On Sunday, I was blessed to be able to return to my church in south Louisiana. It had been months since I’d gotten to attend Mass, and to be able to walk into the building was a lot more refreshing to the soul than I’d realized it would be.
Of course, like most things re-opening in Louisiana, there are limits. The church was only opened to about 25 percent capacity (around 150 or so), but in reality, just over a third of that number showed up to celebrate. Most came in wearing masks, including me, and used the hand sanitizer that was available.
Before I continue, I have to confess that I have never been the most devout of Catholics. I grew up in a Catholic home, was an altar server in my youth, and went to a Catholic school for high school. But I was generally lacking in conviction. It wasn’t until I became a father that I realized if I wasn’t going to do it for me, I needed to do it for my daughters. We’ve lived here for several years now, but only recently really got into a regular church routine, joined our church, and I signed up to be a reader on Sundays.
I had volunteered to read for Mass this week, so I headed into the sacristy to read over the readings of the day, and pray both for strength and clarity and in praise for just being able to be back. As I read through the readings for that day, the sixth Sunday of Easter, I was struck by how apt it all felt.
While I had never been really awed by the celebration of Mass in my youth, I loved reading the Bible. To do so at Mass made it even more inspiring. You are there, not just reading it, but taking part in it. And as I read Sunday’s readings to just over 60 people, I realized that those readings on that day, as the day we return to Mass, could not have been a coincidence.
The first reading came from Acts, and it tells the story of the conversion of the people of Samaria to Christianity.
Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city.
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then theylaid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17)
Like the Samarians, we were all at Mass on Sunday, listening to the works of Jesus and his disciples, and in that moment, we are in awe of those works in much the same way the Samarians were. Many of us have been watching broadcasts of church services, but there is a big difference between watching Mass and celebrating it in person. With childlike wonder, we can return to our church for the first time in months and feel the presence of God around us.
Such is the power of the Holy Spirit in cases like this, where the power of prayer by Peter and John was enough to bring it to the people of Samaria. The Holy Spirit, the third form of God in the Holy Trinity, symbolizes the knowledge and strength necessary to be a follower of Jesus, and we, like the Samarians, were blessed enough to receive it. In some cases, merely the act of returning to church is enough to rekindle that flame and bring us closer to God.
The second reading, which came from the first letter of Peter, brings into focus many of the things that we see bubbling up around us in the political world during these times.
Beloved: Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of unrighteousness, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. (1 Peter 3:15-18)
I was reminded all too quickly in reading this that we are so often having to deal with the consequences of a largely secular and even hostile to faith society. People who want to return to their churches are mocked for wanting to spread COVID-19 to the older members of their church (I have to laugh here, because the attendees who largely did not wear masks at Mass at my church were older members). People who wish to live their faith are routinely derided in public and often are pushed out of the public square by a culture largely bent on destroying Christian norms.
But there is a not-insignificant number within our own movement whose response to these secular urgings is an equal amount of hostility, and that does not solve any issues. That is precisely what Peter is saying in his letter that we should not do. He is calling for grace, for us to offer undeserved goodwill to people who are not of Christ and his teachings. Those of us trapped in the negative vortex of social media especially must do better and live by this reading more readily.
These two readings together are a real roadmap to finding a level of peace in this crisis that we’ve otherwise been unable to find. It is incredibly important in times like these to find a level of peace within yourself and offer grace even in the face of such adversity because that is what brings us closest to God. There is a reason today’s readings refer so much to the Holy Spirit. We are approaching Pentecost Sunday. Jesus entrusts us with the Holy Spirit in order to spread his word and his grace to others.
Now is the time for us to do that, and strengthen ourselves.