Our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles describes for us the ascension of the Lord into heaven. “When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” The next verse is equally important. “While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? 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.” Now, add to this the first verse of today’s gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”
Two essential movements intertwine in the mystery of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. The first and most obvious of these is the movement of ascent. Jesus breaks through the boundaries and barriers of this material cosmos and enters into what is eternal and ultimate. In the ascension we discover anew that we are made for eternity and our ultimate destiny is to exist forever in the heart of God.
The second movement, flowing from this first, is that the ascension pushes us outward and onward. “Why are you standing there looking at the sky…Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” The ascension of Jesus reveals our dignity as children of God and our ultimate destiny to live for eternity in that relationship of great honor and glory. This must be shared, allowed to shape the present world we live in, increasingly breaking down structures of oppression and discrimination and expanding the horizons of peace and respect in every relationship.
The explosive reality at the center of this mystery of ascension is something that can only be communicated and made effective for us by God. It is the Holy Spirit alone who can both lift us upward with Jesus and explode the horizon of our spirits outward in proclamation and service to the kingdom.
Let us share this Act of Consecration to the Holy Spirit, written by St. Pius X:
O Holy Spirit, divine Spirit of light and love,
I consecrate to You my understanding, my heart
and my will, my whole being for time and for eternity.
May my understanding be always submissive
to Your heavenly inspirations and to the teachings
of the Holy Catholic Church, of which You
are the infallible Guide.
May my heart be ever inflamed with love of God
and of my neighbor;
may my will be ever conformed to the divine Will,
and may my whole life be a faithful imitation
of the life and virtues of Our Lord and Savior
Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father
and You, Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.
Today’s gospel begins by repeating the last verse of yesterday’s gospel: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” Later in this gospel passage Jesus repeats a second time our need to ask the Father “in his name.”
What does it mean to ask God in the name of Jesus? Jesus’ words that follow immediately are a strong indication. “I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” Jesus seeks to offer his disciples a glimpse of the love he shares from all eternity with the Father. The God he calls father is the origin and source of all he is. The Father is, just as surely, the goal and summit of all he is. There is a rhythm of love that exists in the essence of God, which we express as the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We can come at this another way, perhaps. St. Paul tells us that God the Father “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us” (Romans 8:32). This ‘handed him over’ is the same expression used to describe the actions of the traitor, Judas. Certainly it must have a different meaning in reference to God’s action than to Judas’. Somewhere St. Thomas explains this by pointing out that God the Father ‘handed over the Son’ by inspiring in him such love for his Father’s saving plan that he spontaneously entrusted himself to the passion. The handing over was a handing over of love that called forth love.
This, it seems to me, brings us to something of what it means to ask the Father in the name of Jesus. Recalling that in the biblical tradition, to have access to another’s name is to gain access to their person, asking in the name of Jesus is to be filled with love from the Father so as to pour out our lives in prayer to the Father for the sake of the world. This is the prayer not to be refused by the Father. To pray in love for the healing, reconciliation, transformation of the world.
This love of the Father for the Son, does it need to be said, is who we know to be the Holy Spirit. To be filled with the love of God is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite prayers to the Holy Spirit is written by Cardinal Mercier.
O Holy Spirit, soul of my soul,
I adore You.
Enlighten, guide, strengthen, and console me.
Tell me what I ought to do and command me to do it.
I promise to be submissive in everything that You permit to happen to me,
only show me what is Your will.
Today is the beginning of the traditional Novena to the Holy Spirit, nine days of prayer to the Holy Spirit, concluding on the Vigil of the Feast of Pentecost. In this way, with the original band of Jesus’ disciples, who “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with…Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14), we might encounter for ourselves a deep and profound renewal of the life and action of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
It is my hope to offer on each day of the novena a brief reflection, guided by the daily readings from Mass, and to share a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
The last verse of today’s gospel provides us with a wonderful place to begin. There we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (John 16:23).
