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A Unity Transcending All Differences

Peter and Paul

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – Wednesday, June 29, 2014

June 29th marks the great solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Peter’s journey was from the weakness of denial to the rock of fidelity. He gave us the ultimate witness of the cross. Paul’s pilgrimage was from the blindness of persecution to the fire of proclamation. He made the Word of God come alive for the nations.

To be with Peter means to preserve the unity of the Christian Church. To speak with Paul is to proclaim the pure Word of God. Their passion was to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Their commitment was to create a place for everyone in Christ’s church. Their loyalty to Christ was valid to death. Peter and Paul are for us a strong foundation; they are pillars of our church.

Affirmation, identity and purpose at Caesarea Philippi

Today’s Gospel story (Matthew 16:13-19) is about affirmation, identity and purpose. Jesus and his disciples entered the area of Caesarea Philippi in the process of a long journey from their familiar surroundings. Caesarea Philippi, built by Philip, was a garrison town for the Roman army, full of all the architecture, imagery, and life styles of Greco-Roman urban civilization. It was a foreign place to the apostles who were more familiar with towns and the lakeside.

Sexuality and violence ran rampant in this religious shrine town known for its worship of the Greek god Pan. In this centre of power, sophistication and rampant pagan worship, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks what people are saying about him. How do they see his work? Who is he in their minds? Probably taken aback by the question, the disciples dredge their memories for overheard remarks, snatches of shared conversation, opinions circulating in the fishing towns of the lake area. Jesus himself is aware of some of the stories about him. He knows only too well the attitude of his own town of Nazareth, and the memory probably hurts him deeply.

The disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. And these names reveal the different expectations held about him. Some thought of him as fiery Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Others considered him more like the long suffering Jeremiah, concentrating more on the inner journey, the private side of life. Above all, the question asked of the disciples echoes through time as the classic point of decision for every Christian.

Everyone must at some point experience what happened at Caesarea Philippi and answer Jesus’ provocative question, “You, who do you say I am?” What do we perceive to be our responsibilities and commitments following upon our own declaration of faith in Jesus?

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus

In the year 35 AD, Saul appears as a self-righteous young Pharisee, almost fanatically anti-Christian. We read in Acts chapter 7 that he was present, although not taking part in the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. It was very soon afterwards that Paul experienced the revelation that transformed his entire life. On the road to the Syrian city of Damascus, where he was going to continue his persecutions against the Christians, he was struck blind. Paul accepted eagerly the commission to preach the Gospel of Christ, but like many another called to a great task he felt his unworthiness and withdrew from the world to spend three years in “Arabia” in meditation and prayer before beginning his mission.

His extensive travels by land and sea are recounted in his letters in the New Testament. Paul himself tells us he was stoned, scourged three times, shipwrecked three times, endured hunger and thirst, sleepless nights, perils and hardships; besides these physical trials, he suffered many disappointments and almost constant anxieties over the weak and widely scattered communities of Christians.

The final earthly moments of Peter and Paul

According to the ancient tradition, on the morning of June 29, Peter and Paul were taken from their common cell at Rome’s Mamertine prison and separated. Peter was taken to Nero’s Circus where he was crucified upside down, while Paul was taken east of Rome to the area now known as Tre Fontane. The name records the legend of the saint’s beheading, when his severed head reportedly bounced three times, creating three fountains. Artists through the ages have dwelt on their goodbye, often depicting the last embrace between the two friends. The Golden Legend records their parting words:

Paul to Peter: “Peace be with you, foundation stone of the churches and shepherd of the sheep and lambs of Christ!”

And Peter to Paul: “Go in peace, preacher of virtuous living, mediator and leader of the salvation of the righteous!”

The connection between the two saints is also evident in their respective basilicas. Emperor Constantine built the first six Christian churches in Rome from 313 to 328, and among them were St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s “outside the walls.” Five of the churches face east, as was common in orienting churches at the time. St. Paul’s faces west, so that across the city, both basilicas watch over the sheep and lambs of their city.

A text from St. John Chrysostom is very appropriate at the end of the year dedicated to St. Paul. It comes from his final homily on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. After expressing his ardent desire to visit St. Paul’s tomb in Rome and see there even the dust of St. Paul’s body, St. John Chrysostom exclaims:

Who could grant me now this to throw myself around the body of Paul and be riveted to his tomb and to see the dust of that body which completed what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions; which bore the marks (of Christ) and sowed the Gospel everywhere … the dust of that mouth through which Christ spoke. …

Nor is it that mouth only, but I wish I could see the dust of Paul’s heart too, which one should rightly call the heart of the world, the fountain of countless blessings and the very element of our life. … A heart which was so large as to take in entire cities and peoples and nations … which became higher than the heavens, wider than the whole world, brighter than the sun’s beam, warmer than the fire, stronger than the adamant; letting rivers flow from it … which was deemed to love Christ like no one else ever did.

I wish I could see the dust of Paul’s hands, hands in chains, through the imposition of which the Spirit was given, through which this divine letter (to the Romans) was written.

I wish I could see the dust of those eyes which were rightly blinded and recovered their sight again for the salvation of the world; which were counted worthy to see Christ in the body; which saw earthly things, yet saw them not; which saw the things that are not seen; which knew no sleep, and were watchful even at midnight. …

I wish I could also see the dust of those feet, Paul’s feet, which run through the world and were not tired, which were bound in stocks when the prison shook, which went through parts populated and uninhabited, which walked on so many journeys. …

I wish I could see the tomb where the weapons of righteousness lay, the weapons of light, the limbs of Paul, which now are alive but in life were made dead (to sin) … which were in Christ’s limbs, clothed in Christ, bound in the Spirit, riveted to the fear of God, bearing the marks of Christ.

– St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 32 on the Epistle to the Romans,” Migne, Patrologia Graeca 60, 678-80

Together they built the Church

As ordinary men, Peter and Paul might have avoided each other from time to time. Peter was a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee and Paul a Greek-educated intellectual. But Jesus brought them together as a sign for his Church in which the entire spectrum of humanity would find a new place to call home. Together they worked to build the church. Together they witnessed to Christ. Together they suffered the death of their Lord, death at murderous hands. Paul died by the sword and Peter was crucified head-down. They had a unity that transcended all differences. They teach us about the depth of Christian commitment. For Peter and Paul, insight into Jesus’ true identity brought new demands and responsibilities.

At the close of the Year of St. Paul on June 29, 2009, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI invited each Catholic to hold up a mirror to his or her life and to ask, “Am I as determined and as energetic about spreading the Catholic faith as St. Paul was?” “Is spreading the faith both by example and by my conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances even a concern for me?” “What do I perceive to be my responsibilities following upon my own declaration of faith in Jesus?”

[The readings for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul are: Acts 12.1-11; Ps 34; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16.13-19.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Let Us Go up to Jerusalem With Jesus

Jesus Jerusalem cropped

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – June 26, 2016

In the opening words of today’s Gospel, Luke clearly states where Jesus is headed. He is going up to Jerusalem where, as we heard predicted in last Sunday’s Gospel, he will be put to death.

Without a doubt, Jesus speaks forcefully to us about the call to discipleship, of following him. He invites all of those he meets along the way to follow him, and there are many and varied responses to this invitation. Some will not even listen to him (i.e. the Samaritans) because they are prejudiced against the one who issues the invitation. Others respond to the invitation without fully realizing what it entails.

Discipleship is a total commitment, and Jesus wants us to know from the beginning that following him will lead to the Cross.

Luke’s travel narrative

Luke’s journey narrative is based on Mark 10:1-52, but his Marcan source is only used in Luke 18:15-19:27. Before that point he has inserted into his Gospel a distinctive collection of sayings of Jesus and stories about him that he has drawn from “Q” – a collection of sayings of Jesus used also by Matthew – and from his own special traditions.

Much of the material in the Lucan travel narrative is teaching for the disciples. During the course of this journey Jesus is preparing his chosen Galilean witnesses for the role they will play after his exodus (Luke 9:31): they are to be his witnesses to the people (Acts 10:39; 13:31) and thereby provide certainty to the readers of Luke’s Gospel that the teachings they have received are rooted in the teachings of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).

Just as the Galilean ministry began with a rejection of Jesus in his hometown, so too the travel narrative begins with his rejection by the Samaritans (9:51-55). In this episode Jesus disassociates himself from the attitude expressed by his disciples that those who reject him are to be severely punished. The story alludes to 2 Kings 1:10, 12 where the prophet Elijah takes the course of action Jesus rejects. In so doing Jesus rejects the identification of himself with Elijah.

Christian discipleship is severe

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the severity and the unconditional nature of Christian discipleship (9:57-62). Even family ties and filial obligations, such as burying one’s parents, cannot distract one no matter how briefly from proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Discipleship requires a wholehearted commitment to the Lord and a generous spirit of service toward his people. The demands are severe. Jesus says unambiguously: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).

