane or  tornado.  We have had no shortage of terrible weather occurrences in recent history that testify to the storms’ powers witnessed to by the destruction they left behind.  Place yourself in that upper room.  Hear the wind howl as it does in one of those storms.  What would it be like to sit while fire rested on your head?  I think I would be frightened.  How about you?  Wouldn’t you wonder what you had gotten yourself into by being there, especially since you knew there was no getting out of what you had begun through the commitment you had made to walk with Jesus.

We are very used to thinking of church as a tranquil place, a location that should be serene and peaceful.  We get irritated if a baby cries and fractures the silence, especially if its parents do not head for the crying room (an awful invention, really).  There ought to be nothing tranquil about the gathering space, not if what we believe happens in Liturgy were really to happen.  Imagine the heavens being rent.  Hear God’s voice which in Scripture often has the rumble of thunder about it.  Think what it would be like if you saw clearly the chasm between the Gospel’s challenge and the life you are living and the challenge to leap from one to embrace the other.

The Eucharist celebrated is about giving thanks to God in the midst of dying and rising and transformation.  We have been lulled into passivity by vapid interpretations of what the texts struggle to proclaim through imagery.  Dying?  Rising?  Transformation?  All most Assemblies want is to get through the hour mass takes.  If the ritual last under an hour, so much the better.  The important activities for Sunday can begin.

“Was there a lot of damage when (Pentecost) was over?”  You bet there was.  The life of each person present in that upper room would never be the same.  The former life had been blown away.  The fire burned in each one’s heart.  There was no containing it.  From being a timid group sitting in a locked room in fear that they would be arrested and carried off to suffer a fate similar to Jesus’, at once they had to unlock the doors and open the windows and rush out into the public places and begin to live the new reality of the priesthood of those baptized in the Spirit.

Have you thought about the fact that that is what we are supposed to do at the Eucharist’s conclusion?  We are sent to live what the transformation has begun in us.  It is not only the bread that is changed into the Body of Christ.  The Assembly, transformed into the Body of Christ, is sent to be the lived reality in the market place – the Body, blessed, broken, and distributed for all to eat.  The common language that all those people from those various places heard from those transformed disciples was the language of love.  In these difficult times, that language must be heard again.

Pentecost has happened for most of us.  It happened when we came out of the waters of the Font, when the oil flowed over us, when the heavens were rent, and God’s voice called us by name and declared us to be God’s beloved.  We have responded to God’s action in our lives.  This is not a result of our own doing.  That is what Paul tells us in the second reading from his first Letter to the Church at Corinth.  No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, no one can be even an incipient believer except by the grace of God.  But that grace comes with the expectation that it will translate into action that will reveal the one Body of Christ continuing to act in the present age.  That is how the Second Vatican Council, in another Pentecost, defined the Church: The people of God, the Body of Christ. 

We can take pride in the fact that there are a billion of us Catholics in the world.  What do you think would be the impact on the world if all one billion of us let the grace of Pentecost, the grace of our Baptism, dictate how we lived and defined our relationships with our brothers and sisters at large?  How could wars continue if a billion people determined to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them?  (Did you ever wince when you heard Jesus in the Gospel make that proclamation?)  What would happen to starvation among two-thirds of the world’s population if we believed that we did not have a right to abundance as long as our sisters and brothers lacked the basic necessities for survival?  To whom is Jesus talking when he says, I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me?  What would happen if a billion Catholics recognized Jesus in the hungry and the naked, in the street people, in the poor.  This speaks loudly to the present moment when in our country there are millions who are unemployed and a multitude  living on the streets in tents – as many or more than in the Great Depression.  How long would it take for a difference to become apparent if one billion people became convinced of their responsibility for the well being of the planet?  Would it take long for that desired reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases?  Add any other of the evils that plague society and our planet, those that result from human decision making.  If love ruled, every one of those evils would be impacted.  I believe that.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the outpouring of loving response by first responders and medical staffs, of neighbors reaching out to neighbors to support with food and friendship, of people sewing masks, and small businesses striving to pay their employees while their businesses are closed – this is love in action.  Look at the hope that has been rekindled with the realization that we are one family.

As I write this I do not know if we will be able to Assemble together on this Pentecost Sunday.  If that remains out of the realm of possibility, I urge you to read the Liturgy of the Word with your family as you sit around your table.  Experience Christ’s presence in the Word.  Hear Christ say to you and yours, as the Father has sent me so I send you.  It would be easy to imagine that we are listening to an account of a historical moment.  But that is not what hearing the Living Word means.  What you will be hearing is happening now.  Jesus, raised, speaks to you gathered in the upper room.  Jesus speaks to you and to me.  We are sent to act in Christ’s behalf, or better, as Christ’s other self.  It is Christ who lives in us.