We need to be, first of all, very attentive to this. The “amen, amen” indicates a solemn promise on the part of Jesus to us. The essence of this promise, I dare say, is the essence of the Easter mystery. God can be trusted. Jesus passed into the depths of death to be met by the always faithful God who drew him to resurrection and eternal life. God can be trusted.
But still, this is a deep mystery. Jesus did, after all, pass through death. Most of us, perhaps all of us, have addressed desperate petitions to God many, many times, only to receive no apparent response. There is the child who prays for years for the healing of a parent from cancer, only to see mom grow worse until she dies. How many parents have prayed for a wayward child who has only gone further off course? There is the addict who has pleaded with God for freedom, only to fall again into the deadly behavior.
We touch here a disturbing mystery. “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” Jesus’ words are sure! Yet, what do they mean for us here and now?
The early Christian patristic writers, when coming upon this verse, most often commented that what Jesus was referring to, the petition which the Christian should be addressing to the Father in his name, is nothing other than the Holy Spirit. Ask for the Holy Spirit, the very reality of divine life, and the Father will never, ever withhold it from you.
This is what we long to receive from God: the abiding indwelling presence of his divine life active through the Holy Spirit. Divine life, which is to say, indestructible, unquenchable, infinite, eternal life filled with fire and love and goodness and strength. This is the source of the peace Christ promised, a peace the world cannot give or take away. What we pray for is to know life that is eternal and ours as gift from a Father who loves us and will not refuse us.
In any present darkness, the living movement of the Holy Spirit in us communicates the assurance that God’s life is ultimate and God can always and everywhere be trusted to pour forth this life for us!
Come Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Send forth you Spirit
and we shall be created
and you shall renew the face of the earth.
Now to offer a brief reflection on the fifth and final promise concerning the Holy Spirit found in St. John’s Gospel (16:12-15).
I have much more to tell you,
but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.
This promise is distinctive among the five for its richness and the multiple directions the Holy Spirit moves within the disciples. The Spirit will ‘guide into all truth,’ will ‘speak what he hears,’ will ‘declare’ and ‘glorify’ the Son. Notably, the juridical tone that dominates the first four promises is gone from this promise (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 422). In this promise, all is relationship. The relationship of the Spirit to the Son, which is the same as that between the Son and the Father, all shared in relationship with the disciple.
There is then, in this promise, an overarching melody that offers a glimpse into the eternal interrelationship of the Trinitarian God and the disciples share in that life. Just as the Son glorifies the Father by revealing his loving and saving plan for all people, so too does the Holy Spirit glorify the Son by filling the hearts of believers with affection and trust for the Son. As the Father withholds nothing from the Son, for all eternity, so too does the Son withhold nothing from the Spirit, who in turn graciously pours this everything into the hearts and minds of believers. We glimpse here eternal love and the promise of being drawn into this love is extended to us.
Essentially, this fifth promise makes precise the action of the Spirit in relationship to the words and life of Christ. “[T]he future action of the Paraclete consists in rendering living and effective, in the lives of believers, the word of Jesus. One can therefore say, in a certain sense, that it is Jesus himself who continues to ‘speak’ to the disciples; but from now on, in a new and interior manner, by the Spirit” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 444). The Spirit’s role is “to ensure in the Church the living permanence” of the words of Jesus (ibid).
The opening line of this promise, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now,” gives an added dimension to the particular role of the Spirit. The Spirit does not simply repeat what has already been said or, even, sustain what Jesus has previously taught. Rather, the Spirit must in some way serve “to interpret the mysterious revelation of Jesus so as to come to unfold its full sense” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 448). There is, importantly, no adding to the teaching of Jesus, but an unpacking of its richness and significance for the believer in the concrete circumstances that will confront them as they go forth bearing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Once again we see that the Spirit comes to make the teaching of Christ accessible to the believer precisely at the moment the believer is most ready to receive and appropriate that teaching.
