“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 14:15–21:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
As we approach Pentecost, Jesus prepares his apostles for the Holy Spirit, through which the Church will be built and the nations converted. Jesus speaks of the Advocate, the “Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept.” What is the Holy Spirit, and why did the world refuse to accept Him?
There are probably as many answers to the question of “who is the Holy Spirit” as there are people reading this post, because it’s difficult to define the infinite. (We’ll get to it shortly, though.) And that is indeed one reason why when Jesus spoke these words that “the world cannot accept” Him. Jesus tells the apostles that the world, which focused so intently on the material even in spiritual matters, could not accept the Holy Spirit because it hadn’t seen Him or understood Him. The teaching of Jesus that each person’s heart would become the temple of God through the surrender to the Holy Spirit was a revolutionary concept. The central focus of worship in Judaism was the Temple, where God dwelled among His people on Zion.
What Jesus proposed was the end of the temple system — presaged by the upending of the marketplace on his arrival and His teaching to open hearts to God rather than offer empty sacrifice. What the Father truly wants a sacrifice of a humbled and penitent heart, in order for the Holy Spirit to find its dwelling there. Twice in Kings II (22:19, 34:27), the Lord hears the cry of those who humbled himself before the Lord with true penitence and answered their prayers. In Romans 2:4-8, Paul warns that “God’s kindness” is meant to lead us to repentance, which necessarily involves humbling of heart and opening it to God’s love. Psalm 51:17 teaches that “a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Jesus himself urged his followers to ponder this: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:12).
The heart, then, becomes the sacrifice the Father wants, in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit. To understand why requires a clear comprehension of what the “heart” is in Judeo-Christian teaching. The heart is not just the wellspring of emotion, as is the popular conception in modern times. The heart is the seat of decision-making, where the intellect and the will meet. Far from being just a waterfall of “feelings,” it is the core of our being as humans made in God’s image. By offering up our hearts as a sacrifice, we are humbling our entire selves before God and asking Him to lead us, in order to use our reason and gifts to serve His will rather than our own.
And why? We do this out of love and trust. Caritas is a love that wills the good of the other; it is the love that God has for all of us, which takes form in the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Father and the Son. The gift of the Holy Spirit includes us in their Trinitarian life here in this world, and is but a glimpse of that life in the next. It wills the good for us, and we respond by accepting His love and surrendering to His will for all of Creation. This necessarily requires humbling and repentance on an ongoing basis. This is how we truly love God, in the caritas (or agape) sense of the word, and how that love responds and grows in the exchange.
Jesus remarked that “the world cannot accept” (or “receive” in some translations, such as Ignatian) this teaching at the time He spoke to His apostles. It’s not easy to accept two thousand years later, either, even though the culture of Christianity has always been a personal relationship with the Trinity through the Holy Spirit. Many of us feel comfortable giving their “love” to Jesus on the emotional level, but very few of us can consistently surrender to the Holy Spirit and trust in His goodness and superior will by living our lives as people of faith. This is why Jesus stresses at the very beginning of this passage that true love and trust in Him starts with surrendering hearts so that we may choose freely to keep His commandments to love one another with the same love that God gives us — the caritas that always wills the good of the other, not just feels sappy about them.
What happens when we live our lives in that kind of love and surrender? Our first reading today tells of how Philip converted the Samaritans through his proclamation of Christ and the marvelous signs he worked through the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17). Philip baptized them, but Peter and John followed up with a confirmation, through which the Samaritan Christians fully received the Holy Spirit (“Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit”). In our second reading (1 Peter 3:15-18), Peter stresses that we must “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” before evangelizing for Him. We must make the temple of the Holy Spirit — the intersection of our will, intellect, and gifts — His and His alone. When we do that and rely on hearts formed by the Holy Spirit, we act out of “gentleness and reverence … so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” The caritas of God will be unmistakable, and provide evidence of His love to others.
Nothing about this is easy, of course. It’s simpler to compartmentalize faith as just an emotional response, while still living our lives through hearts that refuse to be humbled. Lord knows I’ve certainly struggled with that. Giving up control to God requires a leap of faith and trust that has to overcome a fear that is almost elemental in our nature — the fear of loss of control. Being a parent is actually good training for this, in a strange way. When our children are very small, we think we can plan for every possibility and make them into perfect beings. By the time they hit adolescence, we realize how little true control we actually have. There is almost nothing more humbling than parenthood in the long run. Trusting in our own lights alone seems laughable and foolish in retrospect.
I love my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters with imperfect reason, will, and gifts, and yet still have that true caritas love for them. Imagine how much more wonderful is God’s love for all of us, expressed in the Holy Spirit. That’s not just a Hallmark card occasion, but the love on which we can entirely trust, as long as we truly offer our hearts to God as His temple within us.
Today’s image is a depiction of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.