The Consolation of the Spirit
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Finn notes that the scriptures acknowledge the depth of human suffering before offering hope.
Across the Day Treatment Unit, the nurse picked up my high levels of anxiety. It can be frightening to learn you have no neutrophils, no white blood cells with which to fight infection or heal bruises. Knowing I was a priest, she slipped me a post-it note. It invited me to read from today’s second reading St Paul’s reminder to Timothy that through the laying on of hands God had given me a spirit not of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control. She promised to make that reminder her prayer for me. Four years on, with good blood counts at last, I give God thanks for her timely and Pentecostal support.
I guess we all need from time to time such spirited reminders of the love God has for us, a reminder that we have been graced with nothing less than the Spirit of Christ crucified and risen in glory. Such support is proper to our shared life as sisters and brothers in Christ. Even the apostles in today’s Gospel ask the Lord to increase their faith. This matters because it is one thing to know something notionally, another to be able to take that knowledge to heart, to dwell upon its significance, so allowing it to calm fears, nurture hope, and strengthen resolve in courage to face such difficulties and sufferings as still lie ahead. That crucial ability is greatly enhanced by the compassion, the faithful witness, the solidarity of our sisters and brothers.
In today’s first reading the prophet Habakkuk voices both parts of a dialogue between God and His chosen people. He begins by voicing their prayer for help, their near-desperation in the face of prolonged violence and injustice. Time drags under oppression. How can God still not come to their rescue? Where is the sense of such suffering? And we should note that the prophet does not condemn such hard questions, nor such cries for help. It would be a false spirituality that denied or suppressed the reality of grief. This is what prayer should be in such times.
Only then does Habakkuk voice God’s answer to such prayers, reiterate God’s promise to come to the rescue of His people. The message is to be written on tablets, like the very Law of God itself, to be so plain, so clear, that the reader of those tablets immediately takes to his or her heels and runs. Why does the reader run? Presumably to keep up with the speed of God’s promise as it translates into action, as it comes to fulfilment. Though that fulfilment may seem slow to us, we find a new energy to ready ourselves for its advent.
In the Gospel Jesus reminds the apostles that they too must prepare themselves as they wait for the fulfilment of God’s promise in His own mission. Jesus offers what at first sight is a harsh reminder of how slaves or servants are expected to wait at table on their master even after a hard day’s agricultural labour. The apostles must serve Christ in all humility, thinking of themselves as merely ‘unworthy servants’ doing their duty. As Luke’s Gospel unfolds, they must learn how they will pick up and run with Christ’s challenging mission of proclaiming Good News to the poor, freedom for captives, the advent of God’s healing justice. It will frequently be a hard lesson in the sufferings that accompany such a mission. But in Acts, the sequel to that Gospel, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost to fulfil that mission. That gift which St Paul calls the spirit of power and love and self-control is of course not the gift of three separate things: it is the very presence within us of the Holy Spirit whose love empowers us to so love God, and others as God loves them, that we master and train our desires in self-control, serving Him and them as love requires and calls us to. For that gift, and by that gift, we may give heartfelt thanks.
Image: from a stained glass window at Salisbury cathedral featuring Jesus with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP