The Video below is a commercial that must have taken weeks to film. And whatever the intent of the commercial, (I think they are selling insurance), there is something of an admonition in both the video and the music that life and the things of life slip away.
While the music of the video set forth the theme:Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow, Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here, every object in the home begins to get up and move away from the owners. And the owners themselves too begin to be swept away. By the end, all that was within, and all who were within, are swept outside and away.
And here is a paradigm for life. No thing, and no one in this world will endure the passage of time. All will be swept away, all will pass. Geologically, even lofty mountains were once on the sea floor, and to that floor they will erode and return.
Scripture says, For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). And again, The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray (1 Peter 4:7) but adds later, But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
And thus, this video is not morbid. Rather it is almost joyful. For indeed, though earthly glories fade, Scripture also says, “Trouble don’t last always.” (cf Psalm 30:5).
The video ends with a snapshot. And ultimately each moment in life is but a snapshot in time. But time itself and all things are moving downstream, and slipping away. But God alone remains forever and our only hope is to be anchored him him. He is our Rock, our firm Foundation, and his Kingdom is our lasting city. All else fails and slips away.
Applying salutary discipline, and balancing it with necessary consolations and encouragement is never an easy task. It is possible that a parents can be too severe on their children, such that they become disheartened, and lack necessary self-esteem. But it is also possible that parents can be too lax such that their children become spoiled and lack proper self-discipline and humility. Hence Scripture seeking to balance teaching with encouragement says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4)
Pastors too in their leadership of parishes need also to find proper balance, offering kindness, consolations, and encouragement and witness to their congregation, while not failing to properly rebuke sin and warn of its consequences and of the coming judgment. And thus St Paul says, You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:11-13). Thus, like a loving Father must the priest exhort, as one who teaches, wants and expects the best for his flock, but also as one who loves them.
It is hard to argue that we have the balance right in the Church today. Correction and rebuke, according to what most Catholics report, is seldom a feature of preaching today. And where this is the case it is hard to argue that the priest is acting like a father. For a father would see how sin can threaten the future of his children and in love he will correct, being willing to upset his child to prevent something worse. Yet in some places there are also priests who teach and preach as if trying to win an argument and prevail over others, than as an act of loving concern, and perhaps he will be unnecessarily harsh.
In families too the trend seems to lean toward being too permissive and thus the necessary balance is lost. Too many children today have become incorrigible, since they did not learn discipline when they were young. Too many are bold toward elders and have lost the humility necessary for learning and maturity. And this speaks to families where the balance between encouragement and discipline has been lost. It is also true that some children are oppressed by the other extreme and are weighed down with discouragement, poor self image and anger.
Hence balance is necessary.
St Gregory in his Pastoral Rule presents some good advice in regard to this balance. And while much of what he says is common sense, it is important to review it since common sense isn’t as common today. What he says is also excellent since he uses two very memorable images that can stay with the thoughtful priest or parent who reads it. There hear what St. Gregory has to say about addressing the wound of sin:
But often a wound is made worse by unskilled mending…in every case, care should be provided in such a way that discipline is never rigid, nor kindness lax.… Either discipline or kindness is lacking if one is ever exercised independently of the other. … This is what the scriptures teach through the Samaritan who took the half dead man to the inn and applied wine and oil to his wounds. The wine purged them and the oil soothed them.
Indeed, it is necessary that whoever direct the healing of wounds must administer with wine the bite of pain, and with oil the caress of kindness; so that what is rotten may be purged to by the wine, and what is curable may be soothed by the oil.
In short, gentleness is to be mixed with severity, a combination that will prevent the laity from becoming exasperated by excessive harshness, or relaxed by undue kindness. … Wherefore David said, “Your rod and your staff have comforted me.” (Psalm 23:4) Indeed, by the rod we are punished and by the staff we are sustained. If therefore, there is correction by the rod it, let there also be support through the staff. Let there be love that does not soften, vigor that does not exasperate, zeal that is not immoderate or uncontrolled, and kindness that spares, but not more than is befitting. Therefore justice and mercy are forge together in the art of spiritual direction. (Rule II.6)
Practical reminders to be sure, but also with the memorable images of wine and oil, rod and staff. Both are necessary, both must balance the other. There must be clarity with charity, and charity with clarity; there must be veritatem in caritate (truth in love).
