Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost Sunday

There is a pious story I recall from childhood about St. Augustine walking along a beach one day pondering and reflecting on the Trinity. He finds a young child digging a hole in the sand. Repeatedly, the child takes a few steps to the ocean, fills a small pail with water, and dumps the water into the hole. When asked by St. Augustine what he is doing, the child casually explains that he is putting the ocean into the hole. St. Augustine laughs and tells the child he could never do such a thing in a million years. The child tells St. Augustine that neither could he ever understand the Trinity on which he is reflecting.

Yes, we cannot understand the doctrine of the Trinity. We can reflect on it and we can pray about it; we can find meaning in it for our own faith. But there is no way to explain it. On this feast of Pentecost we celebrate one aspect of our Trinitarian life - the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Pentecost means 50. We are 50 days from Easter and our celebration of the second Person of the Trinity. We refer to today as the birthday of the Church. It is the end of the Easter season and tomorrow begins Ordinary Time. These are liturgical terms that signify change in the way we worship during this season. Pentecost is the culmination of the work of Jesus on earth. Just as he ended his time on earth by ascending to the Father, so now he Jesus sends the Holy Spirit who he promised would guide the Apostles in their ministry of preaching the good news about Himself.

We continue to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit specifically through the sacrament of Confirmation. Bishop Robert Barron identifies three ways in which this sacrament strengthens Christians: the Spirit strengthens us in our relationship to Jesus; the Spirit strengthens us in our capacity to defend the faith; the Spirit strengthens us in our capacity to spread the faith.

Yet if we associate this Spirit only with the sacrament of Confirmation, then we have missed much that is vital in our lives of faith. The Spirit is alive among us to guide us in our daily lives of faith, in the decisions we make, in the way we live.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, one of the Church Fathers, tells us that for the first believers it seemed that as long as Christ was with them they “possessed every blessing in him.” But “when the time came for him to ascend to his heavenly Father, it was necessary for him to be united through his Spirit to those who worshiped him, and to dwell in our hearts through faith.” St. Cyril continues, “Only by his own presence within us in this way could he give us confidence to cry out, Abba, Father, make it easy for us to grow in holiness and, through our possession of the all-powerful Spirit, fortify us invincibly against the wiles of the devil and the assaults of men.”

The Spirit is the active life of the Trinity within us that transforms us. We even hear of the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament. The prophet Samuel, for example, said “The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you, and you shall be changed into another man.” St. Paul wrote, “As we behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, that glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us all into his own likeness, from one degree of glory to another.”

What happened to the Apostles after the Ascension of Jesus? They hid away in that Upper Room spending time worthily in prayer and reflection, it is true. But they were afraid to go out of that room and face what is in the world. Is that not how we often carry our own Christianity? In its extreme, we are sometimes tempted to fill the moat around our castles, pull up the drawbridge, and withdraw from all that is taking place in our world because we fear being destroyed by it. We are often afraid to confront and face the world which is hostile to us and we try to remain closed up in our own upper rooms. Pope Francis calls us to be missionaries. Once the Apostles received the Spirit, they went forth to preach and to teach. They were strengthened in their relationship to Jesus by that gift of the Spirit. They were strengthened in their capacity to defend the faith. They were strengthened in their capacity to spread the faith. In St. Cyril’s words, the strength the Apostles “received from the Spirit enabled them to hold firmly to the love of Christ, facing the violence of their persecutors unafraid.”

In a word, the Apostles overcame the fear they had because the world seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. The world was a frightful place. And it can still be so. But it is all too easy for us as Christians to forget that God is running this show. He is the one in charge. It is human for us to be afraid of our own attempts to confront and change the world. Thomas Merton called this the spirituality of evasion. In 1963 Merton referred to this ‘spirituality’ as a “cult of other worldliness that refuses to take account of the inescapable implication of all men in the problems and responsibilities of the nuclear age.” This spirituality of evasion is not a spirituality at all. It is the extreme of what was happening to the Apostles after having been cooped up in the upper room for a while. They were afraid to go out and face their critics, their enemies, their accusers. But then the Spirit descended on them. And that changed everything. It changed the world.

It is no less true today. Jesus had to go to his Father so the Spirit could come to us and strengthen us to continue Jesus’ work through this Spirit. It is what each and every Christian is called t be. We are all witnesses of the truth of the life of Jesus. We cannot help but live a life of witness to his truth and to preach in his name if so called. Some of those who heard the Apostles on Pentecost thought them drunk. So be it! Whatever names we may be called, we are not free not to live as witnesses to the Gospel. We must speak the name of Jesus!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Two loves of the Apostle Peter

In the seventh chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Letitia, Pope Francis addresses the education of children by their parents. The question he says is not where our children are physically, or whom they are with but where are they existentially, where they stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires and dreams. "Do we seek to understand where our children are in their journey? Where is their soul, do we know? Do we really want to know?"

Saint John Paul II once proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth”.

Language is everything. We use language to communicate and we had better know what we mean to say lest we commit ourselves to something we'd rather not. Communication between parents and children can frequently be a battle zone.

In reading the Scriptures, complexities can trouble us or puzzle us or confuse us or just excite and enlighten us. Various feelings come forth in the gospel for the third Sunday of Easter. In the liturgical celebration, we are invited to read a longer form or a shorter form. The longer form, the whole of chapter 21 of the Gospel of John, has two sections. In the first section, the Apostles go fishing after the death of Jesus. From this source it would appear that they are trying to get themselves back to a kind of normalcy in which they return to their previous occupation and keep themselves occupied by doing what they always knew best. But Jesus appears to them and the simple task of putting food on the table turns into an instruction on faith.