The people of Jesus’ time understood this agrarian imagery. The farmer has to keep his eyes fixed straight ahead, otherwise the neatly organized field required for planting would be turned into a chaotic nightmare at harvesting time. The demand sounds harsh, especially when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (9:60). This is not disrespect for our deceased, but simply a realization that we must live without regret over the past. If we keep our eye on the present, then the fields of our lives will have the grace and freshness of newly plowed spring fields. Our lives will hold great promise for a rich harvest.

Luke also uses the journey motif to teach something about the road that Christians must walk. It is similar to the road Jesus himself journeyed, involving gross misunderstanding and rejection and requiring a great deal of internal strength and energy.

To be a disciple of Jesus requires total commitment on our part. It involves homelessness, not really belonging anywhere. To belong to Jesus must supersede all other obligations. The journey is final, its consequences ultimate. To be called does not require our perfection. Elijah, Elisha, the prophets of Israel, the fishermen of Galilee, and even the tax collectors that Jesus called were certainly not summoned because of their qualifications or achievements. Paul says that Jesus calls “the foolish,” so that the wise will be shamed (1 Corinthians 1:27). Our discipleship of Jesus must be much more than staying with him in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Bethany, Bethsaida, Capernaum, or atop Mount Tabor. It must also include being with him in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane, on Calvary.

There is no possibility of a lukewarm response; the Gospel requires all or nothing. The disciples speak the ultimate message of the Lord, “Say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). As signs of victory over evil, the disciples have spectacular powers, demonstrating the awesome power of God. They are to rejoice, though not in the power of God active in them or even in the success of their message: joy comes from the promise of life that has been given to them.

We are today’s disciples. Our mandate is the same: to speak by our words and deeds the love of our God, and most of all, to rejoice, because he has called us and gifted us with such abundant life.

Let’s go

Today’s Gospel also invites us to reflect on journeying with Jesus in his own land, up to the Holy City of Jerusalem, not only in our Christian lives as disciples, but also as pilgrims in history. Beginning today and continuing next Sunday, I would like to offer some reflections on the meaning of pilgrimage or holy journey.

The phenomenon of the “holy journey” was known a long time before the Christian era and precedes even the Jewish tradition of pilgrimages. Devotional trips have always been related to the ancient reality of “holy places” or “sanctuaries.” Such destinations were considered sacred because they acknowledged the presence of a superior power that subsequently became an object of worship. In ancient times people journeyed individually as well as collectively to the “shrines” where they performed special acts of worship for devotional, penitential, or votive reasons.

It is very likely that in the first three centuries Christians did not make pilgrimages to the Holy Land if we understand them as devotional journeys toward a holy place. It seems that the reluctant attitude towards pilgrimages in early Christianity was basically due to two factors: political and religious. The lack of recognition of Christianity, which was practically an underground life in most of the Roman Empire, was a highly discouraging fact in the recognition and veneration of holy places.

From the writings of Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist from the second century, we learn that despite the widespread pagan custom of making therapeutic pilgrimages to the sanctuaries of Aesclepius, Christians did not exercise a similar practice because Christ was the unique healer of bodies and souls. Though these myriad factors portray a rather negative attitude of the first Christians towards Holy Land pilgrimages, we do have some information pointing to sporadic journeys. Those journeys however appear to be classified more as scholarly trips than as pilgrimages.

Tracing the footsteps

The first, as far as we know, was made in 160 AD by Bishop Melito of Sardis. He wanted to acquire some details about the names and order of the books of the Old Testament. Another scholarly trip was made by Origen when he came from Alexandria to the Holy Land circa 235 AD. Before settling down in Caesarea, he decided to retrace “the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.”

Probably the first attested pilgrim in the actual sense of the word dates back to the year 216 AD, when a bishop of Cappadocia, Alexander (a future bishop of Jerusalem), arrived in Jerusalem to “pray and know the holy sites.” Therefore, in the first three centuries, besides a few sporadic cases, we cannot talk about the practice of pilgrimages neither to the Holy Land nor to any other places.

The scenario shifted quite drastically after the year 313 when Christianity obtained the status of the legal religion of the Empire. The Golden Age of the Holy Land had begun. The Holy Land itinerary inspired all other devotional journeys. It seems that the desire to experience the biblical sites overshadowed the previous reluctant attitude towards pilgrimages. In fact, many people enthusiastically and courageously overcame the hardships and risks of long and perilous travel in order to embark on a holy and exciting trip toward the earthly homeland of the Lord.

Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century Christian historian, portrayed Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, as the noblest of all Holy Land pilgrims. Eusebius asserts that Constantine wished to be baptized in the river Jordan like Christ. We unfortunately do not know if the emperor’s desire was fulfilled and whether he came to the land of the Bible. The Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena played very important roles in the life and history of God’s land.

These reflections on the Holy Lands are continued in the reflection for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

[The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, are: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; and Luke 9:51-62.]

(Image: Jesus Goes Up to Jerusalem by James Tissot)

The Only Question That Matters

Jesus Apostles Tissot cropped

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – June 19, 2016

The second half of Luke’s Gospel is one continuous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the city of destiny. For Luke, the Christian journey is a joyous way illuminated by the graciousness of the Saviour of the world.

Along that way, Jesus asks a very important question of his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” is the same question asked of every disciple in every age. From today’s Gospel onwards, Jesus is on his way to the Cross. Everything he says and does is another step toward Golgotha – where he will demonstrate perfect obedience, perfect love, and total self-giving.

The incident in today’s Gospel (Luke 9:18-24) is based on Mark 8:27-33, but Luke has eliminated Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus as suffering Son of Man (Mark 8:32), and the rebuke of Peter by Jesus (Mark 8:33). Luke also softens the harsh portrait of Peter and the other Apostles found in his Marcan source elsewhere in his Gospel. Luke 22:39-46 similarly lacks the rebuke of Peter that occurs in its Marcan source (14:37-38).

The disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. And these names reveal all the different expectations held about him. Some thought of him as an Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Some saw him as one of the ancient prophets.

When Jesus asks his disciples of their perception of him, he asks what people are saying about him. How do they see his work? Who is he in their minds? Probably taken aback by the question, the disciples dredge their memories for overheard remarks, snatches of shared conversation, opinions circulating in the fishing towns of the lake area. Jesus himself is aware of some of this. The replies of the disciples are varied, as are those of each of us today when Jesus, through someone else’s lips, asks us the same question, and with increasing frequency and intensity.

The concept of “Messiah” in Judaism

There was no single concept of “Messiah” in Judaism. The idea of Messiah (“anointed one”) as an ideal king descended from David is the earliest known to us, but in the Maccabaean period (about 163-63 B.C.), the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs preserved for us in Greek, give evidence of belief in a Messiah from the tribe of Levi, to which the Maccabaean family belonged. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain various other ideas: a priestly Messiah and the (lay) Messiah of Israel (1QSa); a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18-19) who is also the star out of Jacob (Numbers 23:15-17) (4Q175); but also the Davidic Messiah (4Q174). Melchizedek is a deliverer also, but is not called Messiah (11QMelch).

To proclaim Jesus as the Messiah was a loaded and dangerous statement. It was all that Jesus’ enemies needed to use against him, and already there were many who were ready to enlist under the banner of a royal pretender. But, far more than this, such a role was not Jesus’ destiny. He would not and could not be that kind of militaristic or political Messiah.

Identifying Jesus Today

The struggle to identify Jesus and his role as Messiah continues today. Some say the individual Christian and the whole Church should be Elijah figures, confronting systems, institutions, and national policies. That was the way Elijah saw his task. We only need to read the First Book of Kings (chapters 17 to 21) to confirm this fact. Some say, like Jeremiah, that the domain of Christ, through his Church, is the personal and private side of life. Significantly, Jesus probes beyond both and asks, “You, who do you say I am?” (Luke 9:20)

In Peter’s answer, “You are Messiah” (9:20) – blurted out with his typical impetuosity – we are given a response that involves both of the concepts above and transcends them. The Messiah came into society, and into individual lives, in a total way, reconciling the distinction between public and private. The quality of our response to this question is the best gauge of the quality of our discipleship. Let us remember certain facts and truths about Jesus’ background and world mission that have prepared for Christianity to be a truly global Church:

1) Jesus was born of the political tribe of Judah – neither the priestly tribe of Levi nor the priestly family of Zaddok. Yet Jesus was not a politician.

2) Nevertheless Jesus did have a sense of politics. A world mission cannot be undertaken without serious interaction with politics.

3) Jesus established himself at Capernaum rather than in the desert or in some remote village. In his town along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, there was a main road, tax collectors, and relations with the Roman centurion. Jesus was very much at home in Capernaum, not in Jerusalem.

4) Jesus bonded himself with all those who were sick and dying, with sinners, and those living on the fringes of society. Through his life, Jesus puts biblical justice into practice by proclaiming the Beatitudes. Authentic justice is a binding of one’s self with the sick, the disabled, the poor, and the hungry. Yet he did not neglect those who fell outside these categories. He dined with the rich and the mighty as well as the poor and downtrodden. He teaches us an authentic spirit of inclusion of all people.

