The Psalms: An Introduction

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

On Mondays we have been examining traditional ways of prayer, by meditating on the richness of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. Each of these easily memorized prayers gives access to profound depths of encounter with the Gospel.

Today we begin a long series on praying with the Psalms.

The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Church. All clerics and all in religious life are obliged to pray the them, in the Liturgy of the Hours, as the cornerstone of their prayer life. Lay people are strongly encouraged to join them. Another way to say this is: where the Church legislates prayer, it legislates the Psalms; where the Church only encourages, it encourages us to pray the Psalms.

Although there is a standard Liturgy of the Hours used by many communities, it is not that standard order that the Church requires. The Church simply requires communities to pray some approved version of the Liturgy of the Hours. In other words: the Church does not demand any specific way of praying the Psalms, she just requires that the Psalms be prayed. To join in the Psalms is to join the prayer of the Church.

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It is to join a long tradition. From the very beginning, the Psalms have been the Church’s prayer. Paul tells the Church to “speak among yourselves in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” James says, “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.”

Paul seems to put them on the lips of Christ: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” On the road to Emmaus, Jesus even singles out the Psalms as a place of prophecy about the Messiah: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled that were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me.” On the Cross, Jesus’s last words are from the Psalms.

Since the very beginning, monks and priests have prayed all 150 Psalms every week. Vatican II spread the Psalms out over four weeks only to help priests pray them well, and so to rediscover this centerpiece of traditional Catholic spirituality.

And of course they tie us to a much deeper tradition, all the way back into Judaism and the life of the Temple. Strong arguments can be made that David was the author of all or many of the Psalms – but in any case, they come from his time. The Church’s practice of praying the Psalms ties us to our Jewish heritage – and the Church has always thought this is very important.

To pray the Psalms, then, is an act of communion with the Church through all the ages.

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More importantly, the Psalms are wonderful prayers. They are revealed, the prayer book of the Bible. God himself gives us words to pray with. The tradition often prays Psalms antiphonally: with one side singing while the other listens, and then vice versa. It is as if we receive these divine songs of praise as a gift, and then make them our own.

The tradition says the Psalms are a summary of Scripture, “all of Scripture in the mode of praise.” They give a deeply personal summary of the moral teaching of the Bible, they take us deep into the spiritual meaning of sacred history, they call us to the heart of our relationship with God, and they reveal the true meaning of heaven.

Jesus himself says, finally, that they are prophesy about him. We can discover the person of Jesus in new depth when we pray the prayers he gave us, the words he gave us to speak of him. This is profound – we will talk more about it in the weeks to come.

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Finally, while the Psalms speak all of Scripture, they also speak of all of our own experience. Psalm is a word that means “twang”: these are prayers set to music (chant music, with harps). And the music is at the service of emotion. The Psalms speak to our hearts. They verge on the embarrassing as they express the full range of frustration, joy, sorrow, fear, and every other emotion.

They give us permission to plumb the depths of our own emotions in ways that make us nervous. They train us in bringing those emotions into relationship with God.

How could you dig deeper into the Psalms?

Sunday of the Holy Trinity: “The Communion of the Holy Spirit”

PFA83070EX 34:4b-6, 8-9; DN 3:52, 52, 54, 55, 56; 2 COR 13:11-13; JN 3:16-18

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, perhaps the most under appreciated feast of the Church year. We have talked a lot about the doctrine of the Trinity in recent months. Today let us examine the short readings for this feast day.

Perhaps we can sum up the “problem” of the Trinity through a first glance at the Gospel. We have the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God loves us! He wants to save us!

But immediately thereafter comes perhaps the most objectionable line in Christianity: “whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Christianity is about love, and God’s love for us. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” What, then, is all this business about doctrine, especially obscure doctrines? Why do we need to “believe in the name”? “The name” almost underlines the arbitrariness of it: profess “the name” of Jesus and you’re saved, don’t, and you’re condemned. How does that match God’s love for us?

And, to make it worse, why should the ultra-obscure, almost humorously obscure, doctrine of the Trinity matter at all? Isn’t this obscurantism the pure opposite of the Gospel of God’s love for us?

The first answer is, obviously John doesn’t think so.

