Chaos and violence erupted in Chicago last night, as in large cities from coast to coast. This civic and social calamity was undoubtedly fueled by years of pent-up resentment, grief, hopelessness and, for minority members of the population, especially Black Americans, decades of discrimination, de-facto segregation, poverty, disregard, promises broken, and now the dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing job losses, hunger, and likely destitution. Much of the frustration, despair, and anger is driven by gross economic injustice, the unequal distribution of wealth in this land of plenty. Some is driven by revenge and class hatred. The darker angels of our nature are also at work.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” [W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming.’]
As with the days of rage and conflagration that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, when much of the west side of Chicago went up in flames, the most serious damage afflicted the poor and largely defenseless black neighborhoods. I have vivid memories of the acrid smell of smoke that drifted west for days afterwards.
We have seen protests before, many recent, some turning violent, but the last week marks a grim milestone in the often tragic struggle for justice and peace in America. George Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill, probably unknowingly as the country is awash with them, to purchase cigarettes, was accused of forgery, arrested, and subsequently killed at the hands (and knees) of those who are pledged to serve and protect.
George Floyd’s death is unlikely to be the last in the long series of such deeply disturbing killings, but it was a tipping point, the spark that ignited outrage across the nation and even abroad.
In all this uproar and confusion, many Christians pause in sadness and hope to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the great finale of the Easter cycle and, as it is often referred to, the birthday of the Church. It is difficult to relate these disparate occasions, but the more necessary to do so.
The story of Pentecost is as familiar to us as any of the great Easter mysteries, although we often get it wrong in our paintings. No dove is
mentioned, only the sound of a great wind and tongues as of fire. Pentecost itself was the ancient Hebrew Feast of Weeks, the celebration marking seven weeks and a day after the beginning of the wheat harvest. It was one of the three major festivals of the calendar. It has now been seven weeks and a day since Easter Sunday. As the day on which the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, filled the disciples with courage and even miraculous gifts to aid in the preaching of the gospel, it truly marks the beginning of the great harvest Jesus promised [Matt 9:37, Mark 4:29, Luke 10:2, John 4:35, etc.].
Later generations of Christians looked back to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. But the Holy Spirit was no stranger either to the Hebrews or to the disciples of Jesus — the Hebrew scriptures are filled with references to the Spirit, and, as we’ve seen, the same Spirit was revealed at Jesus’ baptism. More importantly, and more mysteriously, Jesus endows the disciples with this Spirit on the night of the Resurrection, a gift that we commemorate in today’s reading from John’s gospel.
“….After he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ [John 20:22].” This is the Paraklete, the “other advocate” that Jesus had promised at the Last Supper, the one who would not only defend them when Jesus was no longer visibly present, but would lead his disciples into all truth. But before Jesus breathes the Spirit into his disciples, he prepares them with three gifts.
“When, on the evening of that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, he said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Peace is the first gift of the Risen Lord.
Again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” [John 20:21] Mission is the second gift of the Savior — and more than a gift, a responsibility. Jesus sends the disciples forth equipped with the greatest gift of all for the greatest task on earth. Just as God sent him, as John tells us earlier in his gospel:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3: 16 – 21]. That is, through total uncompromising love.
That is the love that leads to salvation, saving — making people and the whole world safe. But safe from what? Jesus answers with the third and most surprising gift: he breathes the Spirit into them and says simply and perhaps surprisingly, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
How strange that sounds after what has preceded. But it makes sense, divine sense. God saves the world through the gift of love that enables us to forgive, to overcome the power of sin, hatred, and death, the deep darkness that would stifle the light and life of the world. Elsewhere Jesus calls it binding and loosing [see Matt 16:19]. In scripture, to bind or retain always means to grapple with or hold on to something. Christian ‘binding’ means to come to grips with injustice and oppression. It means prophetic action, the refusal to stand mute and idle in the face of sin, the willingness to expose and resist evil in the face of its denial, to hold people accountable. But also and especially to ‘loose’: to forgive, to let go, to unbind, to allow the healing presence of God to overcome injury, hostility, and resentment by the sheer force of love.
Our mission and ministry, like that of Jesus, is not to condemn the world, but to save it from darkness and sin by the power of love, peace, and forgiveness, to rise up singing, to stand joyfully against injustice and the worship of violence and death. Where love, peace, and forgiveness rule, there the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts and lives, there the saving presence of Jesus leads us into truth and freedom. As we sing today in the great hymn ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus,”
“Lord of consolation come,
Warm us when our hearts are numb,
Great consoler, come and heal,
To our souls your strength reveal;
Cool refreshing comfort pour,
And our peace of mind restore.”
