Last Sunday I was in Wellington for the O’Shea Shield. It’s a high-level competition – between all the Colleges of our diocese and the Wellington Archdiocese – of debating, drama, speech, religious questions, scripture reading etc. And it attracts a big crowd: participants and spectators at every event. Except one. The high point or culmination of the O’Shea weekend: the Miha or Mass.
The Mass certainly drew the biggest crowd. But what visually struck me as I presided at the Mass was that the participant-spectator division, had dissolved. Gathered for Mass, all the teachers, parents, friends, supporters, and competitors became one: not just a natural community of shared interests but a supernatural community of unity, a community of faith and therefore without divisions. In a community of faith it is God who draws us together, just as we were freely drawn into the divine life at our baptism.
So, faith is never something that we win, it’s not a result of our work, there is no faith app, we can’t down-load faith; instead, in the first instance, it is something that we are given, something that we receive.
This vital understanding of faith as being primarily something that we do not achieve but receive, is at the heart of today’s great feast of Pentecost. The last words Jesus uttered on earth to his disciples before he ascended to heaven were these: “you will receive (not you have earned or learned) the power of the Holy Spirit …and then (as a consequence) you will be my witnesses … and not just in Jerusalem, but indeed to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
I think sometimes we struggle with this fact that God is in charge, the protagonist the shaper of our life, that God gifts us our life of faith; we don’t create it.
It might seem odd that a gift could be a cause of discomfort or unease to us, but in accepting God’s gifts – in recognizing gifts as coming from God – we also necessarily acknowledge that we are dependent on or rely upon God.
Being people who believe in an active God, whom we turn to and need and rely on, is very counter cultural in a place like New Zealand. That’s because our culture is almost obsessed with self-achievement, with the myth that you can do anything, that the world is your oyster, that every possibility lies in anybody’s hands.
The problem with that utterly secular belief so prevalent in NZ – that we are constructors of our own destination – is that it leaves in the small print its consequence: that we would also be alone, in sole charge of our destination. That is terrifying. I suspect that there is a close correlation between NZ’s very high rates of adolescent depression and the idea rampant in so many Colleges that anybody can achieve anything. That myth is nonsensical. While at primary school I wanted to be a Doctor. In Form 3 (Yr 9) at the end of year exams I got 33% for Biology.
Of course this does not mean that all we can offer young people is a warning of looming walls and obstacles. There is a true, and freely available, to everyone, counter to struggles and trials. That is the wondrous Christian virtue of hope. Try defining hope; it’s very difficult because it belongs to the mystery of faith from which it flows; it points to the wonderful truth that we are not alone, that everything does not depend upon us, that we are not sole-charge constructors of our own life because the Holy Spirit is at work in and with and through us – both individually and as a community. That is why we can be people of expectation and optimism, of acceptance and inner satisfaction. Your life, my life, our life is neither random nor a conveyor-belt; it’s a project. God’s project and the Holy Spirit is the architect or weaver, and we the co-constructors shaping our lives with the Holy Spirit’s gifts released within us at Baptism and Confirmation.
This understanding points to the confidence, and inspiration and aspiration that I think young people truly crave – not so much the stories of so called super-stars whose lives are impossible to reach for most of us – and inevitably fade – yet seem to be paraded in some High Schools as something attainable. Really?
Today’s feast reminds us that what truly satisfies us and comforts us and brings us real direction, is the lives of ordinary people, of faith, bearing witness to the hope that is alive in us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Each and every one of you is one of those lives “renewing the face of the earth” (Psalm) with the hope that we know God’s call holds for us and which we share with others as people never alone, but always guided and every day in some little way refined recrafted retuned by the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Charles 2018