The Word Among Us

Easter 2009 Issue

To the Ends of the Earth

The Easter Miracle is Still at Work Today.

To the Ends of the Earth: The Easter Miracle is Still at Work Today.

It’s amazing. No single event has affected so many individual lives over the course of so many centuries as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead nearly two thousand years ago.

Think about how chaotic things were when Jesus died on Good Friday. The apostles were too busy fighting among themselves about who was the greatest to understand what Jesus meant when he said that he was going to his Father. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. And Judas went so far as to kill himself. Everything seemed so bleak.

But everything changed after Jesus rose again. The apostles’ faith and hope were restored. Jesus commanded them to go and make disciples of the whole world, and they responded with passion and dedication. They were so convinced that they even stayed together in Jerusalem waiting for the Holy Spirit to come upon them—even though they didn’t really know who this “Holy Spirit” was or what he would do!

Then came Pentecost, when the apostles experienced Jesus’ presence in a whole new way. They banded together as a church, trying to live out the call to love each other as Jesus had loved them. They studied the Hebrew Scriptures, trying to understand more fully everything they had just experienced. They prayed together and broke bread as a body, recalling the night before Jesus died. Miraculous signs and healings occurred. They were determined to evangelize as many people as possible, as well as to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the needy. And as a result, “every day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Beyond Jerusalem. In the months and years that followed, the word of God spread out from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Antioch, and to Caesarea—where the Holy Spirit fell on Gentiles for the first time. Apostles like Peter, Paul, and Barnabas; bishops and elders like Timothy and Silas; and evangelists and coworkers like Priscilla and Aquila were all inspired by the Holy Spirit to build up the churches and take the gospel into new territory. Jews and Gentiles alike were being touched by the Lord and accepting baptism. In short, Jesus had asked his disciples to go to the ends of the earth, and they did!

Things were so active, so exciting, and so uplifting. Even in the midst of terrible persecution, their spirits were high. What was their secret? They simply did what Jesus told them to do, and they did it by relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Five Waves of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ commission to the apostles to go and make disciples of all people wasn’t limited to the first century. The past two thousand years have seen the gospel continuing to spread and the church continuing to grow, even to the ends of the earth.

During Pentecost 1998, four hundred thousand people gathered in Rome to celebrate their involvement in lay movements in the church. During the gathering, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) gave an address that sketched the history of renewal movements in the church. He identified the most significant “waves of new movements” that had occurred, outpourings of the Holy Spirit that led to personal holiness and increased evangelization.

The first major wave of the Spirit that Cardinal Ratzinger identified was the growth of monasticism in the third and fourth centuries. St. Anthony the Abbot was among the first people led by the Spirit to the desert, where he lived a life of prayer and contemplation. Because he was most interested in evangelization, Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized the missionary impact that the monastic movement had on the church from the sixth century onward.

Ironically, the second wave of the Spirit was a reform of the first wave. By the tenth century, many forms of monastic life, once such a powerful witness, had fallen into corruption, often due to excessive entanglements with secular rulers. The monks living in the monastery at Cluny, France, felt led by the Spirit to return to a more strict adherence to the Benedictine Rule. At its height, the abbot of Cluny was the second most influential leader in both the church and the world—second only to the pope.

The third wave that Cardinal Ratzinger highlighted occurred in the twelfth century, and it involved the formation of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Unlike the monastic movement, these orders sent men into the world to preach the gospel, to care for the poor, and to invite ordinary lay people to share in their spirituality. Again, as with Cluny, these orders quickly spread throughout the world, offering a new springtime for the church.

Cardinal Ratzinger noted that the next wave took place around the sixteenth century. Recuperating from a war wound, a soldier named Ignatius of Loyola discovered the Lord and decided he wanted to live for God. At that point, Ignatius began a spiritual journey that led to the establishment of the Jesuits, a new religious order focused on evangelization, education, and charitable works. As the Easter miracle came alive for Ignatius, he chronicled his changes in the Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations that are still effective in helping people come to know the Lord personally.

The fifth wave of the Spirit encompasses all the missionary orders that began springing up in the nineteenth century. These orders were new in that they focused more on evangelizing new lands and cultures and less on renewing the church and bringing believers to deeper faith. Cardinal Ratzinger also noted that many of these orders consisted of religious sisters who dedicated themselves to evangelization, education, hospital work, and care for the poor.

A New Wave Today. As Cardinal Ratzinger talked about the present age, he remembered how by the middle of the twentieth century, the mood in much of the church was one of exhaustion. Fr. Karl Rahner, the great theologian of that time, referred to it as a “winter in the church.” Cardinal Ratzinger added that many people were “relying on their own strength without resorting to God,” working hard for the church, but in a way that was isolated from the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. But, as happened with the five previous waves of renewal, in the midst of this “worn out and dispirited” feeling, the Holy Spirit “took the floor” and again brought a fresh wind of excitement and hope to believers.

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the church saw a new outpouring of grace touching everyone, particularly young people. Like those of the past, this current wave of the Spirit has brought people closer to the Lord and resulted in countless conversions. But unlike previous waves, this one is made up mostly of lay movements, as everyday, untrained lay people experienced a new, personal understanding of the Easter miracle. Movements such as Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenate, Cursillo, the Charismatic Renewal, Focolare, Marriage Encounter, and St. Egidio emerged.

Step Out onto the Floor. When we think about all the excitement that the first believers felt because of the miracle of Easter, we recall people like Peter and Paul, and we think, “I could never do anything like that.” When we think of the work of the Spirit in history, we recall people like Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila. And again, we think “I could never be like them.” But nothing could be further from the truth. In each instance, we see ordinary people whose encounter with the risen Jesus moved them to change their attitude in life.

Seeing the risen Lord is at the heart of Easter. It moves us to confess that we are sinners, that we need a savior, and that Jesus is our salvation. It is this experience that moved every saint to step out with the Lord and do great things in his name. And it is this experience that will move us to join Jesus as he takes the floor. It will propel us into the world with the message of salvation—and with the desire to devote ourselves to building the kingdom of God here on this earth.

Ordinary people like us really can do great things for God. As St. Paul wrote, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance” (Ephesians 2:10). All it takes is the realization that he is risen. So as we celebrate Easter this year, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us see the Lord in a new way. Then we too will long to “make disciples” in our day, and we will know that Jesus is with us “until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19,20).