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Posts Tagged ‘Pentecost’

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The Spirit Stirs in Us

It isn’t often that the weekday Mass readings keep you coming back for more, but five successive passages from the Book of Tobit last week did just that.  This sequence told the story of Tobia, who lived in the Jewish community in exile in Nineveh in Assyria.  A righteous man, Tobia still managed to stir up all sorts of trouble for himself.  But the worst of it was almost comical.  As he napped one afternoon beneath a tree, droppings from some birds perched above fell onto his eyes, and they left him with cataracts.  How he slept through a bunch of bird droppings is beyond me, but clearly he was a much sounder sleeper than I.

As a last resort he sent his son Tobit off to a distant land for some healing ointment, and along the way Tobit visited the household of their kinsman Raguel.  The text suggests they had never met, but that didn’t stop Tobit from asking for Raguel’s daughter — sight unseen — in marriage.  The latter had had seven husbands, each of whom had died before the consummation of the marriage.  These were not good odds, and I’m a little surprised that Tobit didn’t withdraw his request once Raguel had briefed him on her history.  But things worked out anyway, and Tobit returned to Nineveh with the ointment and his new wife following up behind.

IMG_0370Altogether it’s a nice, feel-good, story.  And if I weren’t living in the 21st century I might be willing to overlook one little item.  As the text suggests, Sarah married eight men, and she had absolutely zero say in any of it.  In each case her father Raguel did all the bargaining, and presumably she’d never even laid eyes on any of her suitors prior to the wedding night.  In fact, in the case of her eighth and most successful marriage, I’m left with the impression that Raguel must have surprised his daughter with the unexpected news.  “Hey, Sarah.  Come on out and meet husband #8.  He’s our closest relative, so I have no right to refuse him.”  The latter sentence is his, by the way, not mine.

It probably wasn’t quite as crass as that, but that was the gist of it.  As for Sarah, it was all a total surprise, and I’m left to ponder what she thought of the idea of moving to Nineveh.

My point in bringing this up is rather obvious, or at least it is to me.  Once upon a time there were things that people in the Bible did that were perfectly acceptable, but we frown upon them today.  Today the Catholic marriage rite inquires whether both parties have come freely to the marriage.  And in the Catholic tradition a six-month’s marriage prep insures that the two have at least met each other before the wedding day and gauged the odds of compatibility.  They even go so far as to ask if the bride is old enough to get married.

IMG_0372Anyway, this episode demonstrates how the Bible outlines the slow progression of people as they come to terms with the revelation of the divine will.  Once upon a time arranged marriages were the norm, but today they scarcely qualify as sacramental.  Once upon a time, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Christians practiced circumcision and kept Jewish dietary laws.  But by the end of the Acts of the Apostles they did not.  And the key ingredient that explains all this is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the Spirit the Christian community grew in age and wisdom, and it’s safe to say that we as individuals do so as well.

The feast of Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the Spirit the Church lives and moves and has its being.  In baptism the priest or deacon breathed the Holy Spirt upon us, and so we should never be surprised that the Spirit stirs in us every now and again, just as the Spirit does in the Church.  Through and in the Spirit we grow, we change, and we become repositories of the wisdom of God.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Tobias, but it is that same Spirit that stirs in us and in the Church.  It’s an exciting concept to consider, but it’s even more exciting to yield to the Spirit who pulls us forward in remarkable and surprising ways.

IMG_0371Notes

+On May 8th I spoke at a reception for donors to Saint John’s University, held in Minneapolis.  What made it particularly poignant for me was the student speaker, who in fact was the headliner.  Alex will be a junior at Saint John’s this fall, and he is a graduate of Immokalee High School in Florida.  Two friends of mine have set up a scholarship to fund students from Immokalee who come to Saint John’s, and on that evening Alex gave a superb presentation.

+On May 11th I attended and gave a short tribute at a luncheon at Saint John’s that honored a dear friend of Saint John’s, Jo White.  We’ve termed Jo “the mother of The Saint John’s Bible,” because she has inspired the project and championed it through the years as no one else has.  Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath bestowed on Jo the President’s Medal, in recognition of her extraordinary devotion to Saint John’s.

+Last week we welcomed seven monks who will be living with us for about two months as they participate in a course of English as a Second Language.  They’ve come from as far afield as India, Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, Arkansas and Alabama.  I realize that the latter two do not qualify as foreign lands, but they are still a long way off.  Along with three monks from Vietnam and one from Korea who are studying theology with us, the number of Asian monks has reached the point that the monastic refectory now stocks chopsticks.  For those of us who are on diets — like me — they are remarkably effective.

IMG_0373+The photo at the top in today’s post is of the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, Spain.  The photos below illustrate four depictions of the evangelists, and they are housed in the Museo.  They are all by early 16th-century sculptor Felipe Vigarny.

