Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Holy Spirit and Fire

For the past fifty days we have celebrated and reflected on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We have told the stories of his appearances to the apostles and how he finally ascended to heaven to assume his glorious throne. Today, the feast of Pentecost, we bring our Easter celebration to a close by remembering the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and Mary. On this day the Spirit of God rushed down like a mighty wind upon the room in which they had gathered in prayerful expectation. Then tongues of fire alighted on them signifying that each of them had been touched by God and were now empowered to preach the good news. We learn what a radical transformation came over them as they spill into the streets proclaiming the wonders of God. They are no longer huddled in fear, hiding from the world. Once touched by God, they are free to proclaim to all those who would hear about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And so the Church is born by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

This Holy Spirit continues to dwell within us forming us into the People of God and equipping us to bring God's love to the suffering and the needy.

We use many symbols to help us understand who the Holy Spirit is. One of the most powerful of those images is that of fire. It is the reason why we wear red on this feast of the birth of the Church. By depicting the Holy Spirit as fire, the Scriptures are instructing us about the effects that he has on the lives of believers. Like fire, the Holy Spirit transforms us, purifies us and sets us aflame with love of God.

First of all, the Holy Spirit transforms us. Fire changes whatever it touches. Once something is burned, it cannot return to what it was. Just so, once we are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism and confirmation, we are forever changed. We cannot undo baptism or confirmation. No matter how hard we may try to reject that gift of faith and grace, it is forever with us. The way we write our names on the cover of a book we love, just so each of us has been marked by God as his special possession. Both the angels and the demons recognize it. Because of it, we can go before God with confidence and bring him our needs knowing that he will recognize us and answer us. And if we look into our hearts and find that we need to change, all we need to do is ask the Holy Spirit to refresh us and there is no doubt we will be forever transformed by his fire.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit purifies us. The way we boil water to kill the bacteria in it, the Holy Spirit's presence in our hearts burns away all that is not of God. As we are consumed by the fire of God's Spirit, our sinful self melts away. The Holy Spirit does this by putting into our hearts a love for God which makes anything that offends him loathsome to us. This image of purifying fire also reminds us that there is some pain involved in the transformation that God wants to accomplish in us. We resist change and are often fond of our sinful habits. But as we surrender to the Holy Spirit's purifying power, we discover the peace, joy and love that emerge once our sin is burned away. Once we taste that freedom, we never want to go back to our former slavery to sin.

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit sets us aflame with love for God. When we have an intense love for someone, we sometimes say we are "on fire" for that person. Or if we want something badly enough, we will say we have a "burning desire" for it. Just so, the Holy Spirit sets us on fire with love for God. Like a fire, that love is intense and all consuming. It is the love that compelled the apostles to put their fears aside and witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the love which even today inspires people to leave their comfortable lives to serve the poor and needy. It is the love which drove Jesus to hand his life over so that we might be saved. If we are feeling dead inside. If we feel that life has become a drudgery and that there is no purpose in what we are doing, we need to give our lives over to the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. We will find that our hearts are so engulfed with God and his love that there will not be enough hours in the day to proclaim his wonders and sing his praises.

And so with the feast of Pentecost we wrap up our celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It reminds us that God's saving work is not finished with the cross and resurrection. Rather God invites each of us to enter into the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection by making our lives an offering to him. Furthermore, he desires that each of us also share in the joy of bringing his saving word to others. The gift of the Holy Spirit which has forever marked us as God's sons and daughters empowers us to do just that. He is continually at work within us to transform us, purify us and set us on fire with love. It is ours for the asking. But watch out - there is no telling what wonders the Lord will work in our lives.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Come, Holy Spirit

These ten days between our celebration of the Ascension of Jesus to heaven and of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and Mary, are days of expectant prayer. We ask God to send his Holy Spirit anew upon his people so that we may be re-energized in our faith and given new power to spread the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection to all the world.

The Holy Spirit is the life-breath of the Church. Through the Holy Spirit we are given the power to follow Jesus' example and live the good news.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is called the forgotten member of the Trinity. We are very comfortable bringing our prayers and worship to God the Father and to Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is often overlooked although it is through him that we are even able to pray at all.

And so as we spend these days asking God to pour out his Spirit upon us anew, let us look at the readings which the Church offers us this day and ask the question, "Who is the Holy Spirit?" As we reflect on the Scriptures set before us, we see that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of truth, of unity and of love.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. He reveals to us the truth about God and his love. The Holy Spirit is given to us to speak to our minds and hearts about what God requires of us.

