Wednesday, December 15, 2010

holy cross sermon for advent 3 / year a / december 12 2010

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Today’s Gospel lesson is full of pathos. We hear of St. John the Baptist – the Lord’s cousin, the great and final prophet of the Old Covenant, the one chosen by God to herald the coming of the Messiah. At the end of today’s Gospel, the Lord himself bears witness to John: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist;” but he goes on to say, “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” (Matthew 11.11).

Considered with worldly eyes, we find John in today’s Gospel at the lowest point of his life. He has been arrested by Herod, and he is languishing in prison. Soon he will be beheaded to satisfy Herodias’ small-minded hankering for vengeance. He has reached, as it were, the winter of his life, the point of which Bl. John Henry Newman wrote:

The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life… does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that ‘the night is far spent, the day is at hand,’ that there are ‘new heavens and a new earth’ to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will ‘soon see the King in His beauty,’ and ‘behold the land which is very far off.’ These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age…

John knows that he is in trouble, that his life is in danger. Thus his “soul is cast forward upon the future…” And he sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11.3). While considered with worldly eyes, John is at the lowest point of his life; from the vantage point of eternity, John stands at the threshold of his greatest victory.

Knowing what must have been the exemplary clearness of John’s conscience, and the concomitant keenness and truth of its perception, many of the early Fathers and great teachers of the faith considered that so great a saint must have known that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and they looked for explanations other than wonder or ignorance, for John’s question.

For example, both St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome suggest that John, knowing that he was about to inhabit the abode of the dead, was asking whether Jesus were he “that is to come” to the underworld to proclaim release to the righteous dead. St. Gregory says that it is “not that [John] doubted that [Jesus] was the Redeemer of the world, but he asks that he may know whether He who in His own person had come into the world, would in His own person descend also to the world below.”

Others of the Fathers suggested that John asked this question for the sake of his disciples. Knowing that the time of his own ministry was at an end, and that his disciples would soon be bereft of him, John sends some of them to Jesus, asking him “Are you he who is to come…” so that they – John’s disciples – might hear from the mouth of Jesus that Jesus was indeed the Christ whom John had announced. St. Hilary of Poitiers, for example, says that “John… is providing not for his own, but his disciples’ ignorance; that they might know that it was no other whom he had proclaimed, he sent them to see His works, that the works might establish what John had spoken; and that they should not look for any other Christ, than Him to whom His works had borne testimony.”

“‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.’”

I believe the great 20th century German Theologian, Romano Guardini, has best illuminated John’s context and his question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Guardini writes:

It has been claimed that John did this for the sake of his disciples, that they might hear the confirmation from Jesus’ own lips. Possibly this is true; but it is also possible that John sent to Jesus for his own sake. If he did, it would by no means conflict with his calling. Often, naively, we imagine the illumination of a prophet as a fixed thing, as though he had only to behold, once, in order to know without wavering forever after; as though once gripped by the Spirit, he stood fast for all time. In reality even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weaknesses. At times the Spirit hoists him far above the heights of human accomplishment or being; then he beholds, drawing from his vision the power to unhinge history. At other times, the Spirit drops him, and back he plunges headlong into darkness and impotency, like [Elijah] in the desert when he flung himself down beneath a bush and begged for death…. Perhaps John did ask for his own sake; if this is true, what agonizing hours must have shaped that message to Jesus!

And Jesus replies in the affirmative. He is the one who is to come. Look for no other. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” And Jesus bears counter-witness to John: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…”

John’s greatness lies, like that of the Blessed Virgin, in his pointing to the Lord; in saying “Not I; but Jesus.” Mary brings him into the world, and John brings him to the world’s attention. Guardini writes:

It was John’s mission – and greatness – to proclaim the advent of the kingdom. Nor was he in any way unworthy to do so, he who ‘even from his mother’s womb’ was filled with the Holy Spirit. It could only mean that his particular vocation was to lead the way to the promised realm, to direct others to it, but in some special sense to remain without. One is reminded of Moses close to death, standing on Mount Nebo and looking down on the Promised Land. He is not allowed to enter. Not until he has passed through death does he come into the true land of promise. For Moses this was punishment; he had failed in an hour of trial. For John it was not punishment but vocation. Everything in him cried out to be with Christ, in that kingdom of God about to dawn in Messianic abundance, ushering in the new creation. For us its bliss is unimaginable, but for the prophet, who had felt it deeply, it was the object of his most powerful longing. Yet he was not allowed to enter. No psychology, indeed no one who has not personally penetrated deep into the mystery of the divine will, can explain this. This side of death, John was to remain Precursor: herald of the kingdom.

