This weekend we celebrate Pentecost, which is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. You might remember that Jesus told his disciples that he had to go—he had to ascend into heaven—so that he could send the Holy Spirit to them. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit arrives. Before that, the disciples could see Jesus because he was a man—both God and man. So they could see him just as you can see me and I can see you. The Holy Spirit is God, too, but he’s Spirit, and spirits, by definition, are not physical things. You can’t see spirits.
So at Pentecost, the disciples don’t see the Holy Spirit. Instead, they see his signs. Those signs are a driving wind and flames shaped like tongues over the heads of the people there. One sign in particular tells us a lot about the Church. The people at Pentecost come from different countries, and they speak different languages, so normally they wouldn’t be able to understand each other. But when the Holy Spirit comes, they do understand each other. The Holy Spirit changes something inside of them.
Not long ago, at dinner in my community in Rome, which houses Jesuits from maybe 30 different countries, one of my brothers from Columbia was talking with one of my brothers from Poland about the different things people eat around the world, and he mentioned hearing that in parts of Asia people eat dog meat. And another of my brothers from the Philippines, who is normally very quiet, looked up from his plate and said, “Oh, yes, very good,” and then he went on with his meal.
There is no more diverse an organization in the world than the Catholic Church. Not only do Catholics come from different countries and races and language groups, but the Church includes saints of different historical periods, the great cloud of witnesses mentioned by the letter to the Hebrews last week. The martyrs of first century Rome, of seventeenth century Japan, of 20th century Spain and Mexico, and, in our still-young century, of Turkey, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, France and elsewhere could not have been more different culturally or socially, yet they all shared a belief in Catholicism so strong they were willing to die for it. People have indeed come, as the Lord says, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south to the table in the kingdom of God, around which we gather this morning.
Politicians frequently claim to be uniters, not dividers. If you wanted proof, therefore, that Jesus was not a politician, look no further than today’s Gospel: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Political promises of unity, of course, come cheaply; sometimes they simply mean, “If you disagree with me, I’ll accuse you of being a divider.” In today’s Gospel reading, however, Jesus makes a move never recommended by any political consultant: he preemptively accuses himself of bringing division. Other than the desire to put centuries of future homilists in a very awkward position, why would Jesus do this?
For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.
I’ve noted before the prevalence of former soldiers among the saints of Rome, a fact especially evident in the first week of Rome’s station liturgy, when day two is celebrated at a church dedicated to St. George and St. Sebastian and day three at the site two other former soldiers, the brothers John and Paul, were martyred in 360.
The prominence of these soldier saints is especially striking while war rages in the Ukraine. Though the signs were all there ahead of time–this was not the first time Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–the attack and the resistance to it has seemed to jolt the West from a deep and dangerous torpor. A friend recently showed me a poll asking the people of various nations if they would be willing to fight for their country; less than half of Americans said yes–and that was high for the West. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy, pledged to the world, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Today, in the face of crisis, presidents compete to issue stimulus checks because, hey, free money. Something seems to have been lost.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us of autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease, as you may know, is when the body attacks itself, one of its own parts. It’s a self-destructive disease. Last week we heard Paul tell the Corinthians, who had been squabbling over who had the better gifts, that all these different gifts come from one Spirit. One Spirit, many gifts.
Today Paul continues the same theme with the analogy of the body. The Church is like a body, with different parts—eyes and ears and limbs and so on—and if jealousy between these parts enters in and the eye stops seeing because it wants to hear, and the legs stop walking because they want to see, and the lungs stop breathing because they want to walk, then pretty soon instead of a body you have a corpse. It is one of the most important metaphors in the Bible, and this morning I’d like to focus on two implications of this metaphor. The first is that bodies share common goods. And the second is that the Body of Christ is meant to be alive.
This week I stopped at the store to purchase a box of wine. Just in case there was another quarantine, I wanted to make sure I had enough on hand to celebrate Mass. Also, like the miracle at Cana, I wanted enough left over for dinner. Coming out of a box, however, I’m not sure that anyone would say, “You saved the best for last.”
There’s something a little bit lighter in today’s Gospel story. Usually, Jesus’ miracles involve healing grave ailments—leprosy, paralysis, even death—but the miracle at Cana begins and ends at a party. At most Jesus’ intervention saves the new bride and groom from a social embarrassment. The miracle also seems a bit off script, not what Jesus had in mind. It’s his mother, after all, who intercedes for the couple and then doesn’t take no for an answer. When Protestants object to Catholics praying for Mary’s intercession, I point out that all we’re doing is repeating what happened at Cana. Nobody knows what Jesus is capable of better than Mary.