Today's gospel reading from Saint John shows us Jesus in prayer for his disciples and for those who would believe because of their testimony. At the end of the prayer, he asks that they be consecrated in the truth and says that God's word is truth. The truth about who God is and what his plan of salvation is can be found in his Word, the Bible. We believe that the Bible was written by men, but that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that God can truly be considered its author. Therefore, we find in the Bible a sure pathway to understanding who God is and how much he loves us. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts guides us so that as we read the Bible we are able to grow in our understanding of it and in our ability to apply it to our lives. Spending time in prayer reading the Bible is indispensable to the life of every follower of Jesus if we are to be consecrated in the truth by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Unity. He gathers together people of different languages, ethnic backgrounds and abilities into one Church which extends itself throughout every century into every nation.

Again, in the gospel reading, Jesus begins his prayer for his disciples by asking that they be one as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The followers of Jesus are not meant to be a bunch of individuals scattered about the world doing their own thing. Rather we are meant to work together and to worship together. The closer we get to Jesus and the more his Spirit takes up residence in our souls, the closer we become to one another. Nowhere else is this more evident than when the Church gathers to worship on Sunday. All of us here are very different people. We would have no other reason to be gathered here together except for the faith we share in Jesus and in his presence in the Holy Eucharist. What's more, we are not alone. Throughout our country and throughout the world, people are gathering to worship with the same words and reflecting on the same readings we have pondered today. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Unity, makes this possible.

Finally, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love. Because he is God, the Holy Spirit is love itself. When the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we come to experience the unconditional love the Father has for us and are empowered to show that love to others.

Today's second reading from the first letter of Saint John teaches us that, when we love, God dwells within us. When we show love, the invisible God who is love itself is then made visible to the world. As Saint John tells us, "No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us." This love is not merely having warm feelings for others. It is a love that shows itself in action by forgiving those who wrong us, by visiting the sick, by instructing those in error, by witnessing to the power and presence of God in our lives to those who are lost and by putting aside our own comforts to wash the feet of others. It is the love that Jesus showed by offering himself to us on the cross. It is not a love which we can show by our own human power. It is only possible by the Spirit of love who dwells within us.

The Holy Spirit we worship is a Spirit of truth, of unity and of love. We know that we are drawing closer to God when those three characteristics of his Spirit are growing in our lives. So as we approach the feast of Pentecost, let us focus our prayers more on the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Let us bring him our worship and adoration. Let us ask him to make his home within us and reveal to us the truth of God's burning love for us. Let us ask him to set our hearts aflame with love for God and for one another so that we may be renewed as his People and bring the good news to all the world.

(image by Sheila Yackley)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Ascension of the Lord

The evangelical preacher, Jack Graham, tells the story of a man who brought his young son and daughter to the beach. While they were jumping around in the waves, a powerful riptide began to drag them out to sea. The father, realizing that he would be able to save only one of them, called out to his daughter, "Honey, listen to me! I'm going to bring your brother to shore. I want you to float on your back like you learned in your swimming lessons. You can do that for a long time. Then Daddy promises he will come and find you." The daughter, her voice trembling, said "Okay, Daddy", and the father fought the riptide to bring his son to shore.

Once on the beach, the father cried frantically for help. Someone offered the use of his boat, and they put out to look for the girl.

The father was sick with worry as he called out his daughter's name over the waves. After about an hour, they found her floating on her back just as her father had told her to do.

Getting her to safety on the boat, the father, overjoyed at finding his daughter, hugged her and said, "I'm so proud of you, honey! You were so brave!"

The daughter, shivering in his arms replied, "Daddy, I just did what you told me to because I knew you would come back for me."

"I just did what you told me because I knew you would come back for me."

The faith and courage this young girl displayed in trusting that her father would come back for her is the same faith and courage we are called to have on this day when we celebrate the ascension of Jesus to his throne in heaven.

First of all, we are to believe that Jesus is coming again. We have not been abandoned by God. We are not left to drift aimlessly through a life devoid of meaning and purpose. Rather we are called to have an active expectation that he will come back for us. As the young men dressed in white tell the apostles after Jesus ascended to heaven, "This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."

