Today is a very special day for several reasons. First of all, it’s Pentecost. Secondly, it’s the Feast of the Visitation. Thirdly, it’s my 45 th anniversary of ordination. These three celebrations may, at first, seem disconnected, but in my mind and heart, they’re linked together in a wonderful way. So, I’ll draw my reflection today from all three.
Pentecost floods my personal, and our communal, imagination with images of power and transformation – a noise from the sky – a driving wind – tongues of fire ecstatic babbling. Let’s begin our reflection by remembering the great theophany on Mount Sinai, the day God spoke with Moses.
“There were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast…Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it, for the Lord came down upon it with fire…the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him in thunder.” Power. Awe. The voice of God! Let’s continue with the images by recalling the first sentence of the bible. “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 waters.” God spoke a command from within that mighty wind. With that single command, “Let there be light,” the darkness of chaos was replaced by the magnificent order of the cosmos.
Let’s not forget the moment Moses encountered God in fire. “Moses came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the Lord appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed…When the Lord saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’”
Lastly, let’s remember what happened to Saul before he was anointed King of Israel. “When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets meet him (Saul), and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, so that he joined them in their prophetic state.” Ecstasy!
The account of Pentecost merges all these images. We recognize tremendous power and creative energy in the images of the loud noise from the sky and the mighty wind. We see the divine presence linking itself to the disciples through tongues of fire. We see the rush of the Spirit wash over them, throwing them into ecstasy. They begin to pray in unintelligible words – the language of the Spirit.
As I reflect on my fifty-two years of religious life, and forty-five years of parochial ministry, I can see all the elements of Pentecost manifesting themselves throughout those years. Of course, there wasn’t the great drama Moses experienced at Sinai, but that’s not to say that I didn’t experience a little theophany now and then.
In the course of five years of psychoanalysis I experienced several powerfully spiritual moments. Once, while lying on the analyst’s couch exploring an image I had in a dream, I was suddenly overtaken by a profound peace and an overwhelming sense of security. I knew, in the depths of my heart, for a few, seemingly eternal moments, that I was being held by God. I felt the comfort of a mother and a father. I felt absolute, unconditional love. This happened thirty years ago but, even today, when I sometimes speak about this dream, I weep with emotion just as I did that day on the analyst’s couch.
I’ve never fallen into an ecstasy but I know the Spirit was working on me when, on a pilgrimage, I cried for seven days while never experiencing a moment of sadness – only awe and gentle healing. I never saw anything. I never heard anything. I just felt the most gentle embrace of Love.
I’ve never heard God call out my name, but I can identify little whisperings and even nudges. The day I sat on the hill of the Areopagus in Athens looking across at the Pantheon, I was gifted a word of wisdom. I was twenty-four at the time. I had never seen anything so breathtakingly beautiful. The word came as I read St. Paul’s address to the members of the Areopagus. “Men of Athens…the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands.” I looked again at the beauty of that still magnificent temple. Little did I know at the time that I would be handed the task of restoring and maintaining a church building for twenty-one years of my life! That moment in Athens was a caution. I’ve thought back to that moment often. The Spirit was alerting me. There was to be more to my life than rebuilding and repairing. I was not to think of the church as a building. The Church was living people – good, bad, pleasant and unpleasant. The Church was the People of God ministering to me as I would minister to them.
This leads me to the third element of the day – the Feast of the Visitation. When Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” she took a bet on God. She believed she could say yes to the unknown because she trusted God’s goodness and love. Her “yes” didn’t separate her from the world around her. It did just the opposite. It energized her to reach out in loving care to others. As soon as the angel departed, she immediately left her home to support Elizabeth for the remainder of her pregnancy.
I was very aware of the grace Mary received with her “yes” the day I was ordained. I had no idea of what the future might hold for me but I committed myself to say yes to whatever I would be asked to do. My yes brought blessings, challenges and sometimes suffering. But I can ditto Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.” I don’t regret a thing. Everything I’ve experienced had a purpose, either for me personally, or for the greater good. I’m thankful for my life and the ministry I’ve experienced.
