Our faith is a gift. We often speak of a good relationship in terms of one whom we love or a friend being a gift to us. We speak of our children as individual gifts. We consider a good job, having good health, all being singular affirmative donations to the experience of life. The religious among us might even consider these gifts coming from above and not of our own initiative.
But, our faith is a gift and a task – an unspeakable gift from God to us, a holy task we are called to do, meaning, we are called to live the life of faith and to invite others to share in the life of faith. Our faith touches the core of who we are and our faith fulfills us deeply.
We trust that along the path of life we have come to understand this entire religious experience as an affirming, positive gift, namely to know God and to live in His embrace and under his direction is a singular gift bar none – such a relationship with God is called “grace.”
It is often said that in our modern day living the life of faith is more of a challenge than in the past. Perhaps, we suffer under more distractions, preoccupations and self-determinations in our time. Nonetheless, I want to encourage our readers to stay the course.
The Christian feast of Pentecost is a wonderful reason why we should stay the course. At the end of his life of faith and service the Lord Jesus was taken up into glory. That, dear friends, is our future too. It is our horizon of hope at this time. Jesus assured his disciples that he would send the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit, to equip us with the strength and courage needed for the ordeal to come and then he would come back for us to take us with him.
Being a baby-boomer myself, born not long after the end of World War II, perhaps, like some of you I have read my share of war narratives, listened to my own father’s experience being in the US Army during that war in the European theatre and watched many a documentary about that war. Those accounts are usually gripping but they are never without aspects of the good and even of the heroic. If war brings out the worst in some people, it brings out the best in others, like all tragedies of one sort or another.
The late Pope John Paul II brought to our attention the horror of World War II when we read of him having experienced that war himself in his own displacement and the persecution and extermination of his own friends and acquaintances, Jews and fellow Catholic Poles and fellow priests. Pope John Paul II raised up to the honors of the altar many saints and martyrs of that terrible period 1939-1945, some whose names now mark our church calendars, such as Carmelite Sister Edith Stein, Franciscan Father Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Sisters of the Holy Family and others. Even now retired Pope Benedict XVI as a lad was forced to join the Hitler Youth and later escaped only to be taken prisoner by American troops till Germany finally surrendered.
I think it is the combination of the good and the heroic set against the background of the graphic and disturbing that has helped me to keep my balance in life and to taste its deeper meaning. The abject misery of people victims of war and conflict in the Middle East and in Africa today only forces me to count my blessings and give thanks to God for all I have.
Among my greatest blessings I count to be my Catholic faith. Since my faith and my life are inextricably tied up with the Church I must name the Church among my greatest blessings. The two of them – my faith and my Church – give me my energy, my identity, my horizon of hope at this time and at all times. These two gifts will carry me under God’s grace to heaven. They will do the same for you too.
I find myself then, not lacking the horizon of hope at all as I look at our Church in these challenging times. Besides, I realize that the Church is in good hands because it is in Christ’s hands. But, the Church is not only a gift that the Lord has given you and me it is also a care upon our hearts and a responsibility on our shoulders.
Every Sunday is a graced opportunity to give witness before God and the Church each our own enthusiasm and love for our Catholic traditions as we recite the Creed together, as this faith marks our lives indelibly shaping every thought and action of ours. This faith is the lens through which we view the entire world. In this sense, our religion is not a hobby that we have time for today but perhaps not next week or next month depending upon our mood. Our religion is a preoccupation of ours because we love and admire Jesus Christ.
One of the Second World War’s heroes of Christian resistance to the Nazis was the young Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1943, imprisoned in Buchenwald Concentration Camp and hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp just a few weeks before the war ended. The Nazis would not let him go even when they knew that Hitler’s regime was finished. They had an old score to settle with Bonhoeffer. He had been one of the Nazi regime’s harshest critics.
I am always impressed by what a Christian of heroic stature has to say about the Church because I know it doesn’t come out of a book when he or she is condemned to die for the faith, nor do their words come from blind loyalty but from the depths of that person’s soul.