5) Jesus did not preach the political kingdom of David but the Kingdom of God. He had a great ability to appeal to everyone and incorporate everything into his vision of the Kingdom.

Piecing together the mosaic

If you have ever attempted to piece together an ancient mosaic, you would know of the painstaking work involved in such an endeavour. During my biblical studies in the Holy Land, I participated in several archeological expeditions involving the discovery of ancient mosaics. Every little fragment matters in putting the whole picture together. In a similar way, when we attempt to answer Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel, “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20), we are being invited to piece together a magnificent mosaic.

In the context of today’s Gospel, Jesus will be the Messiah only when he lays down his life for others. Likewise I will be like Jesus only when I lay down my life for others. Jesus’ identity is found in doing the will of God. Luke applies the same principle to all of us as his disciples. Our true identity and purpose is found in going beyond ourselves. This task is a daily one: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If I lose my life for Christ, I find it!

Remembering Tor Vergata 2000

One of the most powerful and memorable reflections on Jesus’ identity that I have ever experienced took place on the night of August 19, 2000 during the evening prayer vigil at Tor Vergata on the outskirts of Rome during the World Youth Day of the Great Jubilee. I shall never forget that hot night, when silence came over the crowd of over one million young people as Pope John Paul II asked them the only question that matters: “Who do you say that I am?”

The elderly Pope addressed his young friends with words that rang out over the seeming apocalyptic scene before him:

What is the meaning of this dialogue? Why does Jesus want to know what people think about him? Why does he want to know what his disciples think about him? Jesus wants his disciples to become aware of what is hidden in their own minds and hearts and to give voice to their conviction. At the same time, however, he knows that the judgment they will express will not be theirs alone, because it will reveal what God has poured into their hearts by the grace of faith.

This is what faith is all about! It is the response of the rational and free human person to the word of the living God. The questions that Jesus asks, the answers given by the Apostles, and finally by Simon Peter, are a kind of examination on the maturity of the faith of those who are closest to Christ.

It is Jesus

The Holy Father continued:

It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.

He concluded his memorable address with these words:

Dear friends, at the dawn of the Third Millennium I see in you the “morning watchmen” (cf. Is 21:11-12). In the course of the century now past young people like you were summoned to huge gatherings to learn the ways of hatred; they were sent to fight against one another. The various godless messianic systems that tried to take the place of Christian hope have shown themselves to be truly horrendous. Today you have come together to declare that in the new century you will not let yourselves be made into tools of violence and destruction; you will defend peace, paying the price in your person if need be. You will not resign yourselves to a world where other human beings die of hunger, remain illiterate and have no work. You will defend life at every moment of its development; you will strive with all your strength to make this earth ever more livable for all people.

Who is this Jesus for us? This is indeed the only question that really matters.

[The readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Zechariah 12:10-11, 13:1; Galatians 3:26-29; and Luke 9:18-24]

(Image: Jesus Teaching by James Tissot)

Love as Consequence of Authentic Forgiveness

Jesus Sinful Woman Tissot cropped

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – June 12, 2016

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus dines with sinners and takes the opportunity to teach some very important lessons about discipleship and holiness.

As with so many things he did, Jesus’ befriending such types of people and eating with them angered his opponents, especially the religious leaders of his day. They murmured against him: “He has gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner,” or “Look at him who eats with tax-collectors and prostitutes!” But where others saw only sinners, people on the fringe, public pariahs to be hated and isolated, Jesus saw human beings cowering in the shadows, often trapped in their own failure, desperately trying to be something better, awkwardly trying to make amends for a life of injustice.

It was so often at meals that Jesus seemed to show most clearly that he reconciled sinners. How can we not recall the stories of Zacchaeus, Levi, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, the disillusioned disciples at Emmaus, and Peter at the lakeside? Even the Last Supper, which we think of instinctively as a very sublime occasion, was a meal shared with sinners. Jesus’ table includes Judas (his betrayer), Peter (who denied him), and the squabbling and obtuse disciples. The Early Church founded its understanding of the Eucharist on the basis of the dangerous memory of Jesus’ table fellowship.

The woman party crasher
In today’s Gospel story of the pardoning of the sinful woman (7:36-50), a Pharisee, suspecting Jesus to be a prophet, invites Jesus to a festive banquet in his house. But the Pharisee’s self-righteousness leads to very weak faith in the living God and his forgiveness and consequently little love shown toward Jesus. The sinful woman, on the other hand, manifests a faith in God that has led her to seek forgiveness for her sins, and because so much was forgiven, she now overwhelms Jesus with her display of love. The whole episode is a powerful lesson on the relation between forgiveness and love.

Why did this nameless woman approach Jesus and anoint him at the risk of ridicule and abuse by others? Her action was motivated by one thing: her love for Jesus and her gratitude for his forgiveness. She did something a Jewish woman would never do in public: she loosed her hair and anointed Jesus with her tears. She also did something that only love can do: she took the most precious thing she had and spent it all on Jesus. Her love was not calculated but lavish and extravagant.

Jesus recounts what he saw the woman do (7:44-46). The purpose of this recitation is not so much to accuse Simon for what he did not do. Does Simon persist in seeing the woman as a sinner, or is he able to reinterpret her actions? If Simon is still not able to come up with a different evaluation of what he saw, Jesus tries to persuade Simon to see as he sees: she has been forgiven much and now shows great love (7:47-48).

This woman is not forgiven because of her lavish demonstrations of love; rather, the loving actions follow from her experience of having been forgiven. Verse 47 sums this up beautifully: “Her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love” (literally, “her many sins have been forgiven, seeing that she has loved much.”) Her love is the consequence of her forgiveness. This is also the meaning demanded by the parable in Luke 7:41-43.

Love covers a multitude of sins
Is our love extravagant or miserly? Jesus makes clear that great love springs from a heart that is forgiven and cleansed. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), “for love is of God” (1 John 4:7). The woman’s lavish expression of love was proof that she had found favour with God. The stark contrast of attitudes between Simon and the woman of ill repute demonstrate how we can either accept or reject God’s mercy. Simon, who regarded himself as an upright Pharisee, felt no need for love or mercy. His self-sufficiency kept him from acknowledging his need for God’s grace.

The sinful woman exemplifies one who responds properly to Jesus, and whose actions mirror his own. The key question her story poses not only to Simon but also to us is, “Do you see this woman?” (7:44) Failing to see the woman and her actions properly is failing to perceive Jesus and his identity correctly. The story is open-ended: there is yet hope that Simon’s perception, understanding, and vision can be corrected. What about ours?

Christian reconciliation
Today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on the mystery and obligation of forgiveness and reconciliation in our Christian tradition. There is a widespread misunderstanding that in any conflict a Christian should be a peacemaker who avoids taking sides and tries to bring about reconciliation between the opposing forces. This makes reconciliation an absolute principle that must be applied in all cases of conflict. In some conflicts one side is right and the other side is wrong, one side is being unjust and oppressive and the other is suggesting injustice and oppression. As Christians, we are never asked to reconcile good and evil, justice and injustice. Rather we are to do away with evil, injustice, and sin in favour of goodness, justice, and holiness.

Second, neutrality is not always possible, and in cases of conflict due to injustice and oppression neutrality is impossible. If we do not take sides with the oppressed, then we end up taking sides with the oppressor. “Bringing the two sides together” in such cases can end up being beneficial to the oppressor, because it enables the status quo to be maintained; it hides the true nature of the conflict, keeps the oppressed quiet and passive, and it brings about a kind of false reconciliation without justice. The injustice continues and everybody is made to feel that the injustice does not matter because the tension and conflict have been reduced.

Third is the commonly held view that Christians should always seek a “middle way” in every dispute. Those who are afraid of conflict or confrontation, even when it is nonviolent, are usually unconvinced of the need for change. Their caution hides an un-Christian pessimism about the future and a lack of authentic Christian hope. Or else they use the Christian concern for reconciliation to justify a form of escapism from the realities of injustice and conflict.

Forgiveness in the sexual abuse crisis
This topic has very real implications in light of the sexual abuse crisis that has embroiled the Church these past many years. In a pastoral letter entitled “Seeing the Faces, Hearing the Voices,” promulgated at Pentecost 2010, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn in Australia wrote the following on the abuse of minors by clergy:

Another factor was the Catholic Church’s culture of forgiveness, which tends to view things in terms of sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment. But in the case of clerical abuse of the young, we are dealing with crime, and the Church has struggled to find the point of convergence between sin and forgiveness on the one hand and crime and punishment on the other.

True, sin must be forgiven, but so too must crime be punished. Both mercy and justice must run their course, and do so in a way that converges. This relates to larger questions of how the Church sees her relationship with society more generally. We are “in the world but not of it”: but what precisely does that mean in the here and now? There is also the large question of the relationship between divine and human judgment. The Church insists that it is to God, not to human beings, that final judgment belongs.