This final promise offers us the beautiful assurance that because of the active presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will never be far from us. As a matter of fact, precisely because Jesus has gone and given way to the Spirit, Jesus has become more interior to us than he ever could have been simply by remaining a physical presence within history. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ words and deeds, accomplished once for all in the distant past, are made alive, present and meaningful for us exactly where we live and act today.
Because the Holy Spirit is with us, we know with absolute confidence: Jesus Christ is alive!
We continue our reflection on the promises Jesus makes to his disciples concerning the gift of the Holy Spirit as found in the Gospel of St. John. We find the fourth promise in John 16:7b-11.
For if I do not go, the Paraclete will not come to you.
But if I go, I will send him to you.
And when he comes he will convict the world
in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation,
sin, because they do not believe in me;
righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me;
condemnation, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
The verb ‘to convict’ is the central action of the Holy Spirit in this promise. “The Greek verb used here (elenchein) evokes the notion of establishing or revealing a fault, often in an unmistakably forensic context. Of the several possible nuances available, only one seems adequate to describe the Spirit’s action here: he will afford convincing proof that the world is wrong and in sin” (Francis Martin, “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me,” 59-82, in The New Evangelization, ed. Steven Boguslawski, OP and Ralph Martin, 72).
The ‘other Paraclete’ will prove that the great sin is refusal to accept the revelation of God the Father offered in the person of Jesus Christ; that Jesus, not the religious leaders who condemned him, is truly righteous because he now exists in the presence of the Father; and, that Jesus’ death on the cross was not his condemnation, but in fact the condemnation of the devil who is the prince of death.
The difficulty in this passage comes in understanding where the action of ‘convicting’ takes place. Will the Spirit convince the world of its error or does the Spirit act within the disciples to establish them in the truth of Jesus? “Basically, it must be the second. If the world were able to acknowledge its sin, it would no longer be the ‘world,’ that is, a place which, despite the fact that there is still room for freedom and choice, is nevertheless at its depths a ‘demonic universe of refusal and rejection’” (Ibid.). So, the Spirit acts in the hearts and minds of believers in order to convince them of the truth of the gospel, especially in the face of their own weakness and the seduction of the world. “The Paraclete addresses itself only to believers: it is an interior illumination that happens in the hearts of believers” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 410).
Like the third promise, this fourth promise is directed at believers in the struggle they will face to hold to and grow deeper in their faith. Whether it is profound personal suffering, the allure of all that the world promises, intellectual challenges to faith, encountering ridicule for following the upside-down ethic of Christ, or the countless other ways faith is tested in this world, the Paraclete comes to the aid of the believer. The Spirit firmly inclines the heart and mind of the person of faith to see clearly that the only ultimate sin—and therefore separation from true life—is not believing and trusting in Christ. The Spirit shows to the eyes of faith that Jesus is gloriously victorious over the world and that the world’s promises are ultimately illusory.
In brief, this promise assures us of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the faithful, revealing “that ultimately love and sacrifice are more powerful than violence and death,” that following Jesus’ way of sacrificial giving of our lives to God the Father for the sake of others is the way to authentic liberty and life (Francis Martin, “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me,” 59-82, in The New Evangelization, ed. Steven Boguslawski, OP and Ralph Martin, 74)!
We can now look at the third promise concerning the Holy Spirit found in John 15:26-27.
When the Paraclete comes whom I will send you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father,
he will testify to me.
And you also testify,
because you have been with me from the beginning.
The word ‘testify’ stands at the fore of this promise. The Greek use of this word is the context of a legal defense. “[T]his term evokes a climate of protest, a hostile environment, a true trial between Jesus and the world” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 379). Before we can appreciate the nature of this promise, we must first recognize the warning of struggle the promise foretells. Jesus is here warning his disciples that they will live their lives of faith in the midst of a world that hates them. Because of their insistence on the truth of the gospel, the world will persecute them.
