By Corrine Winter
During Mass the past two Sundays, we’ve heard the accounts of Ascension and Pentecost. However we interpret the details of those accounts, it seems to me that they show the followers of Jesus recognizing that it was their turn to step up and that is a recognition we all need to share.
The ascension account includes what we sometimes call “the great commission:” “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them …” The Pentecost story shows the disciples transformed from cowering in fear to enthusiastic witnesses. Because our liturgical cycle takes us through these passages once a year, and because we are often tempted to romanticize the first years of Christianity, we tend to think of the Pentecost transition as purely miraculous, sudden and certain.
But I rather expect that, more like us, the early Christians experienced deep questions, fears, disagreements and setbacks. Some of the Easter appearance accounts give hints of such feelings. Thomas doubts; Peter doesn’t understand why Jesus asks him three times about his (Peter’s) love for Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus until he has moved on. The Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles also show the struggles of the early Christian communities.
Looking back at the early struggles, we profess the firm conviction that the Holy Spirit was at work. So what about when we face our own transitions? Do we expect God to provide a sort of divine GPS? Or can we recognize the work of the Spirit precisely as we struggle to get it right?
Fifty years ago this coming October, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. As we look back and forward, how do we think about the ongoing call for aggiornamento (renewal) within the Church? There are still doubters. Some suggest that since Vatican II was more pastoral than dogmatic in its decrees, we are not bound by its teachings as we are by the work of other councils. There are those who wonder why we needed to raise again questions that were considered “settled.” There are those who feel hurt by what they perceive as losses — of some liturgical practices or of a sense that they knew the answers in matters of faith. There are those who feel impatient for changes they thought would surely come after the Council. And that is certainly just a sampling.
So — do we find an upper room and hide waiting for wind and flames — or for a definitive decree from Rome? Or can we venture forth, not recklessly, but with faith that the God who called fishers and tax collectors, widows, orphans, the poor and the lame, also calls us and works in and through us?
Pope Benedict has called for a celebration of a year of faith to stretch from October 2012 through November 2013, to be marked by efforts at all levels to study, pray and give witness to the faith we share. In an interesting coincidence, the bishops of Australia had already begun to call for a “year of grace” to stretch from Pentecost 2012 through Pentecost 2013. They have extended their celebration so that its conclusion will also be in November 2013. Their website calls for commitment to prayer, especially to the liturgy, to contemplation of Christ and his work, to a renewal of commitment on the part of all. One of the prayers published on that site includes the following words:
“You invite us to contemplate the face of Jesus your Son, that we may experience a new wave of grace, and that the light of Christ may burn more brightly in our lives.
“Attune our hearts and minds to the presence of your Holy Spirit, that our Church may be transformed, our relationships be healed, and our nation grow in compassion and justice.” (yearofgrace.catholic.org.au)
Prayer, study and evangelization, with all members of the Church actively involved, seem to respond both to the message of Pentecost and to that of Vatican II. We can’t afford to give up or to hide in an upper room whether its walls are physical or made up of complaints and criticisms of those “others” whom we see as a threat to Catholicism as we think it should be.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)