Perhaps we can all agree that the world finds itself in unchartered waters as we move forward in the wake of the recent pandemic. I recall the preparations we had to take on deployment years ago, simply to move from point A to point B. In the U.S., a car can cover a ten mile distance easily in fifteen minutes. In Iraq, the same trip would require a dozen heavily armed vehicles, each with a gunner in the turret, a “Blue Force Tracker” (advanced GPS whereby the party remained in constant touch with headquarters), and a 60-minute safety briefing. Given the average speed of 5 MPH, each convoy could take upwards of four hours. What seems like wildly unnecessary precaution at home was responsible behavior under extraordinary circumstances. And yet, we knew we had to move out; we had a mission to complete. As our nation now makes preparations to resume public life, we face countless questions: exactly when do we go back to work? How do we interact with each other? What is the prudent balance between safety and obligation? As important as our task was in the military, the stakes are even higher now. Indeed the Church, which is in the world but not of it, must discern through prayer, sacrifice, and a return to the sacraments, how best to witness to Christ in a civilization forever changed. How we make our way is the subject of today’s Scriptures.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us it is a good thing that he is going away. Why? During his earthly ministry, Jesus is subject to time and space, but after his resurrection the Lord Jesus is closer to his Disciples than ever before. Anyone who has been on a long journey knows how important it is to have a clear route, a clear sense of direction, and a clear destination. Similarly, in the spiritual life, the evangelist drives home the idea that route, direction and destination, or as he calls them, “the way, the truth, and the life,” are all the same: Jesus. The mystery of the Incarnation means that by taking our human nature, the Son of God would draw us to Heaven, into the very life of the Blessed Trinity. St. Augustine says: “The Word of God, which is truth and life with the Father, by taking upon Him human nature, is made the way. Walk by the Man, and you will arrive at God. For it is better to limp on the right way, than to walk ever so stoutly by the wrong.” Fine, but how exactly are we to follow him? He was God, after all. The Gospel will go on, next week, to explain that Jesus will ask the Father to send another Advocate, or Paraclete, to remain with the community of faith and make Christ present in their midst. This, of course, is the Holy Spirit, who descends on the Apostles on Pentecost Sunday. What concrete difference does the Holy Spirit make for Christians?
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is quite interesting. At first glance, the passage seems to be a relatively straightforward account of the way in which the early Church resolved a rather simple problem, namely, the neglect of Greek-speaking widows in favor of their Hebrew-speaking counterparts. And so, the Twelve, after prayer and consultation, choose seven men of Gentile origin, and filled with the Holy Spirit. These they appoint to the task of distributing goods to those who are in need. Problem solved. But in a wider context, we hear over and over again that the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection reaches out inexorably to the farthest corners of the world to embrace people from every nation, race, language and way of life. Nothing is able to thwart it. The only times the sacred author ever mentions any of these seven Greek-speaking deacons again—that is, Stephen and Philip—we find them, not waiting on tables, but preaching the Word of God. In the case of Stephen, we behold the first Christian martyr who suffers an amazingly Christ-like death in testimony to the crucified/risen Lord Jesus. What are we to make of this? The story of the Gentile deacons reminds us, first, that the Holy Spirit animates the inner life of the Church. Moreover, the Church must clearly and concretely reflect within the world the bond of divine love that is that Holy Spirit through acts of love and service. This love, in turn, cannot help but attract those who are searching for God. Charity and tolerance are the hallmarks of the Catholic Church, and point to God as the infinite source wisdom and love.