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Our first reading is from Exodus. “Moses went up Mount Sinai. . . . The LORD stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, ‘LORD.’” (By convention, modern translators write this unspeakable name, YHWH, as all-caps LORD. The Jews substitute their word for “Lord,” Adonai, when they see the name, and the Vatican has asked us not to pronounce the unspeakable name. We put it in caps, though, so we know that’s what the Hebrew word really is.)

Why does God speak his unspeakable name to Moses?

Moses “took along the two stone tablets” when he went to meet God, as if a sign that this somehow fulfills the Law. But then he “bowed down to the ground in worship,” as the Lord himself proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” Moses begs him “come along in our company. . . . receive us as your own.”

The point is simple. Far beyond moral observation, Christianity (and Judaism) is about a relationship. It’s not just what we do for God. It’s knowing God himself.

And who is God? He is “a meciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” He reveals himself precisely as a lover, a friend, one who “comes along in our company.” That’s what “the two tablets,” all the moral precepts of Christianity, are really all about.

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The short reading from Second Corinthians is almost nothing more than a salutation: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

But this salutation takes us deeper into the relationship revealed on Sinai. The name of God is Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Indeed, this salutation takes us deeper into that name. The name of God is “love”: the love of Father and Son. The name of God is “grace”: the grace of the Son joined to us. The name of God is “fellowship”, communion: the bond of the Holy Spirit, who is both the eternal communion of Father and Son and our entrance into that communion.

The Holy Trinity is the revelation that God is relationship, and invites us into that relationship.

And this spills over: “Brothers and sisters, rejoice . . . live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” We rejoice in the love that is God-with-us. It spills into love of one another, and the bond of peace, the bond of communion with one another.

This is the real secret written on those two tablets of Moses. The real heart of the Commandments is, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” But we discover that holy kiss in the love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is himself that kiss.

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God, says John, “gave his only Son.” To know that is to have everything: to have the divine love itself.

It’s not that God condemns us if we don’t believe. It’s that life without that divine love is hardly worth living.

How could we make ourselves more aware that Christian love is rooted in our faith in the Trinity?

Ordinary Time and Lectio Divina

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

What is “Lectio Divina”? Well, the words in Latin just mean, “divine reading.” I assume people who read a Web page like this are aware that it means something like, “prayerful reading of the Bible.”

You may also know that there is a popular four-step “technique” out there, explained especially in some of Pope Benedict XVI’s documents. Step one is “lectio”: read a passage of Scripture. Step two is “meditatio”: ponder what that passage says. Step three is “oratio”: once we have heard Christ speak to us, we speak to him in prayer. And step four is “contemplatio,” which Benedict describes as looking at our life from God’s perspective, and thus, he says, letting the Word convert us.

But there are other methods of lectio divina. Years ago some Benedictine monks taught me a simpler version of the same: read a short passage, pick out a short phrase that jumps out at you, and just chew on those couple of words – the early Church said a Christian chews on Scripture the way a cow chews its cud: sit with those words, see what they say.

Years later, I asked a friend who was a Benedictine monk (and is now an abbot) how he practiced lectio divina. He was a little confused by the question – because for the true monastic tradition, there is no technique. He said, “I just . . . read the Bible, prayerfully.”

In fact, the phrase “lectio divina” comes from chapter 48 of the Rule of St. Benedict, where Benedict says, “idleness is the enemy of the soul, so let the brothers spend some hours working with their hands, and the rest of the hours in lectione divina”: doing “divine reading.” He doesn’t mean, “practicing a certain technique of prayer.” He means, fill up your free time reading the Bible.

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Pope Benedict’s four-step model, I think, just summarizes the medieval classic “The Ladder of Monks,” by Guigo II, a Carthusian writing around the year 1150. Carthusians are hermits, so even more than Benedict, Guigo’s central purpose is to talk about how you fill up the empty hours.

The “Ladder” is those four steps. But I think we get closer to what Guigo means – and probably what Pope Benedict means, too – if we keep the steps more closely united. We’re tempted to sort of leave our reading behind, and then take some “time for contemplation.” Guigo tells us that’s like pulling the ladder beneath us off of the ground – which doesn’t work very well!

