Rev. Michael Connors, CSC, is Associate Professor of the Practice, and Director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame. He shared his wonderful Pentecost homily with us. The link to the liturgy video can be found here.
On Monday of this past week the last of the undergrad residents of Carroll Hall, where I live, moved out. Now, to be honest, there are some of my recent neighbors whom I will not miss. The guys above me playing that gigantic stereo with the bass that would make my chest cavity pulse to the beat. And the freshmen in the quad across the hall who liked to play soccer, golf, baseball, and God-knows-what-else in the hallway outside my door at all hours of the night – yeah, I’ll be just fine without them.
Nonetheless, with those few exceptions, I find the final move-out day one of the saddest and most disorienting days of the year. Suddenly the building goes utterly still, and in every direction, in every room, hallway, and bathroom, I see emptiness. It evokes a peculiar kind of grief for me. Most of those graduating seniors I will never see again. Even the piles of garbage and the rafts of perfectly good backpacks, toiletries, clothing, and furniture left behind testify that this space was meant for a purpose, made to contain a shared life which filled it just hours before. It’s as if the soul of the building has been shorn from every corner and desk, every rolled up carpet, and I am left missing them intensely.
Last week we left the disciples of Jesus gazing longingly up into the emptiness of the heavens as Jesus ascended. I can only imagine the grief they must have felt, the confusion, that sense of loss which grabs you in the pit of your stomach when something or someone you love is subtracted from your daily life. Those disciples had been on a horrible roller coaster ride. They had watched their friend cruelly put to death. Confounded by the mystery of death, they had peered into an empty tomb, only to assume his body had been stolen, followed by the dawning realization that he was, indeed, beyond all comprehension, still alive. Losing him a second time must have been even more crushing. And what were they left with? Memories, of course – but memory can be a painful privilege. And a strange promise of something even better in store for them.
What could that possibly mean? What could possibly fill the absence of Jesus?
Something did, that’s for sure, because after Pentecost these timid, fearful men and women went all in for a mission for which there was no plan and no preparation. In the wake of Jesus’ final departure a movement began which would change the world. At our educational institutions, we call graduation “Commencement” – but that seems a bit euphemistic sometimes. Yet for these disciples Pentecost really was the beginning of a new life. They continued to treasure the past, every word he had spoken, every move he had made, but their paralyzing grief soon dissipated in a totally surprising way. There was a force, a power, a presence which filled their sorrow and loss with new hope and new joy, and propelled them into an amazing burst of activity.
What is that?
We had better find out because, as you may have noticed, Christianity is not doing so well in today’s world. We are losing ground, declining, and most troubling, largely failing to ignite the hearts and minds of the younger generation. No doubt the reasons for what we’re witnessing today are complex. But some of the wounds are certainly self-inflicted. (2) Clergy sexual abuse, for example, was and is a huge problem for all of us who want to believe the Church is authentically about something real beyond itself. We ourselves can lapse into speaking of the reality behind the Church only in the past tense, like an archaeological dig, or merely an entertaining tradition of literature, something that shaped an earlier time and fired the imaginations of people more primitive than ourselves.
Christianity, though, will have no future if it has no present. The most existential question for us is this: Are we on our own? Is it up to us, all by ourselves, to face our life challenges and make a decent world for the next generation? Are we abandoned, grief-stricken, left to stare into an empty tomb or gaze into an empty
heavens? Christian Smith identifies the religious belief system of most young people today as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (1)
Is that the best we can do, a vague notion of a distant God who just asks us to be good? Or is there still something real behind the seemingly preposterous claims of the Christian faith, a Real Presence within the dusty and smudged walls of this old Church?
I was on a plane once when over the PA system came an urgent request: “Is there a doctor on board? We have a medical emergency.” An older man got out of his seat toward the back and made his way quickly forward. Are we sealed in a cabin with no escape and nosource of help? Or is there a doctor in the house? We had better find out, because if the answer is no, then we deserve no more than the world’s pity.
The claim of today’s feast, the claim of the doctrine of the Third Person is that Christian faith not only has a past tense, a sacred history, but a present tense, a God as active today as ever, a Risen Christ walking among us as really as on Easter morn. The readings speak of this in terms of gift, using the images of uncontrolled wind and fire. Paul speaks of a mysterious unity generating diversity. In another place Paul says of the Spirit, “We have the mind of Christ.” (2)
Wouldn’t that be something, to face our personal and collective challenges able to think and see and feel and love like Jesus himself! Is there a doctor in the house? Someone who can close our wounds and put us back together? Someone who sees our petty divisions, our crucifixions, our pathetic struggling, our loneliness... who not only sees but stands ready and able to help us... who maybe is already at work helping us without taking any credit or demanding any attention? The truly mysterious thing about life is that even with so much violence, so much discord, so much selfishness and callous disregard for others and for the earth itself – even with all of that, we still witness amazing unselfishness and generosity, ferocious passion for justice, self-emptying service of others, quiet sacrifice, and crazy love.
What is that? We had better find out – and pray for more of it.
1) Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).
2) 1 Corinthians 2:16.