I must say that in the past I was not always as on board as I should have been when it came to the Feast of the Sacred Heart. As a man, I have struggled especially with some of the Sacred Heart images of past years, especially from the 1940s into the 1970s that, frankly, made Jesus look like a bearded lady. Deep red lips, baby soft skin, “come-hither” look, “feminine” head tilt, long slender fingers, and strangely bent wrists all seemed too feminine for me. See for example the image here: Sacred Heart. Frankly, the feminized portrayal of Jesus made me cringe. “Maybe this works for some,” I thought, “but not for me.” Women are beautiful, but men shouldn’t look like women.
Then too, the whole notion of the heart has become rather distorted. The heart is thought of by most as the domain of sentimental feelings and romance. Stronger biblical notions of the heart were lost in favor of these sentimental and romantic ones. So there was Jesus, pointing to His heart to indicate His love, but I experienced it through the current notion of sentimentality and romance. While the true teaching on the Sacred Heart was much richer and more proper, the version that reached me was distorted and had little appeal.
In recent years, I have tried to recover a more proper notion of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I have done this by coming to understand the heart in a more biblical way. I have also done this by learning to understand the heart of Christ in a stronger way that is more helpful for me.
Recovering a more biblical understanding of the heart – In celebrating the heart of the Lord Jesus, we ought to see it in a more biblical way. In the biblical world, the heart did not exclude feelings, but feelings were thought of as more located in the gut. Things such as tenderness, mercy, love, and emotions were spoken of in terms more visceral than we are comfortable with today. Most of our modern translations do not render the Hebrew and Greek references, which speak of the “bowels of mercy” in God or in the human person, literally. Most modern translations render the Hebrew “bowels of mercy” as “tender mercy” and expressions such as “my bowels are moved within me” as “my heart is moved within me.” We just don’t talk about bowels today in polite company!
I say this to indicate that for the biblical writers, feelings, sentiment, and mercy were not usually located in the heart but elsewhere. You can see this if you get a rather literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek such as the Douay Rheims or Young’s Literal Translation and refer to passages such as these: Gen 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Song 5:4; Is 63:15; Jer 31:20; Lam 2:11; 2 Cr 6:12; Phil 1:8; Phil 2:1; Col 3:12. While feelings such as anxiety, fear, romance, and tenderness were pondered in the heart, their real “place” was shifted down one level to the “gut” or viscera. We do have some vestiges of these ancient notions in expressions like “gut reaction” or “butterflies in my stomach.”
So what then IS the biblical notion of the heart? While not wholly excluding feelings, the “heart” in the Scriptures is the deepest part of us; it is where we “live.” It is where we deliberate, where our memories and thoughts are. It is where we process feelings and events. It is where we ponder what to do and then decide. It is where we reflect and consider the direction of our life and most deeply understand who we are and how we are related to God and others. It is the place of our decisions and where we set priorities. In short, it is the place where “I am” in the deepest sense. Most moderns locate this in the brain (or mind, a word that the Scriptures often use for a similar understanding), but the ancients located all this in the heart.
A broader and stronger notion of the heart – Hence, as we ponder the Heart of Christ on this feast of the Sacred Heart we do not wholly exclude His tender feelings for us. But we must also broaden our notions of what it means to celebrate the Heart of Christ. The Heart of Christ is where He lives and is most essentially His very self. Hence His human heart is a heart that first of all worships and obeys His Father. It is in His heart that He ponders His Father’s will and sets out to obey it. It was in His heart that He set his face like flint for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51) and said to this apostles, “the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). It is in His heart that He decides to lay down His life for us: No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father (Jn 10:18). Isaiah had said of Jesus, Oblatus est quia ipse voluit (He was offered because he himself willed it) (Is 53:7). It is ultimately by Christ’s obedience that we are saved, and this was determined in His heart. His love was manifested by His decision to both obey His Father and die for us. This is deeper than emotion or feeling, though it does not exclude them. When the solider thrust a lance in His chest and heaved it open, there was revealed the human heart of Christ who resolutely chose to save us. There was also revealed the very heart of God, who loves us infinitely.
