The beginning of a new academic year is always a time of renewed energy, excitement, and optimism about all that the year will hold and the possibilities before us. As it happens, the opening of our semester has also unfolded with awareness that both on and off-campus, there are many people in our world are beset with significant, destabilizing challenges. Deep divisions between people regarding national immigration policy, ongoing episodes of violence with racism at their core, and enormous, once-in-a-generation natural disasters inform our reality.
We’ve all seen the news stories as Hurricane Harvey unleashed its fury upon the Gulf of Mexico, Southeast Texas, and Louisiana -- only to be followed by the immense Hurricane Irma, which chewed its way through many of the islands of the Caribbean before leveling the Florida Keys, swamping thousands of homes and leaving millions without power, for many, likely for weeks.
This weekend, I was watching media coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath and what is striking to me is the profoundly differing effects that the same events have upon different people. All touched by these events have been forever changed. But some have been able to emerge with a sense of having been miraculously saved from death, and already see life with a new perspective, as a grace daily received; while others are inconsolable, unable to free themselves from the images of the storm and the overwhelming feelings of loss. “All is lost” they say -- “We’ve lost everything.” While we all wish a healing peace for every one of these survivors, and are grateful that some can indeed emerge with some sense of wholeness, we know at a fundamental level that anguish, despair, and a tormented spirit, are very common human conditions, ones from which many find it difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
As I reflected on our readings for today, and then did so in light of this broad context of pain and suffering, I realized that they are in many ways perfect ones for us to reflect upon during this, our Mass of the Holy Spirit.
As I reflected upon first the Letter from Paul to the Church in Colossae, and then our reading from Luke’s gospel, I think we are being called to be a transcendent people; but rather than then being asked to float in a state of detached enlightenment, we are being asked to think about what Christian transcendence means in the gritty, earthy, contemporary context of real life. This provides us with an opportunity to think about the juxtaposition revealed in our readings: what it means to live, motivated by the very ordinary human wants and desires, and how that relates to what Jesus is truly asking of us, when we are enjoined to live our lives as his disciples -- the people of God.
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
The latter portion of Luke’s gospel message really brings home the radical transformation Jesus is asking us to make. Our culture is infused with themes and messages that implore us to define who we are in the here and now, and to define our success in terms of “self” -- self-benefit, self- promotion, self-absorption. And these in turn lead people down the path of selfish behavior; for truly, what motivates immorality, or evil desire? What compels us to feel anger, fury, malice, or to slander someone else?
Throughout the Gospels Jesus teaches his apostles, and us, how truly difficult it is to follow in His footsteps. The path to life with God is filled with many obstacles, many temptations, not least of which are those created by our own humanity, our own narrow-mindedness, our inability (or unwillingness) to listen for God’s voice in our lives. Following in Jesus’ footsteps is not easy. It is easy – in fact, easiest -- to become cynical, to detach, to grow cold and hard-hearted.
But before we do, Paul reminds us:
You have taken off the old self, with its practices
And have put on the new self
Today, these tough, direct readings are NOT calling us to a place of despair, but to be a people of hope, and a people of action. In the simplest of terms, Luke calls us to recognize that to live in communion with Christ means leaving behind our self-centeredness.
I think today, we are being asked to be Christ for those who otherwise might say: “All is lost.” Because, on a very practical level, we humans are fragile; it can be very difficult to maintain hope when your home has been burned to the ground, or swamped in polluted water; when your possessions have been destroyed or your school has been closed.
But it doesn’t take being in a flood zone, or an earthquake zone, to become hope-less. It can be difficult to believe in God when you’ve lost someone beloved to you, or when you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, or you see people you initially thought were nice treating other people as disposable or inconsequential. It is here, in these places and spaces, where the people of God -- you and me -- we can bring light, and hope. And it does not require thousands of dollars. We can be Christ by reaching out to another in need, and being there with and for them.
In receiving the Holy Spirit, we in turn become animated by the power of Christ’s eternal light, the image of God’s goodness. It is US – you and me – that God calls – knowing that at times the work will be difficult, and that in doing the work we may face many obstacles and challenges. Through his life on Earth, Jesus showed us the way, and now it is our turn: to comfort the afflicted, to console those who mourn, to give voice to the voiceless, to bring hope to those who are hopeless.
The purpose of our Mass today – a September tradition stretching back for us to the very first year of the founding of this university – is to heed God’s call and recognize that our roles -- as faculty, as staff, as students -- is to be a people of hope for a world bereft of it. As a Jesuit mission, we are here to be a sign of God’s presence, moving in a broken, despairing, and challenging world. Every day, we are people who find God moving even in the midst of violence and sinfulness, and to help others to do the same; to be examples of what a life lived not for ourselves, but for others, is about. For by framing our work in terms of Christ’s message we come to understand our endeavor as an encounter with the living God.
And so, we ask God to send the Holy Spirit to be with each one of us this day: to animate, inspire, and to guide us now, and forever. Amen.
- Delivered at Mass of the Holy Spirit, Gonzaga University Feast of St. John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, September 13, 2017