Instead, we need to keep the bottom of the ladder firmly on the ground: keep our prayer rooted in reading. That’s the first part of his advice: the medieval tradition is insistent that we should never leave our reading behind. To them, any kind of “contemplation” that takes us away from the text for more than a few moments is probably more like spacing out than like real prayer. They strongly advise against that – as, interestingly, did the great Carmelite mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

“Contemplative time” is closer to the Buddhist tradition than to Catholic spirituality. Catholics read the Bible!

On the other hand, climb the ladder: read it prayerfully. Think about what you read. Pray about it. “Contemplate,” in the sense that you get your mind immersed enough in the reading that you really try to see what it sees. Or in other words: read, and read well.

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Perhaps the best model for lectio divina, then, is just Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time, as we said on Monday, is about simply reading through the Scriptures. No tricks, no techniques. Reading the Scriptures is itself a great spiritual practice – the greatest, the one that we take even into the Mass itself, as the privileged way to prepare for communion.

We read the Scriptures prayerfully. Not in a class – though a class can help our lectio divina. Not hurriedly, though neither need we get bogged down. No, the perfect example of how to do lectio divina is when we actually read the Bible in the Mass: as part of our prayer, surrounded by prayer, drawing us into prayer. The Liturgy of the Word is the perfect example of lectio divina. That’s what we imitate in our own prayer.

And then we simply read. And as at Mass, our reading helps us gain familiarity with the stories, helps us learn what the Psalms and the Gospels are talking about. It “seasons” us, so that we learn to think the way the Bible talks. And it helps us to fall in love with the Biblical Word of God itself, to turn back again and again and simply meet Christ in his Word.

That is the heart of traditional Catholic spirituality: just to read.

How could you incorporate more Bible reading in your life?

Fullness of Life: Why the Gifts of the Holy Spirit Matter

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe have spent the last several weeks meditating on the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in Isaiah 11. I hope you noticed on Pentecost that the great traditional Holy Spirit hymns, the Veni Creator Spiritus and the Veni Sancte Spiritus, both refer to the “sevenfold gift.” This Pentecost week, let us wrap up the series by thinking about why this list of seven is important.

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Biblically, seven is a symbol of fullness. The seven Gifts of the Spirit remind us that the Holy Spirit penetrates into every aspect of our life. Or rather, because the Holy Spirit is the love of Father and Son, the seven gifts remind us that love penetrates every aspect of our lives.

The love of God does not leave us as we were. It changes, to be sure, the way we treat other people. This is the most obvious consequence of love: that we love our neighbor.

But the Gifts take us deeper into that simple idea with the gift of Piety. Although it is true that love of God causes us to love our neighbor, it is more profound to say that love of the Father, and conformity to the Son, suffuses our relationships with a sense of family. It is not merely a question of love of God “plus” love of neighbor: in the filial relationship that is Christianity, those loves meld together.

Even more the fullness of the seven gifts reminds us that even this is not enough to describe how the love of God penetrates everything. It penetrates our mind, our way of looking at things, in the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. It penetrates our feelings, with the the gift of fear, or tender concern for our relationship with God. It penetrates our visceral reaction to challenges, with the gift of fortitude.

The love of God penetrates everything. This is the first meaning of the seven gifts: fullness.

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But equally important is that this fullness is a gift. The gifts of the Holy Spirit teach us the true meaning of grace. Grace is a pure gift, a Spirit breathing into us from the outside. To understand the true importance of Christ, the promise of the Gospel, it is essential that we appreciate that our transformation begins with this gift, not with our own strength.

The gifts remind us of this by speaking to us of a Spirit breathing through us. A traditional metaphor says they are like sails that receive the divine wind. We are not left to our own power, but feel the Spirit sweeping through us, impelling us forward.

The seven gifts make this concrete. It is nice to say that grace is given to us as a gift, but what does that mean? The seven gifts say, “here is what it means: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord!”

The gifts helps us to think concretely about all the places the Spirit blows, all the aspects of ourself that are transformed by God’s presence. They give us something to pray for: God grants us all of these things. It is nice to know, for example, that God grants us the understanding to penetrate his Word – and also the fortitude to follow through on what is too hard for us. He gives us counsel to help us see the right path – and he also gives us that tender feeling of fear, to cling to him. A concrete understanding of what grace means.

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Grace perfects nature. The gifts also help us to think about how the Holy Spirit brings us alive.