A heart tender but also strong – On this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate not just that He loves us in an emotional sense, but even more, that He decided to die for us. He freely pondered what our salvation would cost Him and took up the cross. He chose to obey the Father for us. His love is tender but it is also decisive. The warmth of His love is sure but the wounds of His obedience also speak of a love that is strong and enduring unto the end.
Sentiment has its place but (perhaps because I am a man) I need more. On this Feast of the Sacred Heart, I am glad to point to a love that is strong, obedient, loyal, and sacrificial; a love that engages the battle on my behalf and summons me to follow; a love that is not just visceral but is of the true and deep Heart of Christ, a heart tender but also strong.
This video has many images of Jesus (some better than others). Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
As a further reflection in the wake of Corpus Christi Sunday, permit me to offer a reflection on the two great Eucharistic hymns of Benediction. I sometimes get requests for help in understanding the Latin texts of these very familiar hymns for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction.
“O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” though familiar to many Catholics, remain only vaguely understood in terms of a word-for-word translation. They are sometimes referred to as just “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo.” Most know the poetic English renderings (“O Saving Victim opening wide” and “Humbly let us voice our homage”) but this does not necessarily facilitate a word-for-word understanding as the Latin is sung. What I hope to accomplish here is to provide a very literal rendering (preserving the Latin word order) so that one can understand the Latin precisely. It is my hope to bring these hymns more alive for the faithful who sing them, but may not be highly skilled in Latin.
“O Salutaris Hostia” – This is actually the last two verses of the hymn “Verbum Supernum Prodiens” (The heavenly Word going forth), written by St. Thomas Aquinas. He composed it for Lauds (Morning Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is iambic dimeter, which is accentual with alternating rhyme. Even the hostile Jean-Jacques Rousseau was said to have been so pleased by this hymn that he said he would have given all his poetry to be its author. To facilitate easier comparison, I present the Latin text on the left; a very literal, word-for-word English translation preserving the Latin word order in the center; and an English translation with more English-like word order (and some punctuation for additional clarity) on the right:
O salutaris Hostia quae caeli pandis ostium bella premunt hostilia da robur fer auxilium
O saving Victim
who of heaven opens the gate
wars press hostile
give strength bear aid
O saving Victim
who opens the gate of heaven
hostile wars press;
give strength; bear aid
Uni Trinoque Domino sit sempiterna gloria qui vitam sine termino nobis donet in patria
To the One and Threefold Lord
may there be eternal glory
who life without end
to us may give in the Fatherland
To the One and Threefold Lord
may there be eternal glory;
who life without end
may give to us in the Fatherland
“Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” – This is actually the last two verses of the hymn “Pange Lingua” (Sing, my tongue), also written by St. Thomas Aquinas. It was composed for Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is trochaic tetrameter catalectic, which rhymes at both the caesura and the end of the line. There is in this hymn a wonderful union of sweetness of melody with clear-cut dogmatic teaching. To facilitate easier comparison, I present the Latin text on the left; a very literal, word-for-word English translation preserving the Latin word order in the center; and an English translation with more English-like word order (and some punctuation for additional clarity) on the right:
Tantum ergo sacramentum
So great therefore a sacrament
let us venerate with bowed heads
So great therefore a sacrament
let us venerate with bowed heads;
et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui praestet fides supplementum
and the ancient document
new give way to the rite
may supply faith a supplement
of the senses for the defect
and the ancient document
to the new rite give way;
may faith supply a supplement
for the defect of the senses
Genitori Genitoque laus et jubilation salus, honor, virtus, quoque sit et benediction procedenti ab utroque compare sit laudatio
To the One who generates and the One who is generated (i.e., to the Father and Son)
be praise and joy
health, honor, strength also
may there be and blessing
to the One proceeding from both
equal may there be praise.
