02 June 2009

Burdened to breaking by truth? (UPDATED)

Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2.1-11; 1 Cor 12.3-13; John 15.26-27, 16.12-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

How much truth can we bear? How much before we break? Before the scale tips from ecstasy to madness, from joy to hysteria? If you read sci-fi/fantasy novels, you know that one of the constants of these fictional worlds is the notion that there is a truth, a body of knowledge, an arcane stock of wisdom that only a few can access, that only the truly gifted can call upon when necessary. There is always a price to be paid for knowing more than one ought to and for knowing anything at all about what one should not know. The price is sometimes physical, sometimes mental; sometimes the price is paid with one’s humanity. With one’s life. And the sacrifice is not always triumphant. Sometimes knowing more only leads to more confusion, additional puzzles, greater obstacles. How much truth is too much? When does “bearing up under” the truth become a burden worthy of a cross?

To his friends and students, Jesus promises to send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will comfort them in their trials and give them a sure defense against malicious persecution. Because his friends and students have been with him from the beginning, he says that they will testify to the truth of his gospel and that the Advocate will testify along with them. Then Jesus says something rather odd; he says, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” Is Jesus playing Arcane Master here? Occult Guru? Gnostic Wise Man? What truth does he have to tell that the disciples cannot bear? True, the disciples have shown themselves to be less than stellar pupils at times. And true, they have fussed and fumed about petty marks of dignity among themselves. And we know that when the Judas’ plan comes to fruition in the Garden, these best-buds will run squealing into the night. But what truth, what “much more to tell” will break the disciples?

Just after this odd admission that the disciples aren’t ready for the fullness of truth, Jesus adds, “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” Ah, so maybe the issue here is not that the disciples are incapable of bearing under the truth, it’s just that now is not the time to pile on the truth? The disciples are at a fragile stage, or maybe they aren’t spiritually ready to hear all that Jesus has to reveal at the moment. Possibly. But this still presumes that what remains unrevealed is heavier than what a disciple of the Lord can bear. And we are still left with what this great burden is. Details of Jesus’ trial and execution? A prophecy about future persecutions of the apostles? Some apocalyptic end-time scenario? No. When the Spirit comes, he will guide you to all truth. The Spirit has come. What was revealed?

(Imagine a chilly spring night in Jerusalem, the dark is almost total, only a few stars blink at the earth. From the horizon on the east blazes a meteor, a fist of fiery spirit, a knot of tightly bound love, streaking with undeterred purpose toward the upper room. At the moment of deepest despair, greatest regret, the most intense impatience for the disciples, the meteor smashes into the room and explodes in a thunderous clap, piercing the bodies and souls of the men and women in the room, whipping their spirits clean, sending them all into an ecstasy that overwhelms thought, speech, spirit, motion, and leaves them, each one, ablaze like a star stuttering to its full brilliance…).

The Catechism teaches, “On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of the Promise was poured out on the disciples […] The Spirit who teaches the Church and recalls for her everything that Jesus said was also to form her in the life of prayer” (n. 2623). Perhaps more than any other day of the Church calendar, Pentecost marks our longest distance from fear. Easter comes close. But Pentecost brings us into direct contact with the questions: what do I fear as a follower of Christ? What prison have I locked myself in? What darkness have I protected from the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit? Pentecost raises these questions for us precisely because it is the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that gives birth and rebirth to the Church, the Body of Christ on earth. At the most intense moment of persecution, on the cusp of the Church’s birth, the disciples are ruled by terror, steeped in dread. The Holy Spirit explodes in their midst…and everything is changed forever.

They have locked themselves away in fear and by fear they are ruled. The walls of their chosen prison give them comfort. They know where they are, who they are; they know who is outside, and who it is that hunts them and why. To the temple priesthood, they are heretics. To the Roman governor, they are rebels. They have offended God in His sanctuary and Caesar in his court; they are hiding from the clergy of an ancient religious tradition and from the foot soldiers of the world’s only military superpower. They are menaced soul and body.

From within their self-imposed prison—the easy safety of walls and familiar company—the beloved of the crucified Lord tremble in terror, waiting on the wrath of God’s priests and the punishments of Caesar’s troops. Some of them may have remembered a promise Jesus made before his death. And though it has been some several weeks since he died in the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, that promise comes back in a whispered memory, just a hint of hope sprinkled in among the fear and desperation of those who keep themselves prisoner. If they gird themselves, put their eyes to heaven, and remember! They will remember: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me.” When the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, comes…he will testify to the truth as the Truth. There is nothing to fear in the truth though for now the whole truth may burden you. Turn the key of your cell door and walk away to freedom. Your wait is over. Walk away from fear and toward the Truth—away from loss, toward everlasting gain! What fear guards your cell door? What terror keeps that door locked?

Into the locked room where the disciples hid, the Holy Spirit, like a furious bonfire—ripping through fear and doubt, burning away indecision, cowardice, spiritual torpor, putting to the sacred torch of truth any and all motivation for hesitancy, complacency, and double-mindedness—the Holy Spirit roared in among them, setting to each a flame that unstuck their tongues, that unlocked their imprisoned hearts, and set them free! Is this the heritage of the Spirit that we lay claim to? Are we heirs to this strength, this purpose? They spill into the street, preaching God’s truth in every tongue. Where is their fear? Where is their hesitancy? Their reluctance? They are abandoned in truth and wholly given over to Him! And because of their fervor, their dedication and exuberance, and because they spoke the Word so plainly and without embarrassment, they were killed. Not all of them. But some of them. Those gone so far in the Spirit that nothing of this world was left in them to threaten.

