O quam bonus et suavis est, Domine, Spiritus tuus in nobis!

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TWENTY–SIXTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR B

Numbers 11:25-29
Psalm 18: 8, 10, 12-13, 14 (R. 9a)
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-42, 44, 46-47

Come, Holy Spirit

Do you find the Holy Spirit disruptive? Does he not pose a threat to the routines of the established order? Look at history. The Holy Spirit always seems to get reformers into trouble with the authorities. Every so often the Holy Spirit blows through tidy little cloisters and upsets things, scattering the pages of precious customaries to the four winds. Just when we think we have it right, the Holy Spirit spoils it all by passing through in wind and fire.

I suppose that we would all prefer, at least some of time, an innocuous Holy Spirit, one who, perched on our shoulder, coos soothing nothings into our ears. But such a Holy Spirit is the product of our imaginations, the expression of an angst driven desire to manage and control all things. Face it. The Holy Spirit is always a little threatening, a little wild. Oh, we want the Holy Spirit, but we would prefer a pet Holy Spirit in a gilded cage, lest things get out of hand. That is precisely what happened in today’s reading from the book of Numbers and in the holy Gospel.

The Exodus

If we are going to make any sense at all out of today’s text from Numbers, we have to rerun the missing episodes. Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt. The exodus started out with a bang: the escape, the chase, and then, all of Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers swallowed up in the foaming waters of the Red Sea! Spectacular! Then the exodus became unmanageable. Hunger, thirst, illness, jealousies, rancour and, above all, murmuring. The monastic tradition considers murmuring—call it grumbling, whining, or kvetching—a most despicable vice.

God went out of his way to feed his people in the wilderness with manna from heaven. Do you think the Israelites were happy with it? Not for long. They began to kvetch about the manna. They were overcome with cravings for Egyptian cuisine. “O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Num 11:5-6).

Moses Seeks Relief

This whining and weeping exasperates the Lord — “the anger of the Lord blazed hotly” (Num 11:10), says the text — and gets on Moses’ nerves. Moses is fed up with being a leader. Basta! He has had enough. He wants to opt for early retirement. He complains bitterly to management, that is to God. “Why hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And why have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou dost lay the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I bring them forth, that thou shouldst say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries the sucking child, to the land which thou didst swear to give their fathers? I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me” (Num 11:11-15). Then, in an excess of classic Jewish melodrama, he says to God, “just kill me already, and get it over with.”

But God does not kill Moses; he proposes a solution. "Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there” (Num 11:16). I love this! God comes down to talk things over, to mediate, to negotiate, to hear his people’s grievances and propose his own compassionate solution. He says, “I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone” (Num 11:17).

The Seventy Elders

Moses breathed a sigh of relief and “gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them round about the tent” (Num 11:24). Now, the tent is outside the camp. You remember that from Numbers 2:2. “They shall encamp facing the Tent of Meeting on every side.” “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.” (Num 11:25).

Eldad and Medad Receive the Spirit

Two of the men chosen, one named Eldad and the other named Medad, got mixed up and didn’t show up at the tent, or maybe they were distracted, or had marked the wrong date in their appointment books. In any case, they were not with the officially designated members of the group. Was the plan of God frustrated by human error? Was God inconvenienced by their infraction of the protocol? Not at all. “The spirit rested upon them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp” (Num 11:26). And a young man — probably one of those priggish types who think they have to police God himself — ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp" (Num 11:27).

Would that All Were Prophets

Then, someone who should really have known better, Joshua himself, “the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, forbid them’” (Num 11:28). This, of course, is a preview of the scenario in the gospel. Moses has the most splendid answer, an answer worthy of the saints in every generation. "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them" (Num 11:29). Moses’ answer to Joshua announces Jesus’ words to John.

John’s Complaint

John is indignant because he caught someone not playing according to the rules. “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us” (Mk 9:38). Note the nuance in John’s complaint. “We forbade him because he was not following us” (Mk 9:38). Already, John and the others are imbued with their own importance, convinced that they are indispensable, that the Holy Spirit cannot possibly work without them, around them, below them, or above them.

He That Is Not Against Us Is For Us

Our Lord, in contrast, is tolerant, and kindly disposed to the man. “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me, for he that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:39-40). The name of Christ delivers the power of the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Spirit are not separated in the work of salvation. The free-lance exorcist participated in the Spirit-empowered mission that Jesus himself had announced when, in the synagogue at Nazareth, he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). The exorcist of the gospel operates, nonetheless, outside the college of Christ’s chosen collaborators. This is what rubs the apostles the wrong way. Defensive, and proprietary of their apostolic calling, they take umbrage. They come across as sectarian, arrogant, and intolerant. Oh, the sins of the clergy!

Charism and Structure

The Holy Spirit is sovereignly free. He works mightily within official channels, and just as mightily outside them when the advance of the Kingdom so demands. The Church, like the monastery — a microcosm of the Church — and like each of our lives, is healthiest when structure is balanced with charism. Authentic founders and reformers are hesitant to put too much in writing, resisting codification and insisting on supple and simple reliance on the Holy Spirit. Charism needs structure, but unless structure is light and capable of bending in the wind, like a great tree in a hurricane, it breaks and crushes those upon whom it falls.

Codification is necessary to protect the innocent, to secure the rights of the oppressed, and to assure that human channels will not altogether inhibit the flow of grace. On the other hand, codification needs the irrigation of charism, lest the bringing in of the kingdom be hampered by human pettiness, and the work of Christ become the routine of dry and predictable functionaries. This is the tension in every reform and in every renewal.

The kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus is characterized by an almost indiscriminate outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Ac 2:17-18; Jl 2:28-32).

La Petite Thérèse

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, the Church’s latest and youngest Doctor, whom we remember today, is the perfect illustration of the Holy Spirit’s unpredictable successes. What was the Holy Spirit doing in that little Carmel of narrow-minded respectable nuns, if not making the wise foolish and the foolish wise? Lisieux was not the Vatican. It wasn’t even Paris! If the Little Thérèse teaches us anything, it is that the Holy Spirit can work anywhere, anytime, and in an infinite variety of ways. In every age, the Holy Spirit finds an Eldad and a Medad hanging back in the camp, and sets them to prophesying. Thérèse is the friend of outsiders, of risk takers, of the marginalized, the alienated, of those who lay claim to no title, nor privilege, nor place in the established structures. Thérèse knew that the Holy Spirit is indeed, as we sing in the sequence of Pentecost, the Father of the Poor. “Veni, pater pauperum, / Veni, dator munerum.” Come, thou Father of the poor, / Come, thou giver of gifts.”

Every Eucharist a Pentecost

The Spirit who comforted Moses in his distress, the Spirit who descended upon Eldad and Medad, the Spirit who caused consternation in the apostolic college, the Spirit who took a young nun dying of tuberculosis in an obscure cloister and made her a Doctor of the Church, will, in a few moments, overshadow the altar, the bread and wine placed upon it, and all of us. Every Eucharist unleashes a new Pentecost, causing the little, the poor, and the violators of protocol, the “nobodies” of churchdom to sing with Thérèse and with all the saints, “How good and sweet, O Lord, is your Spirit within us” (Wis 12:1, Alleluia Verse).

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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