Sunday, April 29, 2012

Year B Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1.8-9.21-23.26.28-89; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18

Our first reading for this Fourth Sunday of Easter is from the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Before proceeding let’s take a minute and look back a couple of chapters, which will also allow us to look ahead to Pentecost, the profound significance of which is second only in importance to Easter. This realization is especially important this year when Pentecost conflicts with Memorial Day weekend, the traditional beginning of summer. It is often necessary to look at the Greek to assess to the accuracy of any English New Testament translation of a given verse. Acts 2:1 is a great example of this. In the New American Bible, which is normatively used by Catholics in the United States, Acts 2:1 says, "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together," whereas, the King James Version, translating the passage much better, tells us, "When the day of Pentecost was fully come." The key word here is the Greek word translated respectively as "fulfilled" and "fully come," namely “sumplEroustha,” which, literally translated, means something closer to "being filled together."

My point here is not an abstruse one, but an important and fairly simply one. The King James Version’s translation, according to the late scholar of the history of Christian doctrine, Jaroslav Pelikan, "is an attempt to convey an emphasis on the 'fullness' of the Holy Spirit, which seems to be suggested by the Greek…" This is important, according Pelikan, because the "theological theme of the connection between the Holy Spirit and 'fullness' runs through the entire narrative of Acts." In our reading from Acts today the author, before writing what Peter says to the elders in response to his healing the crippled man at the temple gate, tells us that he was "filled with the Holy Spirit." But of importance to us today and every day is having the fullness of the Holy Spirit, living according to the Spirit, which is what it means to be a Christian, as it has meant ever since the very first Christian Pentecost. The Holy Spirit, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, "communicates the aspect of Jesus’ resurrection life that enables his personal existence to extend beyond the boundaries of his former physical body into the world." Stated more directly, the Holy Spirit is the way Jesus, after His resurrection and ascension, remains present in us and through us, which is precisely how the Church, in the words of Vatican II, is the universal sacrament of salvation.

When we look at second window on the East side of the nave of our beautiful cathedral, we see the Blessed Virgin surrounded by the disciples, as the Holy Spirit descends upon them with tongues of fire. The fruit of this third of the Glorious mysteries of the Rosary is the great love God has for us. In His Last Supper discourse in St. John’s Gospel Jesus tells His disciples, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth" (John 14:16-17a). Then, continuing, He told them, "I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you" (John 14:18-20).

To state the matter crudely, how Jesus gets in us is exclusively by means of the Holy Spirit, a connection that positively explodes when we consider the sacraments, especially this Eucharist in which are participating right now. Indeed, it is through our baptism, confirmation, and on-going communion that we experience what heard about in our New Testament reading taken from 1 John, namely the great "love the Father has bestowed on us," which is precisely what allows us to "be called the children of God" (1 John 3:1). In an essay entitled "An Expedition to the Pole," Anne Dillard, sought to describe how the Holy Spirit works in and through our worship:
Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or… does no one believe a word of it?.. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews
On this Good Shepherd Sunday I ask you to consider how else you know the Good Shepherd except by the Holy Spirit. My dear friends, Jesus is not content merely to shepherd you. He wants to befriend you. He wants you to follow Him, which means nothing apart from daily taking up your Cross because the path to resurrection runs right through the Cross; there is no getting around it. This prompts the question, What does a Spirit-filled person look like? A Spirit-filled person lives like Jesus, loves like Jesus, which means laying down her/his life for others for Christ’s sake and the sake of God’s kingdom, thus seeking to fulfill the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

While considering the Spirit-filled person today let’s consider St. Gianna Molla, not least of which because yesterday, 28 April, is her liturgical memorial, when the Church remembers and venerates her. Gianna Beretta Molla was a physician in Italy who began experiencing intense pain during her pregnancy with the fourth child conceived with her husband, Pietro. Medical tests and examinations showed that she had developed a fibroma in her uterus, which was removed during surgery, leaving her unborn child unharmed. After her surgery and for the last seven months of pregnancy, despite on-going pain and further complications, Gianna resumed her duties as a devoted disciple of the Lord Jesus, as a wife, a mother, and a physician. A few days before the child was due, amid much concern, she told the attending doctor: "If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it." On the morning of 21 April 1962, a healthy baby girl, Gianna Emanuela, was born. Despite every effort to save both of them, on 28 April, amid unspeakable pain and after repeated exclamations of "Jesus, I love you," Gianna Molla died. She was 39 years old. Gianna Beretta Molla was canonized on 16 May 2004 by Pope John Paul II, with her husband and four children, including Gianna Emanuela, now a physician herself, present to witness her being raised to the altar.

In his homily on the day of Gianna’s canonization, Bl. Pope John Paul II said that she was "a simple," but "significant messenger of divine love." He quoted from a letter she wrote to her beloved husband, Pietro, a few days before their wedding: "Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women." The Holy Father, quoting from the Gospel of St. John, "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (John 13: 1), said this of Gianna Beretta Molla: "The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves."

Jesus Christ does not merely love us to the end, my dear friends. He loves us without end. Otherwise there would be no possibility for you and me to live forever. In His resurrection, ascension into heaven, and most especially in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon us, Christ shows us that love is not merely as strong as death, but that love conquered death, which means we can say, Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est. Christ is resurrected because God is love!

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