Reflection for Mass of the Holy Spirit

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

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. New student orientation, the first few days of new classes, returning students re-connecting after summer break and summer jobs – there’s so much to celebrate and to be thankful for! Yet – at least in the back of our minds, if not in the forefront – we are aware that both on and off-campus, so many people in our world are also beset with significant, destabilizing challenges. Poverty, homelessness, political strife -- for months, once again, numerous wildfires have been burning all across the western part of this continent, many out of control, destroying homes and infusing our atmosphere with thick smoke. There is an opioid addiction epidemic in our country which is claiming an estimated 115 lives a day due to overdose and has an economic impact valued at 78 billion dollars per year. More proximate, yesterday evening, at a gathering in the Grotto we remembered two students – Erik Bruhjell and Blake Evans, who died, tragically and untimely, this summer.

We find ourselves living simultaneously in a world that is beset with challenges, but in a specific place that is fundamentally optimistic, dedicated to hope and the belief in a better future.

As I reflected on our readings for today, I couldn’t help but realize that the historical context within which they took place were times of great instability and significant challenges as well.

Our first reading is from Paul’s first epistle to the Church in Corinth, and if we place ourselves in that historical context, scholars maintain that what gave rise to Paul’s letter was that the community in Corinth was having a lot of difficulty. Corinth was an ancient coastal community that had been destroyed and then rebuilt by the Romans, and for many years had been a provincial capital – a gritty, tough port-city in the Greek islands. There were tensions between members of this fledgling Christian Church regarding certain practices that revealed a Church in transition – regarding, for example, pagan idolatry, the meaning and purpose of sex and marriage, and – in this particular case – to whom one should go when trying to resolve disputes between oneself and others in the community. In this passage Paul focuses upon themes of judgment and injustice, and admonishes the Church to do three things:

  • Recognize that Christians should be -- by virtue of who they follow, what they believe, and how they behave -- fundamentally different from those who are not Christian;
  • That members of the Christian Church should work at finding ways of resolving disagreements and addressing problems among themselves, because they share a common understanding of Christ’s teachings – founded in love and reconciliation; and
  • Realize that practices which perpetuate injustice are not reflective of Jesus’ teachings and God’s will for us.

You have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

You were made holy.
You were made righteous, virtuous.

I think St. Paul is calling out in this passage to the Corinthians: Hey! What are you doing?! Don’t forget what roots us, what unites us, what keeps us holy: it’s our relationship with God, with Jesus! In a theme that runs all the way through Corinthians, Paul is inviting us to think about what being Christian means in the gritty, earthy, context of real life. In contemporary terms, this provides us with an opportunity to appreciate the critical juxtaposition between what it means to live, motivated by very ordinary human wants and desires, and the importance of remembering what Jesus is truly asking of us, when we are enjoined to live our lives as his disciples -- the people of God.

So in turning to our Gospel reading today we see Jesus choosing from among his disciples the twelve Apostles. In preparation for today I was doing some reading on the concept of disciple-ship: to be a disciple, in the sense of the Gospels, was to be not just a follower, but to actually live one’s life in a manner that as closely as possible imitated that of the teacher. Our Gospel today says: a great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases.

Luke is telling us that, by this point in his ministry, Jesus has a large number of disciples. And after spending the whole night in prayer– Jesus called these disciples together and he chose twelve, whom he named “apostles.” Disciples are followers, but apostles -- Apóstolos – it means, one who is sent away, a messenger. Jesus is beginning to lay the groundwork for how His work will survive Him.

To me, as we think about our purpose as a Jesuit university, our work is analogous to the distinction that is described in this Gospel: Jesus is calling a select number of his disciples to prepare them to spread the Word, become apostles and to establish churches throughout the world. Though not one of the original twelve, St. Paul is commonly referred to as an Apostle.

In fact -- the Jesuits refer to their missions as apostolic works. We are an apostolate of the Society and of the Church. When St. Ignatius founded the Society and his Companions began their ministry, it was modeled on apostle-ship – disciples of Jesus, who go out, found missions, spread the Gospel, and move on. Pierre-Jean DeSmet, the Friend of Sitting Bull, was known to some as “The Apostle of the Rockies.”

Similarly, our work here at Gonzaga is first about appropriating knowledge, learning carefully with and from those who are here to teach us – but ultimately, to go out into the world and impact it with that knowledge through our own activity.

As humans living two thousand years after Jesus, we are still frequently confronted with daily examples of terror, and injustice, and human frailty. Today itself is the 17th anniversary observation of a day filled with terror for our nation; but our human history is filled with examples of cruelty, public and private, some well-documented, and others, shrouded in secrecy.

Perhaps the most acute example of this concerns our own Church at this very moment. On a very practical level, it can be very difficult to maintain hope when you discover that leaders of the very Church of which you are a part have not, in fact, been forthcoming about incidents of sexual abuse of children and of women and men, and have in fact attempted to hide perpetrators and mislead their followers all in the interests of protecting themselves and their power. This crisis has affected me deeply, and personally – for we are a Catholic institution, and these incidents re-open wounds that are not so old.

Here I think St. Paul’s enjoinder is in itself a source of consolation: Those who perpetrate injustice will never inherit the Kingdom of God. St. Paul tends to write in strong and declarative terms, perhaps because there is so much at stake.

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, we are called to be mindful of our first reading today, which reminds us those who call ourselves Christian:

You have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

You were made holy.
You were made righteous, virtuous.

I think today, we are being asked to be Christ for those who otherwise might say: “All is lost.” Today, we are reminded that we have been called to be a people of hope, and a people of action. Luke’s Gospel can serve to remind us that we’ve been called to be a part of an apostolic work, to prepare people to go out into the world and be messengers. We are being called to be apostles.

In receiving the Holy Spirit, we in turn become animated by the power of Christ’s eternal light, the image of God’s goodness. God is saying – I need you. Go out, bring your light and your hope to each other, and to the world.

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 invoke the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon each one of us, and upon the entire university of which we are a part. For as a Jesuit, Catholic, humanistic university, we seek not only to serve humanity through learning and the pursuit of truth; we actively seek to frame our work in terms of Christ’s message and in so doing to understand our endeavor as an encounter with the living God. We ask God to send the Holy Spirit to be with each one of us this day: to animate, inspire, to send us forth and to guide us now, and forever. Amen.