Choose Life

"You will show me the path to life, fullness of joy in your presence" (Psalm 16).

Jesus' prayer for his disciples is that they be drawn into the relationship he has with his Abba. The dynamic exchange of love that is the essence of his being as divine Son is now being extended to them. As the Abba has loved him, so he has loved them, and in the same way they are to love one another. Their love must radiate into the world. This all-encompassing love is what will transform the universe into the beloved community. This community will fulfill the purpose of creation -- to reveal the glory of God, the inner life of the Trinity. The Christ in every baptized member of the church reflects the image and likeness of the Trinity. 

Pentecost is needed to reveal this mystery. Jesus must depart from history for the focus of this divine mystery to be transferred into the followers of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit they will experience themselves as possessing the mind of Christ and the power to continue his ministry. The birth of the church on Pentecost repeats and completes  the incarnation of Jesus, now revealed in his followers, the body of Christ extended in time and space. 

The Acts of the Apostles are about the growth of the church in time and space, from Jerusalem to Rome, representing the two centers of the ancient world. Paul will arrive in Rome under house arrest about the same time, according to the tradition, Peter is also there. They will be martyred together during the persecution of Nero. Their deaths will make Rome the center of a unique authority over the early church, a status we know as the pope and the Vatican today. 

From the papal pulpit of Pope Francis, 266th successor of Peter, will come an urgent message to the world on Pentecost. Go forward; there can be no delay or turning back. History will judge our time as either courageous or foolish,  a choice to embrace sustainability, peace, the common good and reconciliation or to retreat into tribalism, denial, fear and the betrayal of future generations. We will live the consequences of this choice, which is why Jesus told his disciples to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

"Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful with the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth."

My Soul Magnifies the Lord

"God indeed is my savior; I am confident and unafraid" (Isaiah 12:2).

Mary, it can be said, was the first to experience Pentecost. What happened to the disciples in the upper room first happened to Mary some 30 years earlier in Nazareth, where she was overshadowed by the same Holy Spirit and conceived Jesus in her womb. The Word become flesh. 

We celebrate on this feast of the Visitation the recognition of that conception when Mary hastened to the hill country of Judah to share her joy with Elizabeth. Two pregnant women carrying the future of salvation history embrace and proclaim that God keeps promises.  

This coming Sunday we will celebrate the birthday of the church. The followers of Jesus, gathered in prayer with Mary, are animated by the Holy Spirit and become the body of the Risen Christ, the firstborn of the new Creation, Redeemer of the world, present in history through us. 

Mary's song of thanksgiving is also the song of the church. It is a song of praise that God chose to accomplish something so great through a seemingly insignificant and anonymous young woman from a small village in a forgotten corner of the world. The first shall be last, and the last first. It is also a bold song declaring justice for the poor and oppressed of history. God's might will be revealed in the lifting up of the lowly and the casting down of the so-called powerful and satisfied of this world. No suffering will be forgotten; every prayer will be heard and every promise will be  kept. 

How can we prepare for Pentecost? Today's feast reminds us that Mary brought her faith and her experience to that upper room where a small huddle of anxious disciples awaited the rebirth they were promised by her son, Jesus. Mary is the model and midwife for all of us on Pentecost. 

Obey the Holy Spirit

"Compelled by the Holy Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem" (Acts 17:22).

As we get closer to Pentecost, we are invited to contemplate the many gifts of the Spirit given to the members of the body of Christ. Each Christian ought to consider his or her role in the building up of the body of Christ, for charisms are given to all, not just those in office or those called to formal religious duties.

The real reform and renewal of the church proposed by the Second Vatican Council was not from the top down but from the bottom up. As a second Pentecost, Vatican II called for the "full, conscious, active participation of all the baptized" in the lif and the mission of the church. 

St. Paul understood that incorporation into the body of Christ defined our lives as belonging to God, so that every natural gift we possessed would be touched by grace and directed toward service. Preachers, teachers, administrators, pastors, parents, workers, artists, healers and counselors would find inspiration and guidance from the Spirit to build up the community. The imitation of Christ is the heart and goal of every spirituality, so that every believer would go through the day asking, "What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?"