[Anthony G. Petti, trans.]
Today in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the eve of Memorial Day in the United States, we pause to commemorate and celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. It is perhaps too easy to pass over the affirmation Christians repeat so often, “I believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In this age of space telescopes and exploration, it is too easy to dismiss the Ascension as merely a happy ending to the story of Jesus, like that of Hercules and other Greek heroes being translated into the starry heavens. It is also far too facile to scoff as did Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space, where he looked around from his capsule and declared to the delight of his Communist masters that there was no sign of any throne, much less someone sitting on it.
Gagarin was, of course, right. But not because he was looking in the wrong place but in the wrong way, much as the two sudden witnesses informed the stunned disciples. Heaven is not a place where myriads of singing worshipers stand around a throne swinging incense holders and throwing down their crowns around the glassy sea. Heaven is a way of being, a dimension of existence we only dimly understand if at all. Like so much of the deep mysteries of salvation, the Ascension expresses realities too deep for our minds to fathom. The closest we come is perhaps to poetry.
Metaphor is the native language of any profoundly poetic culture, not least that of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The depth and riches of imagery possess endless resources for enlarging our understanding without reducing mystery to a list of dates, names, “facts” and figures. Not surprisingly, from beginning to end, the Bible overflows with poetic imagery, a never-ending source for reflection. And so it is, perhaps especially, with the mystery of the Ascension. But the Ascension is more than metaphor.
Matthew, Mark, and John do not describe the Ascension, but remind us of Jesus’ promise to be with us until the end of time. According to Luke, the Ascension of the Lord lies between Easter and Pentecost, which celebrates the coming, the ‘parousia’ of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the minds and hearts of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like the disciples on the mountainside, we are left wondering about Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Did he go up into the sky? Or are we still looking in the wrong way, as the angels said [See Acts 1:1 11, Eph 1:17 23, Mt 28:16 20].
To begin with, the Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around in the air, or on some other planet, much less out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, or we might say today, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ, St. Paul tells us is now co-extensive with the universe. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
This is the famous ‘pleroma’ passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly St Paul portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force, principle, and spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
But the Ascension is also the Feast of Christ as Lord of Time, that is of history as lived time, not only past, but present and future: “Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow” [Heb. 13:8].
There is more – and this is even more important. Paul writes to his Christian disciples at Ephesus that it is this same Christ Jesus who is the head, the source, of the Church, which is filled with his Spirit. And through that Spirit we are all members of the one body of Christ, the people of God. Christ is present to the world in the lives and works of those guided by and filled with his Spirit.
The meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Jesus to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the descent of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation.
Jesus has not gone anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. Like Gagarin, we tend to look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways. Simply put, there is nowhere in the universe where Jesus isn’t.
P.S. For a penetrating grasp of the meaning of the Ascension and Pentecost, the 1961 article in Worship magazine by Edward Schillebeeckx, “Ascension and Pentecost,” remains arguably peerless. (If you can find a copy in a library, it will repay many times over the effort to dig into so profound a meditation.)
The world is now in what is arguably the sixth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. The stress on people everywhere is evident, and there is much to learn from the wide range of reactions to enforced or self-imposed isolation. Both are undeniably stressful, but somehow the impatience of a generation in which the whims and enjoyments of post-World War II prosperity are now expected as some kind of entitlement have become strangely manifest. Never mind the teeming millions of people in the poverty-stricken zones of the Third World, who have little choice but to endure and hope.
But aggressive self-indulgence, especially the spectacular variety, is likely a minority phenomenon even in affluent nations. It just gets more media attention. But at least part of the trouble with the irritating deprivations of the COVID crisis lies in expectations based on false claims and, to put it charitably, critical misunderstanding. The temptation to believe what we want to be true is hard to escape. And so, in the Year of COVID-19, the hazards of truth-telling have risen to the fore in almost unprecedented ways. And with the erosion of truth, comes a crisis in confidence.
It has been claimed from the outset of at least media attention that when it comes to the new virus, “we are at war.” It has never been made clear what such a “war” could possibly resemble, as the world “battles” an invisible enemy with no policy, strategy, weapons, or leaders. It is a disease. But even granting the relevance of the metaphor, it may also be said that, in the words of Samuel Johnson, that wise old Englishman, back in 1758, “Among the calamities of War may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” [See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2020/04/11/casualty/#note-437628-5] The short form: The first casualty of war is truth.