I’ve brought up these simple but, to me, important Spirit moments to encourage you to reflect on your own history. What were some of your pivotal, Pentecost moments? The Pentecost event continues to unfold in each of our lives. As people of faith, it’s important to discern the Spirit’s activities because it strengthens us, and gives us the courage we need to live our personal mission. There’s a Pentecost waiting for us every day. Don’t be surprised by the loud sound from the sky, or the mighty wind, the fire of Divine love or a prayer prayed without words. We began as a Pentecost people. We will continue as a Pentecost people until “Christ is all in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
If there has ever been a time that we needed to hear an encouraging word it’s today. Well, this last Sunday of Easter is shouting out the word GLORY! through three wonderful scripture passages that I encourage you to read after you’ve read my reflection. Let’s be attentive to these words of encouragement.
The first scripture, from the Acts of the Apostles, is so simple that its message can be easily overlooked. It’s the conclusion of the account of the ascension. Jesus called the disciples together and instructed them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He then ascended to the Father. The disciples returned to the upper room in Jerusalem where they “devoted themselves to prayer.” The passage ends by naming the people who were gathered there: the eleven apostles, “together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
This image of the gathering in the upper room represents the Church in prayer, that day and throughout time. The community in Jerusalem was frightened, and at a loss for what to do next. Their patient waiting in prayer was their preparation for the coming glory. In a way, they were doing what we’re doing right now, and it formed them into a true community.
It’s ironic that in this time of quarantine and social distancing we’re closer, perhaps, then we’ve ever been. Concerned for each other’s welfare, we keep each other in mind. We reach out to assist each other with food or an encouraging phone call. It’s interesting how distancing is bringing us together on a deeper level. This spiritual connecting is, perhaps, the most powerful prayer we’ve ever raised. It’s the prayer leading us to glory. It’s the same prayer that prepared the early community for its mission.
The second scripture, taken from Peter’s letter, adds an unexpected twist to our reflection on glory. It speaks of suffering. Yet, the word “glory” is used three times in this tiny, three sentence passage. What does suffering have to do with glory? Here’s what Peter writes.
“Rejoice to the extent that you share in the suffering of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.” This statement doesn’t focus solely on the cross. By not referring to the suffering of Jesus, but instead, the suffering of Christ, Peter is focusing our attention on the Christ who is past, present and future, and who carries the wounds of the crucifixion on his glorified body. His wounds connect with our wounds, and our wounds connect us with his resurrected glory. So much so, that Peter can write: “If you are insulted in the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Concluding his message, Peter writes: “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name.” In a very real way, this reading is meant to encourage us in our struggle and suffering today. The wounded, resurrected Christ is walking with us through this trial. In fact, he’s wrapping us in his cloak of glory.
These thoughts of prayer and suffering bring us to the gospel passage. It’s taken from Jesus’ beautiful prayer at the Last Supper. In this short passage he uses the word “glory” five times!
Drawing near to his passion, he prays to his Father: “Give glory to your Son, so that your Son may glorify you.”
He goes on to pray that the Father “might give eternal life to all those the Father has given him”. His use of the word “eternal” has nothing to do with time – it’s a quality. Eternal life is the very life of the Eternal One – the life the Son shares with the Father.
Jesus continues. “I revealed your name to those you gave me out of this world.” Knowing someone’s name means to possess that person – to become one with that person. Later in the prayer he clearly says, “I pray that they may all be one, Father. May they be in us just as you are in me and I am in you.”
In his prayer at the Last Supper Jesus revealed the true meaning of glory – entering the Divine Light. We would be wrong to think of this as a reward after we die. This glory is offered to us every moment of our lives.
We’re in a time of global trial and suffering. You might ask why God did this to us. That’s an understandable question. But ultimately, who can know the mind of God. Let’s take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on Christ’s promise of glory – the union of all creation with wounded, resurrected Christ. If we link our suffering to his we’ll begin to see the light of glory.
Look all around you. Have you ever seen so many people caring for each other – risking their lives for each other – feeding each other supporting each other. God is a community of three persons. This pandemic is bringing us together in a way we’ve never imagined. We’re forming little, neighborhood communities – national communities and, yes, a global community. We’re learning to work together to heal and renew the world God gave us. Together, let’s take one step at a time always keeping in mind Christ’s promise of glory. “May they all be one, as we Father are one.”
Ironically, the Feast of the Ascension is the day we begin our decent back down to earth. For forty days we’ve been contemplating the meaning of resurrection, just as the disciples had been doing. The account in the Act of the Apostles tells us that Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” He was imparting his final teachings to them while preparing them for life after his departure. Now, at the very moment of Jesus’ ascension, while the disciples were looking up into the sky, “two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?’”
