John 20:19-23, Feast of the Pentecost
Whenever I get to bless a new car, I’m often amused when the owner stumbles around, rushing to open everything that can ever be swung open: doors, hood, trunk, even glove compartment! A seminarian once asked: “Fr. Arnel, valid ba ang blessing kung sarado?” He used air quotes on “valid.” Good question. Here’s another along same lines. Is a rosary blessed by the Pope any different from one blessed by an ordinary priest? Is one supposed to be more powerful than the other? Think about it. Here’s something funny. Last year, after receiving a blessing from a newly ordained priest, a lay minister said to me: “Malakas talaga ang blessing kapag bagong pari, Father. Mainit pa…” in comparison to… I guess, a priest for some time, whose blessing is, what, colder? (Parang ulam? Mas masarap ‘pag mainit?)
Closer now to our situation these days, here are questions I’ve been asked: “Father, is the grace we receive from attending a physical mass the same as the one we get from an online mass?” “Father, now that we don’t receive Holy Communion, are we less blessed?” “Father, for people who can’t attend even an online mass, like the frontliners, p’ano sila?” “And the thousands who died without the sacraments, Father, will they be saved?”
Sisters and brothers, all these questions redound to our understanding of grace or blessings, don’t they? For centuries now, many of us Catholics seem to understand grace as a thing—like that holy breeze that blows into a new car, protecting it from accidents, or that mystical energy that inheres in a rosary, or something like heavenly credits loaded into a new priest, but diminishes with age. In other words, for centuries, we have a “thingified” understanding of grace and blessing. Along with thingifying grace, we somehow also understand it as privatized or personalized. “As long as a priest is present, and I say the right words, do the right actions, I will get heavenly merits, then I feel I’ll be saved.”
Now there’s a more important truth about grace that we all know deep in our hearts, but we realize it only on second thought. What is this truth? The Holy Spirit, the Person. We know that Grace is really a Person more than a thing, we know this. But we somehow need to double-take now to remember. Somehow, when we speak about Grace, we’ve fixated on the good “thing” we receive and only subsequently, the presence of the Bestower.
On the first Pentecost, the apostles heard the sound of wind and saw tongues of fire. These were important, wondrous, divine things, but only because wind was always understood as God’s lifegiving breath, and fire, God’s awesome presence. Jesus’ weak, cowardly, self-quarantined Galilean deserters, they were given not just some “thing” on that first Pentecost that turned them around. In spite of themselves, divine breath and presence “came to rest on each of them,” the breath and presence of a Person. Jesus was making good his promise, “I will be with you until the end of the age.” But, see, the apostles should’ve known this all along, shouldn’t they? Because from way back during the prophets, God had always said, “I am with you.” And down through their Master’s entire ministry, Jesus always said “the Kingdom of God is here,” in every healing, forgiving, and raising from the dead. “Immanuel,” by the way, is not just a Christmas word. Immanuel is God’s modus vivendi. And Jesus, his Son, made this divine modus visible, palpable, understandable to us, in his very person.
After the descent of the Lord’s Spirit, the apostles would soon realize how gifted they were—gifted not just with some “thing” that they never dreamed they could do, like speaking in various tongues, healing, preaching, dispelling evil spirits, forgiving. More than that, they awakened to the reality that the Holy Spirit of the Lord had made of them His dwelling. There he was again, the Immanuel, the divine remaining with the human, heaven wedded to earth. God’s modus vivendi: Grace.
Here’s the good news: believe it or not, sisters and brothers, like the apostles, we are all graced—not just with some “thing,” but with a Person dwelling in us, making us capable of wondrous deeds. Maging sa ating lahat, nananahan at nananatili ang Espiritu ng Dios, kaya nakagagawa tayo ng mga gawain ni Hesus. Paul said, “There are various gifts, but the same Spirit (Person). There are different forms of service, but the same Lord (Person).” So, yes, both priest who prays and frontliner who cares for the sick are equally indwelt by the Spirit. Otherwise, neither could do the first thing to save others. And, by the way, one is not necessarily more indwelt than the other. A family gathered for online mass in Loyola Heights and a family in Payatas that works together to stay alive, are both indwelt by the Spirit. Otherwise, neither would see any meaning in praying together or staying together at all. The Spirit is present in and among people when they’re gathered by a priest in a formal sacrament, yes. But even outside of that, the Spirit is present in every way that a community heals, forgives, shares, and prays—meaning, being the Body of Christ.
So, Grace is in a family that prays at home. But Grace is also out on the streets with people risking their health to tend a barangay. The Holy Spirit is in the old sisters who whisper Hail Marys while assembling PPEs. But the Holy Spirit is out with the doctors, nurses, attendants who don those PPEs, but can say only a quick prayer before running back to the sick. Grace is with the sick, fighting with them to stay alive because their loved ones are waiting for them at home. And Grace is with those who have gone back to the Father, and are praying for us in turn. The Holy Spirit is in all of us who yearn to be together again in our Churches, and receive the Body of Christ again in our hands and our mouths, to sing together again with friends. Who would’ve thought we would miss all this very much? But Grace is like that. It is the God in us making us yearn for the God in others. That’s what it’s like to be Church.
I have a favorite theologian and he said that Grace is “the indwelling Spirit who communicates Godself to persons.” That’s why for him, Grace is “our deepest constitution as human beings.” Ang pinakabuod daw ng pagiging isang tao ay na pinananahanan tayo ng Diyos (indwelling) na nag-aalay ng sarili Niya sa atin (self-communication). Kaya naman pala, those times we realize how blest we are, no wonder we feel such abundance…despite our poverty. No wonder we feel an overflow…despite our dearth. No wonder we feel an extravagance…despite our miserliness. No wonder we often end up saying, “Sobrang bait ng Diyos”? “Sobrang buti ng Diyos. Sobra-sobrang biyaya.” Grace overflows, dear sisters and brothers, because the Gift that we enjoy is really the Giver himself, the Holy Spirit of Father and Son.
Many fields in the world today are revisiting and redefining their self-understanding under this so-called new normal: the face of education is changing, the face of industry and technology, the face of labor and transport, of health, etc. Maybe it’s also time to revisit our understanding of Grace, sisters and brothers? But this time to remember not to sunder Gift from Giver Himself. The difference might actually renew the face of our faith, and then maybe, renew the face of our being Church, and then, who knows, it can actually be the Spirit renewing the face of the earth. Amen.
*image from the Internet