God doesn’t come to wipe out our personality, he comes to enliven it, every corner of it. Faith doesn’t make us cease to be reasonable – but neither does it leave us to our own intellectual power. It brings our minds alive in ways we could never imagine, through various kinds of intuitions of the Spirit. The moral demands of the Gospel are beyond our abilities – but God gives us the fortitude to live out the fullness of life.

The gifts replace nothing that is human. They enliven.

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Finally, the gifts remind us of the interiority of the Gospel. It really is the inner man that Jesus brings to life. The Gospel is not primarily about exterior actions. It’s about bringing us alive, so that we see, and feel, and truly love.

And yet all of these gifts enliven our interior precisely in ways that help us to live out the Gospel in all the fullness of our concrete lives.

Do we appreciate the fullness of grace? Are there areas of ourselves that we think the Spirit can’t reach?

Pope Benedict on Unity in the Church

Pope Benedict XVI explains in depth the importance of living the Church as communion. Fancy liturgy is not an end in itself – and anything that leads us away from true communion with the Church and one another is false Christianity. True worship builds true community.

POPEThrough faith in God we are united in the Body of Christ and all become united in the same Body. Thus, precisely by profoundly believing we may achieve communion among ourselves and emerge from the loneliness of individualism.

If it is the Word that gathers the community, it is the Eucharist that makes it one body: “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10: 17). The Church, therefore, is not the result of an aggregation of individuals but of unity among those who are nourished by the one Word of God and the one Bread of Life.

Communion and the unity of the Church that are born of the Eucharist, are a reality of which we must be ever more aware, also in receiving Holy Communion, ever more aware that we are entering into unity with Christ and thus become one among ourselves.

We must learn ever anew to preserve and defend this unity from the rivalry, disputes, and jealousies that can be kindled in and among ecclesial communities. In particular, I would like to ask the movements and communities that came into being after the Second Vatican Council and that in our Diocese too are a precious gift for which we must always thank the Lord, I would like to ask these movements, which I repeat are a gift, always to ensure that their formation processes lead their members to develop a true sense of belonging to the parish community.

The Eucharist, as I have said, is the centre of parish life, and particularly of the Sunday celebration. Since the unity of the Church is born from the encounter with the Lord, the great care given to adoration and celebration of the Eucharist, enabling those who participate in it to experience the beauty of Christ’s mystery is no secondary matter. Given that the beauty of the liturgy “is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us” (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 35), it is important that the Eucharistic celebration manifest and communicate, through the sacramental signs, the divine life and reveal the true face of the Church to the men and women of this City.

-Benedict XVI, At the Diocese of Rome’s Ecclesial Convention, 26 May 2009

Ordinary Time

Catholic_Bible_Study_Roman_CatholicI don’t know for sure that it’s true, but I have heard that we call it “Ordinary Time” because what defines this season of the Church is reading through the Bible “in order.” Whether or not that’s the source of the name, it is the most fitting description of the season we resume today.

Starting today, daily Mass returns to the two-year cycle in which we read straight through Matthew, Mark, and Luke (with the removal of only small sections that would otherwise be duplicated) every year, and large sections of the Old and New Testaments every other year. (John gets scattered throughout every year, but not in order.) Sunday Mass now continues reading in order through this year’s one of those three Gospels (Matthew), and a somewhat orderly succession of other readings to match.

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We might think of this as “ordinary” in contrast to the “interesting” seasons of the Church. But this “orderly” reading of Scripture should actually be considered the “normal” way of the Christian life, with the other seasons only added to highlight it.

Imagine how this might have developed. (The sources on this are somewhat murky, but this exercise in imagination does seem to match roughly the actual historical development of the Lectionary.)

Imagine you are in a community in which the Gospel of Matthew is read, in order, throughout the Sundays of the year. You would read, perhaps, about half a chapter each week. Obviously the Sunday when you read the Passion (in this scheme, it would be pretty near the end of the year) would be given some special prominence. So too would the Sunday when you read the great Gospel of the birth of Christ.

Easter – the Sundays of the Passion and of the Resurrection – would obviously be the high point. If someone wanted to join the Church (as was an especially important part of the early life of the Church), you might tell them Easter is the Sunday to do it. And then you might give them a season of preparation before that – Lent. And in time, you might say, this makes good sense. Why don’t we all take a season to prepare for the Sundays when we read the Gospels of the Passion and the Resurrection. And so you insert a mini-season into Ordinary Time. And then, perhaps, you add another season afterward, to welcome the neophytes into the Church, to help them celebrate – the Easter season.

