Sunday Scriptures — Sixth Sunday of Easter A, May 21, 2017

As Eastertide enters its last two weeks, the readings turn our attention toward the Holy Spirit.

The first reading — Acts 8:5-8, 14-17 — tells of the reception of the gospel in Samaria. Philip was one of the seven who were appointed to “wait on tables” to insure equity in the daily distribution, as we heard in last week’s first reading. In chapters 6 and 7 we hear of Stephen’s works, preaching, trial, and martyrdom. Now another deacon is preaching the gospel. Despite the reason behind their selection for ministry (with an installation which has marks of ordination), they cannot refrain from proclaiming the gospel.

Stephen’s activity was in Jerusalem, but Philip goes to Samaria. Up to this point, we have only heard of the Church in Jerusalem — the work and preaching of the Apostles there and the opposition from the Sanhedrin, culminating with the martyrdom of Stephen. Philip is the first to proclaim the gospel outside Jewish territory. The Church had to verify that this extension of the faith into foreign territory was authentic.

The apostles’ prayer brings the Holy Spirit manifestly upon the Samaritans. Although Baptism brings the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promises, there was with Jesus and the early Church an empowering anointing by the Holy Spirit which believers received. We can see this as corresponding to Confirmation.

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 66 — speaks generally of our joy in the goodness of the Lord. Our joy is based on the Resurrection of Jesus, with all it means. The response, extending the call for joy to all the earth, can remind us of the extension of the gospel beyond Judea.
In the second reading — 1 Peter 3:15-18 — there is a “stream of consciousness” which calls us to good conduct of various sorts and concludes with a reminder of Jesus’ saving work. This connects with the theme of the Holy Spirit in two ways. There is an explicit reference to the Spirit’s place in Jesus’ resurrected life. Beyond that, it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to sanctify Christ, to give respectful explanations of our faith, and to keep our consciences clear by avoiding evil conduct and doing good.
The gospel — John 14:15-21— like last Sunday’s is an excerpt from Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper. He is looking forward to the time after his ascension. He promises the sending of the Holy Spirit, here called Advocate and Spirit of truth. This promise was first fulfilled at Pentecost, again at Samaria and on other occasions recounted in Acts, and the Holy Spirit continues to be given to believers, to dwell in us.

Jesus then promises that his ascension will not leave us orphans: he will come to us. He will return at the end of time to gather those who love him to himself. It seems there is more to this promise than simply that. We will see him when the world no longer sees him. We see him in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. We see him in another way in the least of his brethren.

Next, Jesus tells us that he is in the Father and in us, and we are in him. Elsewhere he has told us the Father is also in him (John 14:10). Implicitly, then when we are in Jesus, we are also in the Father and the Father is in us — and as Jesus had just said, the Holy Spirit is in us. This reciprocal indwelling of the faithful and the Trinity is the form which our baptismal adoption takes. We participate in the life of God, which is eternal life.

An Italian Salesian daily missal I got many years ago draws this point out in a way that explains why Jesus’ command at 15:12 is not “Love your neighbor,” but “Love one another as I have loved you.” The love which exists among the followers of Jesus is of a higher order that that which can exist with non-believers, since it is a share in the internal love of the Persons of the Trinity. Nevertheless, we are also called to love all our fellow humans. It seems to me that this love is analogous to God’s love. The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was so great that it “had to” express itself in the creation of a loved universe, including humans with whom the love could be reciprocally shared. God loves all people and wants them to be saved, and the divine love in us must also overflow into to love for all and a desire for them to be saved. This love should motivate us as it motivated Philip’s preaching in Samaria. We should not neglect opportunities to explain the reason for our hope; and our lives — keeping Jesus’ commandments — should reflect God’s goodness.

Sunday Scriptures — Lent A 3 & 4, Mar. 19 & 26, 2017

In the early centuries of Christianity, Baptisms normally took place at Easter, and Lent was the time for the final preparation of the catechumens who were to be baptized that year. Gradually it came to serve as a season for the rest of the faithful to prepare spiritually for their celebration of Easter. Over time, as infant baptism became the most common way for people to enter the Church,the formal catechumenate as the process of preparation for baptism fell out of use. Following the Second Vatican Council, the catechumenate was restored as the means of preparing adults and older children for baptism, and the Mass readings for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent in Year A in the revised liturgy were chosen for their connection to baptism.