We long for the day when we can gather around the table to celebrate Eucharist again.  Standing is the proper posture because we participate in and witness to Christ’s resurrection.  We long for the day when we can again obey his command to take and eat, this is my body.  Take and drink, this is my blood.  As the Assembly we will respond when Christ says, Now you do this in my memory.  The Lord urges us to do Eucharist, to be co-celebrants of the Mystery and not just passive spectators.  Again, that is what Vatican Council II defined you to be at mass – co-celebrants.  Believe it.  Live it.

We have saints in our Church’s calendar.  Who are they?  We should read their stories and so be able to identify with them and even imagine ourselves doing what they did.  Think of Dorothy Day.  Think of Thomas Merton.  Think of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  And many more.  Don’t worry because the Vatican hasn’t declared some of them to be saints.  The people of God recognize them to be saints.  Real saints faced human issues and responded practically.  Perhaps practically is not the right word.  They responded with love.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  The saints took Jesus’ words as the norm, and so should we.

Pentecost has happened for most of us.  (And may it happen soon for the Elect who prepared and now wait.)  Maybe we didn’t hear the wind or see the fire, but the Spirit took up residence in our hearts.  Jesus breathes on us over and over again and says, Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  With the Spirit comes Peace.  The gift of God’s peace means we have nothing to fear as long as we act in union with Christ.  Just as Jesus faced death on the cross, confident of the Father’s love for him, so can we face whatever terrifies us, confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Just imagine the difference at the conclusion of this feast of Pentecost if one billion of us went out and committed our selves to being reconcilers and forgivers instead of judgers and condemners.  That is the challenge of the Gospel we hear.  That is the challenge of the Eucharist we celebrate and of the meal we share.  That is what Jesus expects of those he breathes upon and expects of those he sends.

Will there be much damage when this Pentecost is over?  I guess it depends on what it is that we cling to.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD – May 24, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians  1:17-23
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 28:16-20

Dear Friends in Christ,

My heart stirs each 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.  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 was he a wealthy Christian who paid for the publication of the Gospel and would do the same for Acts.  No one knows for sure.  We can 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 Acts is addressed to one person who loved God; but better, I think, Luke and Acts are written to you and me, and to every other person who seeks and strives to love God.  The books support that that love that comes to us in Jesus.

This weekend we celebrate 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 our 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.  Luke’s 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.  This is not an ending, a final scene or chapter.  It is a beginning.

Those in attendance think it is over and 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 is what they think.  That is what they hope for.  Their thinking and hoping shows how much they have to learn and how far they have to go.  They are 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.  May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.  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 is all about humility – that is, seeing one’s self as s/he is before God and seeing 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 is 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 Second Vatican Council proclaimed that 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.  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.  Vatican Council II 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 thereby 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.  The poor have primacy of place in the Assembly.  Those with the most power and authority in the Assembly must be the servants of the poor.  They are called to be the poorest of the poor.

Pope Francis, from the moment he stepped onto the balcony as the Bishop of Rome, has been urging the Church to embrace this calling.  He put aside all the trappings of grandeur that had dressed previous popes.  He lives in a humble street level apartment.  He walks among the poor and invites them to break bread with him.  His word to the bishops as shepherds is that they should shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even smell like the sheep.  This challenge has been rejected by some of the ordained and of the laity.  We should not be surprised that there are are those who reject the call to service of the poor.  The apostles struggled with Jesus’ teaching and from time to time rebuked him when he spoke of his impending death following his rejection because he welcomed sinners and ate with them.

The Priesthood of the Baptized.  A challenge for the Church today, especially for some of the hierarchy and clergy, will be to recognize the vocations inspired in the baptized by the Spirit.  The gifts of the Spirit are called charisms.  The vocations come form Christ in the Spirit.  The Church must celebrate and endorse them.  The same is true of the lack of some of the gifts or charisms.  Edict cannot give a charism.  Banning will not kill a charism.  There is talk of married men being called to the priesthood.  Celibacy is a charism, a gift of the Spirit with no essential link to priesthood.  Talk must be engaged regarding the call of women to the diaconate.  The vocation of diaconate is a vocation to witness and be of service in the marketplace.  In the early church women exercised this charism.  Thought must be given to reestablishing the order.  We do, after all, believe that God is the giver of the gifts.

