Pentecost Sunday, Mass during the Day

Lectionary: 63

As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Of the three major feasts – Christmas and Easter being the other two – Pentecost may be the hardest to get our arms around. It might even be the most forgettable – it doesn’t get the attention of Christmas, Easter and Ash Wednesday – although the other celebrations would mean nothing without it.

Pentecost is to the church year as the Holy Spirit is to the Church as breath is to the body. A body without breath is dead.  

tendrils of last year's vines
Periodically Veterans arrive at the hospital with an ominous diagnosis, “failure to thrive.” Often, they have been here before. They left this or another hospital with reason to hope their recovery would continue. But they returned to their silent worlds and their tiny rooms where they cared for no one and no one cared for them. A dog and a television couldn’t do it for them. Sometimes the VA can find a foster care home where the gentlemen thrive. Surrendering the illusion of heroic solitude, they rejoin the human race, start caring about others, and enjoy life again.

The Holy Spirit fills our lives with the cycles of giving and receiving, which are like breathing. We inhale and exhale. One who only receives is dying, as is the one who only gives. Ordinary life is filled with giving and receiving. Much of it is like breathing, unconscious. We just naturally help each other and receive help from one another. No can remember how many times she has said, “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”

With Pentecost the Church celebrate our opportunity to give back to the Lord. We have seen his birth, watched his death and been amazed by his resurrection. We believe he has done these things for us, to gather us to himself as a shepherd gathers his sheep. Until this moment, however, we could not respond. We lacked the vitality, the breath to say Amen.

Pentecost fills our lungs with breath, our minds with words and our mouths with songs. Pentecost gathers choirs and congregations to breathe in unison as they worship.

Pentecost makes such a noise that people in the street wonder what’s going on there in the Upper Room. They want to be a part of it too. They join the crowd in droves, despite their speaking hundreds of different languages. Within a short time they are singing Hebrew words, Alleluia Amen. Joined in the Body with Christ as our head, we cry out, “This is the Day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it.”

Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Lectionary: 302

This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains.” 

With the end of the Easter Season we come to the end of the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Paul has arrived in Rome, the center of the empire. He is completing the mission Jesus gave to his disciples, to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. When he arrived there, and even as Saint Luke finished the book, neither could imagine Rome might become the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic Church. They could not foresee the Vatican or the innumerable churches, basilicas, chapels and shrines that would fill the city with holy sites. 

They probably had a presentiment of the persecutions Christians would suffer before the city would become theirs. There was no reason to suppose they would fare any better than Jesus had. 

But trouble, ostracism, imprisonment and persecutions were not that important. Their mission was to announce the Gospel. House arrest may have felt inconvenient to the itinerant Paul at times but he used it to make himself more available to his allies and opponents. Anyone who wanted to quarrel with him about the hope of Israel or the mission of the messiah knew where to find him. 

It was appropriate that the Gospel should arrive in Rome in the person of a prisoner. Who else could represent the Crucified? 

Our Pope Francis has not forgotten the humility of Saint Paul as he began his ministry in Rome. He found a room more accessible than that of his predecessors. In the spirit of Pope Saint John XXIII, he wants to open the windows of the Church to allow free access to the Holy Spirit. 

A few days ago, after initial introductions, an octogenarian Veteran looked hard at me and said, "What is happening to our Church?" 
"We're entering a new millennium!" I said.

We have outlasted two millennia so far. The Gospel is still beautiful, clear, glorious and perfect. The cross of Jesus remains as holy, revered and powerful as ever. If some people cannot imagine how the Church will remain true to its mission and calling during these times of change, that's why we get old and die. Most of us outlive our imagination. If I knew the future at one time -- or thought I did -- I don't anymore.  

Opponents declare the world has no further need of the Gospel, God or the Church. But the Holy Spirit continues to raise up from these very stones congregations who welcome the Good News. 

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Lectionary: 301

Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

The Gospel of Saint John ends with an appendix about Saint Peter. It seems the disciples have lost their way. Together are seven disciples of Jesus, all the usual suspects: "Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples." 
We're not told why they are together; it seems they have nothing better to do than go fishing. 