To the One who generates and the One who is generated (i.e., to the Father and Son)
be praise and joy,
health, honor, strength also
may there be, and blessing.
to the One proceeding from both
may there be equal praise.
The feast of Corpus Christi affords us an opportunity to renew our understanding of the Holy Eucharist and Sacred Liturgy. It also helps us clarify certain errors that have crept into our thinking. Let’s look at the readings today under three headings: The Righteousness of our Worship, the Reality of our Worship, and Readiness of our Worship.
The Righteousness of our Worship – In the first reading today Moses has the faithful swear an oath:
Taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”
Jesus too gives a solemn command at the Last Supper:
Take and eat, this is my Body… take and drink this is my Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant…do this is in memory of me.
He too seals the covenant, not with the blood of animals, but with his very own blood. We who would heed and do all that the Lord commands cannot skip out on Holy Communion and absent ourselves from the Sacrifice and Liturgy that is at the very heart of the New Covenant.
Too many people today think of Sunday worship in rather egocentric terms. They speak of “being fed.” But usually what they mean by this is that the preacher gave them an uplifting message in terms that please them and seem relevant to them, or that the choir sang well and there was good fellowship. These are all fine.
But the first and most essential reason that we are to show up on Sunday is to worship God, to give Him the thanks and adoration He is due. To worship is an act of justice and righteousness. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa does not put worship where we might expect it, (likely under Faith or Love). Rather he puts worship in his treatise on Justice. We owe God praise, gratitude and adoration. He is the source of every blessing, all that we call our own is really His, everything, quite literally every thing is his and generously shared by Him. God has been too good to us for us to shirk our duty to worship and obey him. Even our troubles work together for our good, if we trust God. To fail in our duty to worship God on his terms is to fail in righteousness and justice. When Jesus says, “Do this is remembrance of me,” we owe him obedience in this regard. Our faithful Sunday worship and regular and worthy reception of Holy Communion is our righteous worship and an act of Justice.
The Reality of our Worship – In the Gospel today Christ makes it clear that we are receiving him: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist is no mere symbol of Jesus. Sadly today, many Catholics, according to polls, have lost faith in the Eucharist, seeing it as only a symbol. But we do not partake of a symbol; the Eucharist is truly the Lord. Neither is it a “piece” of His flesh; it is Christ, living, glorified, whole and entire. Scripture attests to this in many places.
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).
They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35).
For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:29).
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51).
This last passage is a profound theology of the Eucharist from Jesus Himself. He makes it clear that we are not to think of the Eucharist as symbolic.
As Jesus spoke the words saying that the bread was His flesh, the Jewish people grumbled in protest. Jesus did not seek to reassure them or to say that He was speaking only symbolically. Rather, He became even more adamant, shifting His choice of words from the polite form of eating, φάγητε (phagete, meaning to eat), to the impolite form, τρώγων (trogon, meaning to munch, gnaw, or chew).
So insistent was He that they grasp this, that He permitted most of them to leave, no longer following in His company due to this teaching (cf Jn 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for His graphic and “hard” teaching (Jn 6:60).
Today, He asks us, Do you also want to leave me?(Jn 6:67) We must give our answer each time we approach the altar and hear the words, “The Body of Christ.” It is at this time that we respond, “Amen,” as if to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
Would that people grasped that the Lord Himself is truly present in our Churches! Were that so, one would never be able to empty our parishes of those seeking to pray with the Lord. As it is, though, only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. This is more evidence of the “narrow road” and of how few there are who find it. Two thousand years ago, Jesus experienced that most left Him; many today continue to leave Him (or stand far away), either through indifference or false notions.
What father would not be alarmed if one of his children stopped eating? Consider, then, God’s alarm that many of us have stopped eating.
