HOMILY EASTER WEEK 07 01 – Year I
Faith, Praise, Evangelization and Persecution:
Optional Memorial of St. Rita of Cascia
(Acts 19:1-8; Ps 68; Jn 16:29-33)
Welcome to the Upper Room.
The readings today, as we wait in a week-long vigil for Pentecost, prepare us for a life of joyful praise, courageous evangelization, and even possible persecution.
This last week of the Easter season, between the Ascension of Jesus and the sending of his Spirit that birthed the church at Pentecost, is like a second Holy Week.
Jesus never really left heaven when he came down and was born Incarnate among us, and he never left the earth when he ascended back to the Father. He took our humanity with him – all we have to do now is learn to live that eternal life here and now.
The psalm invites us to express our faith with joyful praise, as we are doing.
The first reading invites us to be like St. Paul, going out to others, discerning where they are at in their spiritual lives, and taking them one step further in their Christian walk. Keith Hoang is one person who is doing that. He spent five years writing Built For Greatness, a Christian version of the Tao Te Ching with a view to evangelizing the world, and especially the nation of China in a gentle but new way. He was inspired to connect every stanza of the Tao with a passage of scripture, showing how the bible is actually inherent within this masterpiece of wisdom that is five hundred years older than Christianity. This initiative is now growing into a movement as part of the new evangelization.
The gospel invites us to have the courage to accept hostility and persecution that might come our way because of our faith in Jesus. I had a taste of that when I used the word “forgiveness” at a conference in Calgary organized by the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine to prepare for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An angry psychologist came at me after that talk, scolding me for using that word, claiming that it did not belong in this process, and accusing me of saying that just because I was a Christian. I was rather shocked that this professional person did not believe in forgiveness.
That spirit of forgiveness is truly possible only through the working of the Holy Spirit, who is the agent of forgiveness. The Ephesians Paul encountered in Ephesus were believers, but were lacking that power of the Spirit. They were still kind of stuck in the Old Testament, with the baptism of John the Baptist that could only point out sin and the need for repentance, but not take away sin.
What we have in both readings is the fullness of our God working in our lives as a loving Father, to whom Jesus was returning, the beloved Son who is Jesus, and the bond of love between them that is the Holy Spirit. With the reception of the Holy Spirit and baptism, they were incorporated into the life of the Trinity, that new eternal life that Jesus came to share with us.
The Ephesians did not know that there even was a Holy Spirit, or that Jesus was the Messiah. But when Paul shared the good news with them and prayed with them, their eyes were opened to the spiritual gifts that were now theirs through Christ and his Spirit.
While speaking in tongues and prophesying were more obvious gifts of the Holy Spirit, scripture tells us about other gifts that we can and should be open to experiencing (Isaiah 11:2-3). When we pray for guidance and receive wisdom, that is the Holy Spirit. When we are tempted to do or say something rash, God’s Spirit of counsel give us restraint. When we are too focused on getting credit, reverence reminds us that all our talents come from God.
When we are confused about moral issues, the Spirit will grant us knowledge and understanding. When we are tempted to give up but keep on persevering in faith, the Spirit is filling us with fortitude. And when we are involved in worship and a hymn fills us with a sense of God’s love, the Spirit is giving us piety.
God does not ration the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As we approach Pentecost, let us open ourselves up to receiving the gifts of the Spirit that we need, trusting that what Jesus most wants to give us is precisely the Holy Spirit. Two gifts of the Spirit that Jesus mentions we will receive are a peace that he alone can give, and the courage to face persecution, which in fact is happening today to more believers in Jesus than at any other time in history.
Today the church invites us to honour St. Rita of Cassia, who experienced and transformed her share of suffering and obstacles. She was born in Umbria, Italy, in 1386. Although she wanted to be a nun, her parents betrothed her to a cruel, ill-tempered man whom she married at age 18. When her husband was murdered 18 years later, her twin sons were determined to avenge his murder. Rita pleaded with them to forgive the murderers, and her prayers eventually prevailed. Now a widow, Rita sought to enter the convent but was initially refused because some relatives of her husband’s murderers were members. In time, through prayer and her personal intercession, a promise of peace and reconciliation was secured and she was admitted to the Augustinian convent at Cassia, where she lived for 40 years in prayer, contemplation and selfless service of the poor. She was canonized in 1900 and is a patron of impossible causes.
The Eucharist is itself an encounter with the Holy Spirit, who comes down upon the altar and the community, transforming humble gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, and transforming us into the Body of Christ.
May our celebration deepen our lives of joyful praise, fill us with peace and serenity, and grant us the courage to share this good news with others, even if that leads to persecution.