Recovery of the Vigil
This evening begins the Pentecost Vigil. We are 50 days removed from the great resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fifty days ago, there was another major celebration going on the Church: the Easter Vigil. If you’ve ever been to the Easter Vigil, you will know that not only is it a beautiful celebration, but it is also very, very long. Part of the reason for that is that there are upwards of seven readings and seven responsorial psalms and seven prayers in-between each. The reason for the length is to allow two things to happen: one, meditation upon God’s wondrous plan of bringing us back into union with Him, which we call salvation history; and two, to help us see that what is happening in our midst is the actually continuation of that divine plan. We aren’t simply putting on a play about it but instead we are actually participating in it.
Few people know (priests and bishops included) that there is a similar period of meditation for tonight: instead of just the usual 5pm Mass with the usual first reading, psalm, and second reading, etc, there could be an actual vigil—“vigil” meaning a keeping at the ready over a period of time. In the case of the Pentecost vigil, there would be four readings with four prayers and then, just like the Easter vigil, the Gloria and the New Testament readings. The increase in readings and in prayer and therefore in time would allow us to really enter into prayerful thought not only about the importance of Pentecost (an importance which I truly believe is lost among most Catholics today)—but, not only that, an actual vigil would allow us to enter into the great vigil which Mary Our Mother and the Apostles all together entered into while in the Upper Room during those days between the Ascension and Pentecost. They kept vigil.
(Perhaps next year we will have a 9pm Pentecost vigil…)
As many of you know, I had a kind of awakening in my faith towards the end of college and, during that awakening, I began to ask a lot of questions. (That’s when you know that you are waking up: you start to ask questions: where am I? what is this place? what does this all mean?) Thankfully, I was also beginning studies at Franciscan University, so I was in the perfect place to ask my questions aloud.
Unlike many people who have questions about the Pope or about any number of the moral issues of the day, my biggest obstacle was the Holy Spirit. When I was in 8th grade, I learned that the Holy Spirit was like a fluffy dove or a mystical “tongue of fire” (whatever that meant) that was just a nice “add-on” to the Catholic faith. The Holy Spirit didn’t really do anything and therefore, I concluded that He wasn’t really that important.
So, you can imagine my surprise when one of my Franciscan professors remarked—in a very passing way, mind you—that the Holy Spirit was essential for salvation. She went so far as to say that Jesus wasn’t enough.
“Woah there, Tonto,” I thought. “Isn’t Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection enough? I mean, the Holy Spirit doesn’t really add anything that I need…”
I began to challenge the professor. She answered. I answered back. Class ended and our conversation spilled out into the hallway… and then down the hallway and into the doorway of her office. I was adamant: I really didn’t need the Holy Spirit.
She ended the conversation with the line from scripture (Mt 12:31) that says that every sin can be forgiven, except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That stopped me in my tracks. Those were Jesus’ words. Suddenly, I wasn’t arguing with my professor; I was arguing with Jesus. Maybe I needed to reconsider my approach.
So, in the next class, the professor taught about the Holy Spirit and elaborated. I still didn’t get it. For three whole classes she spoke about the Holy Spirit. I still didn’t get it.
But I did want to. I loved Jesus. I believed His words. So I wanted to believe this and understand this and embrace this. I was so frustrated that after one of the classes, I began to weep. One of my classmates asked me what was wrong and I gushed out my frustration. Very much moved, she said words that helped me very much: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
I began to pray that every day.
“Now We Remain"
Months later, the “secret” was unlocked. The key that helped all the tumblers to correctly fall into alignment was not my misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, but my misunderstanding the Ascension.
I simply saw the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven and that was that. Roll credits.
In other words, I saw that Jesus was once present here on earth; He once walked among us… But at the Ascension, He disappears into heaven and we are simply left to remember Him.
I believed that, yeah, Jesus is here on earth right now—kinda—like spiritually, like in my memory (a la Rose remembering Jack in Titanic), but that was it. Really catchy but theologically bad music (eg “Now We Remain”) reinforced that idea.
But I had it all wrong.
How so? Let’s go back to the Ascension.
If you lived during the time of Jesus and you wanted to touch Him, talk to Him, see Him, have a personal relationship with Him… how would you have gone about it?
You would have had to go to Jerusalem, braved the crowds, and maybe—just maybe—you might catch a glimpse. And if you were lucky, you might touch His clothes (Mt 9:21).
Sure, the inner skeptic in us would find it nice to actually see Him and hear Him. But for all that there would still be no real intimacy. I mean, He had talked about actually eating Him and having Himself literally dwell in us. At that point in time, though, that was not possible. He was there and we would be over here, longing to just touch Him. We were separate.
So, at the Ascension, that state of affairs seems to continue and even increase as Jesus goes “up there” and we are left to remain “down here.” What are we to do? Sure, we might remember Him; we might have a relationship that is simply spiritual; but for all that, things would appear to still be separated—and even more so than before.
That’s not enough for us. Mary Magdalene, for example, clings to Jesus at the resurrection. She wants the full union that Jesus had been promising: dwelling in, living rivers in, life in, you… in me and I… in you. Jesus, I know of no other way to bridge the gap that keeps us separate!
Jesus says to her those odd words: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn 20:17)
He seems to be implying that only after He ascends will we be able to “hold on” to Him. That doesn’t seem to jive with my understanding of the Ascension. Nor does it really fulfill our deepest longings. Mary Magdalene (and us, if we think about it) want more than a spiritual relationship: I want more than to just spiritually hold on. I want union. We want to see, to touch, and to literally hold.
The Power of the Holy Spirit
When Jesus ascends into heaven, yes, He does take away His particular, physical presence from this earth. But this “space,” allows for an elevation of His presence to a higher state which we call “Sacramental.” His presence is going to come in a radically particular and yet simultaneous universal way. As such, Jesus says that His Ascension is the pre-requisite for the sending of the Holy Spirit.
(Ummm, Father Gerber, can you translate that for us?)
Well, instead of us having to go to Jerusalem in order to hear Jesus and to touch Him, the Holy Spirit literally makes it possible for you to hear and touch Jesus right here, right now. And not only right here, right now, but also in St. Louis, in Belleville, in New York, in Rome, in the Philippines…. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for Jesus to be everywhere—and not just “spiritually,” but actually in “body and blood.” Particular AND universal.
So you don’t just spiritually eat Jesus at Holy Mass. You actually eat Him—and not a spiritually rendering of Him, but really actually Him!
This isn’t just a nice “thought” that we are having here. This isn't just a performance that we are putting on here to make us feel good as a community. No! We are actually getting to touch—and scandal! getting to eat—the real deal.
This is why I hate “Now We Remain” or the WWJD braclets: both presuppose that Jesus really isn’t here, that He’s only “kinda” here. “What would Jesus do…” if He were here? No! JESUS IS HERE. And He’s actual and touchable. He's so real you can taste Him!
This is where the gap is bridged, where intimacy is made possible; where His body and blood actually mingles with yours. Literally. That’s intimacy!!!
Just as it was the Holy Spirit who made Jesus incarnate in the womb of Mary, so too it is the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus incarnate—fleshy!—in every tabernacle and in every confessional of the Holy Catholic Church!
Such that when the priest speaks, “I absolve you,” it is not the priest that you simply hear. It is Jesus Himself!
Such that when the priest says, “Take this… this is my body,” it is not the priest that you simply hear. It is Jesus!
Or when the Church speaks definitively on faith and morals, it is not some men in pointy hats that do the teaching. It is Jesus!
Really, actually, Jesus.
And this He promised! “The Spirit,” He says, “will lead you to the Truth, and you will know the Truth…” (cf Jn 8:32; Jn 16:13)
And should you be surprised? After all, Mother Theresa said when we help the poor, it is not just “like” we are helping Jesus, but we ARE helping Jesus. Indeed, when the Church reaches out her arms to the world, it is not simply her arms that are reaching out, it is Jesus who is reaching out! And when the Church is persecuted, Jesus says it is me who is being persecuted (Acts 9:4).
Every single sacrament requires the Holy Spirit. Every single apostolate requires the Holy Spirit. Every little bitty growth in holiness that you aspire to requires the Holy Spirit.
Everything—your salvation included—needs the Holy Spirit! This is why my professor was right in saying that Jesus was not enough. Sure, He is, but He brings Himself through the Holy Spirit to you. You cannot have Jesus without the Spirit.
This is also why the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is the only sin that cannot be forgiven; it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that sins are forgiven!
This is not some fluffy dove or some nice add-on to our faith. This is essential. We need the Holy Spirit!
Do you want Him? Do you call on Him? Do you have a relationship with Him? Do you have union with Him?
I tell people that if they want to get more out of scripture, they need to first ask for the Holy Spirit—the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Sacred Scriptures. Without Him, there would be no Scripture and there would be no understanding of it. Likewise, if you want to understand the teaching of Jesus through the Church, then you also need to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help.
I tell people that when they pray, they must invoke the Holy Spirit who helps us to pray as we ought.
I tell people to keep the Commandments because, contrary to popular opinion, the Holy Spirit does not get rid of the Commandments. Indeed, it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that they are written in the fire and cloud of Mt Sinai! If you want to know whether you have the Holy Spirit, look at whether you keep the Commandments (and also compare your lifestyle to that of Gal 5:16-25). If during this summer you decide to simply skip Mass because you are on vacation, you do not have the Holy Spirit!
If you want to get more out of the homily, then ask for the Holy Spirit. I tell people: before you hear a homily, ask for the Holy Spirit to help that priest. And ask for the Holy Spirit for yourself so that you may hear: “Holy Spirit, help me to hear at least one thing that you are trying to tell me today.” Because, really, even if the priest himself is a poor preacher, the Holy Spirit isn’t! And the Holy Spirit WILL say something to you. I cannot tell you how many times I spoke on topic a, b, or c, and someone came to me after Holy Mass thanking me for talking not about a, b, or c, but about some other x or y!
If you want to get more out of Holy Mass, then you have to open yourself up to the Holy Spirit. And you can’t be open to the Holy Spirit if you are asleep or distracted or thinking that nothing really important happens here! You have to be awake and open and ready to receive! You must spur yourself on and wake yourself up and make an act of faith and pray “Come, Holy Spirit!”
I’ll draw this to a close by bringing us back to the beginning. From the Ascension and for nine days, Mary and the Apostles went back to the Upper Room—the same Upper Room where Jesus gave us His flesh and blood in the Eucharist. It was there in that important place of flesh and blood that they prayed and kept vigil for nine days (the first novena). After the nine days of vigil had passed, the Holy Spirit came upon them such that the Church—what we call the Mystical Body of Christ—was made tangible and announced with one voice (the voice of Jesus!) to all the world.
If we did not have the Holy Spirit, we would not be here. The sacraments would simply be performance; the Church simply a social service; and Jesus… He would simply be at a distance, simply watching us… from a distance.
But He is near. Indeed, He is here! “Holy Spirit, I believe! Help my unbelief!”