Daily preaching at Mass often involves looking for a connection between the readings, especially between the first one and the Gospel. (Usually, little or no attention is paid to the psalm unless there is an obvious link, as in the case where a prophecy in the psalm is seen as fulfilled in the life of Christ or the story of the early Church.)
Sometimes, too, one or other of the readings causes a degree of unease, either because there is some confusion about meaning, or because the message is too starkly negative. Then it is tempting to ignore one and focus on the more congenial text.
This is what I found myself doing, rightly or wrongly, on Tuesday this week when we listened to the ongoing readings from the Act of the Apostles and the Last Supper Discourse from St John. The message of Jesus in Chapter 16 verses 5-11, opens on a positive note, with reference to the Holy Spirit as Advocate coming to the disciples in His place as Jesus goes to the Father. But then the message develops a new tone in which Jesus sounds rather peevish in speaking of the Spirit as one who is showing the world how wrong it is about Him.
This passage concludes with a stark reference to “the prince of this world being already condemned.” All of this sounds rather gloomy, although with further thought, we can discern good news. Surely the Spirit of God is not a finger wagging teacher, constantly upbraiding his pupils about their failures? The World is wrong, wrong, wrong! Is there anything good about it?
But the first reading from Acts (16:22-34) comes to the rescue in the dramatic story of Paul and Silas being flogged in Philippi and thrown into prison where they endure the further torture of being chained. Although the role of the Holy Spirit is not proclaimed openly here, we know that he can’t be far away, for the Spirit is God’s powerful action always accompanying his missionaries.
In particular, we know the Spirit both inspires us to pray and also answers prayer. So, the prayers of Paul and Silas, amazingly “singing God’s praises” are answered by the sudden occurrence of an earthquake which causes doors to fly open and chains to fall from the prisoners. Here is the Spirit coming to the aid of the innocent to liberate them. “Bravo, Holy Spirit!”
But the really good news, the real miracle, lies in what follows. We are told that the gaoler, on discovering the “open door” policy of the Spirit of God, plans to commit suicide. This instrument of the “prince of this world,” who has treated the apostles so badly, is saved by the Spirit through Paul crying out “Don’t do yourself any harm; we are all here.” Lesser men would be happy to let their persecutor “go to hell,” but the love of God impels Paul to reach out in compassion to this suicidal man.
And the gaoler is suddenly possessed by the same Spirit, throwing himself trembling at the feet of his prisoners, crying out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And the voice of the Spirit sounds out through Paul: “Become a believer in the Lord Jesus.”
Here in this dramatic story, the stark words of Jesus about the Spirit criticising the world are softened in the feel-good tale of a seemingly heartless bureaucrat, obeying orders in casting the Christians into the inner prison, coming to a new vision. And his conversion is expressed most touchingly in two compassionate acts of washing their wounds and taking them to his home for a meal. The Spirit of the Father and Jesus enters this representative of the “world” and transforms him into a replica of the Good Samaritan, the one who, on discovering a wounded traveller, bound up his wounds and brought him to eat at the Inn.
The Christian message is not that God criticised the world through his Son, but God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save it. And the Spirit continues that loving work when we call out to him.
Kieran Cronin OFM