During this time of pandemic and imposed isolation, it has been inspiring to witness the pouring out of self in service by First Responders, the Doctors and Nurses, and the whole medical staff.  But it has been inspiring also to witness the service of people of every age as they reach out to their neighbors.  So many are making masks.  So many are grocery shopping.  So many are being present to loved ones in care facilities, even though windows separate them.  COVID-19 may be isolating us.  But service is reuniting us, helping us to recognize that we are all one in Christ, sisters and brothers in the Lord.  A new age of Church may be dawning.  New charisms are in evidence.  We will think about that next week as we celebrate Pentecost.

And so we come to the commissioning that concludes this week’s Gospel as Jesus ascends to the Father.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  It is to be a proclamation that is done primarily in action, expressed in the pouring out of self in service.  It is a duty that will continue until the end of the age.  Believers will preach and act and the Lord will work with them and through them and confirm the word through signs.

Many long for the day when this pandemic is over and we will be able to gather in sacred spaces to celebrate Eucharist and the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.  In the mean time, we should pay attention to the Church that is emerging through the action of the Spirit.  As I said, we will talk about that next week when we talk about Pentecost.  Now there was an event!  Nothing was the same after that fire.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – May 17, 2020

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8, 14-17
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 3:15-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:15-21

Dear Friends in Christ,

In the Book of Revelation, God has harsh words for the people.  I would you were hot or cold; but because you are lukewarm I will begin to spit you out of my mouth.  You may be familiar with the words, but perhaps you wonder what the Lord means.  If we apply the words to the present age, we might get the point.  Many moons ago there was a question inscribed on bumper stickers and posters: If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The Revelation text and this statement are closely linked.  Faith is supposed to be lived.  Do our decisions and actions betray us as Christ’s disciples?  Do we love as Jesus loves us?  It is, after all, as we have said before, supposed to be all about love.

We are near the conclusion of the Easter Season.  In normal years our Neophytes would have had these weeks to experience the reality of their new life in Christ, following their Baptism, in the midst of the Assembly gathered to celebrate Eucharist.  This year in most parishes, the Elect still wait and long for their Baptism.  The rest of the church, seasoned believers, has had time to reflect on Lent and their time of prayer and penance and yearn for the Liturgical celebration of Easter and the renewal of their Baptismal Promises around the Font.  We have been living in the shadow of COVIG-19.  Sheltering in place with no gatherings in excess of 20, this has become a prolonged stay in the desert, or a winter of discontent.  Will we reach the oasis?  Will there be a spring? 

Peter, in this week’s second reading, speaks words of comfort and support to Christians under siege.  They are on trial and could face death for being followers of Christ.  Their witness and their mode of living have been determined to be unacceptable by the civil authorities.  It has become evident that Christians no longer hope in Caesar.  Their hope is in Christ and Christ’s cross and Resurrection.  The jaws of lions loom.  Peter urges them to act with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.  Apparently the people Peter is addressing are not lukewarm in their faith response.  They are on fire with the Spirit in them.  Their actions speak loudly.  Christ lives in the hearts of the baptized.  Their actions, influenced by the Spirit, flow out and continue to scandalize.

Scandalize?  We might forget that Jesus gave scandal.  We might be tempted to soft-pedal those charges related in the Gospels.  Hear them clearly.  This man welcomes sinners and shares table with them.  In our hearing, those sinners may well become sanitized.  Surely Jesus would not have broken bread with real sinners.  Surely they weren’t really prostitutes, tax collectors, and others judged by the community to be reprobates.  It is fine to see Jesus comfortable among the poor.  We are consoled that he approached lepers.  That must be what the Gospel text means by sinners.

Then again, maybe not.  Sinners are sinners.  They were in Jesus’ day.  They are in ours.  Some were prostitutes.  Think of the woman who shocked and scandalized when she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Some of them were tax collectors.  That translates as cohorts with Roman suppression.  They extorted from their neighbors by adding to their tax bills.  Think of Matthew here.  You name the vice and representatives could be found in Jesus’ company.  He was comfortable with them.  Then add the poor and any other off scouring of society and you will have a digest of Jesus’ table fellows.  Jesus ministers to them unconditionally.  He loves them as they are for who they are.  There is no indication that all of them changed their ways and became disciples.  Jesus is living the reality that God loves unconditionally and eternally.

