Sunday, May 27, 2007

Re-Creation and the Holy Spirit

(Pentecost Sunday-Year C; This homily was given 27 May, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Acts 2:1-11 & John 20:19-23)

One of the first stories we learn from the Bible as children is the Story of Creation that we find in the Book of Genesis. We are all familiar with those opening words: In the beginning.

The author of Genesis relates how:

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the earth.
—Genesis 1:1-2

The Hebrew word for that mighty wind is ruah, and it means spirit or wind of God. By no means is it merely a strong gust of wind. The ruah, or the wind of God, has the power to enter directly into that formless wasteland, that primordial chaos and the abyss of darkness, to bring order and light.

Genesis continues to describe how God then separates the light from the darkness, the night from the day, the land from the sea. He makes the plants and various animals and creeping things. But finally, as the capstone and the pinnacle of creation, he fashions man.

We read about how God personally creates man out of the clay of the ground, and then He breathes into him the “breath of life;” God puts His own life-breath into the man, and he becomes a living being.

The Story of Creation is a powerful and beautiful story of God’s plan for the human family; it evokes a sense of that original paradise right here on earth.

But we also know the rest of the story: How that paradise was lost through original sin. Suddenly sin and death entered into God’s perfect creation, and the chaos and darkness crept in as God had never intended. Our human nature, and creation along with it, had become tainted.

The Gospel of St. John is, in many ways, a response to that fall of man and corruption of creation. It has been referred to as the “Story of the Re-creation,” because of the similarities to the Book of Genesis.

St. John begins his gospel with the very same words we find in that original creation narrative: In the beginning.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
—John 1:1

Then John describes how “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God became man and suddenly everything changed. He brought hope where there had been despair and order where chaos reigned. Christ restored our vision when He opened the eyes of the blind (Chaper 9), and showed Himself master over the chaos of this world by walking across the stormy sea (Chapter 6).

But the high point of the story of re-creation for St. John is found in the gospel for this Feast of Pentecost. The disciples are in the upper room, huddled together behind locked doors. Most of them have failed Christ in one way or another. They are filled with fear of what may happen to them.

Suddenly Jesus enters into their own private darkness and says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Even as Christ was the light of the world and the source of hope and promise of peace to the world, even so will these disciples be.

Jesus then does something that, at first, would seem very odd to us. St. John says, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22).

The word St. John uses for Christ breathing on the disciples is the very same word used in Genesis to describe how God breathed new life into man. John wants to make sure that his audience understands that Christ is re-creating the disciples, and then through them, renewing the face of the earth.

We see that even more powerfully in the first reading for this weekend, from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples are all gathered together in one place when a strong, driving wind rushes upon them. Reminiscent of the ruah, the wind over the earth at the dawn of creation, the Holy Spirit comes upon the early Church with great power. God sends the Holy Spirit upon them in the appearance of those tongues of fire, and then sends them out to proclaim the Good News to all the nations.

This is Pentecost, the power of God and nothing less than the re-creation of the world. On that day the Church was born, the hearts of the disciples were set ablaze, and God changed the course of human history.

But as we celebrate this great Feast of Pentecost here in 2007, we can ask ourselves:

Where do we most need the Holy Spirit in our world today?

Where do we find the chaos and the darkness in our own world and in our own lives?

In Iraq, and in the Middle East?

In the United States?

In our own families and our own personal lives?

Where has the darkness and the chaos crept into our own world? We need that same power of God in the Holy Spirit, the power that alone brings light, peace and order to a world that has slipped off-course in so many ways. Are we open to the Holy Spirit in our own lives and willing to seek Him out incessantly for that great Gift of Himself?

Just yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Philip Neri. St Philip is a sixteenth century priest who is often referred to as the Apostle of Rome because of his role in God’s work of renewal in the Eternal City at a time when many had lost their focus. Clergy, as well as laity, were much more concerned with the things of this earth, to the detriment of their spiritual lives. The importance of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the life of devotion were all but lost. Yet, St. Philip, through his apostolic zeal and radiant joy, was able to turn countless souls back to Christ.

