“As Jesus turned water into wine, we have turned wine back into water, turned the intoxicating wine of the Gospel into a mushy grape jelly. He came to light a fire, and we have found a way to water it down… He came to spread his good infection, and we have found antidotes. The antidote for potent religion is pallid religion. The antidote for Christ is “Christian stuff.” The antidote for his noun is our adjective.” (Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock)
“Why do people in churches seem like cheerless, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? ...Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of Power we so blandly invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hemlines to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and draw us out to where we cannot return.” (Annie Dillard, An Expedition to the Pole)
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Jesus, Acts 1:8)
Yesterday was Pentecost, one of my favorite feast days of the liturgical year. The mass I attended had some great Holy Spirit-themed music and a solid homily from our pastor. But, I must admit I was a little disappointed and saddened by something that happened, or more accurately didn’t happen, during the liturgy. The second reading at yesterday’s mass was 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13. Now, chapter 12 of First Corinthians is a good source for Pentecost, but verses 8-11 were edited out of the passage. Here’s what we didn’t hear at mass yesterday:
“To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.”
These are commonly referred to as the “charismatic gifts” in part to their association with the Charismatic Renewal. Others have referred to these as the “power gifts” because they demonstrate God’s power in very tangible ways: healing, miracles, prophecies, tongues. The Catholic Church maintains the validity of these gifts and their ongoing presence in the life of the Church today. The problem is most people don’t have any firsthand experience with seeing these gifts in action. Many assume that the exercise of these gifts is left only to the super-holy, to the rare saintly individuals.
I suspect the reason your average Catholic hasn’t encountered these gifts is because no one in the Church talks about them or expects to see them. Just look at how we conveniently edit them out of our reading of scripture. When candidates are preparing for confirmation we drill into them the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”. Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, are taken from Isaiah 11, a passage describing the attributes of the coming messiah. If you didn’t know any better or didn’t read the New Testament for yourself (and let’s face it, many average Catholics don’t) you would think that these are the ONLY gifts being handed out by the Holy Spirit. No wonder there is an energy crisis, a power outage, in so many of our Churches and in the lives of so many individual Catholics.
It wasn’t always this way. For the first few centuries of the Church the presence of the gifts described in 1 Cor. 12 was more normative and commonplace. I can’t go into all of the reasons for their decline here, but highly recommend Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit by Rev. Kilian O’Donnell, OSB and Rev. George Montague, SM.
Pentecost should be an annual reminder to the Church that the Holy Spirit comes in power, that we are filled and equipped with that power to bring the Good News of the presence of God into the world. The New Testament word translated as “power” is dunamis. It’s the same Greek root where we get the word dynamite, and it appears 116 times in the New Testament. We need to hear the words of St. Paul to Timothy as being addressed to each of us today, “For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.” (2 Tim. 1:7)
As Catholics we believe that we have been “baptized into Christ” and that we have received the Holy Spirit (the presence of the Person, not just his gifts) through baptism and confirmation. More than that, we actually receive into our bodies the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus every time we partake in the Eucharist. Just think about all that power and presence that is being poured into us. What are we doing with it? There really should be a warning label for each time we gather together as a body. Jesus said his followers “will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these” (Jn 14:12) Is that your experience of church? What would it look like if we all took those words to heart, if we all started putting into use the grace and power we have been given?
I for one am tired living a “normal” life, I want to live a “power-filled” life. I can remember living that kind of life before. When I was in college I lived within a faith community that had an expectation that God was at work in our lives, that he was working through us, and that he was actively speaking to us. I’ve personally seen what can happen when we live this out. I’ve seen healings through prayer. I’ve seen people weep at hearing a timely and prophetic word spoken to them. I’m ready to see it again. How about you?