Here it seems important to clarify what meaning John gives to the word ‘world.’ This provides something of the context for this promise. Just prior to the verses of this promise, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (15:19). The New Testament scholar, Fr. Francis Martin, describes John’s understanding of ‘world’ within the context of this promise. “John, the mystic, discerns behind the human forces that reject the message of salvation a ‘demonic universe of refusal and rejection’ that put Christ on trial and killed him…This vision explains the constant use of the verb to witness in the Johannine literature and the forensic overtones that it carries. As chapter 9 of the Gospel teaches us, the Christian is a healed blind beggar on trial…The Christian is a witness, driven by his or her own experience of the saving act of God and the conviction that this act is meant to give life to the whole world” (“The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me,” 59-82, in The New Evangelization, ed. Steven Boguslawski, OP and Ralph Martin, 67-68.) The world, in the sense John often uses it, is this intellectual, economic, technological, emotional system demonically orchestrated to resist the truth about God’s saving love in Jesus Christ.
The promise of the Holy Spirit is an assurance to the disciples of Jesus’ abiding presence as they face the hostility of this ‘universe of refusal and rejection’ of the gospel. “In this situation, when the disciples are ‘on trial’ before the tribune of the world and are enduring persecution, either mental or physical or both, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, will witness to them concerning Jesus and will preserve them from falling away, even while they are bearing their own witness. What sustains the disciples of any age, including our own, is the living experience of the reality and majesty of Jesus Christ, who is with the Father” (Ibid., 69).
In the verse that follows the promise we are looking at, Jesus says, “I have told you this so that you may not fall away” (16:1). Living faith in the midst of a hostile world, we are often tempted to doubt the truth and present reality of Christ. In a world seemingly trapped by war and terror, by famine and disease, by greed and resentment, the disciples’ minds and hearts are assaulted by the thought that perhaps there is no God, perhaps God is not all-powerful and all-loving, maybe Jesus has not overcome the world. In another direction, how often it seems that the cunning and deceitful, the aggressive and violent, the rich and powerful are the ones who experience true success and life, while the humble, the honest, the generous and just suffer nothing but defeat. It is precisely into this ‘trial’ that the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus comes to the aid of the disciples. It is in this context that “the testimony of the Spirit must here be considered as an interior reality that is meant directly for the disciples” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 393).
Within this third promise, Jesus warns us, his disciples, that we will struggle to know and live the truth of the gospel. Jesus will send the Holy Spirit from the Father in order to bring to increasing clarity that truth in the depths of our being. The Spirit will act within us to make present the reality of God’s saving, life-giving love accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We will know within us, in the face of the temptations and trials inflicted on us by this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), that God is faithful and can be trusted to draw those who love him into abundant life.
This is the second in a series of five reflections by Father Anthony Oelrich.
The second promise of Jesus concerning the Paraclete, found in John 14:25-26, declares:
I have told you this while I am with you. The Paraclete, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.
As Fr. Ignace de la Potterie, SJ, points out, “this text concentrates the attention directly on the nature of the mysterious rapport that unites the teaching of the Spirit and that of Jesus” (La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 362). At first sight, it might appear that there are two distinct actions taken by the Holy Spirit. First, the Holy Spirit will teach and, secondly, the Holy Spirit will recall to the minds of the disciples the words or teaching of Jesus. The question this raises is whether it is right to expect some new teaching from the Holy Spirit. Does the Holy Spirit have his own unique teaching to accomplish?
Throughout the gospel of John, what one discovers is that there exists a mutual interiority to the work of the Father and the Son. Wherever the Son is, there is the Father as well. One cannot know the Father without knowing the Son.
As John turns now to Jesus’ teaching concerning the Holy Spirit we discover that this same relationship of mutual interiority exists between the Holy Spirit and the teaching of Christ. This is to say that it is precisely by recalling the words of Jesus to the minds of the disciples that the Spirit teaches them everything.
To help in understanding the relationship between the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Greek theologian Nikos Nissiotis offers a helpful distinction. Nissiotis speaks of Jesus as the ‘what’ of revelation while the Spirit is the ‘how’ of revelation. The content of Christian doctrine is contained in the life and person of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gives disciples access, or a way into that teaching in the here and now. In short, the Holy Spirit is “the ‘how’ by which the ‘what’ is effected in history” (Kilian McDonnell, The Other Hand of God, 114).
