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Sixth Sunday of Easter, 17.05.20: No absent God

Readings: Acts 8:5-8,14-17; Psalm 65(66):1-7,16,20; 1 Peter 4:13-16; John 14:15-21

One of the awful things about our present predicament is that we miss being with people, especially with those we love. If you look at the cover of the hymn sheet today, which can be found on the parish website, you will see that I have put there a picture of Our Lady of Solitude. I have asked her to be with us at this time. Of course, our sense of loneliness can even be there when there are others around us. At times like these, we can get lost in ourselves a wee bit, lost in our thoughts and worries and concerns. We are not being allowed to live as we were made to live and that can generate a keen sense of absence and frustration, even though we know it is for our own good, our health and life.

Think of someone you love who is physically absent from you just now. Yes, you have perhaps been able to phone or FaceTime them, but you know just the same that nothing beats being physically present to each other. You can’t hug them or kiss them. If it’s your children or grandchildren, you can’t play with them and lift them up. If we are hungering for the presence of the Eucharist just now, we are probably hungering just as much for that familiarity and engagement that comes from the physical presence of our loved ones.

Imagine it was possible, though, while knowing that they are physically far away, to experience the actual presence of your loved ones as if they were actually there in front of you. You know how it can be sometimes when, sitting in a room looking in one direction, someone you love comes in and you can tell who it is straight away. You can sense their presence. That is the way the Lord is present to us. He is not just present to us metaphorically, in our hearts and minds: he is actually with us even if he is physically absent. How is that possible? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the presence of Christ and of the Father to us.

The three divine persons always share the same presence. They don’t go away from each other as we do. They cannot separate. There are activities and qualities which we attribute to each of the divine persons, but all three of them are always present in each activity. There is no time or space in the eternal, but just the living reality and presence of the Trinity. They are eternally present to one another and, through Jesus, they have become eternally present to us in an unheard-of way. Eternity now permeates time and space.

So, in this time of separation and absence that we experience, God is never absent. We don’t believe in an absent God. We do believe, yes, that the physical body of Jesus has departed from us. It has been taken up into the inner life of the Trinity, you could say. But Jesus tells us in the Gospel that, although leaving us, he will send us another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and it is in and through the Holy Spirit that the Risen Jesus Himself is present to us. By his ascension into heaven Jesus makes possible the descent of the Spirit who now makes Jesus present, not only in one place and time, but universally, worldwide. It is similar in a small way to when someone’s fame spreads when they have died. Their death, their departure seems to have the effect of making them better known everywhere. In the case of Jesus, it is not just his fame, but his Risen Self whose presence is spread abroad by the Spirit.

Think of the name which God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: I Am Who Am. That name means that God is always present. Of course, God is present in different ways and intensities, you could say. He is present most intensely in the Blessed Sacrament. We call that presence “real and substantial” to indicate a particular form of presence which surpasses all others on earth. God is also present in his Scriptures, in the community of the faithful and in all the other sacraments. He is present, of course, to his creation in a special way. Saint Paul uses a tremendous phrase to describe the presence of Christ in creation. He says, “all things hold together in Christ.” The whole created universe is held in existence by Christ and so he is necessarily present to it. That is why to sin against creation is to offend Christ so directly.

But there is another way in which he is present to us – if we let him be. St. Peter speaks of it in today’s second reading. It is his presence in suffering. Suffering is an experience in which we instinctively think that God is absent, and that perceived absence makes us feel the terrible absurdity of our suffering. The eternal problem which has perplexed the minds and hearts of every generation is: why suffering, and especially, why innocent suffering? We must be clear that God does not want suffering, just as he does not want either sin or death. But just as these latter two things have become part of the distortion of creation craftily introduced by Satan and assented to by our first parents, so suffering will be with us until the new creation comes at the end of time. Job’s answer to suffering was to trust in God: “the Lord has given, the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.” God lets Satan test Job to prove Job’s integrity and fidelity, and God is proved right.

There is no greater innocent suffering, of course, than that of Christ himself, the innocent Lamb who was slain. The mystery of suffering is wholly taken on by Christ who, just as he destroyed death by dying and sin by taking on the guilt of the world, destroys suffering by taking it on to an atrocious degree (physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually) and transforming it from the inside into an offering of love and obedience to God. When our suffering is the result of our faith in Christ, St. Peter says that our suffering is a blessing because it means that the Spirit of Christ is in us. Our courageous testimony to Jesus is the work of the Spirit in us and so the suffering is the confirmation of that fact.

Baptism, confirmation and Eucharist (the sacraments of initiation) have made us the dwelling place of the Blessed Trinity. In our Catholic faith we speak of the indwelling of the Trinity in those who have received these sacraments. What’s more, as the Trinity dwells in us, we dwell in It. The indwelling is mutual. This is the astounding truth of the mystery of our faith. We are not details in the history of the universe. We are the dwelling place of God – by his choice! We only lose the presence of the Trinity within us by mortal sin which by definition kills the life of grace in us. Mortal sin means that we have by our sin rejected the sanctifying grace and love of God shown to us in Jesus and poured into our hearts by the Spirit. Venial sin weakens the life of God in us, it renders our bond of love with the divine persons that bit more fragile. Although it does not destroy that bond, surely our love for God would not even want it to be weakened?

And yet, even in mortal sin, the Lord will keep coming after us, like the Hound of Heaven. In a poem on the grandeur of God in creation, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes: “The Holy Spirit broods over the bent world with warm breast and ah! bright wings.” What he is captivating here is the tender delight and love of God for his creation and especially for his poor human race.

So, in the midst of the absences we are currently experiencing, we have a good opportunity of grace to recapture and strengthen our faith in the presence of the Blessed Trinity within us and among us. That requires that we be vulnerable to the divine persons in prayer: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I know, I trust, I believe that you are with me in the midst of everything that’s going on. In the sadness and suffering and absence and loneliness, I know that you are with me. Deepen my faith, my trust. Help me to live knowing that you are in me and I am in you, until that day comes when I will pass from this life to the next. Then I will see You face to face, and my questions will be no more.”