By Fr. Joe DeFrancisco, S.T.D
I am beginning a yearlong series of theological reflections offering teachings on the life of prayer, our Christian spiritual journey and various models of spirituality. The new title of this monthly series will be “First-Friday” spirituality.
Many of us baby-boomers grew up
with First Friday devotionalism as a means of adding something more pronounced and special to our celebration of Eucharist and sacraments. The purpose and direction of this series will take a different turn in offering a once monthly opportunity to meditate more deeply and deliberately into our life of faith. Hopefully, this may challenge us to set monthly goals of growing and maturing in our Christian spiritual life through the graces, presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. The sources of reflecting critically on our Christian spiritual life remain true to our Catholic spiritual tradition. Consequently, these reflections will be grounded in Scriptures, the sacramental and liturgical life of the church, the life of the saints, particularly the doctors of the church, Catholic spiritual theologians and magisterial teaching reflected in the pronouncements of popes and ecumenical councils.
This first article comes at an opportune time in the liturgical calendar: the Feast of Pentecost. The Christian Feast of Pentecost took on a new theological and spiritual meaning from its Jewish origins. The Jewish Feast, called Feast of Weeks, was revealed to the early Hebrews in four of the five books in the Torah (Pentateuch), in recognition of God’s benevolence in blessing the first fruits of the early wheat harvest annually celebrated between early May and early June. This was a “pilgrim” celebration for the Hebrews as they gathered in Jerusalem to await the High Priest’s blessing of two loaves of new wheat bread. He offered a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving in the hope that the first and early harvest would see its culmination in the final harvest some months later.
The Greek word “penta” meaning 50, defines the feast as an event lasting seven weeks, or 50 days. The transformation of this Jewish Feast is dramatically chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke records one of the many appearances of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Jesus counseled the disciples to remain in Jerusalem and “await the promise of the Father.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus shared with the apostles a lengthy sermon on the exact nature of the gift of the Holy Spirit as first fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection (John 16). Jesus used metaphors for the life and power of the Spirit by promising his followers that they would feast on the new “Bread of Life,” and be satiated by the new “Living Waters.”
Again, in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus reminds us: “John baptized you with water, in the days to come you will be baptized in the Spirit.”(Acts 2.) As a result, the Christian celebration of Pentecost reveals several theological meanings; first and foremost, the life and presence of the Holy Spirit guiding, inspiring, and empowering Christ’s church. Likewise, baptized Christians gratuitously receive various graces to engage the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ — to build up the Kingdom of God on earth through love, charity, peace and justice.
The story of Pentecost in Acts dramatizes the dynamism and power of the Spirit in the life of the Apostles as they immediately exercise the gifts of the Spirit, namely, wisdom, knowledge, courage and counsel, in addition to what we now refer to as extraordinary gifts, such as the miracle of hearing the first pronouncement of the Gospel of Jesus in various languages. While the Pentecost event reveals the life of the Spirit as giving birth to the body of Christ in his church, St. Paul after his own conversion and transformation came to believe in an equally crucial need and response to the life of the Spirit in ordinary Christian life. In 1 Cor.3 Paul challenges us to critically meditate on the true nature of our own spiritual journey. Through the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, Paul becomes an impassioned follower, teacher and evangelizer. He knew his early conversion was still in its infancy but the challenges and risks of witnessing to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection obligated him to “grow up” quickly.
The Corinthian converts were not mature. They were still attached to the world and perhaps too worldly. The factions and divisions served to demonstrate their spiritual weakness. The only real alternative to a weak faith and spiritual infancy is prayerfully inviting God’s Holy Spirit to move us to the next step, a new level of faith, love, hope and prayerfulness.
Our spiritual life is not self-propelled. God’s Holy Spirit daily invites us to immerse ourselves into the life of God and the suffering of the world. If participating in the fullness of Christ’s love is our goal, then in prayer we ask the Spirit to bestow on us the graces, the desire and willingness to personally respond to these graces. This is the essence of our daily spiritual life and the first steps in growing to full union with God.
(Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco, S.T.D., is professor of theology and pastoral studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)