Yet how does that fit with the need for human judgment when we move within the logic of crime and punishment? We have been slow and clumsy, even at times culpable, in shaping our answer to such questions.

Such mistakes about Christian reconciliation are not simply a matter of misunderstandings, but come from a lack of real love and compassion for those who are suffering or who have been victimized, or from a lack of appreciation of what is really happening in serious conflicts. The pursuit of an illusory neutrality in every conflict is ultimately a way of siding with the oppressor. This is not the reconciliation and forgiveness that Jesus taught through his life and ministry.

In the conflict between Pharisees and the so-called “sinners,” Jesus sided with the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors against the Pharisees. And in the conflict between the rich and the poor, he sided with the poor. Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the rich in no uncertain terms, and he forgives the sinners and blesses the poor. Jesus makes no attempt to compromise with the authorities for the sake of a false peace of reconciliation or unity. The reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness that God wants are based on truth, justice, and love.

[The readings for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; and Luke 7:36-8:3 or 7:36-50]

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest

Sacre-Coeur


One of the most popular devotions within the Church is devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The geographic and historic center of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is in Paray-le-Monial, a small village in Burgundy, where St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) lived. She was a Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared.  The message Jesus gave this French religious, whose first vision was on Dec. 27, 1673, was an image of God that was in great contrast to the Jansenist tendency of that century. In December 1673, during Christ’s first apparition to St. Mary Margaret, he gave her this message, as she later recounted: “My Sacred Heart is so intense in its love for men, and for you in particular, that not being able to contain within it the flames of its ardent charity, they must be transmitted through all means.”

Jesus showed Himself to Sr. Margaret Mary in a way that she could understand – with a human heart aflame with love. He told her that He would be present in a special way to those devoted to His Sacred Heart and that His presence would lead to peace in families, the conversion of sinners, blessings in abundance and perseverance when death was near.

To know God’s love in Jesus and to share it with others is the central message of the gospels. There has been no change in this message for two thousand years. Ways of explaining our faith may change, forms of prayer may be altered, certain devotions may come in and out of style, but at the core is the loving heart of Jesus, which remains constant and true.

The message of the Sacred Heart is one of God’s deep and intimate love for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is an integral part of our Catholic heritage because it helps us to live the basic Christian message of faith and love.

The symbol of the heart

A symbol is a real sign, whereas a metaphor is only a verbal sign; a symbol is a thing that signifies another thing, but a metaphor is a word used to indicate something different from its proper meaning.  A visible heart is necessary for an image of the Sacred Heart, but this visible heart must be a symbolic heart.  We know that the symbolism of the heart is a symbolism founded upon reality and that it constitutes the special object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

The heart is, above all, the emblem of love, and by this characteristic, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is naturally defined. However, being directed to the loving Heart of Jesus, it naturally encounters whatever in Jesus is connected with this love.  A first extension of the devotion is from the loving Heart to the intimate knowledge of Jesus, to His sentiments and virtues, to His whole emotional and moral life; from the loving Heart to all the manifestations of Its love.

When we designate Jesus as the Sacred Heart, we mean Jesus manifesting His Heart, Jesus all loving and amiable. Jesus entire is thus recapitulated in the Sacred Heart as all is recapitulated in Jesus.

It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side of the wound Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love. It was in the fervent atmosphere of the Benedictine or Cistercian monasteries that the devotion arose, although it is impossible to say positively what were its first texts or were its first votaries. To St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde, and the author of the “Vitis mystica” it was already well known.

From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the devotion was propagated but it did not seem to have developed in itself. It was everywhere practised by privileged souls, and the lives of the saints and annals of different religious congregations, of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, etc., furnish many examples of it. It was nevertheless a private, individual devotion of the mystical order.

It appears that in the sixteenth century, the devotion took a major step forward step and passed from the domain of mysticism into that of Christian asceticism.  We learn from the writings of two masters of the spiritual life, the Lanspergius (d. 1539) of the Carthusians of Cologne, and Louis of Blois (Blosius; 1566), a Benedictine and Abbot of Liessies in Hainaut. To these may be added Blessed John of Avila (d. 1569) and St. Francis de Sales, the latter of the seventeenth century.

It was to Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a humble Visitandine of the monastery at Paray-le Monial, that Christ chose to reveal the desires of His Heart and to confide the task of imparting new life to the devotion. There is nothing to indicated that this contemplative religious had known the devotion prior to the revelations, or at least that she had paid any attention to it.

A few days after the “great apparition”, of June, 1675, Margaret Mary made all known to Father de la Colombière, and the latter, recognizing the action of the spirit of God, consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart, directed the holy Visitandine to write an account of the apparition, and made use of every available opportunity discreetly to circulate this account through France and England.

At his death on February 15 1682, there was found in his journal of spiritual retreats a copy in his own handwriting of the account that he had requested of Margaret Mary, together with a few reflections on the usefulness of the devotion.  The little text was widely read, even at Paray, although not without being the cause of “dreadful confusion” to Margaret Mary, who, nevertheless, resolved to make the best of it and profited by the book for the spreading of her cherished devotion.

The death of Margaret Mary on October 17, 1690, did not dampen the ardour of those interested in the devotion.  In spite of all sorts of obstacles, and of the slowness of the Holy See, which in 1693 imparted indulgences to the Confraternities of the Sacred Heart and, in 1697, granted the feast to the Visitandines with the Mass of the Five Wounds, but refused a feast common to all, with special Mass and prayers, the devotion spread particularly in religious communities.

The Marseilles plague, 1720, furnished perhaps the first occasion for a solemn consecration and public worship outside of religious communities. Other cities of the South followed the example of Marseilles, and thus the devotion became a popular one.

Oftentimes, especially since about 1850, groups, congregations, and States have consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart, and, in 1875, this consecration was made throughout the Catholic world.  Finally, on June 11, 1899, by order of Leo XIII, and with the formula prescribed by him, all mankind was solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest in recent decades.  This decline of devotion is all the more striking because of its pre-eminence in the first half of the 20th century, when so many Catholic families had a picture of Jesus and his Sacred Heart displayed in their homes, and when Thursday night holy hours and first Fridays proliferated in parishes.

Like many forms of heart disease, such atrophy could have been prevented through a healthy diet—in this case, Scripture and tradition. The heart is a powerful metaphor in the Bible, what Karl Rahner, S.J., has called a  “primordial word.” It signifies the wellspring of life, the totality of one’s being. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, records God’s promise to change Israel’s  “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” while John’s Gospel gives the heart its most profound scriptural expression: Jesus’ heart is the source of living water, of rest for the Beloved Disciple, of the church and its sacraments, of doubting Thomas’s faith.

I believe that the deepest meaning of the devotion, however, is glimpsed in a poet who does not even mention it: Dante Alighieri. At the dark bottom of Hell, Satan is frozen in ice up to his chest, crying tears and drooling bloody foam, his six wings bellowing cold wind upward. Wedged into the inverted apex of the underworld, he is locked in his own resentment, impotent and utterly alone. Hell, the Inferno makes clear, is not fire, but ice: cold, crabbed isolation. Paradise is pure communion, illuminated and warmed by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

In today’s love-starving world, how we need to follow the example of Jesus Christ in His unspeakable love for us. If there is one adjective that describes the modern world, this world is a loveless world. This world is a selfish world. This world is so preoccupied with space and time that it gives almost no thought to eternity and the everlasting joys that await those who have served God faithfully here on earth.

How do we serve God faithfully? We serve Him only as faithfully as we serve Him lovingly, by giving ourselves to the needs of everyone whom God puts into our lives. No one reaches heaven automatically. Heaven must be dearly paid for. The price of reaching heaven is the practice of selfless love here on earth.

That is what devotion to the Sacred Heart is all about. It is the practice of selfless love toward selfish people. It is giving ourselves to persons that do not give themselves to us. In all of our lives, God has placed selfish persons who may be physically close to us, but spiritually are strangers and even enemies. That is why God places unkind, unjust, even cruel people into our lives. By loving them, we show something of the kind of love that God expects of His followers.

The Heart of the Priesthood

“If you are afraid of love, don’t ever become a priest, and don’t ever celebrate mass.  The mass will cause a torrent of interior suffering to pour down upon your soul, with one purpose only– to break you in half, so that all the people of the world can enter into your heart.”  – Thomas Merton

“If you are afraid of people, don’t celebrate mass!  Because when you start to say mass, the Spirit of God will awaken in you like a giant and break through the locks of your private sanctuary and invite all of the people of the world into your heart.”  – Thomas Merton

“If you celebrate mass, condemn your heart to the torment of love that is so vast and so insatiable that you will not resist in bearing it alone.  That love is the love of the Heart of Jesus that burns inside your miserable heart, and allows the immense weight of his mercy for all the sins of the world to fall upon you! Do you know what that love will do if you allow it to work in your soul, if you don’t resist it?  It will devour you.  It will kill you.  It will break your heart.”  – Thomas Merton

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation

 

 

 

Sharing the new life within us: A reflection on the Feast of the Visitation

Visitation cropped

Feast of the Visitation – Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Today’s feast of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth invites us into a deeply personal moment of the Scriptures (Luke 1:39-56). The Precursor and the Lord are both hidden from each other. Yet even before the two women embrace, John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, having recognized the presence of the Lord and Messiah in the womb of Mary. Both births are hailed by two beautiful canticles: the Benedictus sung by Zechariah, father of the Baptist at his son’s birth (1:68-79) and the Nunc Dimittis prayed by Simeon, the “righteous and devout” man in the Jerusalem temple, as he takes the infant Jesus in his arms (2:22-35).

