Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori
Abbot General OCist
Homily delivered at the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit
at the 19th Synod of the Cistercian Order, 2017
Readings: 1 Corinthians 12.3b-7, 12-13; John 20.19-23
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20.19)
On the evening of Easter Day Jesus came to meet his disciples, gathered in the Upper Room at Jerusalem. The reason for their being together was certainly the friendship that the three years of following Jesus had forged between them. This memory and also the vivid grief at the terrible and humiliating death of their Master on the cross brought them together. But St John admits honestly and humbly that the main reason for their gathering was fear, the fear of the Jews, the fear of being arrested, condemned and perhaps even killed. They probably though that together they would be better able to defend themselves.
It is true that fear can bring people together. We see this in our society, where fear of terrorism creates a sort of international solidarity, at least as a defence, at least as a means of protection.
But fear rarely creates an open unity, a unity which is open to others, which wants to expand, to welcome someone different and distant, someone who really needs us. Fear can close doors, as it closed the doors of the Upper Room, but above all the door of the heart. A door closed by fear of someone who could come in also prevents anyone going out, opening themselves to the brothers, widening the company of the friends whom Jesus has brought together.
It is good for us to reflect at the beginning of the synod of our Order that we too sometimes meet in this way, that we too are capable of forming little clans, united more by fear and a closed mind than by the desire to open ourselves to the demands of God. Monastic life, the community and even the precious gift of enclosure often run the risk of allowing us to live separately more out of fear of the world than to welcome the Risen Christ, more to protect ourselves than to spread his influence.
At the beginning of the synod where we wish to deepen the theme of fidelity to our vocation we must ask ourselves why we have gathered, why we live a common life in an Order, in our Congregations, in our different monasteries. Why have we met? What holds us together? Is it fear? What do we fear? What are the closed doors which prevent us welcoming humanity when it knocks on our door, or prevents us going out, spiritually or materially, to look for the ninety-nine sheep who have gone astray, as the Pope often says, these sheep who know neither the love of Christ nor the love of the Church?
However, let us also take note that, if St John shares with us the experience of the apostles, the experience of their fear closed in upon itself, this is also to tell us that there was a felix culpa, a chance to get to know themselves and above all to get to know Christ more profoundly. Without this humiliating experience the event of the Resurrection would not have been manifested with such clarity. Light is more striking if it shines in the night. Without that niggardly and timid closing in upon themselves, the apostles would not have been able to grasp all the novelty of the merciful coming of the Risen Christ into their lives and their community.
In fact the first thing that the disciples experienced on that evening in the Upper Room was that Jesus does not come among them because they had deserved it or expected it. He came by grace, he came by mercy. All the reasons for which he stands among us are in him, are himself. The presence of the Risen Christ among us in the gatherings assembled by fear or any other reason, in our assembles so imperfect and so niggardly, often so unfaithful even in our communities, in our congregations, in the whole Order, the presence of the Risen Christ among us is a grace which we do not deserve. Christ does not even need us to open the door to let him in. He enters without knocking. He joins us mysteriously as he did that same Easter evening with the disciples at Emmaus, because he loves us, because he loves the world. So we realise that we must take this event as our starting-point, that we must renew our meetings on the basis of this event. It is in this event that we are called to find the reasons, the sense and the mission of this unity among ourselves which Christ asks of us. And equally the joy of our vocation and our mission: ‘The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord’ (John 20.20). The source of their joy was not their ability to stay together nor to conquer their fear, but only that Jesus was present among them, he personally, bearing his wounds and his passion and death on the cross in his hands and in his side.
Everything is born of this undeserved event, all the novelty of the Church. ‘“Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Having said this he breathed upon them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins you retain, they are retained”’ (John 20.21-23). Peace within us and between us, the mission of service for the salvation of the whole world, for which the Father has sent his Son, the gift of the Holy Spirit which gives life to the Church and pardon for sin. Everything springs from the fact that the Risen Christ is among us, seeking our company, imperfect though it is, poor and timid though it can be.
Then the doors open! It was fear that closed them. The Holy Spirit and confidence in Christ opens them. They open not when Christ leaves the Upper Room but when the disciples go out, encouraged and animated by the novelty of his presence and by the communion
with the passion of his heart which burns to renew the face of the earth by the breath of the Spirit.
As for ourselves, we cannot be content to meet simply to discuss problems, to organise things, to correct what is not working. Such motives are closer to the fear which bids us close the doors than to the confidence which opens them. We must always meet to offer to Christ the opportunity to renew ourselves and the Order in each community, to come together and inspire one another with the gift of the Holy Spirit, our vocation and our mission. When Jesus joins us, when he is among us, then we can also discuss, face problems, correct mistakes and infidelities with tenderness and mercy.
‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’, says St Paul in the first reading. He adds ‘The gifts of grace are various, but it is the same Spirit. The ministries are various but it is the same God who acts in everything and in all. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for good.’ (1 Corinthians 12.3-7).
St Paul has, so to speak, translated into ecclesiology the experience of the apostles in the Upper Room, so that we may understand that the Church is this renewal which began on the evening of Easter, the only evening on which the sun never sets, and which will continue to the end of the world. The Church lives from this renewal of the apparition of the Risen Christ for us and among us, at the centre of our humble and divided heart, to transform us into humble, docile instruments, eager for the work of God who loves and saves the whole world.