The Readiness of our Worship –Notice that in preparing for the Last Supper and First Mass, Jesus told two of his disciples to enter Jerusalem and look for an unusual thing, a man carrying a water jar. This was usually women’s work and thus a man doing so would stand out. They were to follow him, and: he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Now, this is for us a spiritual prescription for the inner room that is our soul:
It is to be large, a spacious place not cluttered with sin and worldly trinkets trappings and distractions. There is to be plenty of room for the Lord, who is the guest of our soul in Holy Communion!
It is to be furnished with holiness, justice, patience and love to receive so great a guest as Jesus!
It is to be ready. That is, it is to be clean, free of the filth of sin and fully apportioned unto the great liturgy about to occur in every Mass. The heart and mind are to be eagerly alert, awaiting in full readiness our divine Guest!
Of course, at the heart of this large upper room furnished and ready, is to be free of serious sin as St. Paul admonishes:
The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me….” Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:24-29)
Because of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states:Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385). For how can the upper room of our soul be spacious, furnished and ready if it is filled with sin? In my own parish we hear confessions before every Sunday Mass to ensure the faithful an opportunity to confess if necessary or simply out of devotion. If we priests are to be sincere in promoting the worthy reception of Holy Communion, we must be generous in celebrating the Sacrament of Confession and the faithful must be zealous in seeking it when necessary.
Here then are three teachings and reminders about Holy Communion. May we be righteous in our observance, real in our understanding and ready in our souls!
Seeking not to leave behind Pentecost so soon, I propose here to briefly consider the sequence hymn for Pentecost and the purpose and history of such hymns in the liturgy. There are several feasts of the Church during which a “sequence” hymn may be sung. The sequence hymn is sung just before the Alleluia (Gospel Acclamation). The feasts with sequence hymns are these:
Easter – Victimae Paschali Laudes (To the Paschal Victim give praise)
Pentecost – Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit)
Corpus Christi – Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion)
Our Lady of Sorrows – Stabat Mater (Stood the Mother, sad and weeping)
All Souls – Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)
Too many parishes simply omit the sequence hymns. But for my money, they ought to be sung, especially if it occurs on a Sunday. (I will admit, though, that the LaudaSion is rather long.)
Most sequence hymns were written in the Middle ages and were sung just before the Gospel as the clergy processed to the place of Gospel. Sometimes, particularly in larger churches, the Gospel was chanted midway down the nave so that it could be heard, and these sequence hymns helped to fill up the time of that procession. Many important feasts of the Church began to have these sequence hymns composed for them during the period of the 11th through 13th centuries.
However, after the Council of Trent, in the Missal of Pius V (published in 1570), there were only four sequence:Victimae paschali laudes sung at Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost, Lauda Sion Salvatorem sung at Corpus Christi, and the Dies Irae for All Souls and in Masses for the Dead. In the 1700s, Stabat Mater for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was added. Much later (in the early 1970s) the Dies Irae was removed from the Requiem Mass of the revised Roman Missal and restored in the Liturgy of the Hours as an Advent hymn, which it originally was. It may, however, still be sung on the Feast of All Souls.
Let’s look at the sequence hymn for Pentecost (Veni Sancte Spiritus) in a little more detail.
The hymn was likely written by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216). Written in Trachaic dimeter (catalectic), it is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of sacred Latin poetry. It was obviously written by someone who had experienced many sorrows, but also consolation in those sorrows. The rhyme in this hymn is quite rich and complex. The first and second lines always rhyme, and the third line of every verse ends in “ium.”
The sung version of this hymn is gorgeous and soaring. It starts subtly and builds through the center with soaring notes; then it sets us down gently at the end.
My favorite verses speak of the moderation that the Spirit offers:
In labor rest,
in the heat, moderation;
in tears, solace.
Make flexible that which is rigid, Warm that which is cold, Rule that which is deviant.
Here is the Latin text along with a (fairly literal) translation of my own:
VENI, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
COME, Holy Spirit,
send forth from heaven
the rays of thy light
Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.
Come, Father of the poor,
Come, giver of gifts,
Come, light of our hearts.
The Apostles were dramatically changed at Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for mission that took place there. Prior to this, even after seeing the risen Lord, they were timid and most uncertain about what to do. Peter even went back to fishing. But after Pentecost, all this changes. They are bold, courageous and quite certain of all Jesus taught.