There are two aspects of the Visitation scene to consider. The first is that any element of personal agenda of Mary and Elizabeth is put aside. Both had good reason to be very preoccupied with their pregnancies and all that new life brings. Both women had a right to focus on themselves for a while as they made new and radical adjustments to their daily lives. Mary reaches out to her kinswoman to help her and also to be helped by her. These two great biblical women consoled each another, shared their stories, and gave each other the gift of themselves in the midst of the new life that they must have experienced: Elizabeth after her long years of barrenness and now sudden pregnancy, and Mary, after her meeting with the heavenly messenger, and her “irregular” marriage situation and pregnancy.

Visitation IconThe second point of this moving story is Mary’s haste. Luke tells us that she undertook in haste the long and perilous trek from Nazareth to a village in the hill country of Judea. She knew clearly what she wanted and did not allow anyone or anything to stop her.

In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, St. Ambrose of Milan describes this haste with an almost untranslatable Latin phrase, “nescit tarda molimina Spiritus Sancti gratia” which could mean: “the grace of the Holy Spirit does not know delayed efforts’ or ‘delayed efforts are foreign to the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Mary’s free choice to move forward and outward is reflective of a decision taken deep within her heart followed by immediate action.

How many things exist in our lives that we dreamed of doing, should have done, and never did? Letters that should have been written, dreams that should have been realized, gratitude that was not expressed, affection never shown, words that should have been said, etc.? Postponements and delays weigh heavily upon us, wear us down and discourage us. They gnaw away at us. How true St. Ambrose described Mary’s haste: the Spirit completely possessed the Virgin Daughter of Nazareth and compelled her to act. Such possession by God’s Spirit is the only possession worthwhile, life-giving, hopeful and joyful.

The story of the Visitation teaches us an important lesson: when Christ is growing inside of us, we will be led to people, places and situations that we never dreamed of. We will bear words of consolation and hope that are not our own. In the very act of consoling others, we will be consoled. We will be at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life and issues seem to be, from them Christ is forming himself. The women of today’s Gospel show us that it is possible to move beyond our own little personal agendas and engage in authentic ministry.

Ministry is not simply doing things for others, loving difficult people, serving the poor, teaching others. Authentic ministers allow themselves to serve and be served, taught, cared for, consoled and loved. Such moments liberate us and enable us to sing Magnificat along the journey, and celebrate the great things that God does for us and our people.

Consider the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) on this feast:

In the mystery of the Annunciation and the Visitation, Mary is the very model of the life we should lead. First of all, she welcomed Jesus in her existence; then, she shared what she had received. Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus the Word becomes flesh in our life – gift of God who is at one and the same time beautiful, kind, unique. Thus, the first Eucharist was such: Mary’s offering of her Son in her, in whom he had set up the first altar. Mary, the only one who could affirm with absolute confidence, “this is my body”, from that first moment offered her own body, her strength, all her being, to form the Body of Christ.

(Images: Visitation by Ghirlandaio; Icon of the Visitation)

The Mighty Power & Unwavering Faith of Two Biblical Widows

Widow Nain cropped

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – June 5, 2016

In today’s first reading from the Elijah cycle in I Kings, the great prophet of the Old Testament did not set out on his journey until he received his commission from God. It is essential to be in communication with God through listening to God’s Word before setting out on mission. Elijah was recognized publicly as having the Word of the Lord in his mouth, the one who deals with life and death in his own breath, prayer and body; the one who lives on the kindness of the poor and who knows the life of the fringe on the outside of society; the one who flees for fear of his life. Elijah, called the “troubler” or “disturber” of Israel by King Ahab, lives his life between raging passion and violence, between gentle tenderness and deep prayer.

In Sunday’s Old Testament narrative, Elijah is told to go to Zarephath (v.9), which is part of Sidon. That verse contains three commands: “arise,” “go,” and “stay.” The prophet will be tested with each of these commands through faith, trust, obedience, availability and commitment. When Elijah is told to “arise”, it is not only a physical movement from one place to another, but a spiritual one. For Elijah, following the Lord obediently is the result of his own spiritual reawakening.

Elijah & widow of ZarephathThe second command, “go to Zarephath” involves the idea of a journey, including risks, hardships and dangers. Elijah is sent to a specific place, Zarephath, which means “a smelting place, a place of testing.” Zarephath was in the land of Sidon, which belonged to the wicked Jezebel.   Elijah is not going on retreat nor on some kind of exotic vacation!

The third command, “stay there” was a great challenge to his own commitment, trust and vision as a man of God who was simply seeking to serve the Lord and do the Lord’s will. Elijah’s provision would come from a poor, destitute, depressed widow facing starvation in the pagan nation of the Sidonians, who represented the forces clearly opposed to Israel’s God. Elijah encounters a woman who would look after him, a person not living in a large house and sharing her excess with itinerant prophets, but rather one barely existing at the gate of the city, collecting a few sticks since she had no fuel at home to cook even a meager meal. This poor woman would give all she had to assist the prophet.

The God who commanded the ravens and provided for Elijah in the desert (I Kings 17:1-7), was the same God who had commanded the widow and would provide for the prophet through her. At Zarephath, the poor woman listened to Elijah’s instruction and it was just as he had promised according to the Word of the Lord. She saw the power of God and the widow, her son and Elijah were all sustained.

Example of a poor widow’s generosity

What lessons can we learn from this passage about the remarkable widow and the devout, fiery prophet? The widow of Zarephath was challenged by the prophet Elijah to share what little she had, in spite of her desperate circumstances. Because of this poor woman’s generosity and goodness, and Elijah’s faithfulness, God strengthened the prophet’s faith and renewed his capacity for ministry. The Lord used the prophet to bring consolation and peace of mind and heart to the widow and her son.

Authentic ministry is always mutual: we set out to help others and we end up being helped and blessed by the very people we set out to help! The Lord will provide for us, beyond outward appearances of weakness, failure, fatigue, trepidation and fear. God always does far more than we can ever ask for or imagine!

This striking Old Testament story forces us to ask some serious questions of our own lives. How have I responded to the needs of those around us when we’ve felt that we’ve got little or nothing to give? Do we worry that there will not be enough for us if we give away our money or our time?

Elijah exhorted the widow with the words, “Do not be afraid.” This same admonition is repeated in the Gospels and was also the refrain of St. John Paul II’s long, fruitful, prophetic Petrine ministry: “Be not afraid!” How does fear affect our lives and keep us from obeying the spirit of the Lord? Do we cling to those things that cannot help us, forgetting to trust in the goodness of God?

The widow of Zarephath was generous with Elijah. She gave to the limit of her resources, and God rewarded both the widow and her son. Do we have that same radical faith and trust? Do we behave as if we are owners of our talents and resources or simply as if we are God’s steward?

This reading causes us to make some firm resolves with our own lives. Let me suggest a few concrete actions based on this story from the First Book of Kings. It is important to consider our own willingness to be generous with both material goods and with our very being. Perhaps this week we can ask God for the grace to respond charitably to those who ask of us, whether it is a worthwhile charity or the neighbor, friend or colleague who simply needs to talk and to be heard. The well-to-do who put money in the treasury were never condemned by Jesus; he simply pointed out the nature of their contribution. They gave from their surplus, and thus it did not “cost” them as much to give. Do we have a surplus from which to contribute? If so, do we use this money in the best way possible?

How do we consider our charitable giving? Are we concerned with the poor, the sick, the homeless, refugees and those on the peripheries of society? Do we use our wealth to help create a culture of life? Or are we more interested in building up our personal security? Perhaps we can pray this week for wisdom and a spirit of generosity so that we will use our money to help further the kingdom of God.

