Sunday, May 19, 2013


Acts 2:1-11 / 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 / John 14:15-16, 23b-26

When we speak of the coming of the Spirit, whether we refer to his historic coming on that first Pentecost of the Church after the Lord had ascended into heaven, or whether we mean the coming of the Spirit into the lives of the faithful, we are quite naturally inclined to speak of the effects of the Spirit on those upon whom he has descended. They, we imagine, are the ones transformed by his coming. To be sure, we are altogether justified in thinking this way. After all, at the first Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on the disciples and they began to speak in different tongues, we are assured that they did so as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. When Jesus promised to send his Spirit, he likewise assured his disciples that the Spirit would teach them everything and remind them of all that he had told them. St Paul, similarly, assured the faithful of Corinth that life in the Spirit is characterized precisely by the presence of spiritual gifts, not the same to each, but that nonetheless to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

Even so, we find one quite surprising feature of the story of the first Pentecost. When the disciples, now filled with the Holy Spirit, preach Jesus Christ to those devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem, we are not told that the disciples were given the power to speak in several languages and so proclaimed one homily several times, each time in another language. That, of course, would be remarkable enough, and would remind all of the power of the Spirit to give gifts that transform those he has brought to life in Jesus Christ. Yet, the story tells us something quite different: At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. In other words, at Pentecost, it was not that the disciples were empowered such that each now had new abilities they did not have before and which simply empowered them alone, but rather that, enabled by the charisms of the Spirit, their gifts were transformative both of the disciples themselves and of those to whom they spoke.

It is helpful to remember that, unlike the age of Moses or of the prophets of old, when the Spirit came upon this or that person to effect mighty works and glorify the name of God in Israel and among the nations, the coming of the Spirit in the age of grace is altogether different. It is prodigal and universal, sweeping the world with his Lordly and Life-giving grace. The Spirit, not as sent to one individual but poured out in his fulness on all peoples in a definitive way, comes to draw all people into the life of Christ, both those who possess a special charism and those to whom that charism is applied. Just as his descent on the disciples enabled their power of speech, so also, by that transformed speech, opened the power of the listeners to hear, and in hearing, opened for them the way to life eternal, to a sharing in the eternal life of the blessed Trinity.

This is why we, the many parts of the one body of Christ, are called to be open both to one another in that body and to present ourselves with frank and open witness to those not yet drawn into the Church. While the Spirit could have given each of us a gift for his own good, and his own good alone, in the unimaginable depth of his love has distributed gifts such that each of our gifts finds its perfection not in ourselves alone, but in us only to the extent that through it the Spirit draws others into new life. Likewise, it is only when we patiently, lovingly receive the Spirit's gifts from others' charisms that we will come to know the glorious wonders that the Spirit has in store for us.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seventh Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 7:55-60 / Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20 / John 17:20-26

How is the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven not, at least in some respect, a disaster for the Church, rather than a glorious mystery? We hear today of the witness to the faith given by St Stephen, a witness filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet, at least by any normal metric, we would conclude that the outcome was not so glorious: But they cried out with a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. Now, in his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ was certainly no stranger to opposition of this sort, of those hearing his message and seeking to kill him, even then and there to throw him off a cliff. Jesus, however, always passed through the midst of them unharmed. Even when the time for his Passion arrived, and Jesus humbly submitted to his own betrayal, false judgment, torture, and death, he made sure that not one of his disciples, save the son of perdition, would be lost. For all the pains that he endured, his disciples were spared.

So, we might be forgiven in thinking that something has gone wrong here, that the providential care which had watched over Jesus and his disciples while he was on the earth has been withdrawn to heaven, where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. However, this would be a mistake, a failure to see what the martyrdom of Stephen is supposed to remind us of the saving mystery of the Lord's Ascension into heaven.

As we are reminded, what both motivated and empowered Stephen to be such a bold witness was not simply being filled with the Holy Spirit, although that would surely have been enough, as it had been for the prophets of old. Rather, we are told that Stephen, thus Spirit-filled, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That is, Stephen's fearless witness is not merely a result of having met and learned from Jesus in his earthly ministry, nor even from having encountered the risen Lord. As would be the case for St Paul after Stephen's death, the protomartyr Stephen was able to witness to the truth, and be so conformed to his Lord that he could not only forgive his murderers but also had so overcome death that he is more properly said to have fallen asleep, not in spite of the absence of Christ's earthly presence, but, paradoxically, because of it.