Is this the burden that Jesus did not want to load onto the disciples too early? Is this the truth that he feared might break them? The coming of the Spirit sparked the glory of the Church in the upper room, giving birth to the Body of Christ as the engine of spirited grace in the world. Set ablaze in holy love, the disciples flee into the streets, spreading God’s holy fire everywhere they run, seeding tinder-dried hearts with embers ready to burst into flame. They are contagious. From heart to heart, from mind to mind, they spread out and plant the Word, scattering seed, rowing up fields for the Church! But does “bearing up under” this truth of the gospel, the work of evangelization, does it become a burden for us, a burden worthy of a cross? Yes, it does.

Inevitably, the truth of the gospel will clash with the lies of the world. At first, the world will draw back in astonished amusement, mildly shocked that someone, anyone would challenge its power. Then, when mockery fails to diminish the fervor with which the Church preaches the truth, the world will react with increasing anger and violence. And, like the early persecutions of the Church by the Empire, the Church will be cast as an enemy of the state, a threat to moral freedom, and a tumor on the body of good order. As an intolerant cult that refuses to honor the diversity and difference that makes modern culture so wonderful, we will be found guilty of refusing worship to the postmodern gods of elitist ideology and labeled “domestic terrorists.”

We are charged by the Holy Spirit to finish telling the truth of the gospel. If that truth burdens us to breaking, then we break burdened by the gospel truth: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.” And, if necessary, we die preaching the Spirit.


  1. I just wanted to say Thank You for this homily. It really touched a nerve for me, regarding some things that I'm dealing with in my own life. I don't know if ya'll priests get feedback on your homilies (or if it's considered proper to do so--I'm new to the Church), but for me, this really struck home. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Maria, thanks for the feedback! The primary reason for this blog's existence is for feedback on my homilies...so, feel free! I try to answer any questions shot my way...

  3. I appreciate your homily. Accepting truth has been a long journey for me, like more than a decade. But God has been good to gently lead me past delusion about large and small things. I've been aghast at myself first of all, and at others with whom I interact, in our ability to hide the truth, shade the truth, or just ignore the truth, even when it's like the elephant in the living room. We think we're living in truth even when we're in denial on many levels. And I'm describing upright Catholics who attend Mass and pray the rosary, not refugess from the asylum or gross sinners. Yet Jesus promised that the Truth shall set you (us) free. Your homily encourages me as I contemplate the Holy Spirit coming to burn away lies (fears) that keep us from truly transforming our selves and our society.

  4. Truth burdening one to breaking is the flip side of 'ignorance is bliss' maybe?

    I love your analogies, like this one which I can see happening in my mind's eye:
    "...seeding tinder-dried hearts with embers ready to burst into flame. They are contagious. From heart to heart, from mind to mind, they spread out and plant the Word, scattering seed, rowing up fields for the Church..."

    As for:
    "...Turn the key of your cell door and walk away to freedom... toward the Truth—away from loss, toward everlasting gain!..."
    Prison and freedom. Amen, that's 'xactly it.

    You discussed fear in this, homily...
    Fear is a huge deal. It's the biggest of prisons. One of the best illustrations of the effects of fear I've come across is this: a man gets a $20 if he'll walk atop a 20-foot section of railroad tie to get it. Easy enough. Compare that to the same man being offered a $20 if he'll walk atop the same railroad tie propped upon the rooves of two skyscrapers, to get it. Probably not gonna happen. Fear of every kind is immobilizing, debilitating. Let us not fear. So many times in so many ways, Jesus, Himself, says do not fear.

    And yet, it's important to suggest being sure we are in fact "living in" and "following" and "preaching" the Spirit and not something else borne of ourselves.

    prayer-in-progress for you and exam time...

  5. Beautiful rendition of the event. Nice work.

    I look at the Holy Spirit's great searing power as being like this: If I had known that three days into starting college, I would meet the man I would marry and have nine children with, one of whom has a disability, I probably would have been frightened to show up at the school at all, much less talk to any man.

    We cannot bear all truth in the same way childen cannot yet comprehend nor should be exposed to, all things that adults must know. BTW, God had a very very good plan, and He knew enough to know I would mess it up if I knew.

  6. Fair, Aspiring, Sherry...thanks for the feedback. Oddly, I don't like this homily much. I struggled with it for too long and I see too many flaws. That anyone at all has found it helpful is a blessing, of course, but it will not go down my book as a fav. My favs rarely garner much comment and the ones I hate usually get praised. Figures. This is why I need readers and feedback!!!

  7. I never get why people like the stuff I think I'm just throwing onto the blog as much as they do, especially when I spend much more time on other stuff, which no one ever mentions and I think...hey...wasn't that good? I liked it. Oh well, it keeps us humble.

  8. Sherry, one time I spent hours and hours perfecting a tightly written piece on the theology of prayer...posted it...nothing.

    Then a few weeks later, a commenter tried to blackmail me with a threat to leave the Church if I didn't agree with her pro-abortion position. Quite literally, I banged out "The Church is Not Wal-Mart" in fewer than fifteen-minutes. It was linked all over the blogsphere...largest number of comments ever...huge number of emails...twenty or so requests by pastors to reprint in parish bulletins...go figure.

  9. Godzgirl1:56 AM

    WOW! WOW! WOW!
    a perfect example, dear Fr. of Dominican preaching at it's finest...i have always believed that if a preacher isn't convicted himself, the folks in the pews aren't going to believe either...preaching without compromise or regard for others' approval of you personally is a
    grace...one, sadly, that many in the pulpit have refused in order to be "PC"...but let us always pray that they will indeed one day open themselves up to the grace and preach the beauty of the Truth...as to your liking your homiliy--i find that when i write something down quickly from an inspiration or when i am not pleased with the finished product--it is indeed the Spirit(more often than not) Who has done the "creating"--and it is these pieces that speak clearly to the audience i am trying to reach...thank you for letting the Spirit work in you...
    pax et bonum....