There is a great story about St. Philip, who on the vigil of Pentecost had gone into a small cave or grotto and began to pray for an increase in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He wanted to experience more powerfully the Spirit of God in his life. Suddenly there appeared before him a globe of fire. It entered his mouth and then expanded his chest as his heart beat furiously within him.

St. Philip cried out for God to stop that experience, not because he was in pain, but because he was overwhelmed by joy. After his death, it was discovered that two of his ribs had been broken above his heart when it had expanded. They had re-formed, creating a lager space for the beating of his enlarged heart.

Today, on this Feast of Pentecost, we pray for that same increase in the power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives. Not that God would break our ribs, but that He would break open our hearts and souls, and fill them with that same fire of love that burned in the hearts of St. Philip Neri, and all the disciples on the first day of Pentecost.

We pray:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and enkindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your spirit and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Unity and Communion

(Seventh Sunday of Easter-Year C; This homily was given 19 & 20 May, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Acts 7:55-60 & John 17:20-26)

Our readings for this weekend focus on the theme of unity, what it means to be joined together as one. As we look at the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of St. John, it becomes clear that we are seeing two very different kinds of unity.

In the Acts of the Apostles we hear the account of the stoning of St. Stephen. St. Stephen was one of the first men to become a deacon in the early Church. He is also the first Christian martyr, the very first one to die for his faith in Christ.

St. Luke, the author of Acts, writes about how St. Stephen had been witnessing to the risen Christ and relating to the scribes and the religious leaders that the person of Christ was the one sent by God for our salvation. Finally, at one point, they had heard enough. St. Luke then describes how, suddenly:

They all “rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him.”
—Acts 7:57-58

One of the older translations says that they rushed upon him “as one man”; they were that united against him in anger and hatred. And because they were so united, so completely of one accord, they were able to accomplish what they set out to do. They were able to kill St. Stephen…but that’s all they were able to do!

They had the power to kill his body, but it becomes remarkably clear in that description from the Acts of the Apostles that his soul is perfectly intact. He prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59), and he even prays for those who are stoning him to death.

As powerful a scene as that is regarding St. Stephen’s faith and the quality of his soul, it is just as revealing with regard to the unity of his attackers. The Crowd mentality or the mob mentality that can be seen all throughout human history—from the time of Christ, when they cried “crucify him”, even into our own time, with terrorism—is essentially a weak unity. It can take away life, but that is all it can do.

How different, the unity Christ calls us to! The oneness Christ calls us to—in Him and with each other—has the power not to take away life, but to bear fruit and bring new life to the world we live in. In His beautiful oration to the Father, Jesus prays for His disciples and for all of us:

That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
—John 17:21

Our unity in Christ is the same unity that Christ shares with the Father in the Holy Spirit. As we know, that unity was able to bear fruit by shedding forth the mercy of God, the love and the grace of God in the world we live in. Our unity in Christ, likewise, is able to bring new life where no life had been before. It is that fruitful, that powerful.

Obviously, that is a spiritual reality. Jesus says that we will live in Him and He will live in us (John 15:4; 17:23,26). The Holy Spirit lives in us by virtue of our Baptism. It is a deeply spiritual reality.

But Christ is not just a spiritual being. He is not a spirit or a ghost. In addition to being fully God He is also fully man, flesh and blood, body and soul, like us. Therefore the unity He calls us to is also a physical reality. It is a unity that we should be able to see, feel and experience.

That physical unity finds its greatest expression whenever we gather together here to celebrate the Eucharist. The reason why Christ gives us His body and blood is to make us one in Him, in the Eucharist.

St. Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth, says it all when he describes how they drink of the one cup, and eat of the one bread, and so become one in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

About six months ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a document entitled, Happy are Those Who are Called to His Supper. It explores this very mystery of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of unity in the life of the Church.

One of the topics covered in that document is a question many Catholics are sometimes asked: Who is able to receive communion in the Catholic Church? The document goes on to explain how those who are not in communion with the Catholic Church are not able, therefore, to receive the Sacrament of Communion for that reason. We share a common Baptism with our brothers and sisters of other Christian faith communities. We share their same love for Christ in the Scriptures and hold so many beliefs and doctrines in common.

However, we are not united in our understanding of the foundation of the Church by Christ. They do not accept the role of St. Peter as the head of the Apostles, and the successor of St. Peter in the Pope. They do not accept that structure of the Church regarding the Apostles and their successors in the bishops of the Church, from which we receive the gift of the Eucharist itself. Therefore, while we invite all to join with us in prayer at the Eucharistic table, not all are able to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.

For that matter, the bishops go on to say that there are certain circumstances in which even Catholics should refrain from receiving the Eucharist:

If we are no longer in the state of grace because of mortal sin, we are seriously obliged to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until we are reconciled with God and the Church.
— Happy are Those Who are Called to His Supper.

To go back to our CCD classes growing up, mortal sin is not something that simply happens to us by accident. It involves three things. Firstly, it must be what the Church refers to as “grave matter,” something serious enough to break our communion with God and with each other. Secondly, we must be aware that it is grave matter, to have the knowledge that we are dealing with something that serious in the moral life. Finally, we must be free to chose not to commit that sin, but nonethless go ahead and do so anyway.

We do not usually need a religion textbook or a course in moral theology to tell us when this has happened in our lives. We know when we have sinned against God or others in a serious or grave way. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us of sin and moves us towards repentance. That is why the bishops continue by saying:

Catholics who are conscious of committing any mortal sin must receive the Sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion.

It is important to understand what is being said there. They are not saying that those in a state of mortal sin should stay away from Christ in the Eucharist. No, they are saying to those in a state of mortal sin: Be reconciled! Be reconciled to God and to each other, and then come to receive this great Sacrament of Communion.

One final aspect that is not mentioned in the bishops’ document on the Eucharist—I believe because it is rather obvious and perhaps goes without saying—is something that I mentioned at the beginning of this homily. Our communion and unity in Christ, far different from the crowd mentality that took away the life of St. Stephen, is able to bear fruit and bring new life to the world.

That is the reason we come together in the first place: so that we can be strengthened in the Eucharist and then go out and bear fruit in the world we live in. It is the reason why we hear those words at the end of every Mass:

“The Mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

How is God challenging us to be more united, more completely one than ever before, as we gather together for the Eucharist? And how are we called to bring the fruits of that unity to a world that desperately needs the new life of Jesus Christ?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Time in the City

(Feast of the Ascension-Year C; This homily was given 17 May, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Acts 1:1-12 and Luke 24:44-53)

In just a few short days we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the “birthday of the Church.” The Feast of Pentecost is about the power of God in the life of the early Church; it is about the gift of the Holy Spirit and the remarkable work of God that coincides with that.

Today’s Feast of the Ascension is different. The Ascension is not so much about the power of God in the lives of the Apostles or the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. The Ascension is about the promise of power, and the promise of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ, in our readings this morning, teaches us the difference.

In both the Acts of the Apostles and St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive from God “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and the unprecedented gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5,8)… but not yet…not now.

Instead, He tells them to wait:

Stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.
—Luke 24:49

He tells them
“not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait” (Acts 1:4).

Wait in the city.

Wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And it is there in the city, while they wait without Christ and without yet the promised Holy Spirit, that they come to discover their own weakness; their own powerlessness; their own fear; and their own utter dependence upon God…so that, when the promised Holy Spirit does come, and sends them out to set the world on fire, they will remember that it was not their own power, but the power of God shining through their human weakness.

In these next few days we too will prepare to celebrate the great day of Pentecost, and the coming of the power of God from on high. But God invites us, too, in this next week and a half, to spend time in the city; time to recognize our own weaknesses, our own fears, our own powerlessness and our own utter dependency upon Him.