The only son of another widow

Let’s consider another story of a biblical widow from the New Testament. Just prior to today’s Gospel story in Luke 7, Jesus’ power was displayed for a Gentile whose servant was dying; in today’s episode of the grieving woman from Nain, it is displayed toward a widowed mother whose only son has already died. Jesus’ power over death prepares for his reply to John’s disciples in Luke 7:22: “the dead are raised.” This resuscitation of the woman’s only son clearly alludes to the prophet Elijah’s resurrection of the only son of a widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24 – today’s first reading ) and leads to the reaction of the crowd: “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” (Luke 7:16).

http://www.mumart.it/museodidattica/MinnitiMiracolo.htm

We cannot read this Gospel without thinking back to the prophet Elijah who is the memory, the echo of Jesus, the Gospel prophet who raises from the dead the only son of a poor, grieving widow. And because of this, the people recognize that Jesus is truly a prophet in word and deed. Most people are afraid of prophets because they disrupt our life and relationships, challenge us and expose our motives. What is this story all about if not God loving us and revealing himself to us in the distressing guise of the poor, the widowed, the orphaned of his day and of our day. This Gospel story of pathos teaches us what it means to give people back to each other as Elijah did to the widow in his day and Jesus did to this widow in Nain.

Prophecy calls all of us as the people of God to repentance, transformation, boldness, courage and faithfulness. It calls us to create a culture of encounter. What draws prophecy and compassion together and integrates them is the person of Jesus. He is the human Son of God standing both as the Word from all eternity and the Word spoken in this time and place. It is Jesus’ passion for obedience, for truth, and his compassion for sinners and the poor that pulls the two together and makes them whole and holy. The presence of the Spirit in Jesus and in all of us is what negotiates and translates the common ground between prophecy and compassion.

Our belief in the resurrection

If in Jesus’ resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. The miracle of a resuscitated corpse would indicate that Jesus’ resurrection was equivalent to the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11–17), the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:22–24, 35–43), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1–44). After a certain period of time, these individuals returned to their former lives and would then eventually experience a final death.

In the three cases of resurrection reported in the gospels, all the successive physical aspects of death are mentioned. Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus when she was still lying on her bed, He raised the son of the widow of Nain while he was being carried out in a coffin, and He raised Lazarus who was already buried and decomposing. Jesus’s power over death is absolute. This applies just as much to different degrees of spiritual death as it does to different degrees of physical death, and the gospel accounts of resurrection indicate symbolically how Jesus restores life to sinners.

Jesus’ power to raise people from the dead is not dependent upon whether a person has just died, has been dead for days, or is already decomposing. In today’s Gospel, the only son of the widow is twice as traumatic for the woman because she is now childless as well as spouseless. In each of the three accounts of Jesus raising people to life (Jairus, Lazarus and the widow’s son), it is the compassion that Jesus felt for the sorrowing relatives which was the primary cause of the miracle. When Jesus has compassion on the widow, saying, “Do not weep,” He is not asking her to cheer up. Instead, it is a foreshadowing of his power. He will remove the cause of her tears and simultaneously give His disciples a preview of God wiping away all tears.

The two processions of death and life 

Luke is the only one to record the raising of a widow’s son. There were two processions that day in Nain. One was a funeral procession carrying the dead body of the young boy to the town cemetery. That procession was filled with despair, grief, sorrow and the helplessness and hopelessness of our human lot. The second procession, led by Jesus, was the procession of life en route to reverse humankind’s tragic journey to the grave. This procession offered hope, peace, salvation and eternal life to those who weep and mourn.

While the Gospel story of the widow’s son allows us to experience Jesus’ deep compassion, it cannot be ignored that the miracles of resurrection have another cause also: they demonstrate that Jesus has all power over life and death. The story reveals the unmistakable authority with which Jesus (by a sign) stopped the procession; then the solemn and directive of the words, “I say to you, arise”; and the fact that Luke, who in the first verses of the chapter 7 speaks simply of “Jesus”, now uses the word “Lord”, for this was an encounter in which the Lord of life confronted death and human grief. And Jesus’ power is awesome.

Resurrection is never an isolated, privatized hidden incident. Men and women of the resurrection motivate others to do something new. People of the Resurrection know how hard it is to come back from the dead. Resurrection gives meaning and joy in the midst of anguish, violence, grief and suffering. If we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we beg to differ with the darkness and the night. We never accept situations the way they are. We become leaders of processions of life, ready to intersect with the many processions of death around us. We risk touching the dead and the outcasts – all those who sit in the shadows of death and exist on the fringes and peripheries of life. We repeat the words of Jesus: “Live again, love again, arise.” We restore grieving, suffering people to communities and circles of life and reconnect them with those from whom they have been separated.

[The readings for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: I Kings 17:8-9; 17-21a; 22-24; Galatians 1:11-19; and Luke 7:11-17.]

(Image: Jesus and the Widow of Nain by James Tissot)

The Sacrament of Nonviolence Makes Martyrs for the Truth

Fr Jerzy cropped

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ – Sunday, May 29th, 2016

Four Gospels tell the wonder-filled story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes that has been situated geographically at Tabgha, the place of the seven springs on the Northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Today’s Gospel looks back to the rich theology and spirituality of Israel, and also forward to contemplate the idea of life in God’s kingdom as a banquet at which the Messiah, himself, will preside.

Mark’s readers saw this incident as an anticipation of the Last Supper (14:22) and the messianic banquet, both of which were celebrated in the community’s Eucharists. Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed is very important, because the total figure could well have come to 20,000 or 30,000 people. Since the total Jewish population of Palestine at the time of Jesus is estimated at half a million, Jesus is presented as feeding a tenth of the population. This gives the feeding stories a social character, which makes them different from healing stories or the accounts in the other Gospels.

Luke, of all the evangelists, immediately links this feeding account with Jesus’ prediction of his passion and his instructions about bearing one’s cross daily (9:18-27). To celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Jesus (22:19) is to share not only his mission (9:1-6) but also his dedication and destiny, symbolized by the cross (9:18-27). The Eucharist is intended to nourish and strengthen us for continuing faithfully in our way of life.

Feeding the new Israel

Let us situate today’s Gospel passage (Luke 9:11-17) in Luke’s Gospel. Chapter 9 begins with the mission of the 12: they are sent to proclaim the kingdom, to have power over demons, to bring the good news to the people, and to cure their diseases. Jesus gives his disciples who have just returned from preaching and curing God’s people, a new charge: they are to feed reconstituted Israel with the Eucharist.

Luke teaches us two important lessons in today’s Gospel. First Jesus welcomes this vast crowd of common folk, even though “the Twelve” wanted to send them away. Luke’s use of ” the Twelve” to indicate a special group of disciples, is a reflection of the significance of that number in the traditions among the people of Israel. In particular, it recalls the twelve tribes of Israel. By using the term “Twelve,” Luke indicates that being chosen to serve in a particular way is not an excuse for distancing oneself from the crowd, the common people. On the contrary, the Twelve, like Jesus, must be welcoming.

Second, Jesus teaches that the disciples are to share whatever they have. In the sharing there will be more than enough. Logic and human reason say, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.”  But Jesus asks that these meager provisions, as well as the generosity of the disciples, be stretched to their limits. Of all the evangelists, Luke stresses the fact that salvation reaches into the practical realities of human life.

The Sacrament of Nonviolence

The Eucharist sums up all the teaching, passion and death of Jesus, and his nonviolent way must be at the heart of the Eucharist. Luke’s passion narrative is about the Lamb, who goes to his death rejecting violence, loving enemies, returning good for evil, praying for his persecutors. The Eucharist, therefore, is truly the sacrament of nonviolence. The way of Jesus to conquer evil and violence must be the Christian way: the way of nonviolence, of love and forgiveness. The nonviolent way of Jesus is historically at the heart of his teaching, and at the same time at the heart of his passion and death.

Man of the Eucharist and Martyr for the Truth

We see this how this Eucharistic reality was lived out in the life of a young Polish priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko (1947-1984) who was beatified as a martyr on the feast of Corpus Christi, June 6, 2010, in Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square. I wish to tell you a little about this remarkable priest who has been a hero and role model to me for the past many years.

Jerzy Popieluszko was born on Sept. 14, 1947, in the village of Okopy in Eastern Poland. He was from a strong Roman Catholic family. After secondary school, Jerzy entered the seminary in Warsaw, rather than the local seminary in Bialystok. His training was interrupted by two years of military service, during which he was beaten several times for living his Christian faith.

After ordination, the young priest, who never enjoyed good health, held several appointments before his final appointment to the parish of St. Stanislas Kostka in Warsaw. He worked part-time in the parish, which enabled him to work as well with medical personnel. As a result of his close work with health care personnel, he was asked to organize the medical teams during Pope John Paul II’s visits to Poland in 1979 and Warsaw in 1983.

August 1980 saw the beginning of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. Workers from the Warsaw steel plant, who were on strike in support of the shipyards on the Baltic Sea, requested a priest to say Mass for them. The lot fell to Father Jerzy. He stayed with the workers night and day. Solidarity represented for him a vision that he had first learned from St. Maximilian Kolbe: that of spiritual freedom amidst physical enslavement. It was this vision of the truth about the vocation of every man and woman, which Father Jerzy promoted amongst the workers by his presence.

On Dec. 13, 1981, the communist authorities imposed martial law, arresting many Solidarity activists and launching a program of harassment and retaliation against others. Many who had been on strike lost their jobs, and so their ability to support their families; others were beaten up on the streets and left for dead. Father Popieluszko became an important focus in a welfare program to support families affected by martial law.