 
On the 3rd Sunday water is a unifying theme in the first reading and the gospel. In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, these readings were assigned to the Friday of the third week of Lent.

The first reading — Exodus 17:3-7 — tells of Moses providing water from a rock in the desert for the thirsty Israelites. This physical water is understood as a type of the water which Jesus promises the Samaritan woman in the gospel — John 4:5-42. The water in the desert sustained physical life. The water Jesus provides sustains eternal life. Water is, in scripture and in at least some Jewish tradition, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus is promising the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him. He told Nicodemus that entry into the kingdom of God required being born of water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5), and at his own baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. The offer of the life-giving water to the Samaritan women, and subsequently to her fellow villagers, tells the catechumens and us that this grace of baptism is available to all, not just to the Jews.

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 95 — includes a reference to the incident of the water in the desert.

In the second reading — Romans 5:1-2, 7-8 — we find a reference to the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope, and love. Paul reminds us that faith in Jesus has brought us justification and hope of glory because of God’s love for us, made effective in Jesus’ saving death. There is also an allusion to the other readings: Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

 
The 4th Sunday has images of light and vision. On the first reading — 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a — tells of Samuel’s anointing of David as king to replace Saul. Although Jesse’s son Eliab looks like a king to Samuel, God sees the heart, not just outward appearances and chooses David. The anointing of David brings the Holy Spirit powerfully upon him. We too, receive the Spirit at our baptism.

The responsorial psalm — Psalm 23 — attributed to David gives us the image of God as the good shepherd, with its allusion to David’s having been a shepherd.

The second reading — Ephesians 5:8-14 — exhorts us to live in the light. Formerly we were in darkness, but Christ has enlightened us. The final lines, “Awake, O sleeper … and Christ will give you light,” are thought to be from an extremely early baptismal hymn. The light of Christ comes to the catechumens and us through baptism.

The gospel — John 9:1-41 – formerly read on Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, the day of an important examination of catechumens in early times, tells of Jesus’ cure of a man born blind. He comes into physical light, just as baptism brings spiritual light. We can think of Jesus’ making of clay with the earth and his saliva and putting it on the eyes of the blind man as a sort of “anointing.” The pool of Siloam, where the man washed, in a prefiguring of baptism, was the source of water for libations in the temple on the first seven days of the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles, or Booths). The healing of the blind man was apparently on the eighth day of the feast, when the water was no longer brought from Siloam to the temple. Perhaps this timing has significance for understanding Jesus as “greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6). Certainly, the fact that Jesus earlier on that day had promised “rivers of living water” that is the Spirit, flowing from within those who believe in him (John 7:38-39) establishes the baptismal meaning of the healing of the blind man, and recalls the promise to the Samaritan woman of living water.

The blind man has been given light, not just physically, but also spiritually, and he professes his faith in Jesus, whereas Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees have blinded themselves to the truth about him.

Sunday Scriptures — OT C 23, Sept. 4, 2016

The first reading — Wisdom 9:13-18b — speaks of the limits of human intelligence. There are two factors in play. One is that the body limits the soul. We shouldn’t take this to mean that the body is evil, as the Manichæans would say, or that it is not fully part of the human person, as Plato believed. We believe that the human is not a soul which will eventually be released from its prison, the body. We believe that body and soul are both essential elements of a human being. Nevertheless, in our fallen condition, the flesh, as St. Paul uses the term, opposes the spirit. The second factor, related to the gospel of the day, is that our minds are finite and need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand God’s will.
In the responsorial psalm – verses of Psalm 90 — we reflect on our mortality and our reliance on God’s enduring support.
The second reading — Philemon 9-10, 12-17 — is Paul’s instruction to Philemon to recognize his returning slave Onesimus as a brother in the Lord. Legally, Philemon had a right to punish Onesimus for running away. Morally, as a Christian, he did not have that right. We too must realize that we are called to higher standards than simply taking every benefit the law allows. As Christians, we are to love and forgive, and to recognize the dignity of every human being as a person, not an object we may use.
The gospel — Luke 14:25-33 — presents “the cost of discipleship.” We must prefer nothing to Christ: not our families, not our possessions, not even ourselves. Some, like St. Teresa of Calcutta, are called to literally give up everything. Most are called to a renunciation which recognizes that what we have really belongs to God and must not be used selfishly. Furthermore, we are called to love others, so we do not literally “hate” them. We just do not let them draw us away from Christ. We find that a Christian attitude can actually draw us closer to people, as with Philemon and Onesimus. Families should be more loving, employers and employees should deal generously with each other. People should deal kindly with one another. If we are going to call ourselves Christian we need to be aware of the cost, as the world reckons cost. We cannot grasp what it means to be Jesus’ disciple without the help of the Holy Spirit, as the first reading indicated, because it’s a matter of understanding the mind of God.