It is worthwhile to look back at a text that sets forth this change in the apostles with a picture of courage and holy boldness that is too little evident in many Catholics. Let’s look at the passage, which takes place just after the healing of the paralyzed man at the gate called beautiful. And then let’s reflect on four qualities that the Apostles Peter and John manifest.
Now when [the Sanhedrin] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened (Acts 4:13-21).
Their Authority – The text opens with a reference to the “boldness” of Peter and John to the fact that the religious authorities are “astonished.” How could such uneducated and common men speak and act this way?
The Greek word translated here as “boldness” is Παρρησία (parresía or parrhēsía) from pás, “all” + rhēsis, meaning “a proverb or statement quoted with resolve.” In other words, parresía means to speak with confidence and exhibit strong resolve; it means to speak plainly, publicly, or effectively. It is from the root rhēsis that the term rhetoric comes. Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking and in its more technical sense usually requires training in logic and poise.
Thus, the boldness described in this passage shows the transformation that that the resurrection and Pentecost have effected. Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles, though often zealous and willing to make sacrifices to follow Jesus, were also slow to understand and often confused. Beginning with Easter Sunday (e.g., Luke 24:32,45) and most likely throughout the forty days before ascending, the Lord instructed and formed the Apostles in the Gospel. It would take Pentecost, however, to fully quicken their minds and confirm their hearts. Jesus had said, I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth (Jn 16:12-13). Elsewhere, He added, All this I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you (John 14:25-26).
Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles and disciples gathered in fear, behind locked doors. Afterwards, though, they go about with the boldness described here. The religious leaders are “astonished” and marvel that such common and unlearned men can have such a sweeping command of their topic, and such serene courage. Peter and John have healed a man who had been lame for forty years, a man they knew was lame and had seen in the temple. The religious leaders cannot explain it; further, the usual threats do not seem to have the desired effect on them.
Yes, Peter and John are bold, confident, and unafraid.They are manifesting the gift that the Lord promised when he said,On account of My name, they will deliver you to the synagogues and prisons, and they will bring you before kings and governors. This will be your opportunity to serve as witnesses. So make up your mind not to worry beforehand how to defend yourselves. For I will give you speech and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).
Such a change in these men, especially Peter! It is clear that the Lord has gifted them just as He promised. Their boldness is God’s grace. May that grace reach Church leaders today, both clergy and lay. Holy boldness such as this is needed more than ever.
Their Association – The text says that the Sanhedrin recognized that they had been with Jesus. What a magnificent line. While this may have meant they recalled that these men had accompanied Jesus, for the reader the expression has far more depth. Peter and John, by their transformed lives, are manifesting that they have been with Jesus. They are showing forth the fruit of a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, these men have been with Jesus; it is obvious!
How about you and me? Would someone be able to look at us and conclude that we have been with Jesus? Is this not a description of what should be the normal Christian life? Is your association with Jesus Christ obvious to others? It ought to be.
It is, of course, a sad reality that most Christians are content to hide out or to blend in with the culture. They are undercover Christians, secret-agent saints, and frozen chosen. There’s no real fire to attract attention, no bold proclamations or visible signs of spiritual life. Few would ever conclude that they had been with Jesus.
Where are we on the light spectrum? Is the Light of Christ in us visible (Mat 5:14)? Do we bear the brand marks of Jesus (Gal 6:17)? Do we love our enemies (Mat 5:44)? Do we shine like the stars in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation (Phil 2:15)?
Their Arresting Ability – Although Saints Peter and John have been arrested, they have, in effect, turned the tables and arrested the Sanhedrin. As remarked above, Peter and John do not seem cowed by the usual threats and their arguments are not easily set aside, for they speak with sincerity and authority. Further, the crowds are amazed and the leaders themselves cannot explain how a man, known by them to have been lame for forty years, now walks and even dances!
They don’t really know what to do. They are arrested by the winsome and courageous witness before them.
