This Sunday’s readings put us squarely into the Pentecost novena: the nine days of prayer between when Jesus goes up to heaven and when the Holy Spirit comes down.
The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, simply gives us the narrative. “After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem. . . . They went to the upper room where they were staying . . . . All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus . . . .”
This is the ultimate image of the Church at prayer. Jesus has gone to heaven. They pray for the Holy Spirit. It’s the Apostles, and it’s Mary.
This is the original novena. Latter-day Catholicism has many nine-day prayers. But from this novena we can learn what prayer is really all about. What do they pray for? They pray for the ultimate gift of God most high (as one of the ancient hymns for Pentecost says), the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel, from John 17, takes us to Jesus’s words when he prayed in the upper room in Jerusalem, the night before he died. Words the Apostles must have remembered as they prayed.
There are three key words in this reading. The first is “glory,” which is shared. “Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.” “I glorified you” (notice that he both has glorified, and will glorify) “. . . now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” And “I have been glorified in them,” his disciples.
John 17 is all about communion – it is, indeed, John’s way of taking us deeper into the mystery of the Eucharistic communion at the heart of the Last Supper. The Father and the Son are in deepest communion. They share one another’s glory. And they invite us into that sharing. Nothing less.
The second key word is “eternal life.” “Now this is eternal life,” Jesus says, “that they should know you, the only true God” – and of course, in the mystery of communion – “and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”
Eternal life is not about a really long time. It is not later, after “this life.” It is not a whole bunch of neat stuff, or a really comfortable place. It is not, in fact, incompatible with suffering, as our reading from First Peter will remind us in a minute.
“This is eternal life, that they should know . . . the only true God.” That’s it. To know him is to have eternal life. Yes, it will make us life forever. Even more importantly, it will be something worth filling forever with – an eternal beach would get old. But it begins now, when we know him.
This is what Jesus came for. This is what the Holy Spirit gives, what the Holy Spirit IS. This is what, forty-some after the Last Supper, the Apostles and Mary pray their first novena for. Just to know him.
The last key word is “name.” “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.” We have looked before at this key word, “name.” It’s at the heart, and the height, of the Our Father: “hallowed be thy name.” For now, let us just say, it is personal. For eternal life to be nothing but “knowledge” might sound cold and dry. Who wants knowledge? But this is true, deepest, personal knowledge. He invites us into the personal relationship which is the inner life of God.
What is the name? Well, that’s what we mean by gifts of the Holy Spirit. The “name,” personal knowledge, of God is not something you can write down. It’s something only known when God’s own Spirit brings us into the glory of his inner life. We don’t pray for a slip of paper with his name written on it. We pray for the Holy Spirit.
The reading from First Peter is short, but takes us a little more deeply in – and into the situation of the Apostles who pray, still in this world, for the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t take them out of the world, he gives them his Spirit in the world.
And so the key line is, “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed, but glorify God because of the name.” If we know “the name” – if we know him, by his Spirit living in our hearts – even suffering is pure joy.
Do we ask God for the wrong gifts?