The Deacon's Bench

Christianity is a religion that grew on its feet. From Jesus, who walked from town to town…to the apostles, who journeyed into the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire…to missionaries who ventured into uncharted, often dangerous territory to spread the gospel…Christianity has been a movement spread by movement.

Today we celebrate the very first incidence of that: The Visitation. To my mind, this is probably the first great act of Christian evangelization — the first time the good news was proclaimed from one person to another. And, like so many other missionaries, Mary did it at great personal risk.

Here a teenage girl, pregnant, without a husband, with no way of supporting herself, leaves the comfort of her home town to go and bring The Word – literally – to someone else. According to the laws of her own day, as a pregnant unwed woman, she could be stoned to death. But she goes anyway, out of great charity and great joy.

And that joy is expressed in her beautiful prayer, The Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, as more lay people do today, know that prayer well. It’s prayed every evening, in celebration of what God has done for us – just as Mary did, the first time it was spoken.

On this beautiful feast, which closes the month named for and dedicated to our Lady, it is worth asking ourselves: how are we keeping the spirit of The Visitation alive? Are we willing to leave our comfort zones to proclaim the good news? How are we, like Mary, striving to bring Jesus to others?

We hear a lot today about the New Evangelization. But on the Feast of The Visitation we are reminded of the FIRST evangelization – an act that grew out of charity, generosity, and joy. I think those are the elements of any evangelization.

If we carry them with us when we walk out those doors today, we will truly – like Mary – be bringing The Word to the world.

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.

There’s an old Yiddish saying: “If you want to hear God laugh, just tell Him your plans.”

I’m sure, this morning, He’s in stitches.

Not so very long ago, I would never have dreamed that I’d be here. And I know a few of you who are here who couldn’t quite imagine it either. But the last few years have taught me to expect the unexpected. As John Lennon put it: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

During this moment near the end of the Easter season, I can’t help but wonder what plans the apostles were busy making.

This Sunday, we’re cradled between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost. A few days ago, the apostles saw Christ disappearing into the clouds. And they’ve now gone back to Jerusalem – confused, confounded and maybe conflicted. They have no idea what will come, no idea what lies ahead. And so they go to the upper room, to close the doors against the world, and draw the curtains against the light…to wait and watch and wonder.

It is, in a way, a mini-Advent. They are anticipating something. But they don’t yet know what.

And at this moment, in this twilight zone of time, scripture speaks to us.

This Sunday, we hear Jesus’ words of prayer. It is a prayer for unity. A prayer for communion. A prayer for all those who follow Him – even the generations yet unborn.

He prays, in fact, for us.

“Father,” he says, “they are your gift to me.” What a breathtaking statement that is. Here, God’s gift to mankind says that mankind is God’s gift to HIM.

How desperately the world needs to hear that – a world that is too often terrified…or terrorized. A world that thinks that God doesn’t matter…or that seems to have forgotten just how much we matter to God.

This morning, I think about the apostles in their upper room…and I think about others who are also waiting, and watching, and wondering.

A young woman whose husband is serving in Iraq.

A father who was laid off from his job.

A grandmother undergoing a CAT scan.

A teenage girl, listening for the car in the driveway and wondering if her father will come home sober – or even come home at all.

Each of us at some moment in our lives has known that upper room. That place of uncertainty. We can measure its walls. We have all walked its floor, locked its windows, and prayed that no one will find us — just like the apostles in this dark valley between last Thursday and next Sunday.

And yet in this mysterious void, we are reminded how much we are loved.

“Father, they are your gift to me.”

Those are words to give us reason to wait, reason to hope.

The message of these days before Pentecost is one of the hardest to accept: it is simply to trust. Trust that God’s promise will be kept, that he will not leave us orphans. Because when we feel abandoned and alone…when we flee to our own upper rooms…THAT is when God often makes Himself known.

He doesn’t always do it with a roaring wind or a burning bush. He may do it with a friend who listens…a child who suddenly masters a two-wheeled bike…or a wife who holds her husband’s hand and calms his fears when the rent is overdue. God’s spirit is in all those things – a small slice of Pentecost, his way of reminding us: we are His gift. And he continues to give us Himself. In each other. And in the Eucharist.

When I was a kid – and my sister can vouch for this – every gift had to be acknowledged. Our mother made sure we wrote our thank you notes. The day after Christmas, if you didn’t have the notes done, forget it. You were in trouble. Well, this is a Mass of Thanksgiving – and in a way it is a thank you note to God.

In Teilhard de Chardin’s “Mass of the World,” there’s this beautiful line: “One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those you have given me to charm and sustain my life.” Many of those who charm and sustain my life are here today – my family, friends and colleagues from CBS — and my gratitude and love go deeper than I can say.

I thank God, too, for people I’ve never met…so many who have filled these pews, and who have prayed me to this place.

But if anyone understands the power of prayer – and how God intercedes in our lives — it’s my wife, Siobhain. She has worn out so many rosaries on my behalf. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for bringing her into my life. When I was doubting and disbelieving, she prayed. When I lost courage, she prayed. When I wasn’t sure I could complete this journey, and make it to ordination, she prayed even more.

And here I am: definitive proof that you should be careful what you pray for.

This Sunday, as we wait for Pentecost, let us join our prayers with the apostles who were waiting in Jerusalem…and with all those in the world today who are waiting, and praying, and pleading. Carry their intentions with you to communion. Pray with them and for them.

And, if you can, please pray for some men whose waiting is finally over: all of the newly ordained deacons, embarking on this new chapter of our lives.

For myself, this new deacon prays that you’ll be patient with me. I pray that you’ll pick me up when I fall, and help me find my way when I’m lost. The road won’t always be smooth. There is a lot to do. And I have a lot to learn.

But I have learned this much: God doesn’t want us to spend our lives in the upper room.

Open the windows. Let in the light. Have faith. And trust.

Because Pentecost is coming. Grace will abound. Wait for it. Look for it. And listen for it.

Because, when you least expect it, you just may hear the beautiful sound…of sacred laughter.

Feel free to make yourself at home. This little enterprise will be a place for posting some of my homilies — both rough drafts and final versions, most delivered from the pulpit of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Catholic Church, in Forest Hills, New York.

Since I’m new at this — I was ordained a Permanent Deacon on May 19, 2007 — this is a learning exercise for me. And, maybe, for you, too. I’ll be learning how to preach. And you’ll be learning how painful the process can be; here you’ll have a front row seat for all my pratfalls, flubs, blunders and boo-boos. Plus the occasional miracle — a good and meaty little sermon.

I have the (perhaps naive) hope that I can make preaching matter, and turn a sadly neglected kind of liturgy into something people actually want to hear. (I know, I’m naive. But as I said: I’m new at this.)

I hope you like reading these as much as I do writing them and delivering them. And I hope that this effort will reap the fruits of the beautiful prayer said over me at my ordination:

“Receive the gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become.
Believe what you read,
Teach what you believe,
and practice what you teach.”