Eventually, you might match those seasons with similar, short seasons of preparation and celebration for reading the Gospel of Christ’s Birth. And you might move those Sundays to match the seasons: the darkness of Christmas, the new birth of Spring.

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The point is, all of this is grafted on to Ordinary Time. It is not that we have “real” liturgical seasons, and then these other non-seasons. To the contrary, the heart of the Lectionary, and of the passage of the Church’s year, is the orderly reading through the Gospels. The other seasons are only added to spruce up that orderly reading. Ordinary Time really is the normal way of the Christian life.

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Now, you may know that Ordinary Time is “new” after Vatican II. For many many centuries before the Council, the Lectionary was the same every year; it read a very small part of the Bible (less than 4% of the Old Testament – plus lots and lots of Psalms – and 11% of the New Testament, and 22% of the Gospels), with most weekdays just repeating the previous Sunday’s readings, and nothing exactly in order. The new Lectionary, by contrast, gets through about 14% of the Old Testament (we read nothing like all of it, but a lot more than before, and a good sample) and 55% of the New Testament (plus 90% of the Gospels).

But to understand Vatican II’s reform of the Lectionary, we must understand two things. First of all, the evidence does point to earlier lectionaries that were much more like the modern one: this is a restoration, not an innovation. Second, traditional Catholic spirituality – the spirituality of the middle ages, especially – could afford to have less Scripture at Mass because it was assumed that anyone who had a spiritual life spent vast amounts o f time reading Scripture outside of Mass!

Vatican II’s reform of the Lectionary, then, is not a novelty, but a reboot, a return to traditional Catholic spirituality. “Orderly” reading of the Bible is the normal path of Catholic spirituality. Only because we have forgotten that does the new Lectionary try to draw us back, through this wonderful emphasis in the Lectionary on reading and savoring every verse.

Where is the Bible in your spirituality?

Pentecost: The Soul of the Church

pentecost-feast

ACTS 2:1-11; PS 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; 1 COR 12:3b-7, 12-13; JN 20:19-23

What exactly happened at Pentecost? As we have said, this is in some sense the most important moment of all for the Church, because the Holy Spirit is Christ giving his own life to his Church.

In fact, notice that John in his Gospel shifts the emphasis of Pentecost back to Jesus. Our reading for this Sunday begins, “On the evening of that first day of the week.” John is talking about Easter Sunday. “Jesus came and stood in their midst . . . . He showed them his hands and his side. . . . He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Although Luke tells us of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, John always wants to emphasize: the Spirit is given by Jesus. It comes forth from his wounded side. Indeed, in John’s account of the Crucifixion, the last moment, after Jesus says, “It is finished,” “he handed over the Spirit” (John 19:30). There are different ways to translate this, but John emphasizes that the Spirit issues forth precisely from the crucified and risen Christ. Thus he makes much, too, of the blood and water that pour forth from the pierced one’s side.

The Holy Spirit is the giving of the heart of Christ. This is what it’s all about. Pentecost is why Jesus matters to us.

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But what exactly happens at Pentecost? Maybe we can see it better if we push off against two opposite misunderstandings. One view overstates the importance of Pentecost: as if the Holy Spirit was not in the world before that day.

To the contrary, already in Genesis 1:2, “the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.” Sunday’s Psalm, from centuries before Christ, says, “when you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” Our translation says, “If you take away their breath, they perish” – but the Hebrew doesn’t say “their” and the word for “breath” is “Spirit.” It makes more sense to translate it, “You hide your face and they are troubled; you take away the Spirit and they perish.” The Spirit has always sustained them.

He has spoken through the prophets! Without the Spirit the whole Bible falls apart.

And Jesus says, long before Pentecost, “no one can come to me unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44). Every motion toward Christ, long before the Church is born on Pentecost, is already a work of the Holy Spirit.

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Another view underestimates the importance of Pentecost, as if all that the Holy Spirit gives is the “charismatic gifts”: the ability to speak in tongues, etc. The charismatic gifts can be for some people a way of discovering the reality of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is vastly more important than the charismatic gifts – as Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where we find our second reading.