True holiness can have this effect, at least in certain conditions. St. Teresa of Calcutta was like this. Though many did not share her faith, even enemies of the faith admired her. This was not because she was a people pleaser; in fact, just the opposite. She had a boldness to scold even the most powerful, but a love that could not be denied. Her reflection of the glory of Christ arrested one and all.
This is perhaps one of the rarest gifts of all, yet still one to seek, so that at least some in every age have a holiness and a goodness that is arresting in its purity.
Their Assertiveness – To be appropriately assertive is to get one’s needs met without trampling others. And what is the greatest need of any saint? To proclaim Christ and Him crucified and risen. Thus, when Peter and John are warned to stop proclaiming the name of Jesus, they assert their need and right to continue doing so. However, they do so without disrespecting the leaders before them. They do not shout, “We won’t listen to you!” They do not personally disrespect them at all. Rather, they commend themselves to the conscience of these leaders as a way of respectfully declining a command they cannot follow:
Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.
In other words, they say, “Brothers, Elders, would you not agree that a man must obey God before obeying any man? Do what you must do. Make your judgments. But we must obey the Lord and speak of Jesus until our last breath.”
They are respectful but clear. They assert themselves and their mission but do not attack and trample the reputations or lawful authority of those in the community or state. They cannot cooperate in an evil directive, but they do not attack or stage an attempted overthrow of power. They stand before their opponents and look them in the eye. They will not flee or yield to fear, but neither will they become like them in arrogance and unrighteous demands.
This is a good model for us who are entering into increasingly difficult days, in which the pressures made upon us by the culture and the government may require that we refuse to cooperate with evil demands. Our goal is not to humiliate and overcome our opponents, but to convert them; and if not them then the culture around us. As St. Paul says, We do not use deception, neither do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:2).
So here is a model for us and a set of challenges. We are to manifest a bold and sincere confidence in the Gospel we proclaim, because we have met Jesus and are being transformed into His likeness. Indeed, we should ask and strive for that rare holiness that is arresting in its purity but also assertively announces Christ Jesus without compromise or hypocrisy.
What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the apostles, I have come to cast a fire on the earth (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, a transformative, refining, purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us. It is a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for fire. Because it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.
The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit– The reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest.
Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man (not the animals): then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
So, the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam, but he lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus, we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts then says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire or in fiery terms: Moses saw Him as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says,
The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
Scriptures also call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3).
So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
God is also preparing us for judgment, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit – You will notice that the Spirit came on them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no accident, for the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
So, behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds that have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago, these were frightened men huddled together in secrecy behind locked doors. Now, they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
What about us? Too many Christians are silent, overcome by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or being unpopular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians gather in the “upper room” of the parish and are active—even leaders—but once outside the safe confines of the “upper room” they slip into what I call “secret agent” mode.
Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that. To the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less able to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, to burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing come naturally to us.
Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles. The people in the crowd spoke different languages, yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent on my eloquence alone but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubt-filled encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes obstacles we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the great commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
How is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help to illustrate. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title “Holy Comforter.” Above the high altar is the following Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See the photo above of our high altar.)
The walls of my parish church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the stories of the lives of twenty saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) Over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not via “magic fairy dust.” It is in the fiery transformation of every Christian going forth to bring warmth and light to a cold, dark world. This is how the Lord casts fire upon the earth. This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth—in the lives of saints (and in your life)!
In the end, the great commission (Matt 28) is our first and most important job. No matter what else we do, we are to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. As individual Christians, we are a disgrace and not worthy of the name if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth but only through us. The spread of the gospel has been placed in your hands. It’s scary, isn’t it!
In my short time on this planet, I have seen it. Parishes that were once big and booming (and, frankly, sometimes arrogant) are now in decline; some are near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (Yes, I am talking to you.)
Enjoy the feast of Pentecost, but don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you. Then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a dark, cold world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
The video below features details from the clerestory of my parish, Holy Comforter in Washington, D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth through the lives of the saints (and through you, too). It is not magic; it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, so that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way that He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song accompanying the video says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary …!”