Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ain't No Shame

   Pentecost   B 

Some years ago, McDonald’s Corporation commissioned a study to understand why customers chose to order food through the drive-thru rather than go inside the restaurant. Most of us would guess it’s a matter of convenience.  But the main reason the researchers discovered was actually shame.  It seems that a lot of folks who use the drive-thru are ordering food between meals, so they’re afraid of who might see them getting that chocolate shake and large fry as a snack at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Wanting to keep their customers happy (and keep their money coming in), McDonald’s changed the drive-thru experience: ordering your meal by number through a speaker, then paying quickly at one window before picking up your order the next—minimizing the human contact you’ll have and so helping you to feel more anonymous.  Of course, that’s now the standard for any fast-food establishment.

In our gospel reading this Sunday, we find the Apostles on that first Easter night hoping to remain anonymous.  They’re locked together in the upper room.  They’re there because of fear: fear that what happened to Jesus just two days before, leaving him dead and buried, would also happen to them.  And they’re also there because of shame: shame that in their Master’s hour of trial and suffering, one of their own had betrayed him, another had denied him, and all but one had fled.

In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we find the same group gathered in one place 50 days later—presumably huddled together in the very same upper room.  But then the Holy Spirit descends upon them…and everything changes.  Now they’re out in the streets, speaking to strangers from foreign lands about Jesus Christ.  And we know they’re in the midst of a huge crowd, because later in the chapter we’re told that 3,000 people asked to be baptized that very day.

It’s too bad our passage doesn’t continue for just a couple of more verses, because we'd hear some in that crowd saying, “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning…but I think these guys are drunk!”  Which prompts Peter to declare, “No, our heads aren't swimming in new wine!  But our hearts are on fire with the Spirit of God, and we just can’t keep it to ourselves.”

What a difference the Holy Spirit makes!  All their fear and shame are gone.

Isn’t there just one Holy Spirit?  And isn’t the Holy Spirit that you and I received in Baptism and Confirmation the very same Holy Spirit that was given to the Apostles on Pentecost?  Then…where’s the striking change?  Where’s the dramatic difference?  Where’s the fire?

Let’s consider what happens in the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Confirmation is ordinarily conferred by a Bishop. And who’s a Bishop?  A successor to the Apostles—at our end of an unbroken chain that reaches back to that bunch gathered in the upper room. It’s takes an apostle to make an apostle—and that’s just what Confirmation aims to do.  

We’re given the gift of the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, when he serves as the glue that binds us together to Christ and his Body, the Church.  But the same Spirit who gathers us in as followers—as disciples—in Baptism, then sends us out as witnesses—as apostles—in Confirmation. The Spirit sends us out, not to leave the Church and never return (although that seems to happen far too often), but to go out so we can bring others in.  The Spirit is the wind in our sails, giving us power and direction as we go forth.

What does the Bishop do to confirm us?  He anoints us with holy oil—with the Sacred Chrism.  “Chrism” is only one letter different from “Christ,” and that’s no accident, for “Christ” literally means “the anointed one.” The Holy Spirit works through the sign of this holy oil to make you another Christ.  In Confirmation, we don’t confirm our own faith as a Catholic; rather, it’s God who confirms us as one of his own—sealing and perfecting what he began in Baptism.  Confirmation puts an invisible but permanent mark on your soul so that you will be able to leave a visible mark on the world.  

You are anointed on the forehead because this belonging to God, this likeness to Christ, this presence of the Holy Spirit within you, ought to be seen all over your face. Likewise, the Sacred Chrism is perfumed, usually with balsam (giving it a nice woodsy, Adirondack aroma). You know how, when someone wears too much perfume or cologne, you can always tell right where they’ve been? Well, we Christians ought to be so holy that you can smell it!  We ought to leave an unmistakable trail of sanctity everywhere we go.

After the Bishop anoints you on the forehead with Sacred Chrism, he says, “Peace be with you”—the very greeting the Risen Jesus spoke to his Apostles that first Easter. Nowadays, he usually does so with a modest, reserved handshake.  But back in the day, he’d slap the newly confirmed on the cheek (how hard it was done seems to have depended on the particular Bishop).  Why the slap when giving you a greeting of peace? To toughen you up. Christians need to be ready at all times to suffer for the Faith.  

We don't often speak this way any more, but the truth remains: Confirmation makes you a soldier of Christ.  That doesn’t mean we’re looking for a fight, becoming part of gang that’s ready to rumble.  No, the battle is already on.  It’s going on within us, as St. Paul points out to the Galatians: the flesh wars against the Spirit; we’re caught in the struggle between the things that drag us down to earth and those trying to lift us up to heaven.  And you don’t need me to give you examples of the battle that raging all around us and—sadly—sometimes even among us.

The very same gift given to the Apostles on that first Pentecost has already been given to you.  The Holy Spirit dwells within you!  But where’s that energy?  Where’s the spark?  Where’s the fire?  Unfortunately, far too many of us treat our Catholic life as if it were a drive-thru window: we pull up, get what we’re after, hoping to drive off as quickly as possible and without needing to deal with too many people in the process. And so, whether it’s because of fear, or shame, or doubt, or a lazy desire for convenience, we remain locked together in the upper room.

To make a glass of chocolate milk is simple enough, right?  You take a glass of milk and squeeze the chocolate syrup into it.  But you can’t stop there, or the chocolate just sits on the bottom and the milk remains unchanged.  It still needs to be stirred.  And so it is with the gift of the Spirit.  His presence is powerful, but it isn’t magic.  Get all stirred up—and don’t wait another day to do it.

We have our marching orders.  God has given us a mission and equipped us with everything we need to accomplish it.  Now it’s up to us to move—and no one else can do it for you.

The Lord has sent out his Spirit—has poured his Holy Spirit into our hearts.  It’s time to get up and go—to go out and renew the face of the earth.

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