Pentecost Vigil — 2016

This is extremely late, but I think it’s worth my effort. I hope you’ll find it worth reading.
Pentecost is one of a small number of solemnities which have a different Mass formulary for the vigil than for the day. When vigil Masses on Saturday evenings that would fulfill the Sunday obligation were permitted, new Masses were not composed for the vigils: the Sunday Mass texts were brought back to Saturday evening. But for Pentecost, not only is there a separate set of prayers and readings for the vigil, but there is even an option to have an extended vigil, similar to the Easter vigil, using all the optional readings. This is appropriate because in ancient times, baptism was conferred by the bishop at the Easter Vigil. If a catechumen was ready for baptism but unable to attend the Easter Vigil, the bishop would baptize him at a “make-up” celebration at Pentecost.
The first reading — Genesis 11:1-9 — provides a context for understanding the meaning of the descent of the Holy Spirit recounted in Acts 2:1-11, the first reading of the Sunday Mass. It is the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. It is situated about five generations after Noah in the genealogies of his descendants. The descendants of Noah are still in a single community, but they decide to seek to build a tower that will reach heaven, which is an implicit challenge to God’s transcendence. It is also wrong because it is being done for selfish motives. But it turns out to be counterproductive because, instead of keeping them together, as they had hoped, it becomes the occasion for their being scattered. God confuses their speech, giving them different languages, and disperses them over the earth. We don’t have to take this story literally to take the message that sin divides us not only from God but also from our fellow humans.

At Pentecost this confusion and scattering is overcome. People of differing languages all understand the apostles and people of differing nations are united in the one community of the Church. The Holy Spirit’s work brings unity.
The responsorial psalm — verses from Psalm 104, with a refrain based on verse 30 — is a meditation on God’s glory, his work in creation, and the dependence of all creatures on him. The refrain emphasizes the role of the Spirit in creation and the continuing renewal of the world. (There is a particular resonance with the alternate reading from Ezekiel, which I will discuss later.)

 

The second reading — Romans 8:22-27 — speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit within each believer. We have received the Holy Spirit in baptism, but the “redemption of our bodies” will not be completed until our resurrection. Meanwhile, we are incomplete. As St. Augustine says, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. But we don’t know precisely what God must do in us, so our praying cannot explicitly ask for what we need. But the Holy Spirit knows and is on our side.

 

The Gospel — John 7:37-37 — tells of words of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (also called Booths, Succoth in Hebrew). This was, along with Passover and Pentecost (or Weeks/ Shavuoth), one of the Feasts on which people were supposed to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like Passover, it lasted a week. One of the main rituals involved drawing water from the pool of Siloam. Water was understood to represent the Holy Spirit. So, just as in chapter 6 Jesus proclaims himself the true life-giving manna from heaven, here he proclaims himself the source of the Holy Spirit for believers. There is a twofold aspect to the giving of the Spirit. The believer’s spiritual thirst is satisfied (recalling the reading from Romans). Beyond that, the believer becomes a conduit for the Holy Spirit into the world (recalling the Spirit’s work of restoring the unity lost at Babel). The image of rivers reminds us of the life-giving river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47:1-12, a river which becomes wider and deeper as it goes.

 
The alternative first readings are Exodus 19:3-8a, 16-20b, an appearance of the Lord at Mount Sinai; Ezekiel 37:1-14, the vision of the dry bones; and Joel 3:15, a prophecy of the giving of the Holy Spirit and the Day of the Lord.

Exodus describes a theophany with thunder, lightning, cloud, trumpet blast smoke, fire, and earthquake. While Acts does not have so many details, there are wind, loud noise, shaking of the house, and fire. Pentecost was the Jewish feast recalling the giving of the Law, the Torah, at Mount Sinai. So the Holy Spirit is the Torah of the Christian, dwelling within the believer. Israel is called to be a holy nation, and the Holy Spirit incorporates us into God’s people.

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry and scattered bones that are rejoined, covered with flesh, and revived by the infusion of the spirit, contains a promise of resurrection (Paul’s “redemption of our bodies”) through the work of the Holy Spirit. As the Psalm says, when God sends forth his Spirit, creation is renewed.