As Paul's ministry encountered resistance and suffering, he rejoiced because he was imitating Jesus. He also discovered that the Holy Spirit that had directed him on his missionary journeys was telling him to return to Jerusalem. As Jesus knew that Jerusalem was where all prophets went to die, so Paul goes to Jerusalem where he will be arrested and sent to Rome for martyrdom. 

We pray to embrace the will of God at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit poured out into the church will teach us how to imitate Jesus. Our natural gifts will find fulfillment in service. We will find joy in the indwelling of the Spirit. But we should also expect at some point to be summoned to the personal "Jerusalem" where all the issues on which our integrity depends will converge and the full meaning of our journey will be revealed in the laying down of our lives for others. 

Unity in Love

"In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world" (John 16:33).

Both of today's readings are descriptions of the early church. Paul's outreach through Asia Minor into Greece followed the diaspora of Jews. He found followers of John the Baptist and instructed them that there was another baptism besides one for repentance, and they welcomed the baptism of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Paul went into the synagogues to make the case that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the messiah they had been waiting for. 

Jesus' discourses in ​John's Gospel show second and third generation believers struggling under persecution and internal divisions to keep their eyes on the prize of the risen Christ. The "Beloved Community" that had formed around the "disciple Jesus loved." probably in Ephesus, was facing its own theological questions (see the letters of John). Jesus had foretold that in his absence the disciples would scatter like sheep without a shepherd. Only by gathering around the Word and the Eucharist would they keep the faith and grow through these difficult times. The antidote to division was to remain in the central gift Jesus had given them -- God's love. 

The history of the church has shown how easily different doctrinal approaches and ideological quarrels can divide the community into sectarian groups Even in our own time, battles over the meaning the Second Vatican Council often seem to result in different churches, different worship styles, different emphases on legal purity versus pastoral ministry, divisions among the hierarchy and the clergy.  Pope Francis, clearly a promoter of the renewal of Vatican II, has been publicly confronted by some bishops for taking the church in the wrong direction. 

As we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we are praying for church unity around the mystery of divine love. Pope Francis' theme of mercy encompasses every aspect of the life and mission of the church. This highest priority must contain lesser questions and a diversity of opinions that require sincere dialogue and consensus in love. This is how a fractious world will know that the church can practice the reconciliation it preaches. 

To lose sight of Jesus, whose death overcame all divisions and gathered the flock into one fold, is to risk being scattered.  The Holy Spirit does not promise the church a life without conflict or trouble. It does promise us the unity only unconditional love can produce among the children of God. 

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

"And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you" (John 17:11).

It has been said that life is like a sentence; we do not know its full meaning until the last word has been said. This gives us some perspective on the central theme of today's scripture readings. Only when Jesus has departed from history do his disciples begin to understand his mission as it is transferred to them.  

Some dioceses will celebrate the Ascension today and some will celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It does not matter since the message is the same. Jesus' absence from history thrusts the mystery of his continued presence through the Holy Spirit into the faith community. We are now the body of Christ in the world, the church. The Eucharist we celebrate on the Lord's Day is the memorial that "re-members" Jesus as the head of the body, united to us who are incorporated into him by baptism. 

The Acts of the Apostles visualizes Jesus' departure as a literal ascension like that of Elijah the Prophet, taken up into the sky in a fiery chariot. And just as Elisha, his successor, received his mantle and a double portion of his spirit, so the disciples receive the mind of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

But it is John's mystical reflection recorded in the last discourses that explores the hidden meaning of Jesus' divine identity as Son of God, sent to repair creation and restore the divine image and likeness to humanity. His mission complete, Jesus returns to his Father, promising the disciples that he will not leave them orphans but will come back to them in a little while. His return, with the Father and Spirit, fulfills this promise at Pentecost. The God who entered the world incarnate in Jesus now dwells in every Christian and in the church. 

What are we to do with this beautiful theology? The world we live in challenges our faith and the values of the Gospel. What difference does it make that we gather in our churches to hear the word, break the bread, share the cup and exchange the peace of Christ with one another? How will the world know that we carry God? 