Said differently, Jesus Christ is not less, but radically more present to us in his ascended glory than he ever was in his earthly ministry. It is not by the Incarnation alone, nor by the Passion, nor even by that victory over sin, death, and Hell we recall in the Resurrections that Jesus brings us to the Father. It is through drawing up whole and entire everything he has assumed from us, his whole, complete, victorious human nature into the presence of the Father, and receiving in that nature from the Father the name above every other name, the name reserved to divinity alone — Lord, I AM — that we, in him, are brought to that completion of life with God that is the purpose of the whole Christian mystery. While on earth, the divine humanity of Jesus Christ was, in his self-emptying, only available to those who came to see him those who touched him or even the hem of his garment, those who in his presence confessed their faith and found not only their own needs, but those of the ones they loved, responded to and fulfilled. Now, in the presence of the Father, that same divine humanity is, through the power of the Spirit and by means of the mysteries of the Christian faith, directly available to each and every person. It is in and by the power not only of the Risen Lord, but the Ascended Lord, that we can, here and now, be so fully conformed to his death that we can share, as Stephen did, even now in his victory over death and sin, and know not death, but sleep and life eternal.

This is why the Lord's Ascension is not for us a disaster, nor the inauguration of a suspended time between the joy of his earthly presence and the joy of his return. Instead, now is the time of glorious joy, knowing that Jesus Christ our Savior, in the fulness of this glorified humanity and his divinity, is present to us in such fulness as only to be surpassed at the end of days, when all things are brought to completion, and the elect will delight in a new heaven and a new earth. Until that day, however, we need not wait to know Jesus, not in a remote way, but directly, for there is nothing closer to us, not ever our own selves, than God, and whoever is in God's presence. Jesus Christ is not gone from us, but with us, and in that hope, we can wait with confidence when the bright morning star which has dawned in our hearts, dawns at last for the whole world to see.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sixth Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 / Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23 / John 14:23-29

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.

A modern reader might not find anything remarkable about the claim that the new Jerusalem which John saw in a vision coming down out of heaven from God should not have a temple in it. After all, the Jerusalem that we know, and indeed for nearly two thousand years, has not had a temple. More than that, we might be inclined to think that what this means, that is, for the new Jerusalem not to have a temple, is reducible to the end for formal cult in the world renewed by God. That is, we might think that what this vision serves to show is that worship as we now know it is a passing thing, the cult of sacrifices and oblations established of old is not a permanent feature of God's plan for us.

However, the absence of the temple must mean more than this. Minimally, it must mean more because the sacrifices and observances connects to the temple have already passed away, even here and now. There would be no need for a new Jerusalem to descend from the clouds for us to see that to be so. Rather, we ought to recall that the temple was the very sign and locus of God's presence with his people. To have Jerusalem without a temple is, on the face of it, to have worship without God, which is to say to have neither worship nor God. In other words, we are meant to be struck by what must either be an irreparable tragedy or an impossible paradox to hear of the holy city without the dwelling place of God.

This is when we can once again hear the promise of hope offered in John's vision. God is not promising to do something merely negative. He is not taking away something good in removing the temple any more than he is in rendering useless the sun and the moon. It is not as though men and women in the new Jerusalem will no longer worship God and delight in his manifest presence any more than they will see without light. Instead, what God promises is that he will be more, not less present, in the new Jerusalem, even as the light of his glory and the glory of the Lamb will not merely replace that of the sun and moon, but will, if such could be imagined, eclipse it, that might see with even more clarity than on a cloudless day by the noonday sun.

What God has in store for us, already promised in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not a world with less or mere replacements of what we have now. What God holds out to us, what sustains us in times of trial and difficulty, what we taste in partial ways in the joys we know here and now, is a world so fully open and available to himself that everywhere is the temple, everywhere is made a fit dwelling place, everywhere is drenched in the glorious radiance and clarity that is the very being of God himself.