Faith Matters

Pentecost: A time to recall the truths of life and death

Fr Martin Henry looks back at Pentecost Sunday saying it may be a good time to recall the great, if banal, truths of life and death.

Pope Francis presides at Holy Mass on the Solemnity of Pentecost

You sometimes hear it said that it would have been easier for us to be Christians, if only we had had the advantage of living 2,000 years ago and of knowing Jesus while he was on earth.

But living as we do so long after the time of Jesus and so long after the first coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, it is surely more difficult for us today to be followers of Jesus Christ.

If we think about this notion for a while, we'll see that it only appears to be true. For we know that many in fact had the advantage, as we might describe it, of seeing Jesus in the flesh, of walking and talking with him or of knowing his first followers, but that didn't persuade them all to follow Jesus or to become Christians.

In other words, only some of those who knew Jesus while he was on earth or heard the early preaching about him, believed in him; others didn't.

And all down through the ages, the same pattern repeats itself over and over again. Some who hear about Jesus Christ become his followers, others don't. Or perhaps, more significantly, if we look at our own lives, we'd have to admit that sometimes we choose to try to follow Jesus, and sometimes we don't.

Following Jesus or not following Jesus appears to have little or nothing to do with whether we were born in the first or in the twenty-first century. The attractions and the difficulties of following Jesus are much the same in every age, because they are closely related to how we actually live and have to live. And the good things and the difficult things of life don't change very much from age to age.

I once heard of a summer course in English literature where the students were being introduced to the poetry of Milton. At the end of one of the classes, a student asked why, after all the progress the world had made since the seventeenth century, it was still necessary to be concerned with the works of a seventeenth-century writer like Milton. And the teacher replied: "As far as I know, the death rate is still one hundred per cent." More ruefully, the great Polish aphorist, Jerzy Lec (1909–66) observed, on this theme, that it was a pity one could only enter paradise in a hearse.

Now, no one would want to try to frighten people into being interested in religion by constantly harping on about the reality of death, but, on the other hand, it can hardly be such a bad idea to remind ourselves occasionally of the fundamental parameters within which our lives are set. The beginning and the end of life are things over which we ourselves have no control whatsoever.

That is to say, we cannot bring ourselves into existence, and we cannot prevent our existence on this earth from ending at some point in the future. The boundaries or limits of our existence here on earth cannot be eliminated or even fundamentally modified. They are unbudgeable.

At Pentecost, in particular, it is maybe useful to recall the great, if banal, truths of life - and death, which are the unchanging context within which we have to try to follow Christ. This can remind us that accepting the truth and promises of Christianity is as possible - as easy or as difficult - now as it ever was in the past.

But beyond that, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit isn't just sent to us to remind us of the past, and thus to help us follow Jesus, now that Jesus is no longer physically with us. But the Holy Spirit is also given to us to guide us into the future, towards things that even Jesus himself didn't give to his first followers. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us to the `complete truth', which implies that he left certain things still to be revealed or understood in the future.

In other words, the Church - led, we believe, through history by the Holy Spirit of God - isn't only turned towards the past, for all its incalculable significance. It is just as truly, indeed even more so, directed towards the future, when we believe and hope that God will give us, after death, a share in his divine Glory.

This is something that is not yet fully possible for us as we travel through life in hope, on our way to Heaven. And it is not possible for the simple reason that the created order, and even the Church, could no more endure full exposure to the reality of God, we believe, than we could endure full and unmediated exposure to the light and heat of the sun. As the Bible puts it, man cannot look on the face of God and live. But in death this may, paradoxically, be possible.

:: Martin Henry is a former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College in Maynooth and a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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