Indeed, though the love hymn of 1 Corinthians 13 is well known, what is too often missed is its introduction. Paul is talking about the various gifts of the Spirit, and he says, “Desire earnestly the greater gifts. And I will show you a yet more excellent way.” The love that is patient and kind is the greatest gift of the Spirit, worth vastly more than speaking in tongues.

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What then happens at Pentecost? Our readings show that what happens is that the Spirit, who has always been present, now draws together the Church, the great communion of love.

In our reading from Acts, “there appeared to them tongues as of fire . . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” And “the devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem” (already a sign of the nations gathered together – and already a work of the Spirit) said in amazement, “we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Here the simple manifestation of the Spirit is to overcome the division of Babel, to draw the nations together into one. At Pentecost the Spirit, always at work in the world, is given precisely to draw them together into the Church.

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In our reading from First Corinthians 12, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. . . . All the parts of the body, though many, are one body.” The Spirit draws the Church together into one, the soul of the body of Christ.

And in John, Jesus twice says, when giving the Spirit, “Peace be with you.” The Spirit creates peace. And “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them”: he brings reconciliation, and he does it through the ministry of the Church.

Pentecost is the birth of the Church: the Spirit binding them all together as one.

Do we appreciate the miracle of communion in the Church? Do we pray for it?

Readings on Pentecost

pentecost-2The great feast of Pentecost comes this Sunday. In a sense, there is no more important feast for the Church, for this is when we celebrate what Christ means for us, where the Gospel penetrates our hearts and the life of the Church. Tomorrow, then, we will consider the readings for Sunday. But today we take an additional day to meditate on Pentecost.

The Lectionary gives us a nice opportunity to do this, because the Church has chosen many options from Scripture that can be read on Saturday, the Vigil of Pentecost. Let us briefly review them.

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The Gospel reading for the Vigil is short and simple. Jesus says, “Let everyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.” “He said this,” John tells us, “in reference to the Spirit.”

The great question Pentecost poses is, what are these rivers of living water? What do we drink from the heart of Jesus? What happens within us when we believe in him?

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The first two Old Testament options answer this question with a vivid contrast, between the tower of Babel and Mount Sinai.

The tower of Babel has clear ties to Pentecost. When the Spirit comes at Pentecost, as our reading for Sunday will say, the people from many nations – the reading from Acts lists many nations – proclaim “we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.” Whereas at Babel, they were “all speaking the same language” until “the LORD confused the speech of all the world.” The “tongues” of Pentecost undo the punishment of Babel. Where Babel was the beginning of division, Pentecost is the beginning of the nations coming together in the one Church.

But why did God confuse their speech? Why did he create division in the first place? We can answer in part by considering literary genres. In Genesis and Exodus, everything that happens, good or bad, comes from the hand of God – even if there are created causes. These books are less concerned to defend God from doing evil than to see how everything is in his hands. We can relax a little, then, about God himself actively mixing up the languages.

But the deeper problem is simply that the Babylonians live only for themselves. “Let us build ourselves a city,” they say. God fears that they will do “whatever they presume to do.” A world without God, built only by their own power, and according to their own whims.

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Contrast this with Mount Sinai. The mountain and the tower are themselves parallels: but one is from the power of man, the other, vastly greater, is from the power of God. Exodus underlines this with “peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast.” In short, God is awesome, vastly more powerful than man.

God says, “you have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians, and how I bore you up on eagle wings.” Egypt, like Babel, does everything itself. But the power of God is infinitely greater than Egypt’s, and can rescue his people from Egypt’s tyranny. Pentecost reminds us of precisely this: we are not left as orphans!

“Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God . . . at the foot of the mountain.” Here is a people that does not worship itself, but worships God. God calls them to “hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,” to acknowledge him as God. And he will acknowledge them: “you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people.” Babel is turned in on itself; Israel turns upward to God. And God loves them.

Thus the means are different (the strength of man vs. the strength of God) and so too are the ends (our own whim vs. relationship with God). This is what the Holy Spirit leads us to, what he enables.

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The other readings repeat the same themes. Ezekiel asks, “can these bones come to life?” – “these bones are the whole house of Israel.” “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” But “from the four winds come, O Spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.” The Spirit is the giver of life, beyond all human hope.