Of the Church, Bonhoeffer had this to say: “The Church is not very influential, not a very imposing institution and always in dire need of improvement.” Nevertheless, he added, “The Church is an office from God.” [“What is the Church”, found in No Rusty Swords, Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 1977].
What Bonhoeffer says is true because the Church is easily dismissed by the popular culture that finds the Church an annoyance and the message we peddle an invasion of privacy.
The Church, of course, is essentially made up of flawed human beings, baptized, anointed, awaiting redemption in Christ. But these flawed human beings carry a message that’s not of their invention.
The Church is not a very imposing or influential institution and it is in dire need of improvement. But, we must not stop there forgetting the most important thing that Bonheoffer said about the Church: “The Church is an office from God.” By “office” he meant that the church is a care we have from God and a work to be done for the Lord and for the salvation of others.
While the Church is not of our making it is of our implementation for which we need the mercy of God in carrying for its mission.
“The Lord worked with the apostles and confirmed the word through them,” says John’s gospel. Similarly, the Lord works with his Church in our time and in its difficulties and its accomplishments. And He confirms his message through the Church’s worship and sacraments, through its teachers and preachers, its prophets and saints, and even, praise God, through you and me.
Remember the beginnings of our religion were with a group of impoverished and hesitant individuals who probably would not make it in a typical contemporary job interview. They were largely from the poor and working classes. They felt keenly their oppressed, second-class status under subjugation by a foreign power, a hostile empire that would soon as nail them to a cross than ask questions or say ‘hello.’ They were people without defense, without influence. They searched for their dignity in their religion as descendants of Abraham, Jacob and Moses and their association with Jesus of Nazareth.
One of them was not sure about Jesus and for reasons of his own internal conflicts decided to betray Jesus to his enemies in exchange for some money. Another disciple denied that he ever met Jesus at a moment the Lord needed him most. This one went so far as to curse and swear up and down that he was never in Jesus’ company. Mysteriously, Jesus chose this one to head up his Church after his own departure.
The rest of the band ran in fear of the authorities and locked themselves in a hidden away upper level room in the city wondering what to do next. A few women stood by Jesus till the end even watching closely his grave. So much in pain were they over his brutal execution.
Another disciple could not quite believe the report that Jesus was seen alive again several days later, unable to grasp the pieces of Jesus’ teaching and message and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy in his behalf.
Amazingly, this band of reticent followers was sent out into the world to win the world for God, in many instances, at the cost of their own lives.
Those first Christians may not have been sure of a lot of things and may have been guilty of their own missteps in life. You may say they were timid and afraid amidst their own disenfranchisement in a violent world. But one thing for sure those first Christians soon discovered they were sure about and that was what they were willing to die for. The test of our faith, friends, hinges upon what we are willing to stake our lives upon. Hopefully our faith is one of those things.
Should we be surprised then at weak Christians, hesitant, reticent Christians, flawed and sinful Christians who worship with us, some who even lead and teach the faith today? Let us never lose the horizon of hope. If Jesus worked with that first and original, fledgling group, a collection of timid and flawed human beings. If he works with us, should we not work with each other to improve this Church for the kingdom Jesus is establishing?
Pentecost is a feast of hope for the Church. Jesus had spent his life showing us how to find meaning and purpose and joy through a life of faith in him and a life of service to others. He has shown us how to live with the horizon of hope ever before our eyes. He has told us that glory is the reward of such a faith-filled servant life.
Then, as Jesus lived, so may we live. And as all ended in glory for him so may all end in glory for us. This is not a vain hope for a vague future. It is the actual future of which this feast of the birth day of the Church at Pentecost is a pledge.
God’s gift of the Holy Spirit animates us both as individuals and as Church to do the work God does, to be the people of God, to live the life of the Gospel. Pentecost celebrates the unseen, immeasurable presence of God in our lives and in our Church.
The Holy Spirit is God’s breath that animates us to do the work of the gospel of the Risen One, the strength to make God’s will our will, the power of God transforming us so that we might infuse his life and love into our broken world.
God breathes his Spirit into our souls so that we may live his life in the here and now; God ignites the fire of his Spirit within our hearts and minds that we may realize the coming of God’s reign in our own time and place.