That was Peter's idea. "I am going fishing." he says. 
And they say, "We'll come with you."  

When the Lord appears on shore and directs their efforts, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" recognizes him. (Typically, he was hidden among the "two others of his disciples.") 

It is significant that the nominal head of the group doesn't instantly recognize the Lord. That duty fell to the one whom Jesus loved. He was the same who "saw and believed" when they found the empty tomb. 

Peter is not jealous of his headship. He readily hears and accepts another man's prophetic announcement; and then eagerly leads the party back to shore. It is often too much to expect of institutional leadership -- in church, government or business -- to know where we must go. Their duty is to listen to the Spirit from whichever direction the Voice calls, and make the critical decision to follow. God may speak to the Church through a child or an old person; from male or female; from members, friends or enemies. The sound may even drift up through the bureaucratic layers of the organization. Leadership listens with the whole Church, not for the whole Church. They carry the heavy burden of decision after discerning the Voice. 

As the story continues, Jesus leads Peter aside and asks the critical question, "Peter, do you love me?"
 “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Already, in his reply, we can hear Peter's anxiety. He is well aware of his failings. As Jesus repeats the question Peter is reduced to tears. The smell of the charcoal fire and the questioning evoke that dreadful night when Peter swore he had never even heard of Jesus and had no idea what they were talking about. 

I hope I am not the only one who often repeats these words of Saint Peter, "Lord, you know I love you!" 
LORD, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand,you understand my thoughts from afar....
Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts. See if there is a wicked path in me; lead me along an ancient path.       (Psalm 139)

Knowing the Lord is knowing one's own sin. It is beautiful in a probing, poignant way. Before the Lord I cannot pretend to be someone else, or to have qualities I don't have. Assuming a position of leadership within the Church -- as priest, parent, catechist or whatever -- one can only say, "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will." 

Memorial of Saint Boniface, Bishop and Martyr

Lectionary: 300

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage.
For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem,
so you must also bear witness in Rome.”

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles might sound too familiar during our silly season in the United States. The Sadducees and Pharisees have managed to cobble together an uneasy alliance. These parties devoutly despise each other but agree that Saint Paul and his Christian movement are troublesome and should be suppressed.

When Paul shouts “I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.” he pulls at the first available string that will unravel the coalition. There were probably a dozen other issues he might have used. We could as easily imagine a confederacy of Catholics and the Tea Party thrown into disarray by a discussion about capital punishment, civil rights or birth control.

As the story continues we realize it was the Holy Spirit which inspired this mischief in Saint Paul. He is destined to sail to Rome, bringing the good news of the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” (Since all roads lead to Rome, the ends of the earth meet there.)

Saint Paul embodies that Spirit of which Saint John wrote:

The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit
How could a man who traveled the highways and waterways of the Roman Empire so freely spend weeks and months in jail cells
, the brig of ships, and house arrest? Wasn’t he impatient to get out and get moving?

In fact, governed by the Spirit, he had God’s patience and God’s impatience. He knew when to move and when to stay. Even when an earthquake struck the jail, as we heard last week, and the fetters fell off his arms, he did not rush out of confinement. The Spirit of God kept him in place until his jailer rushed into that that stygian darkness with torches to lead him out. Evidently the earthquake was for the jailer’s benefit as well as his.

Will the US with its parties, lobbies, special interest groups, PACs, ethnic and religious groups, entrenched bureaucrats, one percenters and criminals rediscover its direction in our confusing world? Will the Catholic Church, described as “a people adrift,” straighten up and fly right?

Now, more than ever, we rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us day by day. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on through the night.

Wednesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Lectionary: 299

I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the Evil One. They do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
Consecrate them in the truth.

I begin each day at the Veterans Affairs hospital, before my “tour of duty” begins, with a half-hour of prayer in the chapel. During this time I read the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer. I would not want to approach the Veterans or staff without this re-consecration of myself and my time.

