Saturday, April 26, 2008

Handing On The Spirit

(6th Sunday of Easter, A)

Easter is the longest of the privileged seasons of our Christian year, but it always seems to go by very quickly. And again we find ourselves in the last couple of weeks in the great fifty days of Easter. So where are we left? The Lord’s Resurrection, which we recall every Sunday, we have celebrated in a most special and joyful way in these days. We have heard each week of the miraculous progress of the early Church of the apostles, empowered as it was by the overwhelmingly good news of the Gospel and the power flowing from Christ’s Resurrection. But what about us, we who sometimes seem to live in a time and place so far removed from the events we hear about in the Sacred Scriptures?

It seems to me that the end of the Easter season, leading up as it does to the great feast of Pentecost, is exactly about this question. We live in that middle time, the time after the Ascension of Jesus to the Father and before his return at the end of time. Jesus Christ is present to us neither as he was present to his apostles, in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth, nor in the undeniable way he will present to the whole world when everything rolls back into God at the end of time. So for us who live in this “in between” time, how is Jesus Christ present to us?

In the Gospel we hear today, Jesus himself helps us to understand how his presence remains with us, his disciples, after he leaves us to return to the Father. He gives a few different names to the mysterious but very real Presence of himself that he leaves behind. He calls this Presence the “Spirit.” He calls it “love.” But most of all, he calls this Presence of himself remaining with us the Paraclete. Our translation of the Scriptures renders this word as “advocate.” But we could also translate paraclete as “comforter” or “helper.”

Jesus leaves us the Holy Spirit to be our helper, comforter, and advocate during our sojourn in this “in between” time. We are a people who remember what God has done for us in Christ, celebrating this Eucharist which is first of all a memorial of Christ’s work of our salvation on the Cross. We are a people who look forward to Christ’s return when all creation will come to its final destiny in God.

As we remember, on the one hand, what God has done for us in Christ, and look forward, on the other hand, to the final fulfillment of history at the end of time, we have as our advocate, helper and comforter the Holy Spirit who is the Presence of Jesus Christ abiding in his people. This Spirit which Jesus leaves with empowers us in so many ways, but I’ll just mention three:

First, as Jesus says, the Spirit is the spirit of Truth, and thus the Holy Spirit enables us to know and speak the truth revealed by God about who we are and what we are to do. And our aimless world of violence and manipulation, overshadowed as it is by the “culture of death,” needs this Truth very much. As St. Peter says today in the second reading, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” And it is the Spirit that enables to do this with courage, reverence, and gentleness.

Second, the Holy Spirit present among enables us to continue the work of Jesus in the world by becoming ourselves reconcilers, healers, and peacemakers. That is what it means to become the Body of Christ we receive in this Eucharist, to allow the saving and healing work of Jesus to continue in us.

Finally, the Holy Spirit empowers and compels us to pass on the grace we have received. In the first reading we hear about how Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritans that they might also the Holy Spirit. This is what we mean by Tradition; it is a “handing on” of the grace we have received in Christ. Our word tradition comes from the Latin verb trado, tradere, to hand on. It also comes into English as our simple word “trade” and is also the root word of “betray,” to hand someone over in the negative sense. As Peter and John handed on the Spirit of God, so we are also called to hand on the truth, faith, and grace we have received in Christ. From the apostles and martyrs down to our own mothers and fathers—both spiritual and biological—all of these made great sacrifices of themselves to hand on the faith and the Holy Spirit of God to us.

As Jesus handed over his life for us and as his Spirit was handed on to us by those who came before us, so it is now our privilege and work to continue to hand on the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living Stones

(5th Sunday of Easter, A)

As we come to these later days of the Easter season we are always aware of a shift in our reflection. At the beginning of Easter we are overwhelmed with wonder at the re-creation of the world and the renovation of our humanity in Jesus Christ risen from the dead. But as the Easter season moves on, we are invited more and more to reflect on how it is that the Risen Lord continues to be present to us.

