The Deacon's Bench

If you had to name one of the most quoted speeches of the 20th century, one near the top of any list would be the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Some of you may remember it. A lot of us have seen the old film images. On a blustery winter’s day, Kennedy stood before the world and challenged all who heard and saw him:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s probably Kennedy’s most famous quote.

But earlier in that same speech, he alerted the world that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” And he began that statement with a grand declaration:

“Let the word go forth.”

It occurs to me, on this particular Sunday, that those five words could also sum up the true meaning of this feast, Pentecost.

For in the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered disciples poured into the streets, their purpose was exactly that: to let The Word go forth.

Let The Word go forth…beyond the streets and alleys of Jerusalem, into the hill country of Judea and beyond.

Let The Word go forth…across the blue waters of the Mediterranean, to Greece and Rome, to Africa and Spain.

Let The Word go forth…into every continent, to be heard in every home, to be lived in every heart.

And it all began on this day we celebrate, Pentecost: The birthday of the Church.

On that day, the disciples could not contain themselves any longer. They needed to spread The Word. They needed to tell what they knew, and Who they knew…and let The Word go forth.

It is astonishing to consider where that Word has gone, and how far and wide it is preached. What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the globe.

You’ll find it in great, stained-glass cathedrals in Europe…in thatched huts in Asia…in hotel ballrooms and cruise ship dining rooms and hospital chapels from Bangkok to Brooklyn. It is spread in storefront churches and tiny private chapels, and even brought alive without any kind of church at all, in the daily actions of believers everywhere. You’ll find The Word preached in dozens of tongues – just as on that very first Pentecost – and understood in billions of hearts.

Our challenge today is to keep The Word going, to remind ourselves of the rugged beginnings of this rugged faith…and to carry it on. To follow the mandate of those very first believers. To throw open the windows of our fear and uncertainty — to let in the light — and to let The Word go forth.

It is a daunting prospect. But there are many ways, large and small, that we can keep the flames of that first Pentecost aglow.

We do it every time we whisper a prayer for peace.

We do it when we volunteer at a soup kitchen, or give to a clothing drive, or donate to missionaries overseas.

We do it when we support the work being done closer to home, in this parish.

We do it every time we choose to spend our Sunday mornings praising God, instead of finishing the sports pages.

We do it when we hold the hand of a friend who is hurting, or bring a smile to someone who is lonely.

We do it when we strive to love, to give, and to hope.

We keep the flame of Pentecost burning when our greatest ambition is simply to be like Christ.

Or, to borrow that most famous phrase from President Kennedy: we do it when we ask not what God can do for us, but what we can do for God.

Two thousand years ago, men and women who had followed Jesus asked themselves that question on the first Pentecost. And we are the beneficiaries of their answer. All of us who gather to pray and remember on this Pentecost are part of their legacy. They cleared the path, and often died trying, so that we could walk in their footsteps today.

Where will those footsteps take us?

Who will be the beneficiaries of our choices?

Who will carry the flame, the torch of faith, as it is passed?

It is up to each of us.

In a few moments, you who will be sealed with the chrism of confirmation will be sealed, as well, with an indelible mark on your soul. What began with your baptism will be confirmed — acknowledged by the Church. Strengthened with the Holy Spirit, you will become full and complete members of our Catholic community.

This is a moment of joy for all of us – one that will change not only you, but us. We will be enriched in the days to come, because you are confirmed as a part of us today.

This Pentecost, let’s ask the Spirit to touch all of our hearts, as He touched the hearts of the disciples on the first Pentecost. Let the fire burn over you, so the flame can spread.

Last weekend, at my ordination, someone gave me a card with a wonderful quote, from St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.”

Think of what you can be, and what you can do, with the Holy Spirit to guide you…to inspire you…to ignite you.

This Pentecost, prepare to set the world ablaze.

And let The Word go forth.

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