I enjoy a great deal of respect among the Veterans and staff but I cannot assume it’s because they like me so much. Most hardly know me. They see the Roman collar and they know whom I represent. Despite all the rumors of a secularized world, people appreciate a “man of the cloth” and are glad of his presence.

During his Last Supper prayer, the Lord would not “ask that you take them out of the world.” That would defeat the whole purpose of our being here. Rather, he prayed first, that the Evil One be kept far from us; and then for our consecration in truth.

Most of the people who greet me in the hospital cannot imagine how blessed my life is. I live in a Franciscan community that engages in prayer three times a day. I watch little television, only the early evening news. For recreation I play three rounds of cribbage with 96-year-old Father Maurus. (Both of us hope the other will win.) Once in a while I go outdoors to take pictures of flowers, bugs and trees. I have also spent a lot of time in the past four years with this homily-blog. I visit my family in Louisville for major holidays and birthdays. 

Although I grumble about the antics of this or that friar, one of my companions, I know where the problem lies. It’s not with him. I did not enter the Franciscan community to show them how to be Franciscans; I need them to show me. I also wanted to fall under the blessing of Jesus’ Last Supper prayer – for protection from the Evil One.

There’s a lot to be said for a simple way of life. The Franciscan life is quiet, uncluttered, unpretentious and focused. It’s consecrated in truth. It probably makes a difference in the broader landscape of our culture and nation; but, to suit me, it does not have to. I don’t suppose the world will be a better place for my having been here.

If these united states retain our union for another century, the Christian Churches will play no small part in that success. Our consecration in truth and our keen awareness of both the Evil One and God’s mercy will make all the difference. That blessing began in Jesus; it remains with us because of our daily prayer.

Memorial of Saint Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs

Lectionary: 298

 I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.
They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.

We are approaching the end of the Easter Season. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost. Our readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John recount the farewell discourses of Saint Paul and the Lord Jesus. Jesus begins his final prayer before his crucifixion with, “Father, the hour has come.”

I have been writing this “homily blog” for over four years and, I think, the time has come to say farewell. I have heard it said that the best preacher has only two or three sermons at any given time. He repeats himself often. I don’t know how often I have repeated myself in 1606 posts but I think I have said everything I need to say. It’s time to take a break. I will write my last post in this homily blog on Pentecost Sunday. I am reassured in this decision by the many good opportunities you have as a reader to find other and similar blogs.

I am not retiring from the chaplaincy at the VA and I expect to remain at Mount Saint Francis for the time being. Nothing in a Franciscan’s life is forever.
Leaving Ephesus Saint Paul said, “And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God.”

His ministry was proclamation of God’s plan. That is never the work of one person. God has endless resources and innumerable ways to remind us of his gracious presence in our lives.
As I have written this blog I have never forgotten the primary way of knowing the Lord is in the flesh and blood community of disciples. There is no substitute for going to church. Preaching happens in the church, not on television, radio or the internet. And I have my doubts about the amplifier. The word of God comes to us in the voice of a human being. Not even the Bible can replace the immediate presence of a real person and a real community with sweat and blood and smell.

Saint Paul labored strenuously in Ephesus to build a solid community with well-trained, carefully selected leaders who would carry on the work he began. There was grief when he left, naturally, but confidence that the Church would thrive without him. The Holy Spirit cannot fail. As the psalmist says today:

A bountiful rain you showered down, O God, upon your inheritance;
you restored the land when it languished;
Your flock settled in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.

Monday of the Seventh Week of Easter

He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”
They answered him “We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

Now there’s a scary thought! Some Christians have “never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Perhaps, given the illusive nature of this undefinable doctrine, they can be forgiven for not knowing the Third Person of the Trinity.

Saint Luke is particularly troubled that some baptized persons do not know the Holy Spirit. It is a constant presence in his duology, the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles.

Who would Jesus be to us without his Holy Spirit? He might be an interesting historical figure, a contemporary of Caesar Augustus, Suetonius and Virgil. Scholars of Jewish history might recall his name from their reading of Josephus. They might even – and this is a stretch – compare his opinions with those of Gamaliel and his famous disciple, Saul of Tarsus.

