Yesterday, Pentecost Sunday, we brought the Easter season to a close with the celebration of that momentous event in the early Church that brought the message of Christ out into the world.
Pentecost has often been referred to as the "birthday of the Church." Some theologians would hold that the Church was born from the wounded side of Christ as he hung on the cross. I don't want to get into a theological argument but I would like to see Pentecost as "the miracle of the Church."
Consider what happened on that day. The disciples were gathered in that upper room which had become their place of hiding (after the death of Jesus), a place of discernment (as they tried to fathom what the resurrected Jesus was asking them to do), and expectation (having been told to await in the city for the coming of the Holy Spirit). Then they are disturbed by a "mighty wind" and tongues of fire appear over them. They then go out and change the world.
Remember that there were none of them who held a master's or a doctorate degree in theology or Scripture. They were simple people who earned their living with their hands and the sweat of their brow. Yet, it was to these that the Holy Spirit came charging them and giving them the strength to begin to bring the message of Jesus to the world. Consider, also, that down through the centuries of the existence of the Church, there have been persecutions, corruption on the part of leaders of the Church, ruptures in the body of the Church, and scandals which exist even in our own day. Yet, here we are, twenty-one centuries later still joining together to worship that resurrected Christ and coming together as a community of faith.
This is because of the power of the Spirit. In the seventeenth chaper of the Acts of the Apostles, we read about Paul's discourse with the Athenians in the town square where he comes upon a shrine dedicated to the "unknown god." Paul proceeds to tell them about Jesus and what his message was for the world. Sometimes I think that for us Christians, the Holy Spirit is the "unknown God." We pray daily the Lord's Prayer (the "Our Father") and pray often to Jesus to aid us. How often do we pray to the Holy Spirit? Yet it is the Spirit, given to us in our baptism and fortified with his gifts at our confirmation, that guides us in our faith journey. It is the Spirit who moves us to prayer especially when prayer comes with difficulty.
In chapter five of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul speaks about the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are wonderful attributes and virtues to have and they are gifts of the Holy Spirit. In my homily yesterday on the Feast of Pentecost, I spent some time speaking about joy.
Did you ever notice that sometimes people who consider themselves quite religious often seem unhappy or even grumpy? A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the annual Spring Enrichment program sponsored by our Albany Diocese. The keynote speaker for this event was the Jesuit author, Father James Martin. He spoke about the need for joy and humor in our spiritual lives. He commented on how often pictures and statues of the Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints show them to be somber.
I decided to try out this premise. In my breviary (from which I pray the Divine Office), I have a large number of holy cards that I obtained usually at the time of someone's death. I have two kinds of these remembrance cards - those that picture Jesus, Mary or one of the saints, and those containing the actual pictures of the deceased person (priest, deacon, religious or lay person). Father Martin was right on - all the "holy cards" picturing Jesus or the saints had hardly even a hint of a smile. Those picturing the deceased were overwhelmingly pictures showing their smiling faces. Obviously they knew that there was something better to come after this life.
The late writer and humorist, Erma Bombeck, tells the story of how one day in church she was seated behind a young mother and her little son (about three or four years old). Bombeck said the child was not fidgeting or rummaging through his mother's purse; rather he would occasionally turn around and smile at the people behind him. At one point, the mother cuffed him and said "Stop smiling! You're in church!" As Bombeck said: if that little boy couldn't smile in church where else was he to go.
We need to have joy and laughter in our lives. We need not to take ourselves too seriously or we can become somber and miss all the beauty that God has given to us.
Now, some might say that there are times in our lives when sadness occurs: loss of a job, loss of a loved one, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, etc. There is no doubt that difficulties and suffering will be part of our lives. Yet, does that mean that we have to be deprived of joy?
A native son of our Albany Diocese, Bishop Joseph Estabrook (who was a bishop in the Military Archdiocese) passed away a few months ago from the results of pancreatic cancer. Before his death, he wrote a reflection and I would like to share a few things that he mentioned in that beautiful reflection. He tells how after receiving the first news about having the cancer, one of the doctors hung back and finally asked him how he could receive such news and remain so positive. The good bishop thought for a moment and said to him: Faith and fear cannot live in the same space. He went on to write shortly before his death: We must embrace the sufferings of the moment and the fears as they come to us, but, at the end of the day, we must let joy be the victor that Christ alone can give to us. A beautiful statement of faith because Bishop Estabrook knew that our God is one who loves us intensely. He clings to us in our moments of difficulty; he holds us tight like a lover.
Let us, then, be people of joy. Let us echo the words of Psalm 126: Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy....The Lord has done great things for us; Oh, how happy we were.
The spiritual writer, Anthony DeMello once wrote: Look at God looking at you...and smiling. All we need to do is smile back. May you all have the joy of the Spirit in your lives.