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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: It’s Mission Possible

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A painting in a church depicts Pentecost – the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles. But how can the will of the Spirit be discerned? Photo: CNS, Octavio Duran

Homily for Solemn Mass of Pentecost, Year A, and Adult Confirmations, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 28 May 2023

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” These eight words, together with a rather catchy theme song immediately evoke the Mission Impossible franchise. I grew up with the TV series (1966-73, 1988-89) about a small team of secret agents who apply their strategies and skills against existential threats from cold war enemies, corrupt government officials, crime bosses, bioterrorists, you name it. Tom Cruise and team rebooted the story with their blockbuster movies from 1996 onwards, the eighth of which is soon to appear. In both incarnations the drama revolves around the dangerous and delicate tasks of the agents. The stakes are high and it’s all done in secret: hence the tape recording with the mission description self-destructs at the beginning of each episode.

Last week Jesus completed His impossible mission, literally saving the world before returning to the Father. But before His ascension He gave the apostles their Great Commission. In Matthew’s version He said, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey my commandments, and remembering that I am with you always” (Mt 28:16-20). In Luke version He sends them out to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). If that weren’t enough, Mark adds that they can expect to encounter demons, incomprehension, sickness and danger; but that by faith they will overcome all these challenges (Mk 16:14-18). Then instead of the message evaporating as in the films, the messenger Himself disappears heavenward.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” We can imagine the anxiety of the disciples. Only days before it had been betrayal, denial, flight. They cowered in a locked room and resisted any talk of resurrection. Even when they could no longer doubt it, they were the same weak men. Today we see them back in the cenacle of the Last Supper, the post-Crucifixion hiding, and the post-resurrection appearances. They’d been set a gargantuan task to take the Gospel to all nations. There would be a permanent target on their backs, no shortage of enemies, and the Master no longer visibly leading them. This really was Commission Impossible.

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Yet what is impossible for mortals may be possible for God.[i] At the first Pentecost God gave mere mortals more than new confidence or strength, more even than the superpowers of the comic-book heroes. God gave them Himself.

In the Old Testament, fire often represents God’s presence. God revealed Himself to Abraham in a smoking fire pot (Gen 15:17), to Moses in a burning bush (Ex 3:1-17), to the wandering Israelites in a pillar of flame (Ex 13:21-22[ii]) and to Elijah in a chariot of fire (2Kgs 2:11). At other times He appears amidst fire, volcano or lightning;[iii] or is called an all-consuming fire.[iv] Fire is used in Israel’s cult, and there is an eternal flame on the altar in the Temple (Lev 6:12-13).[v]

In the New Testament, John the Baptist announces that one is coming after him who “will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11). So, when tongues of flame fall upon the heads of the disciples in today’s first reading (Acts 2:1-11), it is no minor decorative detail. It underscores that “filled with the Holy Spirit” they were being transformed, as fire transforms a landscape. No more hiding in locked rooms: from that moment onward, people would see them publicly engaging in works of witness, proclamation, power and healing. They would be on fire with faith, hope and love.

Even when God bursts onto the scene with such flaming power, we can resist. We must be receptive if transformation is to occur in us. In the lead up to Pentecost, Luke tells us, Jesus called the disciples together and told them to ready themselves. They must wait upon the Father sending them Holy Spirit power, He said, and so they “devoted themselves to constant prayer” (Acts 1: 4-8,14). The Spirit would make them one, prayerful and receptive; but they must stick together and stick to God if they were to receive Him. No cutting loose, running for the hills, doing their own thing. Stay together, be patient, wait for God.

Dear candidates for Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life, our Comforter and Advocate, Helper and Healer, and He blows where He wills. But He is most evident in the Church, gathering the disciples to hear God’s Word in the Scriptures, to be transformed by God’s grace in the sacraments, and to receive God’s commission to go make disciples themselves. As Paul reminds us in the epistle (1Cor 12:3-7,12-13), we are different parts of a single body, each with some specific gift or function, but all working for the whole. We are only conduits of God’s transformative power when we are united as one Church, under one Lord, in the same sacraments.

God gathers and guides, where the world often scatters and divides. Our culture separates us into rival loyalty groups and seeks to give voice to some and to cancel others. In Canberra at this very time a draconian territory government is engaged in a hostile takeover of the only Catholic hospital because bureaucrats and politicians cannot bear diversity in the health system and a pro-life ethic. There are many other sources of division in our world: different temperaments, ideologies, interests. Even in the Church there can scandalous divisions and suspicions, when we should be a premonition of all peoples and tongues united in heaven. So, when Jesus appears to us disciples in our Gospel today (Jn 20:19-23), it is not with a show of force for one side but a word of peace for all, not with a destructive wind but a gentle breath, not with fiery judgment but a promise of forgiveness. He draws us together in preparation for Pentecost, when wind and fire will give us identity and mission. Get ready to receive the Holy Spirit, He says to you, our beloved candidates, says to all His disciples in the Church, says to the apostles leading them today. Receive the Spirit of Unity and of Mission. This day you are given a toolkit that would make any M.I. spy envious: gifts of wisdom and understanding, knowledge and counsel, courage, piety and holy awe. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is now to take those gifts to the world!

[i] Mt 17:20; 19:26; Mk 10:27; Lk 1:37; 18:27.

[ii] Also: Ex 14:24; 40:38; Num 9:15-16; 14:14; Dt 1:33; Neh 9:12,19.

[iii] Ex 19:18; 24:17; Dt 4:11-12,15,33,36; 5:23; 9:10; 10:4; Ezek 1:4,13; Pss 18:8; 29:7; 97:3.

[iv] Exod 24:17; Dt 4:24; 9:3; Isa 10:17; Ezek 1:27; Dan 7:9-10; cf. Heb 1:7; 12:29; Rev 4:5 etc.

[v] Lev 1-7; 9:24; 13:52-57; Num 31:23; 1Kgs 18:38.

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