The two men dressed in white are the two men who, in Luke’s gospel, spoke to the women who came to the tomb on the day of the resurrection. They asked a similar question of the women at the tomb as they later asked the disciples on the day of the ascension. “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive?”
The two men in white are asking the women, and the disciples, to start thinking in a new way. Jesus has been raised from the dead and returned to the Father – he is Christ. They recognize Jesus, however, he’s different. He has a subtle body; he slips in and out of time and space. Doors don’t keep him out, but he’s not a spirit. He eats with them. In John’s gospel the resurrected Christ even makes breakfast for the apostles!
The questions of the two men dressed in white are an invitation to us to stop thinking in the old way when we believed that heaven was separated from earth. Think of the Easter Vigil service when we proclaim, “Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes forever…Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth and we are reconciled with God.”
We so often listen to these words with our old ears – they only hear messages of doom and gloom – of an angry God demanding reparation for our mistakes. The message of resurrection is that heaven and earth are wedded! Christ himself manifests this in his body, a body that’s not bound by time and space, and yet carries his wounds. When Thomas put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side he experienced the Christ event, immediately crying out, “My Lord and my God.” In Jesus Christ – heaven is united to earth. In Christ we are made whole and carry God within us.
But we need assistance to begin thinking in the new way – the way of resurrection. We need the Spirit’s assistance to claim the Christ in us – to do what Christ did – to love the way God loves. So, we turn our eyes to Pentecost. Stop looking among the dead for one who is alive. Stop looking to the sky to see where Jesus went. Christ is alive and present to us. Christ didn’t go anywhere. He’s in heaven and on earth. He’s is you and in me. In the Christ in us, heaven is wedded to earth.
“I will not leave you orphans.” These are Jesus’ words to me today. They’re so reassuring to hear. Residing in New York City during this terrible pandemic, I see Jesus’ promise coming through loud and strong every day.
Living across the street from Lenox Hill Hospital, I see the make-shift morgue on the street outside. Every day it reminds me of the sacrificial love of the doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, aids, janitors, and the food service staff who work with the infected every day.
When I hand my groceries to the cashier, I see Jesus’ sacrificial love in action. When I take a train or bus I thank God for these wonderful people endangering their lives every day to keep me moving along. When I get a Fresh Direct delivery, I pray for the wonderful soul who’s making sure I’m fed. When I receive the mail or order a pizza, I hear Jesus’ promise: “I will not leave you orphans.”
I try not to forget the farmers who make sure I get the food I need. I try not to forget the factory workers who make the things I need to function day to day. I grieve for the men and women who died at the Tyson Food plant in Iowa, the unseen and unappreciated heroes. They poured out their lives for me.
I want the economy to come back strong again. But whose economy will it be? These unsung heroes are the poorest paid people in the nation. Their economy hasn’t been changed at all it has only gotten more dangerous to drive the bus or deliver the pizza.
These men and women are maintaining the foundation of my society while I, safe and privileged, wait for everything “to get back to normal.” When that day comes these heroes will remain unappreciated and economically fragile.
As unjust and cruel as our world is, I look to these little people, misused and unappreciated, for inspiration. Whether they know it or not, they’re following Jesus’ commandment because they’re pouring themselves out in love every day. Every day, they whisper to me the great promise: “I will not leave you orphans.”
Father most loving,
thank you for giving me
an opportunity to reassess my commitment
as a disciple of Jesus.
I have for so long forgotten
your “little people.”
May they forgive me,
and may you forgive me.
I was consumed by my desire
for safety and comfort and status.
I’ve forgotten that only love matters –
love that manifests itself in sacrifice.
Thank you for your promise today,
“I will not leave you orphans.”
Acts 6:1-7 1 Peter 2:4-9 John 14:1-12
We’ve just passed the midpoint between Easter and Pentecost, and so we begin to turn our focus from the meaning of the resurrection to the role of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. But before we turn our gaze toward Pentecost let’s review the message of the last four weeks.
On Easter Sunday we pondered the empty tomb through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, Peter and John. Peter looked into the tomb and was confused because it was obvious to him that the body had not been stolen by enemies because the burial cloths were neatly folded and placed at either end of the burial slab. What happened to Jesus? John looked into the tomb after Peter. The gospel tells us that when he looked in “he saw and believed.” What did he believe? Mary Magdalene was so taken up by her personal grief that she didn’t recognize Jesus who had appeared to her outside the tomb. He had to called her name to wake her up to the new reality of his resurrection. Why did Mary need to have her name called before she recognized Jesus? These individual reactions serve as an invitation to each of us to explore our own faith response to the resurrection.