If Jesus is the last word of history, we are the question that drives his message through time toward its fulfillment. Living  the question is the work of our discipleship and the focus of our prayers. The tension between the kingdom that is both here and not yet is our life in the world.

This is why we must pray with all our being, "Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth."

Born Again

"When a woman has given birth, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world" (John 16:21).

Conception must occur before birth can happen. The powerful metaphor Jesus uses to describe the experience his disciples would have to endure to become the church is deeply instructive for us as we await Pentecost.

The full story of our conversion includes the time of questioning and longing that brings us into relationship with God. Our consent is needed to make this encounter in faith a love story. Within that love story we open ourselves to receive the gift of divine life that begins in us like a seed. The Word of God can come to us in crisis, like a cry in the night, or gradually like a whisper. What God initiates is ours to nourish by prayer, and it grows in stages as we respond. Like gestation, the Christ in us takes form in the womb of our consciousness, becoming our identity and the organizing principle of all our values and our sense of purpose. 

No mature faith occurs without struggle. What love begins comes to birth in labor, our need to choose and commit ourselves to one path over others, find and obey our authentic selves before God by relinquishing every false promise or compromise. Vocation supersedes career as discipleship takes control or our lives and all our goals. 

What we experience personally and individually is a parable of the collective response that makes us the church. One Holy Spirit sings the same new song in every believer, uniting us to be the body of Christ in the world. it does not happen without our free, conscious participation, including a life of prayer and the sacraments.  What child grows without nourishment? So a serious Christian life needs the Eucharist in all its implications, especially the full use of our gifts within community.  

What human person reaches maturity without discipline and socialization that teaches virtue and responsibility. So every mature Christian grows up by sharing with others the burdens of justice and service, a life for others, habits of awareness and compassion, integrity and steadfastness, openness and truthfulness.

What tragedy if we spend our lives without becoming ourselves, the person God called us to be from the beginning. What joy if whole communities become together the presence of Christ in a parish, a neighborhood, and society and nation.  Isn't this why we we were born, both as human beings and as the children of God?

Ascension

"He was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight" (Acts 1:9).

The Ascension of Jesus  fulfills another dramatic ascension described in 2 Kings 2, when the prophet Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind, dropping his cloak and a double portion of his spirit on his successor, Elisha.  

The Ascension is about the transfer of power from Jesus to us. The entire liturgical season devoted to Easter is our preparation to receive the Spirit of Jesus as he departs history and his earthly sojourn. The church is born, animated by the risen Christ through his Holy Spirit, poured out on us in full measure so we can carry on the work of redeeming the world as members of his mystical body.

This transfer of power is also celebrated in Ephesians 4, when Jesus, like a victorious general taking his place at the right hand of the Emperor, proclaims his sovereignty over all the principalities and powers of this world. He takes "captivity captive," liberating the universe from its former enslavement to sin and death, and he distributes the spoils-- all manner of spiritual gifts needed to guide and nurture the church.  

This important solemnity in the liturgical year expresses one of the most dramatic moments in the Christian mystery. Each generation of believers is called to take the light of faith from the generation before. Now is our time, our watch, our chance to live what we believe, to become what we consume at each Eucharist, to embody and express the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. 

We are right to feel wholly inadequate and powerless to accomplish this mission. The liturgy will give us 10 days to fast and pray in anticipation of what God alone can initiate and sustain in us. The early church huddled in an upper room doing just that before the Spirit came like wind and fire to fill the disciples with power on Pentecost.  

So we pray: "Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth."

Can We Bear It?

"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now" (John 16:12).

What is it we cannot bear? The loss of a child, a broken marriage, a devastating diagnosis?  We each have our list of unbearables -- experiences we believe we could not survive? 

Yet people just like us face and endure all of the above and worse. Even terrible things are endured over time, in stages, and people adjust, cope, make decisions about how to deal with suffering, find community with others, and renewed faith that gives meaning to senseless tragedies and unspeakable losses. 