He regularly attended the trials of Solidarity activists, sitting prominently in court with their families so that the prisoners could see that they were not forgotten. It was in the courtroom that he had the idea for a monthly Mass for the country, to be celebrated for all the imprisoned and their families. It was not a political demonstration — Father Popieluszko specifically asked his congregation not to display banners or chant slogans. His Masses for the Fatherland became well known not only in Warsaw, but throughout Poland, often attracting 15,000 to 20,000 people. Father Popieluszko insisted that change should be brought about peacefully; the sign of peace was one of the most poignant moments of each Mass for the country.

Father Popieluszko was neither a social nor a political activist, but a Catholic priest faithful to the Gospel. He wasn’t a forceful speaker, but someone of deep conviction and integrity. His sanctity lay in fundamental righteousness that gave people hope even in horrendous situations. He knew that all totalitarian systems are based on terror and intimidation. The Communists saw him as an enemy because he freed people from fear of the system. He exposed the hypocrisy of the Communist regime and he taught believers how to confront totalitarianism. How often Jerzy made St. Paul’s words his own in his preaching: ” Fight evil with good.”

On Oct. 19, 1984, the young priest was kidnapped by security agents on his way back to Warsaw after a visit to a parish in the neighboring town of Bydgoszcz. He was savagely beaten until he lost consciousness, and his body was tied up in such a way that he would strangle himself by moving. His weighted body was then thrown into a deep reservoir. His killers carried out their task with unprecedented brutality, which shows their hatred of the faith that the priest embodied. Jerzy’s driver, who managed to escape, told what had happened to the press. On Oct. 30, Popieluszko’s bound and gagged body was found in the freezing waters of a reservoir near Wloclawek. Fr. Jerzy’s brutal murder was widely believed to have hastened the collapse of communist rule in Poland.

Father Jerzy’s funeral was a massive public demonstration with over 400,000 people in attendance. Official delegations of Solidarity appeared from throughout the whole country for the first time since the imposition of martial law. He was buried in the front yard of his parish church of St. Stanislaw Kostka, and since that day, 17 million have visited his tomb.

Over the past 20 years, I have been privileged to pray several times at his grave in the Warsaw working suburb, and to witness the extraordinary effect that this young priest has had on so many young people. He promoted respect for human rights, for the rights of workers and the dignity of persons, all in the light of the Gospel. He practiced, for Poland and for the whole world, the virtues of courage, of fidelity to God, to the cross of Christ and the Gospel, love of God and of the homeland. He represented patriotism in the Christian sense, as a cultural and social virtue. He was deeply devoted to the Eucharist. More than 80 streets and squares in Poland have been named after Father Jerzy. Hundreds of statues and memorial plaques have been unveiled to him; some 18,000 schools, charities, youth groups and discussion clubs have been named after him.

Because the murdered priest is being proclaimed a martyr for hatred of the faith, Popieluszko’s beatification process did not require evidence of a miracle. The formal verification of a miracle is not necessary, even though many have been reported. His beatification is an example for priests, in the light of his total fidelity to Christ. Father Jerzy provides a model for us, calling us to strive that what we say and do outwardly should always agree with our inward conscience.

Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, Man of the Eucharist, Martyr for the Truth, your life was broken and shared with the multitudes. The blood of your martyrdom has become the seed of faith for your homeland and for the Church. You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek (Psalm 110). Pray for us.

[The readings for Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ are: Genesis 14:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 9:11b-17]

We Give You Thanks for Your Great Glory

Trinity Orta

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity – Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

On the Sunday that follows Pentecost, we celebrate the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, who helps us understand Jesus’ words and guides us to the whole truth, believers can have a personal experience of the intimacy of God himself, discovering that he is not infinite solitude but communion of light and love, life given and received in an eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

Lady Wisdom, the communicator

Today’s first reading from Proverbs (8:22-31) speaks about Lady Wisdom, the person created by God before the creation of the world to communicate God’s love and to guide us in peaceful living. Wisdom in many ways parallels the New Testament Holy Spirit. Even if we are unable to rationally explain the Trinity, we still are required to manifest the triune God by our actions.

The Book of Proverbs is the most “earthy” of all the books of the Bible. Within this collection of short, pragmatic sayings, which fill most of the book, there is a beautiful, mystical reflection in Chapter 8. “Lady Wisdom” is personified (given human traits) in an attempt to describe the ways in which God chooses to reveal divine nature.

Wisdom is presented as something very intimately involved with God, and in later writings wisdom is perceived as the quality human beings need to discern God’s activity in the world. Wisdom’s superiority over all things is due to her origin before them. While wisdom is seen to emanate from God’s mysterious abode, still it is most visible to us, “established in the sky,” across “the sea [and] its limit,” over the “surface of God’s earth.” Wisdom was poured forth, begotten by God at the beginning, and as God’s co-worker wisdom directed creation and found delight in the human race.

Experience and discernment

The poetry of Proverbs is meant to give us a sense of the beauty and permanence — indeed, the eternal quality — of wisdom. In all those attributes, wisdom is Godlike. It is also God’s gift to human beings, the gift that enables them to see beyond the literal and into the deeper significance of life’s events. Wisdom in many ways parallels the New Testament Holy Spirit. Wisdom is in no way equated with intellectual prowess or an accumulation of information or mere data. Instead, it is more closely associated with experience and discernment. Above all, it is a spiritual entity, not independent of thought and logic but far superior to it.

The effects of justification

In his letter to the Romans (5:1-5), Paul begins to discuss the Christian faith in Christ Jesus, and he presents the Christian experience in itself and explains how salvation is assured for the upright. In today’s passage, the mystery of the Holy Trinity moves out of theological formulation and becomes an active ingredient, a leaven, in daily life. The first effect of justification the Christian experiences is peace; reconciliation replaces estrangement. The second effect of justification is confident hope.

Once justified, the Christian is reconciled to God and experiences a peace that distressing troubles and sufferings cannot upset, a hope that knows no disappointments, and a confidence of salvation in Jesus. The statement about hope is a typically Pauline paradox: The Christian who boasts puts the boast in something that is wholly beyond ordinary human powers — in hope. Verse 5 contains the powerful assurance that (such) hope does not disappoint us. The Christian will never be embarrassed by a disappointed hope; implicit is a comparison with merely human hope, which can deceive. God’s Spirit must direct our lives, modeling them and fashioning them on the life and words of Jesus.

Hope and Christian optimism

Verse 5 also contains the expression “God’s love” — not to be understood as our love of God, but God’s love of us. Paul speaks of the love with which God moves toward us. This love is expressed through Jesus and is perpetuated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to draw us back to the love of God. Paul assures us that even suffering can enable us to endure, to develop character and to hope for victory, with Jesus as our model. The gift of the Spirit is not only the proof but also the medium of the outpouring of God’s love. It signifies the divine presence to the justified.

Toward a deeper understanding

In John’s Gospel (16:12-15), the disciples could not bear all that Jesus had to tell them. First they needed the assurance that only his triumph over death could bring. Three times the Spirit of truth is said to engage the Church. The Spirit will “declare” to us what is to come (v 13). The Spirit will “declare” to us what the Spirit has taken from Christ (v 14). The Spirit will take what is of Christ and “declare” it to us (v 15).

Three times the same verb is used to describe the same activity, anaggellein: to announce or to proclaim something again. It means that the Spirit will continue what has been realized in Christ. But the Holy Spirit will interpret it for us, will probe its deeper meaning, will make it understood in different cultures and contexts. This idea of the “revelation of the things to come” did not mean that the Paraclete could make any sort of prophetic revelations about the future, but that the Paraclete guided the community in its understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of everything that had been promised in Scripture.

Mission and vocation

The Spirit leads the Church into truth through this ceaseless activity, through the declarative interpretation of what is of Christ, so that the experience of faith might move toward a deeper understanding of what is in Christ. This is a rich and profound concept that describes beautifully the vocation and mission of the true shepherd and priestly person: We are called to interpret the experience of faith that allows for deeper understanding and knowledge of God in the life of every person and in the life of the world.

Our mission is truly “to take what is of Christ and to declare it,” to interpret it, to profess it, to tell it over and over again to the world. “To take what is of Christ” indicates a profoundly personal contact with Christ through prayer, contemplation, and study. In the Spirit, we are to bring what is of Christ to a new understanding, to a new realization in the temporal order. We are called to build a civilization of justice, love and peace based on our knowledge of and relationship to Jesus Christ.

Experiencing glory

The increasing glory of God is this progressive revelation of the Trinity. What is the experience of glory for us? It is not euphoria, bliss or ecstasy, although those elements may indeed be present in those who have profound experiences of God’s presence in their lives. When the presence and idea of God comes to dominate our consciousness and our loves, when it becomes almost palpably present with the intensity of deeper meaning and love, this is glory.

