Fortunately for the parish, I’m a fairly cautious pastor. The rather wild
banner we produced for Project Advance this year is about as far as I go when it comes to experimenting.
But if I really let myself daydream, there are two experiments I’d like to try. The first would be two-hour long Masses. Masses as long as the average movie. What do you think would happen? You don’t need to think very long—we all know that St. Anthony’s and Holy Trinity would be totally packed.
The second experiment is even less likely, because first I’d have to get elected Pope. I would make attending Mass optional for a month of Sundays. And what do you think would happen then?
The answer to that is not so obvious. I really don’t know what would happen.
These ideas sound crazy to Catholic ears. Yet there are evangelical Protestant churches where attendance is not an obligation and the services run two hours—and they’re full.
Let’s look at our readings today with my two experiments in mind. Because I think the Word of God has something to say about our attitude to Mass and particularly to what we call the Sunday obligation.
The first reading speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s clearly not the same as the Sacrament of Confirmation, since the Spirit comes down on these folks before they’re even baptized. Rather, the Spirit is poured out on them as they hear St. Peter preach.
We find two significant things here: first, the Holy Spirit “fell upon” the people; the Spirit was “poured out” on them. Listen to the language: this is a dramatic moment, something of an eruption of grace.
Second, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” God doesn’t even wait for St. Peter to finish. It’s the first time God ever interrupted a homily!
Let’s test our own experience against this story. Have we experienced anything remotely like it? Has we ever felt the Spirit flooding our hearts, falling on us, poured out on us? No need to leap to your feet—I know there are people in church this morning who have had this experience. But I doubt they had it while listening to someone preach!
Okay, maybe it’s the preachers’ fault. But the Acts of the Apostles gives us the rest of Peter’s words—we get only a bit of his sermon today—and it doesn’t sound particularly brilliant. On top of that, we have the fact that the Spirit comes before the sermon is over. It suggests to me that the power is in the message itself, in God’s Word, in the same great truths we hear preached all the time.
Somehow repetition seems to have dulled the power of the Word to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and to His gifts.
(This is a good time to remind you that Dr. Ralph Martin, a powerful promoter of the Holy Spirit and his gifts, will be giving our parish mission at the end of the month. Here’s what he wrote about the baptism of the Holy Spirit that we encounter today in the first reading: “There is a temptation to build a little shrine around Pentecost and talk about it as a special moment when the Church first began. But Peter is able to tell us NO, NO, NO, don’t do that! This is a permanent reality that the Lord wants to give each new group of Christians. This is something that Jesus wants to do. It wasn’t just for the Apostles.”)
In our second reading we hear three very famous words from St. John: God is love. Love is what connects everything. We love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves, knows God.
How does this fit with our personal experience? Does it seem a bit abstract? But the passage has very practical consequences. First, God sent His only Son “so that we might live through him.” That has to mean something, living through Jesus. Certainly enough for another homily.
Then John says that the big thing is not our love for God but God’s love for us. Let’s be honest, that’s not the way most of us usually think. We’re more concerned with doing a good job in showing God we love him than we are in letting him love us.
The second reading also says that “God sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That has many consequences, eternal ones, but it also points us to the Mass. If we believe that the Sacrifice of the Mass makes present the one sacrifice atoning for our own sins, why do we attend as an obligation rather than a joy?
Which brings us to the Gospel reading, where Jesus offers us joy—his joy, complete joy. Do we get that in church on Sunday?
Every so often we peek through the curtain of obligation and see what Jesus wants us to see. It happened at First Holy Communion yesterday morning. No-one was there as a duty. No-one was fulfilling and obligation. And the joy wasn’t just about the beautiful children. It was about Jesus. I watched more than one parent holding back tears—tears of joy.
One of the greatest joys that Jesus offers us is friendship with him. Imagine telling a friend you’ll spend one hour visiting, and not a moment more. Or that you’d be fulfilling your obligation to him or her by meeting for lunch on Wednesday.
There’s no danger that I’ll start celebrating two-hour Masses and even less danger that I will be elected Pope. But I think we could start today to rethink some of the attitudes we have to Jesus our friend and to Jesus who is love itself.
What might this involve? In two words, great expectations. Why shouldn’t the Holy Spirit interrupt the homily by falling afresh on those who listen with open ears? If we come to Mass to fulfill an obligation, then we’ll experience the limited rewards of duty. What God wants us to expect is an outpouring of his own Spirit, the joy of knowing the love of God and the God of love.