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IMG_0660The Resurrection:  A Life-changer

There’s something a little chaotic about the scene in which the disciples baptized 3,000 people in one fell swoop.  They had preached to these people all morning, and when they had heard enough they literally burst out with the question “what’s next?”  Baptism, on the spot, was what came next.

Because of the rush there was no time to check birth certificates, no time to line up godparents, and no questions about whether everybody was taking a proper Christian name at their baptism.  Nor was there any thought to starting up a lengthy RCIA program.  All those things would come later, in the fulness of time.

This episode from the Acts of the Apostles describes the scene at Pentecost, but we read it at Mass on Tuesday of Easter week.  Since I was slated to preside and preach at the Abbey Mass that day, I prayed for inspiration, and this was what the Spirit sent.  I grant the absurdity of projecting back into this scene practices from later centuries; but I also contend that the Holy Spirit sometimes makes good use of such silliness to make a point.

What the rush to baptize 3,000 people may have lacked in attention to the details of ecclesiastical process, it more than made up for with the sense of urgency and excitement.  Christ is risen, and that was the key difference in the lives of these new believers.  They could not put off acting on that belief until another day.  Rather, news of the risen Lord was a life-changer, and it did not take these 3,000 people several years to figure that out.  The insight seemed to come almost in an instant.

IMG_0659Interestingly enough, this was something that the disciples picked up on fairly quickly, and it’s a point that Saint Luke makes in the Acts of the Apostles.  Most of the disciples had been with Jesus for three years, and they’d heard pretty much all he had to say.  But his death and resurrection seemed to change everything.  Now they had to tease out the implications of his teaching and integrate them into the nooks and crannies of daily life.

Peter, James, John and the others did not cease being Jewish and become Christian overnight.  It was a painful process for them, even if from hindsight it was a spiritual revolution that evolved quickly.  In fact it came with a lot of soul-searching.  After all, their lives had been rooted in the law of Moses, and it was not immediately clear where the teaching of Jesus was going to take them.  In the process some critics dismissed them as crazy subversives, but they defended themselves by saying that this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

I shudder to think what might have happened had Jesus become incarnate in the 21st century.  Had he come to our monastery we definitely would not have crucified him, because we’d bottle him up in committee instead.  We would parse his words and offer amendments both friendly and unfriendly, and we’d likely borrow the words that the Greeks on the Areopagus addressed to Paul:  “Come back and we’ll hear some more about this sometime.”

IMG_0657Of course monks are no different than church congregations and families when we try to integrate the words of Jesus into our lives.  We hear and we read what Jesus has to say.  We mull it over; and to the extent that we domesticate his words we also diminish the impact they can have on our lives.  Small wonder that the teaching of Jesus can at times seem irrelevant to us.  In those instances it comes as no surprise that his teaching neither sustains nor energizes us.

The message of Easter, however, is one of excitement.  It’s not only about the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s about our own resurrection as well.  It’s about our resurrection to a life that suddenly has a meaning and purpose that it might have lacked before.  It’s about opening our eyes to what we can and ought to do with our lives — not just on the Sabbath but on every day.

The 3,000 people “got it” as soon as they heard it.  Perhaps the contrast with their previous lives was so intense that all they could do was to ask what to do next.  Of course we’ll never understand what got those people so stirred up in the first place, unless we let the Spirit in to surprise us.  And it’s true — the Spirit can be disruptive and disturbing.  But is everything we do more important than our own resurrection?

IMG_0656Notes

+On March 29th I began the day with a class with our novice, Brother Cassian.  Later I presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that it was my turn to help in serving dinner in the Abbey refectory.

+On March 30th I went to Boston to make a few alumni visits, and while there I met up with our confrere Fr. Michael-Leonard, who is in the middle of his doctoral studies at Boston College.  I also got to spend time with two monks from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland — Brother Colman and Fr. William.  Brother Colman spent the last semester teaching at Saint John’s, and this semester he is a visiting scholar at the Center for Irish Studies at Boston College.

+While in Boston I stayed at the Jesuit residence at Boston College, and there I had the chance to reconnect with one Jesuit with whom I was in school ages ago at Yale.  Quite by accident someone had not spelled my name correctly on the sign on my guest room door, and instead of OSB they had typed SJ after my name.  When the rector apologized for these not inconsequential errors, I told him not to worry.  “I’ve been called worse things than a Jesuit.”  That brought a hearty laugh.

+The images in today’s post are sculptures in the cathedral of Toledo in Spain.  I have put them in reverse order, with the Ascension at the top of the post.  In that image all you see are the feet of Jesus as he ascends into the clouds.

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