Let me try to make this more concrete. Imagine yourself in a classroom being taught some algebraic formula. Your teacher is effective, speaks clearly, and goes through the formula slowly and patiently. At this point, it is not that the teacher is unclear or that you don’t understand what he is saying, but you still do not see the point of the formula or understand how it works. You listen to the lesson and you work with the formula. At a certain point, suddenly the formula makes sense. You grasp the inherent logic of it and see how it effectively works to bring you to a conclusion. This is, you might say, the ‘aha’ moment. At this point, you now get it. You understand this formula for yourself. You can take your own concrete problem, apply the formula, and reach the information the formula opens up to you.
The Holy Spirit plays this ‘aha’ moment role in communicating the teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection communicates the truth of God and who we are in relationship to God. The role of the Holy Spirit is to make this a knowledge internal to us and our experience within our daily lives.
This makes sense of what Kilian McDonnell says concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in theology. “Pneumatology [the study of the Holy Spirit] is to theology what epistemology [the study of how we come to know] is to philosophy” (Ibid., 214). The Holy Spirit makes the truth of Jesus Christ accessible to us in the concrete of our daily lives so that we can increasingly live our lives in the light of that truth. The Holy Spirit is how we come to know the truth of Jesus for us in the here and now.
Before concluding, I would like to make one more point concerning this promise, which applies equally to each of the promises concerning the Holy Spirit. It is important to notice that these promises are spoken not to disciples individually but to the community of disciples. It is from within the Church, the body of disciples of Jesus existing throughout history, that the Spirit acts to bring believers to a living knowledge of Jesus Christ and his teaching.
In this promise, we see that “Christ remains the unique revelation; but only the action of the Spirit allows the Church to appropriate in faith this revelation” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 378). The wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit is to make the truth of Christ alive and active in our lives today!
Father Anthony Oelrich composed a series of five reflections on the promises in the Gospel of St. John. Beginning today, he will share one each Sunday through Pentecost.
In addition to Easter being the season of resurrection, it is also the season of the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit. These two—resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit—are really only two aspects of a single event. St. John tells us that it was on the evening of the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection that is, that Jesus came to his disciples, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). In a certain sense, Easter Sunday is also Pentecost Sunday. To be more precise, the Feast of Pentecost is the liturgical celebration of the truth that the Easter mystery is not simply about Jesus, but is also our sharing in his new and eternal life through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
As we prepare for the Church’s celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, on the last Sunday of Easter, I would like to offer some reflections on the five Holy Spirit promises in St. John’s Gospel. You find these promises in John 14:16-17; 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11; 16:12-15.
The first promise reads:
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows it.
But you know it
because it remains with you,
and will be in you.
This passage introduces us to the central subject of this promise as well as the four that will follow, that is the Paraclete. To be precise, it is the promise of ‘another Paraclete.’ Jesus, only here in John’s gospel, is identifying himself as a Paraclete. The Greek word paraklētos is multivalent. It means one who councils, assists, defends, stands up for, comforts another.
Before the lies and darkness of the world, Jesus has stood with his disciples as a paraclete, defending them with the truth of the Father and assisting them to embrace the light and life that comes by loving God and their neighbor. Jesus himself is this ‘truth of the Father’ precisely in his being the Son of God, which is to say in his relationship with the Father. It is this relationship of complete gift and receptivity existing for all eternity between the Father and the Son that is the truth of our existence as human beings. Jesus Christ in his humanity is the revelation of this truth.
Now Jesus promises the disciples that when he leaves this world, they will be given another paraclete. The Spirit will help them in the face of assaults from the world to live the truth, to live in the relationship that the Son shares with the Father from all eternity and which will be theirs because of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.