Whether it is at the time of our death or at the end of the world, we will come face to face with our Savior. It will be a time of judgment when the deeds we have done and the intentions of our heart are laid bare in the light of his glory. It will also be a time of mercy when the one who died for us will welcome us into the joy of heaven. No matter how far off it may seem, that expectation must be the driving force of our life. Like the girl in the story, it is what gives us courage as we face our daily difficulties and fears. It helps us to realize that whatever challenges we are facing are only temporary. We know that we have been created for something more than this world can offer. We also know that this world is passing away and that our hearts are set on the kingdom of heaven.

Secondly, while we wait for Jesus to come back for us, we must do what he tells us. God's Word is meant to keep us safe as we make our way through the waves of this life on earth. Just as the girl focused on the instructions her father gave her while she waited for him to rescue her, we are to keep God's commandments in mind, especially the great commandment of love. During the forty days between his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven, Jesus was preparing the apostles for the mission they were to undertake after he would be taken from them. He helped them to understand how the Scriptures foretold that his death would be a ransom for our sins and how he would overcome death. The words of Jesus have been left to us in the Bible and in the teaching of the Church. Also, the Holy Spirit which we received in baptism gives us the power to live that teaching so that we will be kept safe up to the time when Jesus will come back for us.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. On this feast of the Ascension of our Lord to his throne in heaven, we recall that Jesus will one day come again to make the Father's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When he does come again, we want to be found to be faithful to his word in the power of the Spirit he gave us. Then we can say to him, "I just did what you told me, because I knew you would come back for me."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sixth Sunday of Easter

God is known by many titles. Philosophers call God "the Supreme Being" and "the Unmoved Mover." Some know God as Creator, the origin of the universe with all its wonders. Those who are struggling to overcome addictions describe God as a "higher power".

However, we who believe that Jesus is the Son of God know him under a different name. In Jesus, God has revealed himself to be Love.

This love has manifested itself in the person of Jesus. He teaches us that the God we worship is not a distant God who looks on the world from afar. Rather he knows each of us by name. He cares for us and sustains us in being. No matter how many times we reject him or push him away, he continues to shower us with his blessings.

The greatest manifestation of his love, however, is that he sent his Son to die for us. Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our sins so that we could have an active friendship with this God of love. There is no doubt about the truth of the words we hear in today's gospel when Jesus says: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends." And it is in just this way - by laying down his life for us - that Jesus has shown us the greatness of his love stemming from the love of the Father.

Jesus does not stop there, however. He goes on to say that we are to love one another just as he has loved us. It is not enough for us to simply acknowledge or even rejoice in the immense love of God revealed to us in Jesus. We are to imitate that love ourselves by laying down our lives for one another.

While we might think that such a love is too much to ask or impossible for God to expect from us, examples of heroic acts of generosity and forgiveness happen everyday through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

One example of just such a love took place several years ago in California.

Two young men decided to have a drag race down a stretch of road. As they careened down the street at a speed well over 100 miles per hour, a woman with her young daughter in the car turned on to the road. Her car was struck head on by one of the young men, and she and her daughter were killed instantly. The young man was also injured in the crash, but recovered within a few days. He was eventually arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

The woman's husband was distraught at the news of the death of his wife and daughter. He was understandably filled with hatred for the young man who so foolishly and needlessly took the lives of the people most important to him.

However, his rage soon began to consume him. He isolated himself from his family and friends and began drinking heavily. At night, he couldn't get to sleep because the image of the wreckage was constantly on his mind. It was all he could do to continue functioning at his work.

Eventually, he began to realize that his anger toward the young man who killed his wife and daughter was eating him up in side and that the only way to get his life back was to find a way to forgive him. He knew that he couldn't forgive him on his own, and so he got down on his knees and begged God to help him.

It wasn't easy, but the man began to experience his heart changing. He even found it within himself to visit the young man in prison. Through it all, he came to see that the person who killed his wife and daughter himself had a family and friends who loved him. He was not just some nameless punk, but a good kid who did a very stupid thing with tragic results. Unbelievably, the man found himself later showing up at the young man's parole hearing to speak on his behalf.

He found that he was given the power by God to not only forgive this man but to actually love him.

Before we jump to the conclusion that the young man did not deserve to be forgiven or that forgiveness of someone who has hurt us that deeply is too much to ask, let us remember one important fact. It is just such a love which God has revealed to us in Christ. Each of us through our sins is responsible for the death of God's only Son. Yet God has loved and forgiven us nonetheless. We are now called to do the same for each other.

Hopefully it won't take some tragic event like the death of a loved one for us to have the opportunity to show love. We can already show it in smaller ways by going out of our way to give money to a beggar, by listening to a co-worker who is having a rough day or by sitting next to that kid in the cafeteria who nobody likes. Most of the time our witness to the love of Christ will take place in such small ways as these. Nonetheless, the change it will effect both in us and in those we show love to will be great indeed!