Let us concentrate for a moment on his fate. He lies in prison, a powerless victim of wretched paltriness and fully aware of the death threatening him from Herodias’ hatred. Must not the knowledge of his own greatness have revolted against the apparent senselessness of it all? Surely his darkest hours came then, and with them danger of rebellion and doubt: Can he who allows such things to happen to his servants really be the Messiah?

If it was thus, the heart must overflow at the mystery of love demanding the utmost, yet so gently; so all-knowing in spite of the distance between them, so calmly trusting. Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’ word have been spoken: [“Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”] The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the darkness of the dungeon is a divine message.

We share John’s vocation. We stand on the brink of the Lord’s self-disclosure, ever imminent, never yet fulfilled. Our task is to stand with John, rejoicing at the Bridegroom’s voice; and to say with John, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3.30). And in the darkness of our lives, our vocation is again with John: to receive the Lord’s reassurance: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” and to allow our crowning achievement to be fidelity to his word to the very end.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

holy cross sermon for pentecost 23 / year c / proper 26 / october 30 2010

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for Jesus was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchae’us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully.”

No doubt some of you remember the song from Sunday School: Zacchae’us was a wee-little man, and a wee-little man was he! He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see! and so forth.

Zacchaeus, we are told, was a tax collector. Tax collectors in the first century were about as popular as they are now.

The Gospel says he was “small of stature.” And this lends vividness to the portrait St. Luke paints of the petty bureaucrat who had grown rich by defrauding people.

But Zaachaeus had heard about Jesus. And now he hears that Jesus is coming to town, that he will be passing by. So this petty, corrupt little bureaucrat goes out into the crowds seeking TO SEE WHO JESUS IS (19.3). But he can’t. He runs up against two obstacles. First, there is a jostling crowd, pushing and elbowing him – a crowd of people like himself who were curious to see this healer about whom they had been reading in the newspaper. Secondly, he runs up against his own smallness of stature. Being “small of stature” is no good in thick crowds of jostling people.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Zaachaeus runs ahead (19.4), and climbs a sycamore tree by the road, and waits to see Jesus. And Jesus does pass by. And imagine the shock, maybe the glee, when Zaachaeus sees Jesus stop under the tree and look up at him, and speak his name. “Zaachaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Not only does Zaachaeus get to SEE the man he had heard so much about – he gets to talk with him, to listen to him, to be his host – to share his food and his house and, for a night or two, he gets to share his life with Jesus!

But beyond the easy lesson of the general badness of petty bureaucrats who grow rich by defrauding people, and the general goodness of having changes of heart about such things, what is the story of Zaachaeus saying? What does it say to those of us who are not petty bureaucrats, and who are not small of stature?

First of all we should notice what the text says (v. 3): Zacchaeus SOUGHT TO SEE WHO JESUS WAS. This is the center of the spiritual life: seeking to see Jesus, and having an open heart about what and whom you will see at the end of your seeking. Jesus said “seek, and you shall find.” I think we’re prone to read this as though it were a conditional statement: IF you seek, THEN you will find. But that’s not what it says. The mood of the word “seek” is imperative. It’s a COMMAND. SEEK, and you will find. In light of the Lord’s imperative, therefore, Zaachaeus can be seen as answering the summons of the Lord in his heart. Zaachaeus is obeying the inward compulsion of the voice of God. He is SEEKING the Lord. He doesn’t know what the Lord will be like, but he WANTS to know. His heart is open and eager. And we get a sense of his excitement and yearning in Luke. We all have a duty as human beings to search for what is ultimately good, true, and beautiful. We don’t have a duty to attain it – seeing to the attainment is the Lord’s job – but we have a duty to seek, to stir up within ourselves a desire for ultimate reality; and this requires an open mind and an open heart. Often, when we take an honest look inside of ourselves, we will find that we DON’T desire ultimate reality – the good, the true, and the beautiful – that we’re more than willing to settle for much less. When we see that this is so, we can perhaps at least stir up within us the desire to desire ultimate reality. That’s a good first step. It leaves room for the Lord to work.

