CYCLE A | EASTER | WEEK 6
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Nature abhors vacuum. That’s why in the short gap of 40 days that Moses left the people of Israel at the foot of the Mount Sinai as he climbed to receive the Ten Commandments from God, they moulded a graven image and started worshipping it. As he prepares to take leave of his disciples, Jesus wouldn’t leave them that vulnerable. He assures them in this Sunday’s Gospel: “I would not leave you orphans”. While he was with them, he was their Advocate so he promises them ‘another Advocate… the Spirit of Truth’.
In legal terms, an advocate is a defence lawyer who stands by you in court, giving you support, advice and comfort in situations of difficulty. But the Holy Spirit goes further to empower and confirm, making people firmer in wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God. Thus, Jesus is even more powerfully present “in the Spirit”. After Easter, the whole Church had a living and powerful experience of the Spirit as consoler, defender, ally, in its internal and external difficulties, in the persecutions, in the trials, in everyday life.
Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, baptism in the Holy Spirit is associated with empowering believers with the gifts (charisms) for mission; the power to effectively announce Christ to others. Writing to a persecuted church in the Second Reading for instance, Peter enjoined the faithful to be ready to give an explanation to anyone who questions their hopes and convictions. Yes, the Christian faith is not an irrational superstition. It was open to interrogation right from the very first day as Mary asks the Angel Gabriel, “How could this (conception) come about since I am a virgin?” Thus, our faith is not opposed to reason; it can and should be explained. Moreover, gaining clarity of one’s beliefs might not only help someone else but will strengthen one’s own resolve.
However, Peter directs that accounting for one’s beliefs be done “with courtesy and respect so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may be proved wrong”. That is the spirit of the crucified Jesus who forgave even those who are putting him to death. Both the wisdom to account for one’s convictions and the discipline to do it with attitude of gentleness and reverence are by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Christians need this grace more as Christianity faces even more hostility than the Christian society Peter was addressing. The 20th century alone produced more Christian martyrs than all the previous 19 centuries combined.
More instructively, Peter counsels that: “If it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.” A young girl is pregnant and comes to one of the Planned Parenthood centres with a difficult decision to make. If she chooses to carry the baby to term, then, she’ll miss her graduation, and people will talk about her. If she chooses to terminate the pregnancy now, people will not know about her situation and her life will appear to go on normal. But she knows that she will always remember the life she had terminated. She chooses to do what is right which means immediate suffering, but knowing forever that she has given instead of taking life. Choices as this are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
When the martyrs went to their death, their fortitude was inspired by the Holy Spirit. When the missionaries defied all odds and went to proclaim the faith far away from their comfort zones, it was by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, the Holy Spirit does not only give us fortitude in trials, it inspires everything beautiful: masterpieces in the arts and breakthroughs in the sciences. The parents who lovingly and devoutly raised us, the saintly sister or priest we know, the committed teacher who taught us, the trusted friend and even stranger who shaped our lives positively all welcomed the Holy Spirit into their hearts and shared it with us.
We all need the divine Helper, the Holy Spirit who stands always by our side. The Spirit is the fuel of the church, the energy and life force of the body of Christ; the capacity to do the things we can never imagine to do on our own. Jesus once acknowledged that left on our own, we err (John 15:5). Pelagius, a 5th century British thinker had erroneously taught that human beings have the natural ability to fulfil God’s commands if they so choose. The church condemned his teaching as a heresy, insisting that human beings always need God’s grace in order to please God.
We receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism and its aforementioned Seven Gifts at Confirmation. But today’s Gospel reveals another way, “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 forever” (John 14: 15-16). Keeping his commandments is to live by the law of love; an unconditional willing of the good of every single person. Thus, all people of goodwill are open to receiving and being guided by the Holy Spirit.
Notwithstanding the important questions regarding family, career, security, the ultimate question should be: “What is the Holy Spirit empowering me to do better?” “What has the Holy Spirit already empowered me to do. In the nine days between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost, the church invites all her children to a period of prayer and waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us follow in the footsteps of the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus who, after the Ascension of Our Lord, retired to the upper room to wait and pray for the promised Advocate (Acts 1:14).