Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost Sunday 2013


Descent of the Spirit
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*
(click to enlarge)

In today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke gives us the well known account of the extraordinary appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the upper room. The Apostles had gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast which commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Next week we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity but today's feast is about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Let's start out by clearing up a few misconceptions that some of us may have about the Holy Spirit. First of all, the Spirit is not a bird. I know that the traditional image of a dove given us by Christian artists is probably ingrained in all of us. It is hard to portray a purely spiritual being in art for a spirit has no body to paint or sculpt. In one gospel passage the movement of the Holy Spirit is likened to the fluttering flight of a dove and so I guess the early artists used the dove as a kind of artistic shorthand.

Speaking about images I have to confess that as a child I thought that the "tongues as of fire" that rested on the Apostles at Pentecost were actually human tongues on fire. It took me years before I realized that the "tongues" were actually similar to the darting flames that we would see in our own fireplaces. Also back then it was more common to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost, which only conjured up images from Abbott and Costello movies.

But in today's readings we see that although we cannot see or feel or hear the Spirit of God, It dwells in us and works through us. St. Luke says of the Apostles that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans that,

         you are not in the flesh;
         on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
         if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Our Lord says in today's gospel that the Father will give "you another Advocate to be with you always," and then He promises,

         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.

If we can't see or feel or hear the Spirit, how do we know that He dwells in us? As Christians we have to learn to read the signs. Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe knew that there were other men on his lonely island when he beheld their footprints, we will know the Spirit by His signs. St. Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians,

         There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Lord;
         there are different workings but the same God
         who produces all of them in everyone.

Then, talking to us as well as to the Corinthians, Paul says that to "each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." In other words we all have a role to play in bringing the Spirit of God to each other.

What are the signs that the Spirit dwells in us? In years past we used to speak of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you pick a fruit from a tree and it tastes and smells and feels like an apple, then you can conclude that it's an apple tree. The same goes for a peach or pear tree. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits or signs of the Spirit as charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity." Some of these words might sound strange to us today but we surely get the general idea. Who would not want to receive the Holy Spirit? Would we want to be uncharitable, miserable, quarrelsome, impatient, malicious, bad, mean-spirited, offensive, unfaithful, immodest, wasteful, or promiscuous?

We don't need miraculous, mystical, or ghostly experiences to encounter the Spirit today. After all, we have all received the Spirit at Confirmation. Right after Pentecost the Apostles saw that it was necessary not only to preach the Word but also to lay their hands on all the baptized in order that the Spirit might dwell in them.  Generation after generation have continued this practice. Every confirmation is a kind of Pentecost.

Even though the Apostles had walked with the Lord and had seen His Risen Body, they still needed to receive His Spirit before they could leave the upper room and go out and face the world. St. Paul says the same for us.

         For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
         For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
         but you received a Spirit of adoption,
         through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!


Reading 1.  Acts 2: 1-11
Reading II. Romans 8: 8-17 or
              1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Gospel. John 14: 15-16, 23b-26 or
         John 20: 19-23. (the Advocate).

* photographic image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, May 12, 2013


7th Sunday of Easter

Today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, falls between the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord which we celebrated last Thursday, and the Feast of Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. For these nine days we, like the first disciples, are in a kind of limbo. We commemorate these nine days in our "Novenas," a word taken from the Latin word for nine.

Leonardo: Last Supper
Martyrs and Witnesses

The theme of today's readings is martyrdom. Although we commonly associate the word "martyr" with one who suffers and dies for his or her faith, the word really refers to one who gives witness to his or her faith. In today's first reading we recall the death of Stephen, the first martyr to die for his faith in Jesus.

Why do we recall the death of Stephen today? The feast of St. Stephen is December 26, the day after the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas. It seems so strange after that wonderful day of hope and joy to hear such a sad story. It's like a rude awakening from a pleasant dream. And now on the first Sunday after Our Lord's departure, we again have the story of Stephen.

In chapter 6 of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke introduces us to Stephen, one of the group of seven "deacons" chosen by the Apostles to assist them in their ministry. Stephen witnessed to the Risen Lord by " working great wonders and signs among the people," but his activity also provoked opposition. Like Jesus, Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges. In his defense he launched into a retelling of the whole history of the Jews from the time of Abraham down to the prophets. In his conclusion he castigated the present generation:

            Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the Holy
            Spirit; as your fathers did, so you do also. Which of the prophets have not your
            fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just
            One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who
            received the Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it.

Is it any wonder that they would be furious at these words and sentence him to death? Would we behave any differently today, if a similar prophet appeared among us? Not only have we rejected the "ordinance of angels" and failed to keep it, we have glorified our failure to keep it. Let's just look at the Ten Commandments. Love the Lord thy God--we can't even mention His Name in school. Keep holy the Lord's day. Where? In the Mall? Honor thy father and mother--the very idea of fatherhood and motherhood has been under attack for decades. Avoid adultery. Who are you kidding? Isn't adultery a stepping stone to success in the business and entertainment world? Stealing! Lying! They are only wrong if you get caught. Killing! Enlightened voices no longer consider abortion a necessary evil. It has become a positive good that every politician and judge must embrace in order to attain office.

Isn't it just as difficult to be a follower of Jesus today as it was in the time of Stephen? Maybe that's the reason why Jesus in today's gospel prayed not only for the disciples but for all of us at the Last Supper. Lifting his eyes to Heaven, he said,

            Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
            but also for those who will believe in me through their word...
As the prayer continues we see that our Lord's wish is that our lives will bear witness to His love and serve as a lesson to the world--"so that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me."