The gospel of the second Sunday of Easter brought us to the upper room on Easter Sunday where the disciples were in hiding. Jesus appeared to them, showed them his wounds, and then breathed his Spirit into each of them. Overjoyed, they reported the event to Thomas who wasn’t there when Jesus had appeared. Thomas refused to believe them. The following Sunday they were all together, including Thomas. Jesus again appeared. He asked Thomas to touch his hands and his side. He was real. He was alive. Thomas responded with a profound profession of faith, “My Lord, and my God!” This is an important lesson for us. The account is warning us not to abandon our connection the faith Community because it’s in that context that we’ll come to see him.
The third Sunday of Easter reinforced the lesson from the previous week. The Gospel gave the account of two disciples fleeing Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection. They had heard that some people claimed to have seen Jesus, but the claim wasn’t enough to keep them in the city. They were too afraid. They decided to seek safety in Emmaus, a town outside Jerusalem. A stranger met up with them as they walked along. It was Jesus. But like Mary Magdalene, they didn’t recognize him. In the course of the journey he explained all the prophecies about the Messiah to them. They later said that as they conversed, something in them began to respond to him at a very deep level. It peaked when they sat down to eat with him. When he broke the bread and blessed it, they recognized him. Jesus then disappeared. Only the bread that he broke remained with them. They immediately returned to Jerusalem. They told the group of disciples that “He was made known to them in the breaking of bread.” Two weeks in a row we have been reminded of the importance of the Sunday gathering – the Eucharistic assembly. Thomas met the risen Lord at the Sunday gathering. The two disciples sat down for the Sunday meal and recognized him when he broke the break. The scriptures are clear. We will meet him in our communal celebration of the Eucharist.
The fourth Sunday shifted our view from the resurrection to the cross. In the first reading, we listened to Peter’s Pentecost speech when he told the crowd to look at the cross to discover how to “follow in his footsteps.” In the Gospel of that day, Jesus declared that he is the good shepherd. He invited us to follow him so that we could “have life and have it more abundantly.”
The scriptures for this Sunday teach us that by forgiving those who “do not know what they are doing,” by mourning with those crying “my God why have you abandoned me,” by promising the hopeless that, “today you will be with me in paradise,” we mount the cross with him. At that moment the glory of the resurrection will begin to shine within us and on the world around us.
This week, the fifth week of Easter, we witness Jesus beginning to prepare his disciples, and that means us, for his return to the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit. He began with words of encouragement. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He’s speaking to the disciples who are seated around him, but he’s reaching out – way past them. Recall what he said to Thomas the Sunday after the resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen and believe.” This teaching is meant for us – you and me. So….
Let’s put our minds in the right place before we go on with this teaching. When we read about the resurrection we might sometimes think – I wish I could have been with those disciples, so that I could have seen him. I wish I could have eaten with him. I wish I could have spoken with him. We have to be careful. That voice speaking inside us is an old voice. It’s the voice from the past, from the pre-resurrection days. It comes from that old part of us that needed to be redeemed. In the New Testament, we hear that voice in those who need to see signs before they believe. Again, remember Thomas, the spokesperson for the old voice. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Isn’t all his doubt coming from that old part of him? We’re in a new time, the time of the Spirit. So, let’s begin to listen to this teaching in a new way.
Jesus begins by telling us, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” If you’re saying to yourself, “This is so encouraging. Jesus is preparing a place for me in heaven – after I die!” you’re speaking to yourself with the old voice. That’s not what Jesus is saying at all! Jesus’ teachings are always about the NOW. They don’t look back to the past. They don’t look into the future.
Jesus is describing the time of the Spirit. He’s teaching the disciples about a new NOW. Speaking of his departure he tells them, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” Jesus isn’t returning to the Father alone. He’s bringing us with him. In fact, he’s bringing all of creation with him, every thing and person from the very first moment of the Big Bang.