In Joel, he gives the gift of prophecy, of spiritual knowledge. In the reading from Romans he teaches us how to pray.

This is the Gospel: that from the heart of Jesus flow forth rivers of life-giving water, bringing us beyond hope, back to a loving relationship with our Creator.

Is our perspective too earthly? Do we believe in the Holy Spirit?

The Gift of Fear

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritIsaiah lists seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, or rather, seven key descriptors of the one Spirit who is the heart of the Christ, and of those who are conformed to him. His list ends with “fear of the Lord.” (Indeed, as we saw last week, the Hebrew original cites this gift twice, though the tradition translates the first “fear” into “piety.”)

We might be tempted to do away with fear. Christanity is about love, not about avoiding punishment. Indeed, the whole spiritual life – the whole of Christian doctrine, and our understanding of God – falls apart if we see him just as the divine punisher, rather than the ultimate Good.

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But fear is a key part of our Scripture and Tradition. Without an understanding of how fear can be good, we not only lose our ability to pray the Psalms, where it appears abundantly, but we cannot understand the New Testament. Jesus says, “I say to you my friends” – my friends! – “be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you should fear: Fear him, who after he has killed has power to cast into hell; yes, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:4-5; cf. Matt 10:28). In fact, threats of hell play a vastly bigger part in the New Testament than in the Old.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the key description of the early Church says, “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul” (Acts 2:42-43). This is after Pentecost – and notice how positive the rest of the verse is.

Paul tells us “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12); “submit yourself to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21); and “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). Of sinners, on the other hand, he says, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18).

And Peter says, “if you call on the Father” – again, note how positive the setup is – “who without partiality judges according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (I Pet 1:17). “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God” (1 Pet 2:17).

Finally, Our Lady herself says, in the Magnificat, “His mercy is on them that fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).

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St. Thomas helps us understand this fear by distinguishing three ways we can “fear God.” One way is clearly bad: we can think that God himself, and all that goes with him, is bad, and run away from him. Obviously this is not the fear that Scripture commends. And it points to a deeper truth: God is not evil. He is good, not bad; someone to be desired, not feared.

But another sense in which we can fear God is by recognizing the possibility of punishment. This is not the best kind of fear, not the kind of fear that Jesus has or that is a gift of his Spirit. But it can be helpful – the Church has dogmatically defined, in fact, that we shouldn’t treat this as an evil.

For many people, this kind of fear is a life raft, the last thing that keeps them from falling away. That isn’t love, but it is faith. And it points to a deeper truth.

Hell is a possibility, and punishment is a reality, precisely because God is good. Sin is defined by its opposition to the pure goodness of God. Ingratitude (the fourth commandment), a failure to worship (the second), blasphemy (the third), destruction of the innocent (the fifth), contempt for the truth (the eighth) and all the rest are evil precisely in the sense that they lack the presence of God. To pursue these things is to fall away from the goodness of God.

Ultimate punishment is ultimately nothing but the absence of God: to be an eternal creature (which we are) and to have chosen emptiness over good is . . . Hell.

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But this in turn points to a deeper kind of fear, the fear which is tenderness. The fear which would never want to hurt our relationship – the care a mother takes for her child, or a bridegroom for his bride. This is a fear that is not opposed to love, but its fruit. And it is a Gift of the Holy Spirit.

Do we worry enough about staying close to Jesus? About how our actions affect other people?

St. John Paul on Finding Eternity Today

pope-john-paul-IIThis morning, while watching the newly crawling baby search for things to choke on, I flipped through a book of John Paul II’s poetry. I liked the following section, from a cycle of poems on St. Veronica, written just about the time he was elected pope.

I think it evokes two dynamics. First, eternity is here to be found. But second, we have to search. In the context of the poem cycle, interesting to think how Veronica seized her moment. But there is no reference to her here, because we too are called to seize the moment.

No ready footpaths for man.

We are born a thicket

which may burst into flame, into the bush of Moses,

or may wither away.

We are always having to clear the paths,

they will be overgrown again;

they have to be cleared until they are simple

with the mature simplicity of every moment:

for each moment opens the wholeness of time,

as if it stood whole above itself.

You find in it the seed of eternity.

-Karol Wojtyła