But Zachaeus could not see Jesus on account of the crowd, and because he was small of stature. There are two impediments to seeing the face of Jesus. One is the opposition of the crowds. The crowds in our day are the culture and the media, the gawkers and gadflies and the murmurers – the people who have indestructible preconceptions about who God is, who the Messiah is, or who he or she should be. These will not create a space for the openhearted seeker. They insist that we stay behind them and let them tell us about the Messiah. And what do they say he is or should be? Very often they claim that he is, or should be, the administrator of a social program, or the leader of a liberation movement of some kind, or a reformer of this or that, the architect of social change. At the very moment when the open-hearted seeker himself comes looking for the face of Jesus, he is shoved back by the foregone conclusions of the skeptics and ideologues, the culture and the media. What we NEED is salvation, but what we get is unbridled sexuality, or healthcare, or financial bailout packages, or the “American dream” itself. We live in a time when it seems like nothing is off limits; nothing is out of bounds; but nothing seems to satisfy.

Like Zachaeus, we are all small of stature when faced with the crowds of murmurers and skeptics, and the relentlessness of cultural propagandizing. We are all jostled and swayed on a daily basis. We all fall back. The truth is that as people of faith, we are all like Zachaeus: small of stature. Our faith is little, and whenever a History Channel program about the “historical Jesus” comes on television around Chrsitmastime, or an article about “the Real Jesus” appears in National Geographic, or a novel like the Da Vinci Code appears, or the next political debate gets going, our faith – that faculty by which we seek to see who Jesus is – our faith gives ground to the jostling of the crowd.

So what are we supposed to do? What did Zaachaeus do? He ran ahead and climbed a tree. He admitted his smallness of stature, and he rose above it. He rose above not only his own smallness, but above the jostling crowd too. He was determined to SEE JESUS FOR HIMSELF, and he would not give way to the crowds. He did not succumb to complacency. He was not deterred, but he PURSUED HIS PERSONAL QUEST FOR THE FACE OF THE LORD. And so must we. We will run up against opposition from the crowds, our faith will be jostled and shoved and elbowed, because we are all small of stature. That’s alright. But we must not give up our quest because of the jostling, and we must not join the crowd. We must SEE JESUS FOR OURSELVES. As the Prophet Isaiah put it: we must seek the Lord while he wills to be found; we must call upon him when he draws near. And we must NOT accept from the skeptics and murmurers a second-hand substitute for faith, we must not allow the crowds to mediate the Messiah’s presence.

For us, this encounter, this struggle, takes place in the heart, as we prayerfully seek Jesus in the Gospels. We seek Jesus when we read the Gospels, and especially when we read them ON OUR KNEES – that is, when we read the Gospels with simple, humble, open-hearted DEVOTION.

When we seek the Lord, when we refuse to be deterred, when we find that place of devout seeking and waiting, above the fray of murmuring and conjecture, suddenly we will find that HE IS THERE. We’ll find ourselves looking on his beautiful countenance. Today’s Gospel says Jesus “was to pass that way.” You may recall another passage where the Lord passed by. In Exodus, Moses asks to see the Lord on Sinai: “Moses said ‘I pray thee, show me thy glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,’ said the Lord, ‘you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.’ And the Lord said ‘Behold… you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by… my face shall not be seen.’”

And this is the great mystery of what happened that day in Jericho for Zacchaeus, and what will happen for us when we seek Jesus with faith: No longer does God just pass by. Now he stops. He looks at us, and we look at him. We see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. And when he stops, he says to us: “make haste and come; for I must stay at your house today.”

The vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus – what was denied to Moses is possible for Zacchaeus – and its possible for all who devoutly and open-heartedly search for ultimate reality by means of faith. Not only are we graced to see the face of God, but even more: God will come to us and lodge with us. He will take up his dwelling place in our hearts. In John’s gospel Jesus says “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

That’s the significance of the story of Zacchaeus. That’s what Jesus means. “Today salvation has come to this house.” Because Zacchaeus went looking for Jesus with faith and devotion.

Let us pray. Lord give us the faith and devotion of Zacchaeus. Not only his faith and his devotion, but his determination. Let us not be dissuaded by the murmuring crowd of our day, but grant that we may see you in the face of your Son. Come to us and make your home with us, even as you promised.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 12, 2010

from girard (actually from benoit chantre, but girard agrees)

The two ages of war could provide a means of sketching out a paradoxical law that is both similar to and different from Bergson's "double frenzy." On one hand, we would have the escalation to extremes, and on the other a return to origins, a "tracing back" of history as [Charles] Peguy said, towards what you call the founding murder. The two movements would be linked: the closer we get to the end, the further back we go. The more history tends towards the worst, the less we will be able to hide the need for a clear discussion of archaic religion.