To most people Jesus of Nazareth without the Holy Spirit would be a nonentity, one man among many wasted in the long tragedy of human history. His death on a cross between two other criminals, were it to appear in a dusty, ancient manuscript, would record the death of three criminals. At best, his resurrection would be an old joke, like the appearances of Elvis Presley and the Czarina Anastasia.

The Holy Spirit is the life of the Church; it is the breath of Jesus that still animates his Body. We know the Lord only because his Spirit moves in us.

A flood of words cannot describe the works of the Holy Spirit. We can speak of healings physical, mental, spiritual, social, familial, cultural and financial. We can speak of wisdom acquired by scholarship, schooling and hard experience. We might speak of institutions, their founding and maintenance; and of revolutions, their origins and persistence. Nor can we neglect the creatio ex nihilo from the stellar Big Bang to the latest, microscopic MRSA. The Holy Spirit creates beauty and gives us the senses to apprehend beauty. It reveals horror and gives us the sense of revulsion. Have I cited the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church yet? There is no end to this reflection.

When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Come Holy Ghost, Creator Blest, and in our hearts take up thy rest. Come with thy grace and heavenly aid, to fill the hearts which thou hast made; to fill the hearts which thou hast made. 

The Ascension of the Lord

Lectionary 58

All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

In Evangelical Protestant circles much is made of this "Great Commandment: "Go and make disciples of all nations."

In her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, Eliza Griswold describes a war zone between Christianity and Islam along the tenth parallel north of the Equator in North Africa. Islam has governed north Africa for many centuries from Egypt to Morocco; in recent centuries Christian missionaries have converted huge tracts of land in sub-Saharan Africa.

The result is a "fault line" between the two religions. Both religions have active, well-financed missionaries striving to win and retain converts to their religion. Tensions build between these groups, especially as converts choose, unchoose and choose again. Much depends upon who offers the better secondary benefits. In some cases armed conflicts occur.

Despite the triumphal sounds of latter day secularism, religion is alive and well and dangerous in many parts of the world. Lifting high the cross, Christian soldiers continue to march onward into war. Catholic laity, clergy and missionaries, of course, are also found in contested regions.

The bishops gathered during the Second Vatican Council issued the document, Dignitatis Humanae. They began this important decree cautiously:
A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man (sic), and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.

When Saint Peter responded to Jesus' question, "Who do you say I am?" with "You are the Christ, the son of the living God!" Jesus remarked, "The Father has shown you this!" He did not say, "Now you've got it!" as if he had finally won over an uncomprehending student.

Dignitatis Humanae echoed that sentiment, "First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. "
While we believe "this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church," we are not sent to transform all nations into North American or European Catholics. Rather, we must announce the Good News and allow the Holy Spirit time and space to bring people wholly to Christ. They need not conform to our ways of thinking or feeling, they need not agree with our world view. Our enemies are not their enemies.

After his conversation with the Muslim sultan and his adventures in Egypt and Jerusalem, Saint Francis wrote about our missionary effort, "Whoever should, by divine inspiration, wish to go among the Saracens and other infidels must ask permission from their provincial ministers." Their mission was quite simply to be among the non-Christians. He expected the Franciscans' presence, sincerity, simplicity and holiness might arouse enough curiosity that their neighbors would ask "the reason for your hope."

Evangelization addresses the entire human being. That includes everything from the unconscious depths of repressed memories and forgotten resentments to one's attitudes and life style. It includes the individual's relationships with family, neighbors, employers, employees, friends and enemies. It is cultural as well as personal. No one is fully converted; we are all on the journey as a pilgrim people of God. 

By now we should have seen enough sin in our own Church, as well as that of all other Christian churches, to know that we are still in darkness and have yet to see the light. We dare not coerce people into our ways of thinking, feeling or acting. Jesus has a stern warning about that: 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Hell twice as much as yourselves.
Yet we are sent to share our dawning knowledge of God's goodness with others. If they do no more than glance toward the east to see the rising Son of God we can be satisfied we have done our part. The rest is up to God.