Empowered to love
GOD’S WORD TODAY - Manoling Francisco S.J. (The Philippine Star) - May 20, 2018 - 12:00am

In discussing the mystery of divine revelation, I would ask my students how they came to know they were called to the priesthood or religious life. A common narrative would include a period of restlessness or emptiness despite a decent-paying job and the company of family and friends. Then a period of searching – attending vocation seminars, seeking spiritual direction, immersing oneself briefly in seminary or religious life. Then finally the confirmation of the divine call.

“I heard God speak to me in the middle of the night,” a seminarian would share.

“So did a heavenly voice awaken you from your sleep?” The class would erupt in laughter.

Religious experiences are both external and internal. God can speak to us through an event, such as a near-fatal vehicular accident or through our deepest longings. However in communicating such interior encounters with the divine, we inescapably externalize the inner event.

“God spoke to me,” a seminarian would relate, as though God addressed him from the outside rather than the depths of his heart. “Jesus invited me to follow him,” as though the Lord appeared before him and motioned him to follow.

When Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, narrated the conversion of St. Paul, we wonder whether a flash of light literally blinded Paul or, as depicted in paintings, caused him to fall off his horse. Or is it possible that such narratives and images are externalizations – making use of symbols and metaphors – of a profound interior encounter with the Lord?

Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. Analyzing the literary genre of the narrative, we can also ask whether a white dove or tongues of fire literally descended upon the apostles and Mary. 

Even without the white dove and the tongues of fire, their experience of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was genuine. It’s authenticity is gleaned in their transformation from a band of fearful men to a community of courageous and zealous disciples of the Risen Lord. Only an experience of grace can explain such a dramatic change. But how does one communicate such a profound religious experience without resorting to images, symbols and metaphors?

Moreover, we can also ask whether the indwelling of the Spirit literally capacitated them to speak in various languages previously unfamiliar to them. Did grace enhance their intelligence? Or did grace empower them to move from fear to zeal for the Lord, from shame to confidence in God’s mercy, from self-absorption and self-loathing to a desire to share the story of Jesus with all the world?

Missionaries sent to foreign lands have been able to win converts to the Christian faith without first becoming fluent in the language of the newly-baptized people. What brings about the conversion of a people is not the missionary’s fluency in their language but the authenticity of his or her witness to God’s infinite love.

Is the gift of tongues thus a charism to miraculously speak other languages? Or the empowerment to bear witness to Jesus and his Gospel despite one’s natural deficiencies?

And so the first Christians spread the Gospel of Jesus to Asia Minor then Europe, without being fluent in various ancient languages. But their zeal and joy, despite persecution and martyrdom, was so attractive that the Church spread far and wide in a matter of decades.

If the descent of the Spirit did not literally involve tongues of fire resting upon the heads of the apostles but was a genuine, life-changing interior encounter with the Spirit of God, how different then was their experience from our religious encounters with the Lord? Are we thus not also commissioned to move from fear to zeal in proclaiming the story of the Risen One? We may not be gifted to speak in foreign tongues; nonetheless, what matters more is to be gifted with the grace to bear faithful witness to our Lord Jesus and his Gospel of love.

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