Today’s readings point beyond the coming Feast of the Ascension to Pentecost, the last great celebration of the Easter Cycle [Acts 8:5-8,14-17, 1 Peter 3:15-18, John 14:15-21]. The emphasis in the gospel reading is on truth, although confined to a single, pregnant phrase. There will be more about that in the weeks to come but there are other matters at hand that also introduce us to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The first reading continues the saga of the initial spread of the Christian “Way” in the ancient Middle East, in this instance to Samaria. The traditional blood enemy of the Judeans, Samaria entered Christian consciousness with the parable of the “Good” Samaritan and the anticipatory account of the encounter of Jesus and the nameless but soon-to-be evangelist, “woman at the well.” Historically, it seems that Samaria became something of a Christian stronghold, at least until the Romans laid waste to Palestine in waves of fierce destruction. It is believed that the great first-century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, although a convert, was from Samaria.
What is striking in this passage is that the Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans as had happened to the Disciples themselves and the house of Cornelius. Also significant in the quest for truth is Peter’s advice to the churches in the second reading, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” Truth-telling is often a difficult choice and led many early Christians, including Justin, to their deaths.
It is when we turn to the gospel reading that the relevance of the other readings comes to the fore. Jesus promises to send “another” Advocate “to be with you always – the Spirit of Truth.” The word in the text is “parakletos” – paraclete., which has been variously translated as Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, Helper, and Intercessor. It is actually a legal term and referred to a defender in a court proceeding, someone “called alongside” a defendant. There is a connection here with Peter’s counsel, for when we are at a loss to explain ourselves, the Paraclete intervenes, as we read in Luke’s gospel: “…when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” [Luke 12:10-12].
But it is as the Spirit of Truth that Jesus introduces the Paraclete here, and promises that the Spirit will remain with us forever. That is, if we remain true to the Spirit that has been given us. It is this Spirit that world cannot accept because it neither sees nor knows it.
Speaking truth to power is how people often refer to this dilemma today. It requires honesty and courage. But that is why we need an Advocate and have been promised and given One.
[On this Mothers’ Day in the Year of COVID-19, I am borrowing from a homily going back to 2017. I am recuperating from some surgery during the week, and it seemed like the wiser option!]
As the Easter season draws gradually to its close at Pentecost, the emphasis in the readings shifts from the ever-present reality and endless day of the Resurrection to the very human
future of the infant church that had just come into being. And our future.
The Letter of Peter speaks of the members of this young group as “living stones,” a host of human bricks, if you will, resting on a single, unshakable foundation, the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of “many rooms,” — the Greek word is ‘monē,’ a place to stay, to dwell, living room. One can hardly avoid thinking of the image in the Book of Revelation, where the new City of God is measured. And it’s really big. Enough room for everyone. Absolutely everyone.
The most significant notion comes in the reading from Acts, where Luke describes what will be a long development of ministry in the Church, a diversity of ministries as the author of the Letter to the Ephesians will later insist: “…[Christ’s] gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature humanity, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ…” [Eph 4:11-13].
The word “deacon,” ‘diakonos,’ is used about 30 times in Christian scripture, but in the Acts of the Apostles, it is never used as a title. Most of the time it simply means “servant” and often “minister.” Jesus seems to have used it in both senses — as in the Gospel of Matthew, where he says, “whoever would be great among you must be your diakonos, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matt 20:26b-28].
What “deacon” meant in the world of Jesus was much more and much less than “servant.” “Minister” comes closer — a diakonos was the personal representative of important persons, someone sent to act in their place. These seven deacons were hardly table-waiters. From the beginning they were emissaries of the apostles, representatives of Jesus himself who came to serve, not to be served. The men and also women selected for this service, like Phoebe, whom Paul mentions warmly in his epistle to the Romans, [Rom 16:1], were to be “deeply spiritual and prudent.” More importantly, as in the case of Stephen, the most important of the seven and the first Christian martyr, someone “filled with faith.” This Mothers’ Day Sunday it’s helpful to recall that we know the names of other important women deacons in the early Church – Saints Macrina, Theodora, and Olympia among them. It is estimated by scholars that in the first millennium of Church history, there were about 50,000 women deacons in the Eastern Church alone. Over 100 of their names are known. Something to think about on Mothers’ Day! [http://www.womenpriests.org/deacons/]
In the house of God, we are all to one extent or another deacons, ministers, building blocks. And faith is keystone that rests securely on Christ. The Letter of Peter reminds us of this forcefully: “Whoever puts their faith in that rock shall never be shaken.” The author goes on to remind us twice more that we are, by that faith, and as living stones in the house of God, a “holy priesthood,” a “royal priesthood.” The Church as a whole and thus in all its parts, its “bricks,” is priestly, just as it is prophetic. That character is rooted in Jesus Christ and will never falter or fail. That cornerstone is the foundation that remains unshaken, even when time and trouble require some tuck-pointing of the rest. Sometimes, even quite a lot of it. But there is no shortage of bricks if we know where and how to look.
