One of the great things about our Catholic faith is that each Sunday, rather than the preacher picking a topic that he feels like it would be best to address, Holy Mother Church sets out a programmatic approach to the Sacred Scriptures and the mysteries of our faith. This is not just the selection of the Sunday readings, though. It has to do with all the prayers of the Mass and in the way that the texts of each Sunday’s Mass fits into a larger context.
We call that larger context the liturgical year. During each liturgical year, which begins with the first Sunday of Advent, we get to live all the mysteries of Christ’s life. During this Easter season, of which we are celebrating the last regular Sunday today, we don’t just re-live the events of Christ’s life, though, but we get to re-live how Christ’s closest followers experienced those events.
For the past six weeks, we have been getting a taste of what it would was like for the Apostles to live with the Risen Lord. If we have been living this time of Easter intensely, as the Church proposes that we do, then our hearts will also experience the sadness of the Apostles upon the Lord telling them that the time for Him to depart from their midst is drawing near. It would be like when you go to visit a relative or a close friend for an extended time, and the final days of your visit become bittersweet when every moment of happiness is tinged by the awareness that your time together is coming to an end.
Those moments are often the time when we really open up and share what’s on our heart with the other person. We realize that time is running short, and we must get down to what’s essential. That is what Christ does today with the Apostles. Toward the end of His time on earth, He makes some incredible promises to them. Let’s take a look at those promises:
First, Christ promises us that though He is about to depart – traditionally, this Thursday, 40 days after Easter, although we will celebrate the Ascension the following Sunday – He will always be with us. “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Christ tells us today how that will happen: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (Jn 14).
There’s a lot to this promise: First, Christ points out that loving Him isn’t just about having good feelings toward Him, and it isn’t just about having “accepted” Him at some point in one’s life (as I pointed out last Sunday as well). You can measure your love for Christ based on whether or not you keep His words. If you do not keep His words, then even if you maintain the appearance of a Christian life, and even if you feel like you are close to God, you cannot truthfully say that you love Him. Conversely, even if you don’t always feel like you are close to God, if you are keeping His words, then He is making His dwelling place within you. That can be a great comfort during times of seeming spiritual darkness. In the life of faith, feelings are frequently deceptive.
What does it mean, though, that Christ and His Father will make their dwelling within those who keep His words? St. Augustine had a great insight into this when He said that God is “interior intimo meo et superior summo meo” (“higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self” – or “closer (more intimate) to me than I am to myself”) (Confessions III, 6, 11). Augustine’s paradox here is staggering: How could anything be closer to me than I already am to myself?
This paradox has to be experienced in order fully to be understood, but I think that we can wrap our minds around it if we think about God’s perfect knowledge. God made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. He’s like the mother who reminds her child, “No, you don’t like that food” before the child fills up his plate with Brussels sprouts, which then of course go uneaten. Knowing us better than we know ourselves means that God knows what will truly make us happy, and is constantly working for our authentic good.
God having perfect knowledge of us means that, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in [Christ’s] name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Just think about that: The Holy Spirit will teach us everything.
There are a couple important things to consider about this second promise. First, it is a promise made in some ways specifically to the Apostles. The Holy Spirit will continue Jesus’s mission of revealing all of God’s truth to them. They have received a particular gift – a charism – such that God’s revelation continues through them. That is why the Church holds that public revelation – the revelation of those things necessary for salvation – ends with the death of the last Apostle. Thus St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8). These words, incidentally, are inscribed on the façade of the Cathedral of the Madeline in Salt Lake City, precisely to make the point that any religion that claims an ongoing divine Revelation is not compatible with the what Christ reveals in the Gospel.
While public revelation is closed with the death of the last Apostle, this does not mean that the charism of Apostleship ends with the last Apostle. We see in the book of Acts that the Apostles chose successors for themselves, and we know through Tradition that, following their example, these successors also chose successors for themselves. These, of course, we call “bishops,” and while the Holy Father and Bishop Rhoades do not serve as divinely inspired prophets (unlike what some other religions claim for their leaders), they have the mission entrusted to Peter of strengthening the brethren in the Faith (Lk 22:32). The Bishop also rightly exercises a spiritual headship in the Church as the successor of those who did have the charism of making known divine revelation – a successor of the Apostles. One of the highest expressions of that spiritual headship is when the bishop ordains new priests, sharing with them the ministry entrusted to him. He will do so this Saturday for the three new priests of our Diocese, and I would encourage you to take the time to go to Fort Wayne to witness this beautiful and moving ceremony that is one of the highest exercises of the priesthood of Christ.