I've often thought that history is moving backward. I'd guess we're now somewhere in the late 4th / early 5th century AD.

Friday, July 2, 2010

from the dream of gerontius

Thy judgment now is near, for we are come / Into the veiled presence of our God.

I hear the voices that I left on earth.

It is the voice of friends around thy bed, / Who say the 'Subvenite' with the priest. / Hither the echoes come; before the Throne / Stands the great Angel of the Agony, / The same who strengthen’d Him, what time He knelt / Lone in that garden shade, bedew’d with blood. / That Angel best can plead with Him for all / Tormented souls, the dying and the dead."

Monday, May 31, 2010

holy cross sermon for trinity sunday 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is always the Octave day of Pentecost. This means that Trinity Sunday somehow completes Pentecost, and brings it to a proper conclusion.

Today the Church asks us to consider God the Holy Trinity, and for good reason. Listen to the opening words of the Athanasian Creed – one of the three great Creeds of the first millennium that are the patrimony of all Christians. The Athanasian Creed is the most detailed of the three great statements of the Christian faith. It says this about the Holy Trinity:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.”

The Holy Trinity is one of the two great mysteries at the center of Christian faith (the other centering on the incarnation, how it is that Jesus Christ can be both perfect God and perfect man at one and the same time). In considering the doctrine of the Trinity, it is good to remind ourselves that, as St. Paul says, God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6.16), and that in consequence, discursive theology can only proceed so far before it falls silent and becomes contemplation – that speculation must give way to worship. It is also important to say, however, that we cannot skip straight way to contemplation, but that we must first pass through the discourse of theology, we must learn what God is worthy of worship. We must also say that that the mysteries of Christian theology are data of faith – they are “givens” (=data) revealed by God himself, .

The Athanasian Creed (BCP p. 864) goes a ways towards laying out what we may say with respect to the Trinity, and explications of Trinitarian theology, per se, have been fruitful in the course of Christian history. But the utter, transcendent mystery of the thing notwithstanding, as the Athanasian Creed says: we worship one God in three persons. And so I would like to give you a small devotional reading of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: not what it means for God to be a Trinity of persons in Unity of being, but what it means for us to worship such a God.

The great 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich experienced a vision in which God revealed himself to her. Julian says the following about her vision:

“And from the time that [the vision] was shown, I desired often to know what our Lord's meaning was. And fifteen years and more afterward I was answered in my spiritual understanding, thus: 'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.

“Thus I was taught that love was our Lord's meaning. And I saw quite clearly in this and in all, that before God made us, he loved us…”

God is all about love. This we know from the first Epistle of St. John, who says it very simply: God is love. Thus we know that whatever else the Holy Trinity may be, the Holy Trinity is love. The Father eternally begets the Son in love, and therefore the Father is eternally Father, and the Son eternally Son, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from both by being the love that is the act of eternal begetting and eternally being-begotten (cf. Augustine in De Trinitate).

And this is the preeminent way in which God is revealed to us as love: God reveals to us the love that obtains eternally between the three persons of the Godhead: the Father eternally begets the Son in love, and the Son eternally returns the love of his Father. And indeed a consistent theme among the fathers of the Church is that the love that exists between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the Western Church says this:

“…Love proceeds from the lover into the beloved… the Father loves the Son and” the Son loves the Father…… and “the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father into the Son and” of the Son into the Father. [Commentary on the Sentences, Distinction 10]

As Julian of Norwich said: before God made us, he loved us. Before God made you, he loved you. As Psalm 139 says: “Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book…” Another great 14th century mystic of the Church, Meister Eckhart, describes the inner life of God as a frothing or boiling of love, and he says that we are made by God from the boiling-over of the love that is his inner life. It is God’s nature to create, because his nature is love. As surely – or more surely – as the natural end of the love between a man and a woman is the bringing forth of new life in the procreation of children, so creation itself is the supernatural end of the love that is the inner life of the Holy Trinity. Why did God create us? It is his nature to create. Because he is love.

We see this love of God revealed perfectly in Jesus. Again, First John says “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” And the life that he gives us to live is the life of love. For this reason the Father sent the Son, to restore us to the union of divine love. And as the Son returns to the Father, the Holy Spirit is sent to us at Pentecost to confirm and conform us in that union of eternal love. This is that for which we were made – and the realization of our purpose, the attainment of the love of God, is the wellspring of our truest happiness, whether we are capable of realizing it or not: the completion of our joy can only be found in God, in our being caught up into the communion-in-love that is the very being of the Holy Trinity.

