by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Ordinarily I do not launch into preaching
with a joke or other form of humor
as it could appear to be a cheap way
to grab folk’s attention before they doze off.
On the other hand, humor’s ability to surprise,
akin to the power of the unexpected
packed into those gospel parables,
can startle, even unsettle us
and open a door to new revelations.
In that spirit I recall the purportedly true story of Pete Flaherty,
mayor of Pittsburgh in the mid 1970’s.
During his tenure as mayor he was once inspecting
a construction site with his wife Nancy.
During that visit a construction worker called out to Nancy
asking if she remembered him from high school.
Pete stood back while his wife and the worker chatted.
He didn’t say anything until they got into the car.
Then Pete wanted to know who the guy was,
how long they dated
and why they broke up.
Eventually he concluded, “You know, Nancy, it’s a good thing
you married me; otherwise you’d just be married
To a construction worker.”
Nancy rejoined, “No Pete, it’s a good thing you married me;
otherwise he’d be mayor of Pittsburgh.”
It all depends on your perspective.
Sometimes humor can pull us up short and change our perspectives.
And as we have all come to realize,
something that is no laughing matter, like a pandemic,
can do the same.
Sometimes those adjusted viewpoints during this global outbreak
are about small things,
like how long we should be washing our hands.
Over the past two months I don’t think
that I’ve ever sung “Happy Birthday” to myself so much
as during that increasingly frequent sanitizing ritual.
But sometimes our altered points of view are about larger issues
like the balance between personal freedom
and the common good,
or what it means to be counted as part
of a vulnerable population,
or how often underappreciated workers
like bus drivers and grocery clerks
are actually deemed essential.
In these topsy-turvy times,
some may presume that although a pandemic
can render a church building vacant on such a great feast,
it won’t necessarily change that feast.
On the other hand, a global health crisis
that prevents the faithful from even gathering
for this closing festival of the Easter season
might provide startling lenses
for rethinking Pentecost in these perilous times.
While we are very familiar with today’s readings
repeated year after year on this annual festival,
they read differently for me in the current moment.
Some elements that I previously never gave a second thought
now show up on my virus-wary radar:
Like the disciples gathered together in one place.
Sounds like an illegal gathering to me,
with folk not practicing social distancing.
And then there is Jesus intentionally “breathing” on the disciples
in that Gospel reading.
Now I know it’s the Risen Lord
and he is not an asymptomatic carrier.
But these readings,
with their references to wind and breath and body,
in an environment obsessed with airborne pathogens
and a deeply wounded social body
provoke unusual responses in me.
These pandemic-induced epiphanies have prompted me
to reflect on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Those of us of a certain age
Had to memorize a classic enumeration of those gifts
before we could be confirmed.
Remember? There were 7 of them:
wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety,
and fear of the Lord.
Interestingly enough, most of those gifts
are not featured in today’s liturgy.
Now while it is true that the first reading presumes
that those gifted with the spirit and speaking boldly
received a good dose of fortitude from that heavenly breeze,
and although today’s preface that we will soon pray
does note that the spirit opens all
to the knowledge of God,
the readings seem populated with gifts
different from the tradition seven.
For example there is a distinctive gift of speech in the 1st reading,
and the remarkable ability to speak across language barriers
and still be perfectly understood.
The second reading doesn’t so much innumerate
the gifts of the Spirit
as it clearly notes
that they are intended for the common good –
an aspect of spiritual charisms unexplored
in my confirmation preparation.
When it comes to Jesus, the key gifts of his spirit in today’s gospel
appear to be peace and reconciliation.
Reimaging these Pentecost charisms as framed by today’s readings
suggests that maybe the gifts of the spirit
have a particular role to play in times of adversity.
In challenging times one needs to negotiate understanding
with those who may not speak our language
or share our social, political, or religious thoughts.
Work for the common good is particularly taxing
in a time when some people’s assertion of individual rights
actually jeopardizes the health of families and communities.
Forgiveness is certainly in short supply
when acrimony and greed are so rampant.
And who could deny that there is a high demand for peaceability
in our homes, on our streets, and in our world
when family pressures are mounting,
unemployment is skyrocketing,
and international collaboration is waning?
My confirmation preparation,
admittedly from a long time ago in a galaxy far away,
gave me the impression that the gifts of the spirit
were personal benefits intended to help me grow.
Some have even suggested
that if we had the proper infusion of the Holy Spirit
we wouldn’t need ventilators or face masks
or even a vaccine.
That view of the Spirit and this feast may need some adjustment.
One prophetic preacher contributes to that adjustment
by suggesting that the Holy Spirit
does not come to solve our problems, but to create them!
absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, “Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.” Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option. They will now be propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy.
How’s that for revisiting Pentecost?
Now you might be thinking to yourself.
If Pentecost is about the gifts of the spirit
and if those gifts cause problems,
let’s look for another Spirit …. or at least another feast.
Isn’t today supposed to be a celebration
of the birth of the church?
A kind of ecclesial happy birthday party?
So who invites a guest who brings gifts
of dilemmas and problems to such a gathering?
Especially if the guest list is limited to 10!
Scratch ‘em from the list and find a jollier replacement!
But maybe there is another way to consider
the festival of the Church’s birth and
the way to deploy spirit gifts
for the continued birthing of Christ’s presence
into the world.
The famed 5th century theologian and preacher, John Chrysostom,
calculated the birth of the church differently.
Rather than placing it on Pentecost,
he located it on Good Friday, on Golgotha, on the cross.
Chrysostom recalled the passion narrative reporting
that after Jesus had died, one of the soldiers
pierced His side with a lance
and immediately blood and water flowed out (Jn 19:34).
In his catechetical instruction to those about to be baptized,
he suggested that the blood and water
symbolized Eucharist and baptism,
the sacraments that birth new Christians.
And so he concludes that the church itself
was born from the side of Christ,
and that we fashion a church from blood and water.
That may not be your favorite happy thought about being church
But it is undeniable that our very existence
was forged through crucifixion and death,
that over the centuries we have endured
persecution and diminishment,
martyrdom and abuse.
But we are sustained through it all by God’s unrelenting Spirit,
that holy hurricane and sacred fire,
that like a summer sun we hope will scorch a hidden virus,
will burn away greed and small-mindedness,
divisions and political polarizations,
me-first attitudes and a diminishment of the common good,
and in the process opens us to the that divine inferno of love
that blazes only in honoring of God and neighbor.
It is a challenging step, in challenging times.
So we heed the poet’s warning as we pray for blessing,
for God’s disruptive Spirit,
in these unsettling times.
Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone….
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow.
Bring your grief.
Bring your fear.
Bring your weariness,
your disgust at how broken
the world is,
by its fighting,
its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones,
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made:
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle,
that scorches us
toward one another
the blazing day.
(Jan Richardson, A Blessing for Pentecost Day)
May we embrace the ache that opens us
The grace that scorches us
The blazing day that renews us as we pray
Send us, Send us, Send us your spirit Oh Lord.