Teaching all truth is not just meant for the Apostles and Bishops, though. This promise is in some ways for all of us who, after all, share in the baptismal priesthood of Christ. By being attentive to the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts, we too are lead to a greater knowledge of God. One way that this happens is through the conscience. If we have a well-developed conscience through studying our faith and seeking to be informed by the teachings of the Church (that is, by listening to the Holy Spirit through the voice of His spouse, the Church) then the Holy Spirit will use our conscience to lead us to adhere to the truth.
It’s important to remember, though, that the conscience cannot make something to be true or false. People often erroneously equate the conscience with their feelings, claiming that they just feel that something is right or wrong. This is not the work of a well-formed conscience. The conscience, rather, convicts us of the rightness or wrongness of our actions and urges us to do what we believe is right. It is not an absolute guide, but one whose value is measured by the degree to which it is formed by the Holy Spirit’s guidance into all truth.
In order to be willing to be taught by the Holy Spirit, we must have a relationship with him. Any teacher can tell you that students are only willing to learn when they are convinced that their teacher cares about them and desires their authentic good. I remember how, in college, there were professors who made fascinating and often provocative claims in class, who opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about the world. It wasn’t until I got to know them outside of class, though, that I had the chance to let what they had to say really sink into my life. Without that relationship, they would have just been provocateurs.
The same goes for our relationship with God. Without a living relationship with Him, the best the Bible can be is a series of shocking statements that might prompt us into action or into reconsidering the way we live our lives (and at worse, a moralizing set of platitudes easily malleable according to the political convictions of the reader). Specifically, we need a living relationship with the Holy Spirit in order to be lead into all truth. Cultivating a relationship takes a serious commitment of time – in this case, in prayer. I plan to return to this idea of what it means to have a relationship with the Holy Spirit in two weeks when we celebrate Pentecost, so more on this later. In the meantime, let’s recall that the life of prayer that we focused on so intently during Lent is crucial for receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit that Christ is now promising us during the Easter season.
The third promise that Christ makes and that is fulfilled by the coming of the Holy Spirit is peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” To borrow some words from Pope Benedict XVI, “True [peace] is linked to something deeper. Of course, in the all too often frenetic pace of daily life it is important to find time for rest and relaxation, but true [peace] is linked to our relationship with God. Those who have encountered Christ in their own lives feel a serenity and joy in their hearts that no one and no situation can take from them. St Augustine understood this very well; in his quest for truth, peace and joy, after seeking them in vain in many things he concluded with his famous words: “and our heart is restless until it rests in God” (cf. Confessions, I, 1, 1). (Benedict XVI, Angelus address, 11 December 2011, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20111211.html).
We can understand peace a lot better if we think of it like silence. You might remember that during our series on prayer in Lent I shared that silence in prayer is not just the absence of noise, but rather a disposition of openness that we are called to cultivate in our hearts. Likewise, peace is not merely the absence of war or conflict, but a resting in God. For most of us, that happens only after we realize that the happiness held out by the world is empty or filled only with pain and brokenness. This is what Augustine realized after living with a mistress and seeking his own glory and prestige at the imperial court. True peace comes when we rest in God, not in the pleasures of the world.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that we don’t need to wait around for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have all received His Gift in Baptism, and most of us received a renewal of that gift at our Confirmation. Confirmation is one of the three sacraments that can never be repeated because it leaves an indelible mark on our souls, which becomes a principle and source of grace for us. Christ’s Spirit is indeed dwelling within us – closer to us than we are to ourselves – leading us to all truth and giving us the peace that only He can provide.
Christ promises us today that His Spirit will makes His dwelling in those who keep His words, and thus have true love for Him. The same Spirit who revealed all truth to the Apostles wants to make His dwelling in your heart, being more intimately close to you than you are even to yourself. By developing a relationship with the Holy Spirit through prayer, you can also be lead into all truth and can experience the peace that is not like the peace of this world. Be attentive to these promises that the Lord makes today. In two weeks, we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and ask for a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit on each of us. May he fill your heart with authentic love of God, with a love for His truth, and with the peace that only Christ can give.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
V Sunday after Easter, A.D. MMXIX
Image: Pentecost by El Greco (1600)