(NB. I wrote this homily in June of 2009 while living in Rome. Since it was never preached, I thought I'd give it a try this morning. . .P.S. this version has been slightly edited b/c the 2009 version was too long.)
Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2.1-11; 1 Cor 12.3-13; John 15.26-27, 16.12-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA
How much truth can we bear? How much before we break? If you read sci-fi/fantasy novels, you know that one of the staples of these fictional worlds is the notion that there is a truth, 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 disciples 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? Gnostic Guru? What truth does he have to tell that the disciples cannot bear? The disciples have shown themselves to be less than stellar pupils at times. They have fussed about petty marks of prestige among themselves. And we know that when the Judas’ plan comes to fruition in the Garden, these best-buds will run squealing like rabbits into the night. But what truth, what “much more to tell” will break the disciples? Jesus adds, “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” What truth? Details of his’ trial and execution? A prophecy about future persecutions? Some apocalyptic end-time scenario? No. When the Spirit comes, he will guide us to all truth. The Spirit has come. What is 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; they are fragile, 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 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! This is the heritage of the Spirit that we lay claim to. We are 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? They are 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. Just those so far gone 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 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! “Bearing up under” the truth of the gospel, the work of evangelization, is a burden for us. Is it a burden worthy of a cross? Yes, it is.
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 of the Church, 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 liberty, and a tumor on the body of good order. As an intolerant cult that refuses to honor the diversity and difference that makes western culture so wonderful, we will be found guilty of refusing to worship the demons of elitist ideology and labeled “intolerant bigots,” “Taliban Catholics,” and “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 suffer and die preaching the Spirit.
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