Like the man in the story, we cannot show love, generosity and forgiveness even on a small scale without the help of God. That is why we gather here every Sunday - to be reminded of what great love the Father has bestowed on us in Christ and to celebrate that love in the gift of the Eucharist. Then we are empowered to "go in peace to serve God and love one another."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Christ the Vine

This homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine.

When personal computers first came out in the eighties, they were really nothing more than glorified typewriters and calculators. Though they made it possible to store information electronically, there was little else that they were good for. In fact, many companies still managed to stay in business without them.

Then in the nineties, the Internet was introduced. Now computers could be connected together in a web which spanned the globe. Messages could be sent electronically in an instant. We became able to use our computers to purchase goods online or to manage our checking accounts. This new phenomenon made the computer impossible to ignore. Rather than just a glorified typewriter and calculator, it became an indispensable part of business and of every household. By simply connecting computers together, the possibilities became endless.

In today's gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the true vine, and that we are his branches. Just as each branch is vitally connected to the vine, so we are each individually connected to him. And just as a computer is transformed into an engine of commerce by connecting it to the Internet, so we are transformed from mere human beings into children of God through our connection to Jesus.

Saint Paul is a perfect example of Jesus' power to transform our hearts and minds. During these Sundays in Easter, we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles which chronicles the early years of the Church after Jesus' ascension into heaven. In the first chapters of this book, Paul is a sworn enemy of the fledgling Christian community. He is even complicit in the murder of the Church's first martyr, Saint Stephen. However, while on the way to Damascus to persecute more Christians, Saint Paul has a life-altering encounter with the Risen Jesus. As Christ speaks to him, he is transformed from the Church's chief persecutor to its foremost missionary. Disconnected from Christ, Paul was full of hate and violence. Now connected to him, Paul becomes an instrument of reconciliation and peace. In fact, no one except Jesus himself has done more to spread the gospel message throughout the world than this murderer turned apostle.

Jesus wants the same for each of us. He wants us to plug into him, to draw our life and strength from him so that we may live with new power and confidence. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we would be nice to each other and not hurt anyone. Rather he gave us his Spirit to transform us and to send us out to likewise transform the world. The only way we could ever hope to live this challenge of the gospel is to realize that it is only possible by our connection to the true vine, Jesus Christ.

How then do we become connected to Christ so that his power can be at work in our lives? The good news is that we are already connected through our baptism. By the gift of faith which baptism planted in our hearts, we were grafted onto Christ and are already drawing from the immense fountain of his life and goodness. That power is already at work in us and in our community to make Jesus present to the world.

I want us each to take a second to look around this congregation to the people sitting next to us. This place is filled with people who have been touched by Jesus and who draw their life from him. There are parents who teach their children about Jesus and provide an example of love because of the faith they received at their baptism. There are catechists who give of their time to form our young people in the faith because they themselves have been touched by Christ. There are those who bring communion to the sick and food to the hungry because they hold on to Jesus' teaching that whatever we do to the least among we, we do to Christ. And there are those dedicated to a quiet life of prayer who do immensely more good for the world than we can ever know. In these pews, in the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we see the branches springing from the vine which is Christ, and we see the abundant fruit of his Spirit.

None of us can do what we do unless we remain connected to Christ. And we stay connected to him by obedience to his commandments as Saint John tells us in the second reading: "Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us."

If obedience is what keeps us connected to Christ, then disobedience and sin are what make us fall off the vine. When that happens, we dry up and die. That is why we call serious sin, "mortal", because it means death for our soul since we become separated from Christ who is the source of our life. That is also why we must avoid sin at all costs. Jesus warns us very plainly in the gospel: "Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me." And so, when we are conscious that we have sinned, we must fly to the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that the Father can prune out of our lives all that is not worthy of him and re-establish that connection to Jesus so that his life and power can begin to flow back into our lives.

Jesus promises that if we remain in him we will bear much fruit. A tree cannot eat its own fruit. Rather, the tree bears fruit for others. Just so, the fruit we bear through our connection to Christ is meant to bring nourishment not just to ourselves but to others. As we prepare ourselves to receive from the vine the gift of Jesus' body and blood, let us ponder how our faith makes a difference not only in our lives but in the lives of those we meet. And let us ask Jesus to make our connection to him stronger so that we can continue to draw our life from him.