St. John Chrysostom, a great teacher of the faith from the fourth century, says this:

“The Unity of the Godhead, the Three Persons in One God, is not a barren truth in any sense; the devout consideration of it promotes unity in us. Our Lord's prayer for Christians to the Father is, ‘that they may be one as We are One.’ All love, all harmony, all union, worthy of the Name, is in the knowledge of the Three Persons and One God.”

There is a popular feeling these days that dogma is unpleasant. That is merely a cause for rancor and division among people. That if we could just get rid of believing-in-stuff, we would all be able to get along. Nothing could be further from the Christian truth. True solidarity, true communion, true fellowship, togetherness, fraternity – this is a gift given to us in the gift of God’s own life. And conversely, all feelings of solidarity and community apart from God ultimately prove chimerical.

The three-personed God wants to draw us in, to seduce us, to share with us the inner life of eternal love and mutual self-giving that he is. That is the meaning of this day: That God loves us; that his love is such that he was unwilling that we should be separated from him, unwilling that we should die in our sin. So he sends his only Son, whom he loves, to reveal his love by giving his life for us and to us. And then he sends us his Spirit, the very Love that constitutes the eternal and mutual self-giving relationship of Father and Son, the very Love that is itself God – he sends us the Spirit to teach us, to bring is self-disclosure to our remembrance, and to confirm us in what is the proper possession of the Father and the Son, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel: the Spirit of Truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” We have been given the Holy Spirit to teach and confirm us in divine love, in the life of God himself. And by the way, God’s is not a weak love that is content to let us have what we think we want. As I have often said, God’s motto is NOT “live and let live.” No. God loves us too much to leave us alone. Scripture says that this God-who-is-Love is a CONSUMING FIRE. As Fr. Tom Hopko has said, this God-who-is-Love is a God who disciplines his children, wounds and flees from his lover, prunes his vineyard, burns his gold, and smashes his vessels. God’s message to us is, “die to yourself, that you may have life in me.” His love for us will pierce and burn us through, it will purge us of those things that keep us from blessedness, from life and peace and joy in union with him. If only we will let it. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God – but God never forces himself on anyone.

Again, St. Chrysostom writes:

“What, therefore, is the point we are taught, the one chief lesson which the Church would inculcate on us this day? We live under the dispensation of the Spirit, and it is, I think, this—that if we would live in the Spirit, would wait and pray for and seek His guidance, it will bring us more and more to the love of Christ, as revealed to us so fully in the Gospels. There we read of Him; we hear Him, as it were, and see Him; He is manifested to us as the Son of Man, our example, our advocate, the Sacrifice for us; in His parables and precepts, in His miracles of mercy, and His daily life, we have Him, as it were, before us; it is to the love of Him, and obedience to Him, to His likeness, the Holy Spirit must conform our unruly wills and affections.”

In your prayer life, invite the Holy Spirit to come to you. Ask God that you may live in the Spirit and by this power. Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to confirm you in what is God’s own possession, namely his love. Turn meekly to God, without pretension, looking on Christ in love and gratitude, contrition and humility – the humility borne of facing yourself honestly, of taking stock of your life and offering it to God, and trusting Him to work in you in whatever ways are necessary to effect your blessedness – that you may be brought at the last to the blessedness of communion in the inner life of God, the eternal love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

worthy is the lamb

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new.... It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

sermon for pentecost / year c / may 23, 2010

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, when the Lord rose victorious from the dead. In the book of Acts, St. Luke describes the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Twelve, the event we remember today:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2.1-4)

Jesus called this gift, this “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, “the promise of the Father” – and he had told the Twelve to expect it, and prayerfully to wait for it in Jerusalem. Moreover, Acts tells us what the Twelve DID once they had received the Holy Spirit:

“[They] began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par'thians and Medes and E'lamites and residents of Mesopota'mia, Judea and Cappado'cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg'ia and Pamphyl'ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre'ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’” (Acts 4.4-11)

What – or who – is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity. This we know. Yet what does it mean to say that? Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the paraclete”, from the Greek word “parakletos”, which is often translated the advocate, the counselor, the comforter, or the helper. But all of these words describe essentially the operations of the Holy Spirit – what the Holy Spirit DOES for us. Namely, he advocates for us, he counsels us, comforts, and helps us.