This is, after all, the core of our faith: to confess that the blessing of God abides with us, his people, in the mysterious presence of Jesus as Risen Lord and in his gift of the Holy Spirit. We Christians are always using language that affirms this truth. We begin and end our prayer together with a confession of Jesus’ presence among us: “The Lord be with you…and also with you.” In the deepest way we affirm the presence of Christ among us when we receive Holy Communion, and someone looks at us and addresses us with our truest name and identity, “The Body of Christ.”

We who are Christians—the people who are “of Christ”—are meant to live in this world as the presence of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. We are to be witnesses of the possibility of living a risen life, freed from sin, freed from anxiety, freed form depression and from anything that holds us down to earth. And we live this risen life by the power of Christ and his Spirit living within us.

This is what St. Peter is getting at in the second reading when he urges us to allow ourselves, “like living stones,” be built by the Holy Spirit “into a spiritual house.” That’s what the Church is, not a place we go or a building—no matter how beautiful—but a people. Each of us is a stone made living in Christ and together we are built into a spiritual building by the Holy Spirit present in the world. And this spiritual building that we form is meant to be a place of safety and refreshment for the world around us that has made itself tired by violence and sin and despair.

This is what it means to be “in Christ.” That’s why this assembly, the church, is called the “body of Christ”. And this is exactly what we confess in Holy Communion—the Communion we receive, the body and blood of Christ, is who we really are who we are to become.

It is us who are meant to be the presence in the world of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. We who are buried with him in our baptism and made into this body in this Eucharist are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the risen Body of Christ in the world. And thus our mission as individuals and as a Church is to continue Christ’s work of teaching, of healing, of reconciling, and of making peace. These missions are to be our work in our most personal relationships and activities all the way up to our intersection with public debate, politics, and issues affecting our whole society and world.

In short, that’s who we are, a people who form the Church which continues the presence and mission of Christ through history. And let’s not forget the Gospel we hear today, which assures us that if we do this, if we live in Christ in this life, we can trust that Jesus in his Resurrection has prepared an eternal dwelling for us in the Father.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Stepping Into The Mystery

(4th Sunday of Easter, A)

One of my favorite writings of St. Francis of Assisi is the letter he wrote to Brother Leo. Leo wanted advice from Francis about following the Lord. Francis wrote to him simply, “In whatever way it seems best to you to please the Lord God and follow his footprint and his poverty, do this with the blessing of the Lord God and my obedience.”

This is a sense of God with which we are familiar: the God who calls us that we might follow him into the new and risen life he offers. This is Jesus the Good Shepherd. This fourth Sunday of Easter we call “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The Good Shepherd is, after all, one of the most beautiful and beloved titles and images of the Risen Lord. Jesus is the shepherd of his people, gently calling us, leading us, and bringing us to a place of spiritual safety and refreshment. Good Shepherd Sunday has also become a privileged time to pray for vocations to consecrated life and the sacred ministry, that God would raise up from among us shepherds to care for us and lead us in his ways.

But if we pay attention to what we hear in John’s gospel today, we notice right away that Jesus goes beyond simply calling himself the Good Shepherd. He not only refers to himself as the shepherd, but as the Gate for the sheep! What can this mean, to say that Jesus is a gate?

In some way we are meant to step through Jesus Christ. As he says, “I am the Way.” Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ is a Presence among us that we are meant to step into and through. St. Peter says as much in a different way in the second reading today: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”

Far, far too often we treat our faith like a “spectator sport.” We think of the mysteries of our Lord’s birth, death, and Resurrection as something we observe. Perhaps we observe with deep contemplation or great gratitude, but to observe is only the very beginning of worship. Gathering for the Eucharist is not like going to the movies! Jesus Christ is not just someone we admire for the great things he did for us. We are to go further and step into these mysteries ourselves.

That’s the beauty of our sharing in Holy Communion. Our flesh and blood, our very lives and humanity become one with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In this way, if we only consent to it, all of our sufferings and struggles and doubts are taken up into the Lord’s own Passion. Best of all, the dying that we will all have to pass through at the end of our time in this world is taken up into the Lord’s own death on the Cross. That’s our hope. That’s why our Communion in this Eucharist is God’s pledge of our Resurrection. By uniting ourselves to the Body of Christ that suffered and died for us, our humanity is also taken up into his Resurrection, into Jesus’ victory over the finality of death.