In one sense, Jesus knew that his disciples would enter a time of bewildering shock and confusion when he was crucified. The Gospels do not tell us how long the dark interval was from his death to the glorious revelation of the Good News that he was alive and among them. The symbolic "three days" suggest only a tragic weekend that ends in joy, but other accounts suggest the disciples were dispersed and did not encounter their Lord until they had returned to Galilee. After a long night on the sea of Galilee, seven distraught disciples trying to be fishermen again encounter a stranger who is revealed as the risen Christ. In any case, Easter faith was born in a travail of rebirth and forged in a fiery baptism of grief that carved out a space large enough to hold an immense gift of new hope. 

In another sense, Jesus was also talking about a joy so deep, he knew they could not bear that either, not all at once. Whatever they experienced, the disciples were totally dislocated from their former reality and thrust into in a new way of understanding everything: Jesus, God, themselves and history. 

Do we have a list of unbearable joys? A lost child returning home, a love relationship restored after rupture, a breakthrough after long suffering, recovery from an addiction or near-fatal injury?   Easter faith is about believing that whatever happens, God is always with us and is the ultimate happy ending to every tragedy, even death itself. 

The Ascension of Jesus positions us to pray with the same intensity the first disciples experienced as they awaited the promise of Pentecost. The Spirit came to them as a whirlwind and an earthquake. Why should it be any different for us?

The question is, are you ready to bear such unbearable joy and overpowering love? 

A New Way of Life

"It is better for you that I go, for if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you" (John 15:7).

Jesus' departure in his death, which for John is also his ascension and the sending of the Spirit, is necessary for his disciples to experience his presence in a new way. As long as he remains, they are focused on him and a mission only he is able to accomplish.

The long farewell discourses in John's Gospel were to prepare his disciples for the crucial transfer of power from Jesus to the church. The first followers were frightened and felt totally inadequate. But there is no Plan B. If they do not seize the torch and take up the task, there will be no church and no mission.  

The interval between Jesus' earthly departure and the birth of the church was a time of profound prayer and openness to what can come only as a pure gift. No human genius or initiative can kindle the spark that sets the world ablaze with a love so powerful it creates the world anew.  But once that love takes hold in a believing community, history is turned in a different direction, from futility and death to hope and new life. 

Evidence of this renewed presence of the risen Jesus is found in today's readings from Acts 16. Paul and Silas are imprisoned for preaching the Good News. But in the middle of the night an earthquake opens the prison. Set free, the APostles minister to the jailer and his family and they are baptized.  The joyous scene ends with a meal.

If the story seems familiar, it is a perfect parallel to the resurrection of Jesus. Neither tomb nor prison can chain the Gospel, which liberates and saves anyone who believes in it. A meal celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus is now the pattern of our lives. 

Do we perceive this same pattern now? If we die to ourselves and live for Christ, no obstacle or suffering can contain or prevent us from living as Jesus did, for we are now his presence and power in the world. 

The Cost of Discipleship

"The hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God" ( John 16:3). 

When Paul crosses over from Asia Minor to Macedonia, he makes contact with the Roman colony of Philppi. This will  begin his ministry in a more expansive way until he finds himself in Rome, by way of arrest and transport there to be judged by the emperor because he claimed his right as a Roman citizen.  But this transition will have deadly consequences for both Paul and Peter and for most of the apostles, who were martyred for the faith. 

Jesus had already told them to expect resistance and even death. The Good News was never a harmless call to brotherly love, but was a revolution that would turn the world upside down. The Romans understood just how subversive the Christian message was as it moved through the empire winning converts first among slaves and the lower classes, then reaching the educated upper classes, including independent women like Lydia. The growing Christian community in Rome was scapegoated by Nero after Rome burned. In the roundup of victims, both Paul and Peter were executed. Subsequent persecutions would claim the lives of many martyrs in the first century of the life of the church. 

We live in a time of profound ideological and religious conflict, when murder has again become a sign of devotion to this or that version of "god." Distorted views of both Islam and white supremacist Christianity have brought a new age of terrorism in which targeted minorities are persecuted for economic and political gain, and even governments kill indiscriminately in the name of national security. The cost of discipleship is always high, but now it is being paid in blood. We pray to be steadfast in faith in both crisis and in the ordinary, daily cost of following Christ. 

 

Pages