We say in the creed that we believe that the Holy Spirit is himself God – God of the same divinity – the same “godness” as the Father and the Son; that he is “the Lord, the giver of life” and that he is sent to us by the Father and the Son, and that we rightly worship and glorify the Holy Spirit with the same worship and glory that we give to the Father and the Son.

I think St. Augustine of Hippo has the most helpful clarification of who the Holy Spirit is. In his great work “On the Trinity”, St. Augustine says that “the Holy Spirit is [that] unutterable communion of the Father and the Son” and that the Holy Spirit is “the love by which the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father.”

To receive the Holy Spirit is therefore to receive the “unutterable communion of the Father and the Son”. It is to receive “the love by which the Father loves the Son and the Son love the Father.” To receive the Holy Spirit means to receive within ourselves the abiding and divine communion that is the same thing as the very life of God. And in this regard, let us remember that the word for spirit in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, also means “life” and “breath”. So there are three terms, really, for that which we receive from the Lord, three terms naming a single reality: (1) the Holy Spirit, which is (2) the eternally abiding communion-in-love of Father and Son that is (3) the very life of God.

For us to receive the Holy Spirit therefore means for us to receive divine life, the eternal communion, the mutual delight, of the three persons of the Godhead. It is quite a gift. To understand this mystery of Pentecost enables us to draw further implications about Christ’s gift of life in the Spirit. In 2008 Pope Benedict addressed 400,000 young people gathered for World Youth Day in Australia. He said:

“Love is the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit! Ideas or voices which lack love – even if they seem sophisticated or knowledgeable – cannot be ‘of the Spirit’. Furthermore, love has a particular trait: far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfill: to abide. By its nature love is enduring. Again… we catch a further glimpse of how much the Holy Spirit offers our world: love which dispels uncertainty; love which overcomes the fear of betrayal; love which carries eternity within [itself]; the true love which draws us into a unity that abides!”

The gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift of intimacy with God and with one another, a gift which dispels fear, and opens the mysteries of God to our understanding. But how do we receive this gift from God? Well, all who have been baptized have received the Holy Spirit sacramentally – objectively – in their baptism. Likewise, the sacrament of Confirmation objectively “confirms”, actualizes, seals, and brings to fulfillment the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism.

But gifts must not only be given, they must be received as well. And here we must cooperate with the work that God has done in our lives. He works outside of us and apart from us, but we must cooperate with his work to see it bear fruit in our lives. The one thing that God cannot do is violate our freedom. And so we must pray – asking God to renew in us the gift of his Spirit; we must cultivate within ourselves dispositions that are susceptive to the gift of the Holy Spirit; and we must exercise our wills and act in ways that are congruous with the Spirit’s initiatives. This means loving God, loving our neighbors and even our enemies; it means we must have a joyful heart and countenance in all circumstances, remembering all that we have been given in Christ; we must be peacemakers and witnesses of peace, never intentionally harming anyone for any reason; we must be patient when we are ourselves afflicted or maligned or abused; we must be kind to everyone; we must dwell on what is good and practice it in all we do; we must be faithful to Christ, obeying the mandates of the Gospel and keeping the Church’s moral law; we must be gentle with all men, particularly those who are weak or suffering or disadvantaged; and we must exercise self-control, never allowing fear or jealousy or anger or vanity or our sensual appetites to dictate our actions to us (cf. Galatians 5.22f).

Lastly, we must remember to do what the apostles did on the day of Pentecost: proclaim the mighty works of God in Christ (Acts 4.11). And we must proclaim this good news with the way we live – as unashamed and conspicuous disciples of Jesus – and also with our SPEECH. We must be willing to share our faith in Christ with others, with those in our lives who are hungry for meaning or direction, or who are sorrowful or who feel lost. But in order to be able to share the mighty works of God in Christ, we must first know what these works are. So we have a duty to inform ourselves, not only by reading and re-reading, and marinating in holy Scripture, but also by looking at our own lives and reminding ourselves (or maybe realizing for the first time) how God has made known his deliverance in our own personal histories, the particular ways we have known his mercy, and asking forgiveness for our failures to acknowledge it and to cooperate with it.

This is how we participate in God’s action within the world, in calling all people into the communion of his love. This was his purpose from the beginning; this was why he called Abraham, gave the law, sent the prophets, elected Mary, and sent his Son to live and die as one of us: in order to reconcile the whole world to himself. We are called to God in Christ, and we have been filled with his own life-giving Spirit, so that we may participate in his saving action within the world, and ourselves be caught up in the abiding unity of the one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.