Again, as Peter says, Jesus leaves us an “example,” that we might “follow in his footsteps.” We are to follow the example of Jesus’ own life, and place our feet on the path of the pattern he left for us. This will be different for each of us, as different members of the Body of Christ. For some it will be the “leap to faith” in prayer and contemplation. For others it will be the work of continuing Jesus’ ministry of teaching or leadership. For others it will be the imitation of God in providing quiet and gentle care to people in need. But whatever we are called to be, each of us has to seek how we are to follow in the Lord’s footsteps. Like Brother Leo, each of us has to seek each day how to put our feet into the Lord’s footprint, to step into the new Reality that is the risen humanity of Christ.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

On The Way

(3rd Sunday of Easter, A)

The Resurrection is a matter of eternity. Like all the mysteries of our Lord’s Incarnation, from his Nativity, through his teaching and healing to his Passion and death, the Resurrection is the eternity of God breaking into our world and personal history by means of the humanity of Christ. And because the Resurrection is a matter of eternity, it is just as present and fresh to us as it was to the first disciples. The Resurrection is just as real right now, in this place, as it was on that first Easter evening we heard about in the Gospel, or at Pentecost when Peter made the great speech we heard in the first reading. Therefore we can read the accounts of the experience of the Risen Lord that come to us in the Scriptures as about us too. Since the Risen Lord is just as present now as he was to the first disciples, we can read ourselves into the Scriptures. And the Gospel of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, which we hear today, provides a beautiful example of how the Risen Lord is present to us on the way.

For we all are on the way, we are all on the journey of our personal history, of the histories of our families and communities, and of the secret, inner journey of our path with God in prayer. And just like he does for the disciples on the way in the Gospel, the Risen Jesus comes and walks with us. Though we seldom recognize this Presence with us, he is faithfully there. And what does he do? He encourages us to recount and reflect on our journey: “What are you discussing as you walk along?” The Presence with us that calls us to reflect on our life with God and to call us to prayer, this is the Presence of the Risen Lord walking with us on the way.

And though perhaps we still don’t always recognize him, if we are faithful to this journey of prayer and reflection, we find that our understanding grows. We start to see glimpses of the great mystery of God. As the Gospel puts it today, “he opened the Scriptures” for the two disciples. And this will happen for us too, if we allow ourselves the dialogue with God which is the prayer of people on the way.

As our minds and hearts are opened to the Presence of the Risen Lord, as we “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” we will want him to stay with us, and like the disciples in the Gospel we will want to sit at table with the Lord and have him break bread for us. And that is what we do in this Eucharist!

Here, in this assembly, just as Jesus took, blessed, and broke bread for those two disciples on the first Easter evening, he does so with us. And it is in this “breaking of the bread” that we see most clearly the abiding presence of Jesus with us. For in the Eucharist, the same Body which was broken for our salvation on the cross is broken for our nourishment, and the same Blood which was poured out for the forgiveness of sins on the Cross is poured out for the ratification of the new and eternal covenant. The humanity of Christ, which death could not hold on to, is risen into this assembly, into the bread and wine of this Eucharist. Before this mystery we stand in awe at the “sublime humility” of the God who, as St. Francis said, “hides himself under the little form of bread.”

But let’s not forget what happened to those two disciples in the Gospel when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread—he “vanished from their sight.” This is one of the great challenges of the spiritual life, that as soon as we feel like we’ve come to an experience or an understanding God, God seems to retreat from us. As soon as we are able to say, “Wow, I get it, or I’ve had an experience of God,” it’s gone, and we feel like we don’t get it, like we’re not sure what we mean by “God.” But this is not an abandonment, but an invitation. For this is the way that God invites us to go deeper into ourselves, into who we really are, and to hear him calling us at a new level closer to our true identity.

If we are faithful to this journey, faithful to the walking on the way with God, even when it seems like we are being led into incomprehensible darkness, this is where we find pure faith. And we will begin to hear God calling us at our deepest and truest identity, which is, after all, the humanity of the Christ.