In Joel we have a promise of a pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon all people, like the living water Jesus promises. it will lead to the Day of the Lord, marked, as in the Exodus reading, by meteorological phenomena. There will be salvation for all who call on the name of the Lord, as Jesus promises the living water to all who come to him.

 

For us, Pentecost gives a promise of salvation. It also presents a call to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our conduct. This not only assures our own salvation but, when we place no obstacles, makes us channels of saving grace to the world. Especially in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we should manifest the merciful face of God to all with whom we come into contact. The Holy Spirit is the bringer of unity, and we must not bring discord and strife.

Sunday Scriptures — Sixth Sunday of Easter C, May 01, 2016

Ascension Thursday will be this week and Pentecost two weeks from today. So the Church is turning our attention toward the events they commemorate.

 

In the gospel — John 14:23-29 — Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. What he says about going away, going to the Father, foretells the Ascension. What he says about the Holy Spirit being sent by the Father foretells the event of Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit will do two things for the disciples: he will teach them everything, and he will remind them of everything Jesus told them. This assures us that their proclamation of the gospel was true. But what does it mean for us in our lives today?

In the first place, we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. So we can expect the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This comes principally in the promptings that come to mind that suggest good things we can do at a given moment or that tell us we shouldn’t do something we are thinking about. We need to try to follow these promptings. It’s easy to dismiss the Holy Spirit’s suggestion, “You should do this,” and say, “not right now.” “Why not spend a few minutes in prayer?” “Later. Right now I’m going to have lunch.” or “That person seems to be struggling with those packages. Lend a hand.” “They’ll be okay.” It’s easy to dismiss all sorts of impulses to do something worthwhile. Likewise with impulses to refrain from something bad. “Slow down.” “But I don’t have much time.” You don’t need that second piece of pie.” “But it tastes so good.” “You shouldn’t be looking at that stuff.” “Just one more video.”

 

But our first reading — Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 — shows that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just speak to us as individuals. Jesus’ promise is one for the whole Church. That’s why we call Pentecost “the birthday of the Church.” The question about whether all Christians needed to follow the Jewish law wasn’t about the details of one person’s life: it involved the whole Church. So a decision had to be made for the whole Church. The apostles were in Jerusalem, so it fell to them to give the answer, and the Holy Spirit was there to teach them. The answer they sent to Antioch noted that the Holy Spirit had given them the answer that circumcision wasn’t necessary: the details of Jewish law don’t apply. As one commentator has pointed out, the decision was accepted by all concerned. The one side didn’t say, “You’re wrong. Circumcision is still necessary,” and the other side didn’t say, “You’re wrong to give those minimum standards.”

The Holy Spirit still guides the successors of the Apostles, the Pope and the bishops. When they clearly teach something, we should be like the early Christians. There can be legitimate questions about how definitive a specific teaching is, but our expectation, like that of the Early Christians, should be to hear the Holy Spirit teaching us through the Pope and the bishops.

 

In the responsorial psalm — Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8 with refrain from v. 4 — we reflect on the call of all nations to join the worship of God by his people. This inclusion of the Gentiles is what occasioned the events of the first reading, and it’s success was greatly facilitated by them. If Gentiles had to follow all Jewish dietary and ritual law, the acceptance of the gospel might have been much less widespread.

 

The Church is that holy city, the Jerusalem whose foundation is the twelve apostles that we hear of in the second reading — Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23. Although we think of Revelation as telling us of the end times, the letters to the churches at the beginning of the book were about the time it was written, the conflicts it describes symbolically were happening to the early Christians, the heavenly realities it tells of are ongoing. If the new Jerusalem is not physically visible yet, it is still a reality in which we participate spiritually as members of the Communion of Saints.

 

So the question for us is how can we be more alert to the Holy Spirit when he speaks directly to us about what to do, and how can we be more alert to what the Holy Spirit says to the whole Church? Hint: Catholic radio and TV and Catholic newspapers will give us much more and clearer information about what the Church is saying than we can get anywhere else other than the Vatican website.

If that’s the question, there is also the great promise behind it: Jesus has promised us his peace, and he has promised us the Holy Spirit. At Mass we claim the gift of peace when we offer the sign of peace, and we claim the gift of the Holy Spirit when the priest asks the Father to send him to consecrate our gifts and again when he asks him to send the Holy Spirit to bring unity to the whole Church through our receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ.