Pentecost: Why are you Standing There Looking at the Sky?

Photo: stuartpilbrow (flickr)
Photo: stuartpilbrow (flickr)

PHOTO SOURCE: stuartpilbrow (flickr)

BY KEVIN KUEHL | June 7, 2014

“Mission accomplished!” thought the 11 dumbfounded, open-mouthed apostles frozen in time and “looking intently at the sky” as their teacher, friend, and hope vanished from their sight.  At least that is one way I imagine the moments that followed Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, which melded astonishing victory and paralyzing uncertainty.  The emotions were probably mixed: “Stick a fork in us, we’re done! That’s all, folks! Pack up and go home!” But, the sense of completion would turn quickly to confusion and abandonment: “Now what?  Really?  I guess that’s it?”  I have no doubt that all were feeling like shipwreck survivors watching a helicopter hover away leaving them to reclaim their grip on the flotsam.  I can just feel the apostles’ hearts collectively sink to their stomachs as they realized what they were witnessing, and all they could do was stand there helplessly and gape. In that moment the mission was far from over; in fact, the apostles’ role in the mission was being renewed and expanded beyond their imaginings.  We have a lot to learn by placing ourselves in the scene.  The days between the Church’s commemoration of the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost mark for us a time to reflect on that which petrifies us and keeps us from responding to our mission—that which makes the angels urge us, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

I like to think about what those angels might have liked to say to the stunned apostles in that moment (had they been slightly less angelic):

“Don’t you remember what he just told you, ya dummies?  It’s only been like ten seconds. I’ll say it again, but this time a little bit slower: He’s sending the Holy Spirit! You’re going to be his witnesses! You’ve got nothing to be afraid of.  Can’t you remember that he blessed this earth by walking among you and baptized it by his baptism in water?  He died for you and for everyone. He rose again and conquered death! Sins are forgiven! Love wins!  That’s GOOD NEWS!  How many times did he have to tell you this to get it through your thick skulls? Don’t just stand there! Do something! GO FORTH!”

Well, it seems we might need a few days to think this entire thing over if that’s okay.  It sounds kind of scary. Jesus could rock the boat, but we surely can’t.

“Heaven to the apostles. Heaven to the apostles…I’m sending you the Holy Spirit. Duh.”

We still don’t really get it.

“The Holy Spirit?  You know, the Paraclete?”

Now we’re even more confused. Is that some kind of bird or something?

“Well, ok, so sometimes the Holy Spirit does look like dove…I’ll give you that…but I think you might be thinking of a parakeet.”

Yeah, that’s it–a parakeet!

“Now you’ve completely distracted yourselves. Forget it.  You’ll understand in a few days.”

God is so patient with us.

Back to the present: What is it that petrifies us and keeps us looking towards the sky? Have we even taken a moment to hear the angels’ voices goad us onward?  Fortunately, we have been blessed with the seven-week long Easter season to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We have been hearing in the gospels again and again that Jesus will not leave us orphans and that the Holy Spirit will come upon us.  We are reminded that the time that comes after the Ascension is the age of the Holy Spirit; we are living in that age! Have we realized that?

The pope has been keen to remind us of the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives by his recent words and actions. In his homily during mass in Jordan, Pope Francis explained, “In a word, we can say that the Holy Spirit carries out three actions – he prepares, he anoints and he sends.”

Every authentic encounter with the Holy Spirit sends us forth.  It is the Holy Spirit that prepares us for our mission and drives us to carry out Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  The Spirit leads us on our missionary journey. Why then, if Jesus has sent the Spirit, are we still standing still?  As Pope Francis has said, “The gentrification of the heart paralyzes us.”  It is the fear of the unknown other.  I become so comfortable in my home, with my family, in my neighborhood, and with my friends that I start to become besieged in these comforts.  Outside of them I–like the apostles looking at the sky–become confused, frightened, and doubtful.  I cannot tear down these walls and be with the poor.  I cannot truly live the gospel. I cannot go forth.

In the papal exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis tells us, “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call and go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.” (EG, 20) The pope is telling us that every community must go forth.  We might make excuses, but being Christian means being a missionary.  We are all called to leave behind that which prevents us from sharing the Good News; however, what going forth actually looks like depends on the unique gifts that have been bestowed upon each community.  This is the advice I give when people tell me that they wish they could serve in a foreign mission, but cannot: You don’t have to go to Honduras, Uganda, or India to find the marginalized.  Look in your own city.  Take out a map.  Draw boxes around the neighborhoods that you have never visited.  One of those boxes is probably where you should go.  Of course, I highly encourage foreign mission work, but we have to recall that this is one calling among literally billions, which must be discerned.

The most important thing is to go forth and to challenge ourselves to be builders of the unity for which Jesus prayed, “that you may be one.”  Jesus has sent us the Spirit to propel us towards loving others in our diversity and fortifying the bonds of the human family.  This is, according to the pope, the mission of the Holy Spirit: “to beget harmony.” It will take effort, creativity, and patience to achieve the unity that flourishes with true evangelization.  The pope reminds us:

“Peace is not something which can be bought; it is a gift to be sought patiently and to be ‘crafted’ through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives. The way of peace is strengthened if we realize that we are all of the same stock and members of the one human family; if we never forget that we have the same heavenly Father and are all his children, made in his image and likeness.”

When we trust in the mission of the Holy Spirit, we begin to see a person not as a stranger but as a child of God.  The barriers begin to fall and going forth becomes easier.  We become more patient, peaceful, joyful, and loving; these are fruits of the Holy Spirit at work.  So, today let us pray for openness to receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives that all might experience the fruits.  With Pope Francis we pray:

“Let us ask the Spirit to prepare our hearts to encounter our brothers and sisters, so that we may overcome our differences rooted in political thinking, language, culture and religion. Let us ask him to anoint our whole being with the oil of his mercy, which heals the injuries caused by mistakes, misunderstandings and disputes. And let us ask him to send us forth, in humility and meekness, along the demanding but enriching path of seeking peace.”

Let us not find ourselves petrified looking up at the sky.  Let us go forth!

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