Our faith and our ministry stand or fall on our love of Jesus — the closer we are to Jesus, the stronger, the stronger and more effective our faith, the richer, more diverse, and more productive our ministries. Whatever else may happen, however challenged we are by events, whenever we are discouraged and disappointed by the frailty of the living stones that make up God’s house, we need only turn again to Jesus Christ, the cornerstone, to renew our faith.
As the crisis created by the spread of COVID-19 continues, the extreme differences in people’s responses have become ever more apparent. While our consumerist craving for amusements, entertainment, fun, and frolic have demanded re-opening tattoo parlors, beaches, and liquor stores (an essential service?), thousands of doctors, nurses, emergency responders, nursing home staff, and ordinary citizens have rushed to the aid of their fellow citizens, especially those in greatest need. Some at the cost of their lives. The quality of national and local leadership has also been revealed in frequently stark terms.
Today has traditionally been referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. And for good reason. The gospels read at mass in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd, the real Shepherd of Israel. Today’s readings begin with Peter’s inaugural sermon on Pentecost according to
the Acts of the Apostles. They move to the beloved 23rd Psalm and then to the first letter ascribed to Peter, which is so strikingly paschal in tone and purpose — a characteristically impetuous exhortation to new Christians to be true and faithful followers of the Lord they profess to love, much as Peter himself was challenged at the very end of John’s Gospel.
Actually, both Peter’s sermon and the selection from the first epistle are a patchwork of texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, stitched together to present a portrait of Christ as savior, particularly Isaiah 53:5: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” The theme is repeated by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It would have been familiar to anyone who was paying attention. At the end of the passage, the author significantly recalls Ezekiel 34: 6, “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
The second reading is one of the first texts that clearly refers to the elders of the community as the shepherds of the flock [1 Peter 5:2-4]. Peter also makes clear that Christ is their model as the true shepherd. The passage ends with a curious phrase, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” For ‘guardian’ the Greek text has “episcopos,” which means ‘overseer,’ and, of course, is the root of our word ‘bishop.’ We have to be careful not to read too much back into a first century document. But today, it might repay some thoughtful consideration.
Each year, the gospels appointed to be read today are taken from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, although it is not the only source of the imagery of the good shepherd. But it is central to the Easter message, that Jesus, the true shepherd of the flock of Israel, gave his life for his sheep, so that not even one would be lost.
This year, the focus is on Jesus as the model shepherd and what that means for us. John multiples the images lest we mistake his intention. But here, Jesus also contrasts himself with other leaders in words that at first sight seem harsh: “All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” [John 10:8]
By way of comparison, in the Book of Jeremiah God promises, and this, surely is the point of the allusion in John’s gospel, “…I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD” [Jer 23: 3-4].
Who are those “others” who came before Jesus? It is most likely a reference to the leaders of the people who thought mainly of their own safety and profit and in fact wound up collaborating with the Greek and Roman conquerors. But as St. Augustine would later point out, it means anyone whose pastoral care and leadership depart from the model Jesus has shown us in himself.
In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, the people probably knew more about sheep than the good citizens of Chicago do now. Jesus may not have known much more, humanly speaking, but animal husbandry is not the point. All the talk about shepherds and sheep is, in the end, a way of dealing with leadership. And the style of leadership Jesus proposes is not that of driving those we are responsible for ahead of us with a stick and dogs, using fear, intimidation, and excommunication to keep the flock in check and make them do as we want. Rather, the image Jesus presents, whether good shepherding technique or not, is good pastoral psychology: get out in front, proceed calmly, and don’t look back too often. But don’t get so far ahead that everyone loses sight of you.
There is a hint in these readings about what being a good disciple involves as well, although that is not the main point. Following Jesus does not mean being docile, nose-to-tail, unquestioningly ovine followers. It means imitating Christ. One of the greatest of the shepherds to follow in Christ’s footsteps, St. Gregory the Great, put it this way, not by chance in a homily the church selected for a reading in today’s divine office:
“Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action” [Homily on the Gospel of John, 14:3-6. PL 76, 1129-30].
I have no doubt that the names of the heroes who have responded so selflessly to the desperate need of their fellow citizens are written in golden letters in the Book of Life. We pray with Pope Gregory that by following Christ in love, they especially will “finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity.” For there, Gregory says, “the elect look on the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for evermore,” the banquet, permit me to add, that is the wedding feast of the Lamb of God.