Let us pray for the grace to spend well this time in the city, that we may also come to appreciate the great power of God at work in us, and the power of the Holy Spirit shining through our human weakness.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

What's in Your Temple?

(Sixth Sunday of Easter-Year C; This homily was given 13 May, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Revelation 21:10-23 & John 14:23-29)

One of the greatest opportunities of my life was the time I spent studying for the priesthood in the city of Rome. Living in the heart of Europe, I had plenty of chances to travel and see so many historic places.

I would always make it a point to spend some time in the basilicas or cathedral churches of the various cities I was able to visit. I remember the first time I entered St. Peter’s Basilica; I was overwhelmed by the size of it, the beauty and the majesty of the place. It gave me a remarkable sense of God’s presence and an awareness of the lives of the saints, many of whom were memorialized in that very Church.

You can tell a lot about a city from the cathedrals and churches that are found there. If you have ever been to any major city, in Europe or right here in the United States, you know that is true. But not all cities are alike, and not all churches are either.

I remember once, in my third year as a seminarian, I had the chance to travel with some classmates to Southern France. We came to the ancient city of Arles, which was in the midst of celebrating its annual festival, but the central focus was certainly not Christ or the lives of the saints. In fact, one of the main attractions of that city was bullfighting!

On the day we arrived a bullfight was taking place and thousands of people in that city had gathered in the local arena to watch it. Yet as we walked through the streets of that city over the course of the next several days, we were not able to find a single open church or Mass anywhere.

Finally we saw what appeared to be an old cathedral, but as we entered we realized it had long ago ceased to be an active church and had been turned, instead, into a museum. All of the side altars were still present, but the sacred altar stones had been removed and the altars were now covered with plywood.

But most disturbing of all was that each of the altars now displayed photographs of bullfights, depicting the various stages of that rather graphic sport as it was taking place. You could make out clearly where statues, icons and images of Christ would have been, but now there was quite a different focus and very different priorities in that “church.”

You really can tell a lot about a city by the churches and the places of worship that are found there!

In our second reading this morning, from the Book of Revelation, St. John describes the vision he had of heaven, and the capital city, the heavenly Jerusalem. He says:

The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
—Revelation 20:10

He describes that city in great detail, how magnificent, brilliant and radiant it was. But then he goes on to say:

I saw no temple in the city…
—Revelation 21:22

No temple?! How is that possible? The capital city of heaven and there is no temple whatsoever, no place to worship God. But St. John continues to explain that there was no temple because:

…its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.
—Revelation 21:22

God Himself is the temple. God is the place of worship for the people of the heavenly city. In the end, there will be no pilgrimages to St. Peter’s Basilica; we will not gather in cathedral churches at all. Those who worship God will dwell in Him. We will have a real and intimate relationship with God and that will be our worship.

But that real and intimate relationship is not one that begins at the end of this life, or the end of this world. We begin right here and now to dwell with God and to worship Him “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Jesus Christ, in the gospel this morning, puts it this way:

Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
—John 14:23

And so, with that in mind, we can ask ourselves this morning: “What’s in your temple?” We have all heard the question on the TV commercial asking, “What’s in your wallet?” Well, today we can ask ourselves: What’s in your temple?

Are there things in our temple that do not belong there? Maybe not pictures of bullfights, but are there things that would distract us from that intimate relationship God is calling us to? Are we holding onto any habits or personal sins that keep us from growing in our faith? Is there anything in our temple that needs to go?

Secondly, is there room for prayer in that dwelling place that we have with God? How important is prayer in our daily lives? Do we set aside time each day to be alone and quiet before God?

Finally, no cathedral or basilica would be complete without some special place for the Blessed Sacrament. Here at Our Lady of Mercy the tabernacle is right in the center of our church. The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the center of our lives; the Blessed Sacrament is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11). Is He at the center of your life, guiding everything you do?

Once again, on this Sixth Sunday of Easter, we take a moment to answer that one simple question:

“What’s in your temple?”