Listen to this:
…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
When the Holy Spirit comes upon us something great will happen: we will be given the power to be witnesses. In Greek, the language many of the newly baptized spoke during the apostles’ time, the word for witness is the same as the word for martyr. That was hardly a slip of the tongue or an accidental coincidence. I’m sure that confluence of meanings was not lost on the early disciples of Jesus. For them, this promise of Jesus meant that to be clothed in the Holy Spirit meant to be asked to speak of Him and to die for Him. We read of the martyrdom of countless new Christians in the early persecutions, and we may find ourselves thinking, Well, that was powerful. No wonder there were so many conversions. Amen. And we move on.
But we have to stop and listen again: By the power of the Holy Spirit we will be witnesses and martyrs, to the ends of the earth. Oh. Is that part of the Plan? Do we have a choice? Will it happen to me?
Do you think about martyrdom? Those of us who were confirmed fifty or more years ago recall that the Bishop ‘gave a blow to the face of the Confirmandi.’ We were all tapped on the cheek after we were anointed with chrism. We had been taught that this was to remind us that we were now soldiers of Christ, and we must be ready to die for Jesus. For me, and probably for you, that was a very sober moment in our faith formation. The prospect of martyrdom loomed large on the horizon of my 10 year-old life as I had nightmares of how that would take place, what I would say at the moment, and how the Holy Spirit had better be there to help me, because I was not very brave! I know I wasn’t the only one with those nocturnal visitations of the future. Pope Francis himself has said that he doesn’t mind the thought of being a martyr, but he hopes it won’t hurt….
Seriously, times haven’t changed much. We often hear about the martyrdom of our Catholic brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Asia. Not only that; we are hearing, even as we read this, about the prospect of losing our rights as Christians here in America, of having the rug of religious freedom pulled out from under us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways How, we ask God, will we protect our sons and daughters from whatever is to come? What if we become separated from our loved ones? What if we can no longer speak openly about our beautiful faith to our children, our co-workers, or our people in our faith communities? What if we would be criticized–or arrested –for praying with a young couple in the frozen food aisle at the grocery store when we’re asked to do so? We see this happening in parts of our world, and it’s not so certain that it will never happen ‘here.’
What does all this mean in the context of our Novena for Pentecost? I suggest it means that the coming of our Beloved Holy Spirit will not be without responsibility. Certainly we will be transformed. That is His work, and it will be beautiful! But in that transformation will lie the seed of martyrdom. Does that mean death? Most of us would pray that it won’t, not like we have seen on television or on our computer screens. But it will, without a doubt, come with a price.
One, or ten or forty or seventy years ago we or our godparents for us promised to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, and to renounce Satan in all his works and all his empty promises. We have already discovered the beauty of this gift we gave—or rather, the beauty of the gift we were given. What tender love was poured into us by our God when we received the Holy Spirit in Baptism, in our Confirmation, our marriage, our religious profession or our Priesthood, and in the difficulties of our lives, both personally and professionally, and in the countless ways He makes His presence known to us in prayer and in the reading of Scripture, as we encounter the call to witness to the ends of the earth, beginning around our own dinner tables.
We live in perilous times. So have all Christians of all times. Only the details are different. The Breath of God has been blowing through human souls since the early Church. There were martyrdoms then, and there are martyrdoms now, in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the faith. We have no idea what people around us may be enduring, but we know that ‘each one is fighting a battle, so be gentle with everyone you meet today,’ because the Holy Spirit is calling him or her to witness to the ends of the earth, even as He is asking you to do the same. Witness? Martyr? How similar those words are. How sweet those words are. And so we pray today:
Dear Mother Mary, as I wait with you for His coming on Pentecost I long to renew the Grace of my Confirmation. I do not want to dwell in the house of fear but in the House of Love. Beg the Holy Spirit to grant me courage and generosity in carrying out whatever I am asked to do for Him. Help me to be brave in the face of trials, that I will be a faithful witness, a martyr who places my hand in the Hand of God and finds the way lit by the Flame of the Holy Spirit’s love. Please, Mother, empty me by Grace that He may fill me. Make me a new creation by the power and tenderness of the Holy Spirit, in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
In a few days….