Are you ready for the New to become Normal?
On the day that the High Priest Ezra proclaimed God’s word, the Jewish Temple was newly rebuilt. After 70 years in exile, the Jewish people could once again make sacrifices according to God’s Law in Jerusalem. Something which was barely within living memory was about to become normal once again – and the people looked forward to it!
On the day that Our Lord Jesus Christ stood up to read in the synagogue, God was about to do something new. For centuries, prophets had spoken to the Chosen People. Now the Son of God was ready to walk among them. For 30 years he had lived an unremarkable human life, but he had just been baptised in the Jordan and was now ready to fulfil his destiny. As Jesus travelled through Galilee, the neighbouring lands, and Jersualem, the eyes of the blind would be opened, the lame made to walk, and the dead raised to life. But his listeners were not expecting one of their own villagers to be the Messiah, and resisted such a new and radical message – if we read further in the Gospel passage we discover that following his bold declaration, Jesus narrowly avoided being thrown from a cliff!
On the day of Pentecost, following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the 12 Apostles experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. They had already been sent out, before the Crucifixion, with a mission to heal; now Peter proclaimed the message of Jesus and many listeners became believers. For the first converts to Christianity, a New Normal was beginning; we read in the book of Acts that many signs and wonders were worked by the apostles, and that newly-baptised Christians were often immediately blessed with the ability to pray in the prayer language of heaven, referred to as “speaking in tongues”.
By the time St Paul wrote his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth, it was normal that within a Christian community there would be people with different gifts – some conventional gifts, such as being leaders, teachers or administrators, but also extraordinary spiritual gifts including healing, praying in tongues, and a God-given understanding which allowed the meaning of a prayer in tongues to be expressed in everyday language.
As time passed, it became much less common for church communities to experience the more extraordinary gifts. They never died out completely – there have always been reports of miracles in the church, rare examples of great saints with wonder-working powers. But during the twentieth century, these gifts became much more common – at the beginning of the century, in the Pentecostal Churches, and then from 1967 onwards, in Catholic prayer groups, starting in the USA and spreading around the world.
In part, it’s up to God to decide where and when extraordinary gifts are given. But in part, it’s up to us to ask for them. The first Catholics to experience these gifts in the USA did so because they had made a retreat to study the Acts of the Apostles and pray for a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit.
Last summer, I assisted a group of mainly Filipino Catholics holding a weekend retreat. I was due to give some basic teaching for new members, but the new members weren’t able to come. So the leaders asked me, instead, whether I would give a teaching on praying in tongues? Following my talk I prayed with the group, and three of the dozen or so members present experienced the ability to use this prayer language from the Holy Spirit for the first time.
Last week, when I visited a friend who lives outside this parish, she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my nearly six years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. But these touches of God’s presence can and do happen, when they are not deterred by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith, and last week I think it was significant that a Christian friend of the sick person had the faith to ask for the Sacrament. Do we believe that God might want to heal us during this earthly life? The Sacrament of the Sick is not only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven!
Our expectations can create space where God can work wonders, or quench the work of the Holy Spirit almost entirely. The question is, what kind of church do we want our parish to be? If our vision is that we should be a community who gather for Mass, do the best we can to pass on our faith to our children, and run social events to raise funds to keep our building in good repair, that’s what we’ll get.
On the other hand, we might want our church to be the kind of church which the Apostles experienced in the first century, and which many Catholic prayer groups experienced in the 1970s and 80s. We might want to share in the work of Jesus in bringing freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and allowing the Spirit of God to work freely in our lives. But that would mean that we’d have to allow something new to become normal. We’d have to have the faith to believe that God can do, here in Cardiff, the remarkable things which Catholics have experienced in other places and other times – a way of being church that would be new for us.
Ezra’s listeners rejoiced that they could live out a renewed expression of their faith, unseen for a generation.
The Lord’s listeners were more skeptical, and told him to go jump off a cliff.
And what about us? How shall we receive this message? If you have the courage to do so, ask God to speak to your heart about His desires for this parish.
The prospect of change always stirs up uncomfortable feelings. So look beyond that initial discomfort. Look to that place where God touches your heart and directs you in which way you should go. Be attentive to whether the idea of a Church renewed by God’s powerful presence fills you with excitement or with coldness. God’s more remarkable gifts are on offer, but He will not give them unless we ask for them. Our parish will be the kind of parish we believe it should be. Are you ready for the New to become Normal? It can, but only if that’s what you desire.