Notice, from the last verse of this promise, this Spirit has already remained, has been with the disciples. Jesus’ historical existences has been permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit, for he came in “grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). The promise, however, is that once Jesus has passed through death to life at the Father’s right hand, the Spirit will come to dwell in the disciples. “A new mode of presence and action of the Spirit is here promised by Jesus for the time to come: an action or presence most intimate, most interior, and therefore most immediate; the Spirit will act from within their hearts” (Ignace de la Potterie, La Vérité dans Saint Jean, Tome I, 360).
Imagine a very dear friend of yours. You admire in this friend her enormous capacity for compassion and kindness. You have experienced this compassion and kindness first hand from your friend and have even been encouraged to grow in compassion and kindness yourself from her example. What if, by an act of the will, she could simply bestow her very own capacity for compassion and kindness upon you? That would be precious indeed!
This is something of what Jesus is extending to his disciples in this first promise. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus places within us his very own capacity for living the truth of his relationship with the Father. The intimacy, the trust, the assurance and peace that we see in every aspect of the life of Christ because of his all-encompassing trust in God, this intimacy, trust, assurance, and peace comes to live in us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
John, in his first letter, speaks of this indwelling of the Spirit as a gift in ‘seed’ (3:9). As a seed, it is not yet the full-grown plant. Still, a tomato seed, well cared for, becomes nothing other than a tomato-bearing plant. This seed of the Spirit, promised us by Christ and bestowed in baptism, if tended well, will increasingly become in us the truth of our shared relationship of intimate love with Jesus for God the Father in the communion of the saints.
Now that is a promise, I would say, worth embracing. And to think, it is only the first of five such promises from our Lord.
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Sacred Liturgy reminds us that “the church has never failed to come together to celebrate the paschal mystery, reading those things ‘which were in all the scriptures concerning him’ (Lk 24:27), celebrating the Eucharist in which ‘the victory and triumph of his death are again made present,’ and at the same time ‘giving thanks to God for his inexpressible gift’ (1 Cor 9:15) in Christ Jesus, ‘in praise of his glory’ (Eph 1:12) through the power of the Holy Spirit” (n. 6).
This celebration of our Lord’s paschal mystery is what makes the week we are now beginning holy, the summit of the church’s life.
That word paschal reminds us that Jesus’ entire life was directed toward the gift of himself in love to the Father for us. Because, as Fleming Rutledge points out in her fine book The Crucifixion, “the life of Jesus is single-mindedly directed toward his self-offering…His death…was the willed culmination of that life of self-giving for our good” (p. 31). His resurrection was the Father’s embrace of that gift in joy and faithfulness.
That word mystery reminds us that this act of love is not confined to history, but is a present reality. As the biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out, “Christian faith has never—either at the start or now—been based on historical reconstructions of Jesus, even though Christian faith has always involved some historical claims concerning Jesus. Rather, Christian faith (then and now) is based on religious claims concerning the present power of Jesus…Christian faith is not directed to a human construction about the past: that would be a form of idolatry. Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus” (The Real Jesus, 133, 143). Mystery is the present experience of a once for all event acting powerfully in our lives today.
Please do what you can to find your way to church this Holy Week for the various celebrations of our Lord’s paschal mystery. Open yourself to the act of love in which Jesus offers himself to the Father for us present here and now in love and power, to heal and save, to empower and send forth on mission.
Much concern has been expressed over Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, and in particular its eighth chapter. This document is the pope’s summary statement on the deliberations of the world’s bishops over the last several years on the question of marriage and family. There has been considerable discussion, controversy even, over whether or not this document of our Holy Father gives permission to the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist (without an annulment).
The question of mediating the grace and mercy of God to human beings, all of whom are touched in one way or another by sin and failure, is always challenging. In Western Civilization, the breakdown of marriage has left us with so many Catholics who no longer participate in the life of the church because of failed marriages and entering new unions. Are these people always to live on the fringes of the Christian community? Are they forever to be excluded from communion in the Church?