When the experience of God sustains us in the midst of excruciating pain and suffering, spiritual darkness and emptiness, crisis and confusion, we have a foretaste of God’s glory. No matter what befalls us, we have a profound awareness that God is with us, that God surrounds us, protects us and holds us in the palm of his hand. St. Paul says that this is the hope for the glory in which human beings are called to exult. So great a gift of God is this that every Sunday the Church prays: “We give you thanks for your great glory.”

Communication

The Trinity is communication between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the profound mystery which today’s liturgy for the feast of the Holy Trinity recalls: both the unspeakable reality of God and the manner in which this mystery has been given to us. Though we may struggle with the Holy Trinity, we nevertheless take it into our very hands each time that we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross.

I conclude with this excerpt on the Trinity as Mystery from the dialogue “On Divine Providence” by St. Catherine of Siena (Cap 167, Gratiarum actio ad Trinitatem). It is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the liturgical memorial of this great saint of the Church, whose feast is celebrated each year on April 29. It is a magnificent prayer to the Trinity that we could pray each day.

“Eternal God, eternal Trinity, you have made the blood of Christ so precious through his sharing in your divine nature. You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an even greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are.

“I have tasted and seen the depth of your mystery and the beauty of your creation with the light of my understanding. I have clothed myself with your likeness and have seen what I shall be. Eternal Father, you have given me a share in your power and the wisdom that Christ claims as his own, and your Holy Spirit has given me the desire to love you. You are my Creator, eternal Trinity, and I am your creature. You have made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son, and I know that you are moved with love at the beauty of your creation, for you have enlightened me.”

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity are: Proverbs 8:22-31; Romans 5:1-5; and John 16:12-15]

(Image: Fresco of the Holy Trinity by Luca Rossetti da Orta)

The Humble, Yet Powerful Beginning of a New Age

Pentecost Restout cropped

Solemnity of Pentecost – Sunday, May 15th, 2016

We know the story well (Acts 2:1-11) – it is the dawn of the day of Pentecost and the followers of Jesus are gathered to wait and pray. This new day begins with an explosion of sounds from heaven, and a violent wind. The story is reminiscent of the mighty wind that hovered over the waters in the Genesis creation story. What was first heard was then seen – tongues like fire (2:3). The first gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of speech in different languages.

The scene quickly shifts from the inside upper room, where the disciples are gathered, to the Jerusalem streets outside the house. There the Gospel is already drawing crowds together. Out in the streets, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (2:5) confront the Church, and their initial response is bewilderment (2:6). The “tongues” spoken of are obviously various languages of “every nation under heaven,” since each foreigner exclaims: “We hear, each of us, in our own native language” (2:8).

Luke’s roll call of the nations – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes (2:9-10) – makes it very clear that no nationality is excluded from the proclamation of the Good News. In these few lines, Luke gives us a glimpse in miniature of the whole plot of the Acts of the Apostles.

Authentic Christian spirituality

Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses the elements of authentic spirituality (8:8-17). To please God is the goal of human life striven for by both Jew and Christian, yet this goal cannot be attained by those who are dominated by self (“in the flesh”). In order to please God, one must be “in the Spirit,” i.e., living “according to the Spirit” (8:5).

According to Paul, the baptized Christian is not only “in the Spirit,” but the Spirit is now said to dwell in him or her. Paul insists that attachment to Christ is only possible by the “spiritualization” of human beings. This attachment is no mere external identification with the cause of Christ, or even a grateful recognition of what he once did for humanity. Rather, the Christian who belongs to Christ is the one empowered to “live for God” through the vitalizing influence of his Spirit.

Without the Spirit, the source of Christian vitality, the human “body” is like a corpse because of the influence of sin, but in union with Christ the human “spirit” lives, for the Holy Spirit raises the dead to life. The Spirit not only gives new life, but also establishes for human beings the relationship of an adopted son and daughter and heir. It is the Spirit that animates and activates the Christian and makes one a child of God. The theme of sonship in Romans is Paul’s attempt to describe the new status of the Christian in relation to God. Christians have received the Spirit (of Christ or God), but this is not a “spirit” in the sense of a disposition or mentality that a slave would have. Animated by God’s Spirit, the Christian cannot have the attitude of a slave, for the Spirit sets free. Through the Spirit the Christian proclaims that God is Father.

Pentecost in the Gospel of John

Today’s Gospel scene takes place on the night of the first Easter. Only this initial appearance of Jesus to his disciples (John 20:19-23) has parallels in the other Gospels (cf. Luke 24:36-39; Mark 16:14-18). The first appearance is both intense and focused. It is evening and the doors are bolted shut. Anxious disciples are sealed inside. A suspicious, hostile world is forced tightly outside. Jesus is missing. Suddenly, the Risen One defies locked doors, blocked hearts, and distorted vision and simply appears.

The meeting with the Risen Lord in John’s account is the humble yet powerful beginning of a new age: fear is transformed into joy; pain is changed to peace and trust; flight and hiding become courage and mission. Division and hatred are vanquished by the gift of the Holy Spirit – by God’s love revealed in Jesus and through his power to remove evil and sinfulness.

Jesus “breathing on them” (20:22) recalls Genesis 2:7, where God breathed on the first man and gave him life. Just as Adam’s life came from God, so now the disciples’ new spiritual life comes from Jesus. This action is also reminiscent of the revivification of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. It is the evangelist John’s version of Pentecost.

“Peace be with you” is the greeting and gift of the Risen Lord. The Hebrew word shalom means re-establishing the full meaning of things. Biblical peace is not only a pact that allows for a peaceful life, or indicates the opposite of a time of war. Rather, peace refers to the well-being of daily existence, to one’s state of living in harmony with nature, with oneself and with God. Concretely, this peace means blessing, rest, honour, richness, health, and life. The gift of peace that Jesus entrusted to his first disciples becomes a promise and a prayer shared with the entire Christian community.

The mission and the power of Jesus are entrusted into the poor, limited, and fragile hands of his Apostles. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, his own mission continues in them, granting the power to forgive sins and the possibility of reconciliation and intimacy with the Father.

Courageous heralds of the Gospel

The Holy Spirit renewed the Apostles from within, filling them with a power that would give them courage to go out and boldly proclaim that “Christ has died and is risen!” Frightened fishermen have become courageous heralds of the Gospel. Even their enemies could not understand how “uneducated and ordinary men” (Acts 4:13) could show such courage and endure difficulties, suffering, and persecution with joy. Nothing could stop them. To those who tried to silence them they replied: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). This is how the Church was born, and from the day of Pentecost she has not ceased to spread the Good News “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

At Pentecost, the full meaning of Jesus’ life and message is poured into our hearts by the Spirit alive in the community. The movement of the Spirit in people results in gifts and talents. This movement does not reach its end in individuals. Rather, it is supposed to have a ripple effect so that our unique abilities promote the common good. The Spirit’s gifts are many: teaching, instructing, healing, consoling, forgiving, and encouraging. The Spirit will increase our gifts to the extent that we love Jesus and our brothers and sisters, obey the commandments, and freely share what we have so lavishly received with others.

Christian hope: a gift of the Spirit

Hope is one of the true manifestations of the Spirit at Pentecost. For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the hope of Christians. We must be icons of hope, a people with a new vision, a people that learn to see the world through the lenses of Christ, the Spirit, and the Church.

The Second Vatican Council encouraged Christians to read the signs of the times, and for Pope John XXIII these were signs of hope and glimpses of the Kingdom’s presence in our midst. The Kingdom manifests itself through the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And the Spirit’s fruits make the Kingdom palpable and palatable: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity.

It is also possible to follow a via negativa and to say where the Kingdom is not. Where there is no justice, no peace, no sharing, no mutual trust, no forgiveness – there is no Kingdom. Where there is rancour, envy, distrust, hatred, ignorance, indifference, unchastity, cynicism – there is no Kingdom and certainly no life.

In God himself, all is joy

A second manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost is joy. Pope Paul VI’s 1975 Apostolic Letter on Christian Joy – Gaudete in Domino – describes this joy in the following way:

Let the agitated members of various groups therefore reject the excesses of systematic and destructive criticism! Without departing from a realistic viewpoint, let Christian communities become centres of optimism where all the members resolutely endeavour to perceive the positive aspect of people and events. “Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.”

The attainment of such an outlook is not just a matter of psychology. It is also a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, who dwells fully in the person of Jesus, made Him during His earthly life so alert to the joys of daily life, so tactful and persuasive for putting sinners back on the road to a new youth of heart and mind! It is this same Spirit who animated the Blessed Virgin and each of the saints. It is this same Spirit who still today gives to so many Christians the joy of living day by day their particular vocation, in the peace and hope which surpass setbacks and sufferings. It is the Spirit of Pentecost who today leads very many followers of Christ along the paths of prayer, in the cheerfulness of filial praise, towards the humble and joyous service of the disinherited and of those on the margins of society. For joy cannot be dissociated from sharing. In God Himself, all is joy because all is giving.

[The readings for Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23.]

(Image: Pentecost by Jean Restout)