What is my point?  Prior to the shutting down of the churches because of the pandemic, Sunday Mass attendance across the country was in decline.  The same can be said for attendance around the world.  Ireland is no longer considered a Catholic country.  Yes, the clergy sexual abuse scandal has something to do with it.  But that is not the only reason.  Some people call themselves Recovering Catholics.  The second largest denomination in this country is Former Catholics.  I have listened to many and have heard a recurring story.  In a nutshell, they left because they were not hearing the Gospel preached in the homilies.  They did not hear an invitation to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  Rather, they felt reduced to being passive spectators. They experienced the Church as too elite and antiseptic in the practice of the faith; our Assemblies, too homogenous.  

Now we hear the Spirit rushing through the church calling for reform.  The Spirit speaks through the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis as he calls for the church to be a poorer church, serving the needs of the poor.  Some judge him harshly for the company he keeps, for those with whom he breaks bread.  Prison inmates.  Atheists.  He is comfortable with them.  He invites street people to share breakfast with him.  It is clear that he welcomes all.  And that he proclaims God’s love for them all.

During this time of the pandemic, churches are closed.  We must fast from the Eucharist, as it were.  We reflect on who and what we are as church.  What will we be like when we re-emerge?

I betray my age when I say I can remember the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I remember the announcement of his assassination.  One could see the Spirit empowering those marchers in the streets of Alabama.  Numbers of people, vulnerable to batons and fire hoses and dogs’ teeth, witnesses to the need for change.  They were willing to lay down their lives for justice.  No wonder some thought Dr. King had to die.  What if society changed?  Some followed King’s example in Alabama and Mississippi and elsewhere.  They demonstrated and sought to get Black sisters and brothers registered to vote.  Some died in those trenches.  Some demonstrations turned riotous.  Think of Watts and Chicago and Detroit and the fires that raged there.  Witnessing sometimes gets messy.

Those were heady times that coincided with the close of Vatican Council II.  There was upheaval as always as happens amidst birth pangs.  Something new and wonderful was being brought forth.  The renewed Church was being born.  Think of Archbishop, now St. Oscar Romero as he left the serenity of the Bishop’s manor to go out into the streets to stand as shepherd in the midst of the poor.  He called for justice for the people in El Salvador.

Dom Helder Camara was another bright light.  He witnessed to absolute solidarity with the poor and became a precursor to the controversial Liberation Theology linked to Archbishop Romero.  Even though he was an Archbishop, he lived in poverty among the poor.  Camara said: When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a Communist.  At the time of the Viet Nam War he wrote The Cycle of Violence in which he challenged the young people to break the cycle of violence to which previous generations have become addicted.

Romero and Camara were precursors to Pope Francis’s calling the faithful to these same values.  He comes out of the same South America that produced Romero and Camara.  The three seem to be of the same mind.  The violence of those times, now distant, should not lull us into complacency in our own time.  Pope Francis speaks out for the poor and calls for a fairer distribution of wealth because poverty remains rampant.  There are homeless people living on the streets now.  We have all seen the long lines of cars waiting at food banks, the drivers hungry and unable to provide food for their families.  Millions of people are unemployed.  People are still discriminated because of their sexual orientation.  There is human trafficking and other abuses of humankind.  And we watch and pray as people suffer and die in the pandemic. 

How will the church respond to Pope Francis’s call for a poor church serving the poor.  Some in the clergy and hierarchy reject him – but not the poor, not the disenfranchised, and not the little ones.  So, will shepherds be found who will shepherd in the midst of the sheep and smell the same as the sheep?

I believe that were these values to become evident in the church as we emerge from the pandemic and are able to assemble again and celebrate Eucharist, some of those who have wandered away will return.  When they feel welcomed, when they feel encouraged to exercise their Priesthood of the Baptized the church will, like the Phoenix, rise from the ashes.  It will happen when they hearth call to live the Gospel, to be the continuation of Christ’s presence in the world.

If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  That is what our elect waiting to be baptized must ask themselves.  That is what we seasoned Catholics must ask ourselves.  Jesus says to us in the Gospel this Sunday: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  Which ones?  There are really only two.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Stated another way: Love one another as I have loved you.  That love must be practical.  It is in the act of loving that we come to know Jesus and to love him and in turn come to know that we are loved by the Father and loved by Jesus.  Most wonderful of all, Jesus will reveal himself to those who so love.

Imagine what could happen on Pentecost.  Just hear the wind that could blow then, and see the fire.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus