In the last few weeks two very ordinary people have shared with me moments when they have felt very close to God. Neither could fully describe the experience, but I think both would agree that these were moments of exultation, moments of great joy even in the midst of sadness. When such moments are described in the Bible, they are always described as moments when the Holy Spirit has come upon the people concerned in a powerful way; and we heard one such experience in our 1st Reading today. (Acts 10:25-48). “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners.. Jewish believer were all astonished… as they could hear them speaking strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God.”
Now, of course, this “speaking strange languages – speaking in tongues” as it is sometimes called, does not happen to everyone who experiences moments like these. The important point is that it can happen to anyone, not just to the great saints, and when it does happen, we should give thanks to God that he has given us such a moment, and then use it to help us to be better Christians. This, after all, is what all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for; not for us to boast about as if we are especially holy, but to build up the church as a powerhouse of prayer and action, and to make each of us better at serving others in the name of Christ.
You may note that I called such experiences, moments of joy; and those of you well-schooled in the teaching of the Church may have already said, “But joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit?” And if you can remember your teaching, you can probably list them “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” But I wonder if anyone can tell me where they come from in the Bible? (Gal 5:22-23)
Christian joy can take many forms. St Augustine describes such moments as something his local farm labourers felt, coming home after the harvest. He describes how they would sing together in a way that he called “jubilating”, where they simply sang together in a kind of ecstasy, just making music without words. Quite a lot of us do that without realising it, humming a song when we’re feeling happy, without bothering with the words!
Some people, me included, sometimes pray without words too, just speaking to God as if in a foreign language, because we run out of ordinary words to express how much we love God and want to praise him. This so-called “praying in tongues” can also be used in moments of great sadness, grief or pain, when again we cannot find words to express to God what we’re feeling, and can only speak in a way that is beyond words; and for many this will simply be a sort of sighing with God. This is something St Paul describes in one of his most famous passages on prayer writing to the Romans (8:26-27) “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
But for many of us, although we may sometimes have deep and powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit working in us like this, joy is more likely to be a much quieter deep-seated feeling. This is surely what Jesus means in today’s Gospel (John 15:9-17) when he tells us that if we “remain in his love” then his “joy” will be in us, and our joy will be complete. The essence of this quieter experience of God is simply a deep seated knowledge, even in the midst of much sadness perhaps, that God loves us. This is the heart of what prayer is. This is certainly what Jesus is talking about, isn’t he? He says that we must love as he has loved us, and then he describes what this love is. It is him giving his life for us whom he calls “his friends”. St John describes this too in our 2nd Reading (1 John 4:67-10) when he speaks of the sacrifice that Jesus makes on the cross, “so that we could have life through him” Life! Not just living, as we all do, but eternal life, the life that defeats even sadness and death, a life that is to be a friend of God for ever.
I wonder if any of you have noticed that, during this Easter period, all Catholic priests are called upon by the Church to express this “joy” on behalf of you all every day as we say Mass? You will hear it just before we all say or sing “Holy holy”. The priest says “Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land every people, exults in your praise”
Pondering on these words the other day, I thought I should draw your attention to them. The Church is clearly not expecting us all to disappear into ecstatic utterances! No, surely the prayer is trying to help us, even to persuade us, to realise in our own hearts and lives just how much God loves us, and how much he has done for us, and how glorious is our destiny as friends of God. When we sing “Holy holy holy”, we are actually singing the song of the angels in heaven, as described in the last book of the Bible. (Rev 4:8) Every Mass is a foretaste of heaven! Every Mass links us with the glory of God, whether we feel it or not. Listen again to the Prayer the priest said at the beginning of Mass today “Grant, almighty God, that we may celebrate with heartfelt devotion these days of joy, which we keep in honour of the risen Lord.”
So, may God the Holy Spirit, working within us, help us to realise at least something of the wonder of a God who is everlasting goodness and love; and who calls us, not just to pass on that goodness and love to others, but to do so as his friends. Not servants of God, but Friends of God for ever!