Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Transparent Gift of the Spirit

Many years ago, when I was teaching in a Catholic high school in Oklahoma City, one of my co-teachers, Maxine Stank, had a wonderful 7 or 8 year old son, Tommy, with bright red hair and freckles. Maxine told the story of asking Tommy to wash his hands before dinner one evening, telling him that was necessary so that he didn’t get sick. Begrudingly, Tommy went and washed his hands, and when he returned, Maxine asked to see them, upon which Tommy was sent back to wash them a second time. His exclamation was: “Jesus and germs...that’s all you hear about and you can’t see either one of them!

There was a similar longstanding attitude of the Church regarding the Holy Spirit, I think, until about 40 years ago when the Charismatic Movement became popular, and sort of helped to reeducate Christians to rediscover a personal, as well as community, relationship with the Spirit of God.

In John’s Gospel today, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit: “...I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth...You know him, because he abides in you...” The Greek word used for Advocate or Counselor is parakletos, i.e., someone who appears on another’s behalf; an intercessor; a comforter; a helper. Those terms are somewhat general and can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.

Missionaries in foreign lands have often, in the past, found it difficult to translate the Bible into a local dialect because often there are no equivalent terms. A story is told that among the Miao, a hill tribe in western China, the translation of John’s Gospel was delayed because no word for comfort or Comforter existed. Then one day a missionary heard a tribesman say that he was going to visit a woman who had lost her son. He said he was going to help her “get her heart around the corner.” And so, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, was then translated as “the One who helps you get your heart around the corner.

Not only did Jesus promise to send the Advocate, the Spirit: He delivered. “When the day of Pentecost had come,” says Luke, “they were all together...and...all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit...” The name Pentecost derives from the Greek pentekoste, the 50th day or seven weeks after Passover. The Jewish Pentecost was called the Feast of Weeks, then one of Judaism’s three great feasts. It celebrated the gifts of the first fruits, as well as the gift of the Law to Moses. For followers of Jesus, this Jewish feast became the occasion for an outpouring of the Father’s first fruits: the gift of God’s Spirit. Through the gift of the Spirit, God empowers Jesus‘ followers to speak his Word to all people and to be understood by them.

The Acts of the Apostles notes that, through the Spirit’s inspiration in St. Peter’s preaching, a sizeable community of faith came into being. It was a permanent group; Luke says they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. He says further that they shared a common life, sharing “out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed...”, and that their witness “made a deep impression on everyone.

As spiritual descendants of that first community of faith, the Father, through Jesus, has given us the gift of God’s Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter, the one who helps us “get our hearts around the corner”. The secret of a good gift is that it’s practical, something which the receiver can put to immediate use. Jesus‘ gift to that first community of faith changed people: they became people who helped others get their hearts around the corner: supporting one another in faith, telling the story of the Good News, being sensitive to human needs, sharing gladly and generously, continually praising God, and making a difference in their local communities.

You and I have been given the Spirit-Gift in Baptism and Confirmation. The Spirit is a gift eminently practical and usable: it is a gift of peace, of knowledge, and of power.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. It means perfect well-being, which is to say God; therefore, it is God’s presence: complete harmony, such as exists when you and I are right with ourselves, with one another, and with God. There is only wholeness, no fragmentation. St. Paul says in Romans: “ set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

The Spirit also enables us to discern and to know our purpose, our direction in life. Paul again, in 1 Corinthians, reminds us that “...we have received...the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God...” (1 Corinthians 2:12) Moreover, God’s Spirit enables us not only to have Christ’s peace, but to become senders of the Spirit to others, beautifully summarized in The Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...

In the New Testament, the greeting of peace, uttered by those whom Jesus sends, is also a word of power. Jesus was conceived as “the power of the Most High”. Jesus is the Word of the Father: God’s presence and power embodied, and spoken inside people’s hearts. The disciples on the road to Emmaus describe Jesus as “mighty in deed and word before God and all the people”. Jesus’ words and deeds bring Life to people. The gift which the Father and Jesus send at Pentecost is, according to Luke, “like the rush of a violent wind”; all are “filled with the Holy Spirit”; once empowered, people are gifted to preach, to witness, to heal, to be hospitable, to take others in, to teach, to be discerning, to show mercy: and all of this is for one purpose: “ equip the saints for the work of ministry,” as Paul says, “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ...” That is a description of how we help one another, by the presence of the Spirit within us, to “get our hearts around the corner”.

Maggie Daniels, a friend of mine many years ago, shared with me one of her lovely poems, called Transparency. It describes the faith, hope and love with which the Spirit of God clothes each of us, like a coat, in Baptism and Confirmation:

What does it mean
to wear a transparent cloak?
and love like a veil
and faith like invisible wings.

To kneel
hidden and revealed
at the same time
Before the Face of One
who sees.

And how is it that
when the cloak’s edges
fall on the grass
It does not hide the grass
And when it lays on a root,
It does not cover the twistings
But is itself
susceptible to snags and tears?

What good is such a cloak?
of what use is it?
And why?

A transparent cloak
is the loveliest cloak of all
Because it wraps
the treasure without hiding it,
Covers without duplicity,
Avoids familiarity without rejection.
Enhances without falsifying.

And one thing more:
When it enfolds a gift
it grants the receiver
the pleasure of beholding
without denying him
the delight of unwrapping.

It is good for a [person]
to wear such a cloak,
woven of rain and mist,
spun with threads of sun.
But it is difficult
to wear well
for many reasons.

Only a [person] in love
can bear it.

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