Most of us are not going to be asked to suffer and die as Stephen and the Apostles did. But we are all being asked in one way or another to be a witness--to pass on the love of Christ to others. Someone once posed a question which should make all of us a little uneasy. I'll just repeat it. "If someone were to accuse you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" Again, "If someone were to accuse you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

We will have to find ways to bear witness--to become martyrs. Let's look at the commandments or ordinances again. We can make the Lord's day holy again by making it a day of rest, a day spent rediscovering our own families. We can honor our father and mother by refusing to blame them for everything that's gone wrong with our lives. Stealing at work is a major problem in our society. If we expect to be fairly compensated for our work, shouldn't we give a full day's work for a full day's pay? Pornography leads to adultery. Let's keep it out of our homes. Our Lord saw little difference between anger and killing.

Like the Apostles we will not be able to bear witness on our own. We need the Holy Spirit of Christ just as much as they did. It may not appear to us as tongues of fire, but the Love of Christ has been given to all of us and it is the strongest force in the world if only we believe.

 It is our choice. We can accept the "ordinance of angels" or reject it. In today's second reading from the Book of Revelation, we read,

            The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
            Let the hearer say, "Come."
            Let the one who thirsts come forward,
            and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.


 Reading 1. Acts 7: 55-60
Reading II. Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20
Gospel. John 17: 20-26 (Jesus prayed).

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jesus Ascends to the Father

            6th Sunday of Easter
Ascension of the Lord
Assumption church window
Fairfield, CT*

Last Sunday we saw that Paul and Barnabas had achieved some success in their mission to the Gentiles. We were told that they "had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." However, we see in today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles that an important obstacle has arisen. Jewish converts to Christianity were insisting that Gentile converts undergo the rite of circumcision in order to be saved. In other words, the Gentiles would have to become Jewish before becoming Christian.

Our reading today tells us that this news caused such dissension and debate that Paul and Barnabas were chosen to go to Jerusalem and get the opinion of the Apostles. Today's reading jumps over the meeting in Jerusalem, which some have called the first Council of the Church. It just gives us the end result. If we read chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, we will see that there was quite a discussion on the matter of circumcision. Apparently it took the intervention of the two most respected Apostles, Peter and James, to decide the issue.

It seems clear that even after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter did not fully understand that Jesus had come to save all, whether Jew or Gentile. Only afterwards did Peter's encounter with the Roman centurion, Cornelius, lead him to see the light.

            Now I really understand that God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation             he who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Peter's conversion to this point of view makes him side with Paul in the great debate at the council. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, comes up with a workable compromise by suggesting that the Gentiles only observe some basic principles that Gentile converts to Judaism had always observed. Of course they could not eat food tainted with idol worship. Of course, they could not eat meat tainted with blood since blood, the source of life, belonged only to God.  Of course, they could not practice incest or marry a close relative. But on the subject of circumcision, the message was clear. This is what the council meant when it said to the "brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia,"

            It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us
            not to place any burden on you beyond these necessities...

It is hard to overestimate the importance of this decision. Not only does it open the way for the Gentiles, it also brings Christianity to a new level, the level which our Lord intended all along. Circumcision was the mark of a Jew. However, not every Jew who was circumcised turned out to be in our Lord's words, "a true son of Abraham." If you did not obey the will of God or if your life made a mockery of his commandments, were you really a Jew? Remember the parable where a father asked his two sons to go work in his vineyard. The first son said yes, but failed to show up. The second refused but eventually thought better of it and went to the vineyard. Our Lord asked, "which one did the will of the father?"

Today's gospel shows that the same principle holds true for Christians. In His discourse to the Apostles at the Last Supper Jesus said,

            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.

Just being born a Christian does not make one a true son of the Father. Even Baptism only opens the door of faith. Even today there are some who echo the words of those Jewish converts in Antioch when they argue that "outside the Church, there is no salvation." The saying is true but the real question is, "Who is in the Church?" For example, what about the billions of Chinese who had never heard the name of Jesus but who honored their father and mother and who were steadfastly devoted to their children. Using Peter's definition are they inside or outside the Church?

We know that like the Angel, Clarence, in Frank Capra's film, "It's a Wonderful Life," we all have to earn our wings. Charles Borromeo was the son of a wealthy and powerful Roman family who became a Cardinal of the Church at the age of 24 because of his influential relatives. He was one of the great intellects of his day and played a leading role in reforming the Church during the Protestant Reformation. But it was only when as Bishop of Milan, he personally risked his life by ministering to the sick and dying during a great plague that he became St. Charles Borromeo.

Sometimes I think that people have the wrong idea of ecumenicism. Some think that if people would only give up or water down some of their beliefs, they could reach a common ground. Unfortunately, we've seen believers in every faith try this approach only to wind up believing in nothing. The more a Jew is a true son of Abraham, the more a Moslem is a true follower of Allah, and the more a Christian keeps the word of the Lord, the more chance they will have to meet together in that beautiful heavenly city that St. John describes in today's second reading.

If we all practiced our faith, we might even see benefits here and now.

            Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.


Reading 1. Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Reading II. Revelation 21: 10-14, 22-23
Gospel. John 14:23-29 (going to the Father).

* Image by Melissa DeStefano