Yesterday I had the privilege of serving as minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation at Mission Santa Clara. Usually a bishop does this, but our wonderful bishop was busy, probably with another Confirmation somewhere else, and so the duties were delegated. Eleven young men and women received the sacrament, followed by the Eucharist. I’d never served as minister of this particular sacrament, and it was a beautiful, moving and joyful experience in every way. After a reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus tells his disciples to go forth and proclaim the Gospel to the whole of creation, I offered the following homily, more or less in these words, to those about to be confirmed:
This Feast of the Ascension is a funny one. The image of Jesus being taken up into heaven and being seated at the right hand of the Father comes out of a world very different from our own, when people could well imagine ascensions and a heaven reflecting the customs and look of the imperial court, where the crown prince would have a place of honor at the right hand of the emperor. But the imagery can distract us. For what the Ascension signals is that there is now a generation of believers who never knew Jesus in the flesh, and who were not direct witnesses of his Risen state.
During the past six weeks or so since Easter we have been reading stories of Jesus’s appearances, and then, of conversions to the Way of Jesus, by people such as Paul, and then the many communities he visited—people for whom the Gospel was indeed news—good and liberating news. But now all of these people are on their own, commissioned by Jesus to become Christ for the world by preaching the Gospel to the whole of creation: to become “martyrs”—from the Greek word for witnesses—to the Gospel. The Ascension marks the passing on of the torch from Jesus to all his disciples, not just those who knew him in the flesh, but to those already marked by baptism in water, now to be filled with the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is what impels us, as it did Jesus, to move our faith from our familiar worlds into the uncertain future.
But what does it mean to proclaim the Gospel? In one of the formulas for the conclusion of the Mass, the presider says to the people: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” Or, he may also say, “God in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” The two are related: We announce or preach the Gospel of the Lord by glorifying the Lord with our lives.
Glorifying the Lord. “Magnificat anima mea Dominium,” says Mary in her Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”— “And my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46–47). My spirit rejoices, she says, for she will become the mother of the Lord, proclaiming the Lord’s goodness with her life. It is this rejoicing which marks the first and foremost note of proclaiming the Gospel with our lives—to live in joy—in the joy of God who loves each of us uniquely and gives us a purpose for our existence.
Pope Francis makes much of this note of Christian life. He contrasts it with the passing pleasures that our consumerist culture offers, and the constant race for being “with it” that we fall into. That turns out to be a false joy, a recipe for unhappiness. Rather, Francis speaks “of a joy lived in communion, [a joy] which shares and is shared” (Gaudate et Exsultate 128), that moves us beyond ourselves. He says that “If we allow the Lord to draw us out of our shell and change our lives, then we can do as Saint Paul tells us: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice!’” (Phil 4:4). And, he adds, such joy is marked by a good sense of humor: “Ill humor is no sign of holiness” (GE 126). Too much seriousness of purpose, marked by the dour or long face, or the furrowed or saddened brow, is no sure sign of the nearness of God, and may be a sign of our own spiritual neuroses, even if there is much to be concerned about in this world.
But this raises a second, important note of glorifying the Lord with our lives. For the joy we speak of here is no cheap joy—it doesn’t come easily, as if we could google it up on command. Faith is lived, and God is magnified, even in the midst of struggle and suffering. As we all know, human life entails suffering; we do not have to seek it out, nor should we. There is nothing inherently good about it. We certainly should not wallow in it. It is simply part of the mystery of human existence. And, as the Cross was for Jesus, it is something that we must go through. There will be darkness. Remembering this, you will be signed with chrism in the form of the Cross. But for the Christian, the Cross does not signal a final despair. For, if Jesus could have gone through the deepest darkness, as he did, and ultimately be lifted up by God, embraced as his beloved, then that is what he has promised us, his beloved. Like a seedling that grows in the darkness and bursts forth as a beautiful flower, so, too, does joy have its roots deep in suffering. To be a Christian is to know this and to proclaim it with our lives. I can’t tell you how many people I have known who have faced the most trying challenges that life can offer, and yet who, by dint of their faith, also reflect an authentic joy that springs forth from that darkness. For what they see most centrally, with hearts of gratitude, is the light and consolation that is given them by the Spirit.
Then there is also the fact that in living our lives of faith, even quietly enough, we will meet with resistance. It does not always come in the explicit forms of rejection of our faith by outside forces, as happened to Jesus and the martyrs; it can even include subtle resistance by friends or even members of our own family. Here is where the gift of the Spirit especially enters the picture. For what we need is the courage to live our faith openly. Pope Francis says that “We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesia [courage]: . . . As a result, ‘when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’” (Acts 4:31). (GE 133)
We are called to proclaim the Gospel with our lives without apology, with holy boldness, with a knowledge of suffering, and, in all of this, to discover joy. Like those apostles who watched Jesus go to the Father, then, you who are about to be confirmed stand here today to take up the mantle of the Gospel in new and refreshing ways, for our time. As you approach the Sacrament of Confirmation, then, we look forward to the Sequence for Pentecost and invoke the Holy Spirit to help you proclaim the faith with your lives:
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.
Come, father of the poor,
come, giver of gifts,
come, light of the heart.
O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.
Give to your faithful,
those who trust in you,
your manifold gifts.
Grant them reward of virtue,
grant them deliverance of salvation,
grant them eternal joy.