It is not my intention to go into all the aspects of this very complex pastoral and moral dilemma. There is, however, something I would like to share from my own reflection on the problem. The problem of failed marriages has always faced the Church. Still, in our culture, it has taken on new dimensions and become very prevalent, demanding new reflection from all who care to bring Christ to those in need of his grace.
This complex question brought to mind, and I ask you to bear with me on something that will at first seem very far removed, the so-called de lapsis controversy. In the middle of the 3rd century AD, there were repeated outbreaks of serious and protracted persecutions under the emperors Decius (250-1), Gallus (252), and Valerian (257). During these persecutions, rather than facing imprisonment, torture and death, many Christians renounced their faith in Christ.
Up until this point in the life of the church, Bishop Cyprian doubted that one who denied God could ever be reconciled with the Church. This is not to say that bishops didn’t have to deal with this and find ways to reconcile some who had fallen before, but it never happened in such overwhelming numbers as during this 3rd century persecution throughout the whole Roman Empire.
In an attempt to both uphold the Church’s ancient faith concerning the absolute sacredness of the Christian’s baptismal vows and to, in some way, extend God’s mercy to reconcile the fallen to the Eucharistic table, there were synods and councils held throughout the Church. Bishop Cyprian, who eventually was martyred in the persecution of Valerian, wrote a letter which has come to us as De Lapsis.
In light of our contemporary challenge, I reread Cyprian’s important statement. I was struck by so much in it: how intensely St. Cyprian upheld the traditional teaching of the Church, how profoundly he called the lapsed to recognize what they had lost and to repentance, and how real the mercy of God remains with power to reconcile.
One thing, in particular, I want to share is the starting point from which Bishop Cyprian approached the question. How he, first and foremost, placed himself in a position of intense compassion, identifying himself with those who had denied their faith. After praising those who gave their life in witness to the faith and those who suffered for their refusal to abandon Christ, he reminds his people of the sorrow in the Church that remains because of those who denied Christ,
“…these outstanding exploits of our brethren [the martyrs and confessors] cannot, alas, remove one cause of sorrow: that the Enemy’s violence and slaughter have wrought havoc amongst us and have torn away something from our very heart and cast it to the ground. What shall I do, dear brethren, in face of this? My mind tosses this way and that—what shall I say? How shall I say it? Tears and not words can alone express the grief which so deep a wound in our body calls for, which the great gaps in our once numerous flock evoke from our hearts. Who could be so callous, so stony-hearted, who so unmindful of brotherly love, as to remain dry-eyed in the presence of so many of his own kin who are broken now, shadows of their former selves, disheveled, in the trappings of grief? Will he not burst into tears at sight of them, before finding words for his sorrow? Believe me, my brothers, I share your distress, and can find no comfort in my own escape and safety; for the shepherd feels the wounds of his flock more than they do. My heart bleeds with each one of you, I share the weight of your sorrow and distress. I mourn with those that mourn, I weep with those that weep, with the fallen I feel I have fallen myself. My limbs too were struck by the arrows of the lurking foe, his raging sword pierced my body too. When persecution strikes, no soul can escape free and unscathed: when my brethren fell, my heart was struck and I fell at their side
(Cyprian, translation by Maurice Bevenot, S.J., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 7).
Notice, Cyprian’s intense, experiential identification with those who had denied their baptismal vows with the body of Christ. Indeed, later he repeats boldly to those who have fallen that the bishop “feels your wound as his own” (Ibid., p.35). All those who have fallen are part of the body which leaves not only them wounded, but the whole body wounded.
Our sisters and brothers who have experienced failed marriages bear wounds that we all share. Their shame, their loneliness, their disappointment and bitterness, is ours as well. Their longing for healing, for new life, for new love, is our longing.
Before discussing others, their sins and failures, and their place in or out of the Church, we must first find our place with them in their wounds, their need for mercy and their longing for reconciliation.
And before saying anything, we must be willing, like Cyprian, to weep with them in their sadness and brokenness.