The second section of this Gospel uses two different verbs in Peter's expression of love for Jesus. Anyone familiar with C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves knows there are at least four different Greek verbs for the English word ‘love.’ Storge, for example, is a word indicating parental love. Eros indicates passionate love. Philia is friendship and Agape is unconditional love. Scripture was first composed in the Greek language. When Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Jesus uses the verb form agape. But Peter responds with the verb philia when he tells Jesus, “Of course, I love you.” Jesus repeats the question using agape again and Peter once again responds with philia. But then a twist. The third time Jesus asks the question he uses the verb Peter uses - philia. Jesus approaches Peter at his level. He meets Peter where he is. Peter is not ready to profess an undying commitment to Jesus. It has only been a short time since he betrayed him, after all. But Jesus knew he would give himself completely eventually.

What is going on? Peter is yet a child in his profession of faith. Peter is being reconciled with Jesus, but at a slower pace, a gradual one. Just as he denied Jesus three times so now Peter three times professes his love for Jesus. Jesus is calling Peter to a companionship with lots of strings, suffering and dying for Jesus. This demands unconditional love - agape.  But Peter only offers a lesser yet important kind of love - philia - however good and helpful it may be. Yet Jesus then tells him that someday he will indeed get there. Peter will indeed give his life for Jesus. 

What does this mean for us in pastoral ministry? We recognize the importance of suffering with Christ but we have to recognize that not everyone is ready to follow Jesus to the cross the first time they meet him. We draw one another into that suffering over time. We can't just be pushed or prodded into it. Jesus will welcome us when we are ready.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Friday Week 5 in Lent 2016

Jeremiah hears the whisperings of many. The whispers say, "Denounce him." Even Jeremiah's friends speak against him. They look for a way to trap him. He is the Lord's prophet and the people he addresses will have none of him. They will not listen to his words which are God's words. But Jeremiah is not cowed by their threats. Most of the selection for today's first reading in the liturgy is Jeremiah's threat to his enemies. He is very certain that God is with him, that God will protect him and save him.

God tests the just, he claims, which is why Jeremiah can speak so optimistically, so assuredly. He knows God so well. He knows God's desire that Jeremiah suffer is how Jeremiah is subjected to God's testing of him. The Lord probes the mind and the heart. Jeremiah lives in the knowledge that God knows him through and through. Thus Jeremiah can praise the Lord. He can rejoice in the Lord even though he is the object of persecution by his own countrymen. He recognizes himself having been rescued by God.

Jesus does not just hear whisperings in the Gospe reading. Men are actually picking up stones ready to destroy Jesus. Why, Jesus wants to know? You blaspheme, they tell him. You are making yourself God. There is some clever word play here on Jesus' part. Scripture says, "You are gods, so why can I not say I am the son of God?" But forget all that. "Recognize me by what I do if you cannot believe'" he tells his enemies. Not infrequently we ask one another to prove that we are who we say we are by demanding we act accordingly. "If I don't do the work of God," Jesus announces, "don't believe me. But if I do the work of God, acknowledge the goodness of the works. Thus, see God in me." God is in Jesus just as much as Jeremiah recognized what God had done in him.

So Jesus goes back across the Jordan and many come to him now because they do believe.

All of Lent has been a preparation for the coming week. All of Lent precedes Holy Week and the death of Jesus. Just as all of our lives are a preparation for our deaths, so with Jesus. Lent is very serious now. If we have paid attention to the Scripture, we have been aware that Jesus is stretching his disciples as well as the people of Israel. He is pushing the envelope. He is challenging us to follow him further. This is not just about saying our prayers and sticking with our petty Lenten 'sacrifices'. This is about following Jesus to the cross.

Have you ever sat with someone who is dying? One way to look at this week is to imagine yourself accompanying a dying person. Years ago I was called out of my sleep to anoint a parishioner in a hospital known to be dying of cancer but who had taken a turn for the worse. I was told he would not live through the morning. I went to see him, found him sitting up in bed, looking very alert and speaking as articulately and clearly as any two-person conversation might be. When he saw me, he asked me if it was as bad as that? I anointed him, chatted with him a bit, left, and he was dead within the next six hours.

Jesus is on his way to his death. Can we go with him and watch him die? Can we sit beside him and watch him as he goes through his suffering and death? We are going to want to look for things to do while we are waiting for him to die - check our email or the latest Instagram or Snapchat we've received. We are going to want to turn on some tunes with our headsets so we don't have to think about death. We are going to want to turn on the TV which is only a distraction to us and just noise to the dying. We are going to want to find excuses for leaving his bedside - I have to use the bathroom - I need a smoke - I need to eat. Anything to keep ourselves from watching Jesus die. And as horrific as the scenes of Jesus' passion were in the movie, it was, after all, only a movie, and the actors might have shown up at the end of the film to take their bows. But Jesus really died. And his desth was agonizing and ugly.

He invites us to die with him. Every time we are asked to live in His name, we are invited to die with Him. I resist that and I suspect you do too. As we look to Holy Week, would you seriously consider staying with this dying man? Would you willingly accompany him on his final journey and stay with him through the pain of his suffering and carry him to his place of rest?