If we truly believe this, the conclusion of his teaching will have a profound influence on our lives as Christians. “The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
We have so much to think about as we begin to refocus our sights on the presence of the Spirit in us. Jesus continues with this teaching in next Sunday’s Gospel passage. But for now, I suggest that you return to this week’s passage in prayerful meditation. Silence the old voice within you. Listen to the new voice as you revisit the passage. Make sure you allow Jesus to teach you directly. Don’t think about the past or the future. Place yourself in the NOW and remember: “Blessed (how happy) are those who have not seen and have believed.”
REFLECTION: Acts of the Apostles 2:14a, 36-41 1 Peter 2:20b-25 John 10:1-10 Luke 24
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 2:14a, 36-41 1 Peter 2:20b-25 John 10:1-10 Luke 24
We’re going to focus our reflection on the first two readings of the day. The first is a passage from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s part of the account of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit overshadowed the disciples who had been in hiding since the death of Jesus. It was such a noisy event that people outside on the street thought the disciples were carrying on because they were drunk! They were, in a way. They were drunk with the Holy Spirit.
Filled with the Spirit, Peter stepped out of hiding and delivered a powerful address to the crowd. He didn’t mince his words. He stared right into the crowd. “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom your crucified.” Strangely, the crowd wasn’t angered by his words. Instead, they were “cut to the heart,” and asked Peter, “What are we to do, brothers?”
Peter answered them without any hesitation. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the Holy Spirit…Save yourself from this corrupt generation.”
I’m going to leave this scene from Acts for a moment to continue to the second reading for the day which is taken from Peter’s First letter. In this portion of the letter, Peter expands on what he declared on Pentecost by defining what it means to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
He writes: “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” Interesting. He says that “Christ suffered for you” but he doesn’t say that Christ suffered to appease his angry Father who was offended by our sins. Instead he’s saying that Christ suffered to show us how to suffer – “to follow in his footsteps.” We’re at the heart of Peter’s teaching here! However, we have to think of Jesus and the cross in a new way in order to understand it.
He uses the word, “Christ.” A word we use frequently, often connecting it to Jesus (Christ, the Greek translation for the Hebrew word for Messiah, opr “the anointed one.”) The readings today are inviting us to consider a fuller meaning of this word. I’m going to step away from the scriptures for a moment to listen to what two modern day mystics said about the meaning of “Christ.”
Fr. Teillard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist who died in 1955, reflecting on the Christian teaching that God is love, wrote: “God’s first ‘idea’ was to become manifest – pour out divine, infinite love into finite visible forms.” Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan theologian and spiritualwriter, extended Fr. Teillard de Chardin’s idea in a reflection he gave in 2018. “‘The Big Bang’ is now our scientific name for that idea; and ‘Christ’ is our Christian theological name. Both are about love and beauty exploding outward in all directions.” With their insight in mind, let’s ask ourselves a very important question. Who is Jesus “Christ?”
Jesus is the union of the human and the divine at a particular time and in a particular place – Jesus of Nazareth. “Christ” is the eternal union of matter and spirit – what Fr. Teillard de Chardin referred to as “God’s first idea.” Peter, in his Pentecost address, and in his First Letter, isn’t calling us to be like Jesus. He’s challenging us to be “Christ,” as Jesus was “Christ.”
Let’s start putting all this together. In the Pentecost address Peter asked the people “to repent and be baptized.” Repent is a very bad translation of the word “metanoia.” For English speakers, repent means to stop sinning. Metanioa means to take a new direction in life. To be baptized doesn’t mean to have one’s sins washed away. It means we redirect our lives by immersing ourselves in the “Christ” mystery, the mystery of death and resurrection.This is clearly articulated in the prayer we use to bless the baptismal water. “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.”
Peter’s invitation to “repent and be baptized” is a call to redirect our lives toward the “Christ” mystery. He’s teaching us that when we make the commitment to walk the way of “Christ,” we “save ourselves from this corrupt generation.” We see the Divine Love in all people and all things.
The crucified Jesus was tortured, humiliated, abandoned and shamed, and yet he prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” His desperate cry, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” embraces all of suffering creation in the healing arms of Divine Love. “Today, you will be with me in paradise” is an invitation to every person, good and bad alike, to take a new path, to walk away from the horror that “this corrupt generation” inflicts on itself and God’s earth. It calls everyone to begin to walk the road towards resurrection. Peter is teaching us today that when we see the world through the eyes of the crucified “Christ,” we begin to “follow in his footsteps.” We have begun to “put on Christ.” We have begun to attach “Christ” to our name.