Ancient Answers

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Responses of the Heart

I can’t let go of this beautiful psalm that I wrote on yesterday. So instead of the Paul verse which my bible software has highlighted today – I do get a little tired of too much Paul – I prefer to focus on verse 8 of this beautiful psalm:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

I quote the NRSV rendering of this verse, because David’s heart seems to have initiated Davi’d desire to dwell in the house of the Lord, where he will behold the beauty of the Lord (yesterday’s verse). It is true of human nature in general that our desires are most genuine and most fruitful when they arise from within our deepest inner being – which in biblical language is the ‘heart’. But our hearts are divided, especially in our advertising-dominated world. When we talk about our ‘heart’s desire’ we often mean nothing more than something we saw on an afternoon talk show or online. That’s not what ‘heart’ means in the Bible. Heart in the Bible – as in Psalm 27 here – means the undivided self. Thus Jesus can say, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We sing this verse every Sunday in the Liturgy, as part of the Beatitudes.

Hearing, singing, responding – this is the dynamic of David’s psalm. And it is the dynamic of Christian worship! David heard his heart, he sang his psalm – and he responded, he took action, he sought the face of the Lord. He went into the house of the Lord. And he found confidence not to be terrorised by his enemies. (Remember, David was a warrior and a king. Who said warriors and kings can’t also be poets?) Read the entire psalm again and see this dynamic at work in David’s stormy life.

I know for myself how easy it is to talk the right words, but do nothing more than talk. Life is full of honourable intentions. I can’t count the times that a parishioner feels it necessary to tell me, “You’ll see me in church soon.” But I still don’t see them. But the real matter is not whether I see them “in church” but whether God sees them. And whether they see the face and beauty of God! As we move into an increasingly non-participatory form of Christianity, people think nothing about separating themselves from the corporate worship that is the essential task of the church. Kids sports can only suffice as an excuse to a point. At some point the question needs to be asked: What does your heart tell you? Is there still any warmth in your heart for God? Is your Christian faith just words?

David’s heart commanded him to get up and seek the face of God. You want to dwell in the house of the Lord, David? Then don’t just write psalms about it, go and seek his face. This is heart talk – the inner dialogue of an undivided self, the “pure in heart.” So here now is the big question. Where do you seek the face of God? Jesus told us where we would find his face: in the faces of the poor and suffering! But we might never recognise the face of God in the suffering and the poor if we don’t allow Liturgy and worship to train us and to reveal the face of God through words, songs, icons, and the responses of the heart. Worship gives us the eyes and compassion to see God “in the land of the living”, and that is how David concludes his wonderful, heart-shaping psalm:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

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The Beauty of the Lord

Psalm 27 is one of the highest points of inspiration in the Bible. The verse highlighted today provided the text for a very catchy contemporary Christian song I first heard many years ago and I still often sing it to myself. I’m singing it right now as I write this, but silently as it’s 2:00 am. I prefer the translations that say “behold the beauty of the Lord” instead of “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” “Behold” conveys more of the sense of awe.

Although it’s not part of the Orthodox funeral service, I occasionally I insert Psalm 27 in a funeral service, in abbreviated version:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,

be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

Your face, Lord, do I seek.

Do not hide your face from me,

for you have been my helper.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,

O God of my salvation!

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord

in the land of the living

Wait for the Lord; be strong,

and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

What a marvelous expression of confidence. What a wonderful vision of life lived in full awareness of God. Our verse today tells us that David’s only desire is to live in the house of the Lord so he can behold unceasingly the beauty of the Lord. The Lord is indeed beautiful. Have you ever used the word ‘beautiful’ to describe God? How different from the usual ways we refer to God. David not only wants to live in the house of the Lord, but he wants to converse with God, “to inquire in his temple.” It reminds me of Jesus when he was twelve years old and his parents found him in the temple at Jerusalem conversing with the priests and teachers.

Do we listen to our hearts, or do we force our hearts to obey our minds? David listened to his heart, and his heart told him, “Come, seek his face!” And David obeyed: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Do you seek the face of the Lord? Listen to your heart, it will guide you to seek the Lord “in the land of the living.” The heart and soul of life lived in Christ is in this Psalm. And it invites every one of us to the land of the living.

Although God does not dwell in any earthly temples built by human hands, there is a unique divine presence in every sacred place and house of worship – yes, in our ‘temple’ too, on the corner of Pleasant and Park Streets in Portland, Maine. My own conversion to personal Christian faith did not happen at a Billy Graham crusade or some miraculous experience. No, my conversion began (it began!) when I stepped inside the Cathedral at Chartres, France, in July of 1978. The churches of Paris, including Notre Dame, were impressive but left me unmoved. Chartres was different. I spent two days inside that huge Gothic church, studying every stained glass window, every statue, reading everything in my detailed guidebook and twice joining the guided tours of the most amazing tour guide in the world, Malcolm Miller. As far as I know he is still there, doing his daily tours, full of insight, full of theological depth and understanding and a master communicator of his deep knowledge. And there in the great space of Chartres Cathedral I experienced the beauty of the Lord. The space itself conveyed the beauty of God, and I believe something similar happened to David when he was in the temple. As a result, he desired to be in the presence of that beauty all the days of his life. Malcolm Miller has spent 60 years in Chartres Cathedral by now, guiding countless visitors to an appreciation of magnificent, beautiful Christianity.

Carved statue of Christ and Adam at Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

One of the most moving stone carvings at Chartres is that of Christ cradling the head of Adam. How can one look at this carving and not be overcome by the incredible divine humanity and infinite compassion of the Lord. But it’s only one of many hundreds of carvings at Chartres, a luminous place, a place of spiritual transformation – as long as you allow yourself to linger and not be on a tour bus. So when I read David’s Psalm 27 I am drawn to memories of Chartres and memories of chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The beauty of the Lord is indeed something we can all experience. And we can experience it wherever we gather to worship the Lord. But you have to linger, you can’t be in a hurry. And you have to be quiet in your spirit so God can speak to you in the silence: Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12). God was in the silence. The beauty of the Lord is best encountered in the silence.

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Thank God for the Fall

My Logos Bible software posts a Bible verse every day as a color slide. I use this daily verse to compose my own reflection on it. So when I logged into my Logos account early this morning, I found today’s highlighted verse is one that I referred to yesterday when I reflected on Jesus as the icon/image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Today’s verse draws a sharp contrast between Adam and Christ. As any mention of Adam needs some explaining, it is incumbent for me to do so here. Just like yesterday, the discussion has to be a bit on the theological side, as necessitated by the verse itself.

Adam was, according to Genesis chapters 1 & 2 the first human being created by God. And Eve was created from Adam’s rib, according to Genesis 2. Male and female God made humanity; in his image and likeness he made them (Genesis 1:27). The story of origins culminates in Genesis 3, the story of the fall, where Adam and Eve transgress against God’s commandment and are sent out from the garden where they were created. The most crucial result of the fall was that human beings became subject to death. Presumably there would have been no death if they had not transgressed, and they would have remained in the garden.

The story, of course, is archetypal and no one who has gone to school and knows anything about science can accept the story as anything more than a poetic explanation for death and sin. I have never taken the story literally. It is simply impossible for me as a former scientist to accept the story of Adam and Eve literally. It’s a powerful metaphor of human sin and mortality, but impossible as fact. Sorry if that offends any literalists. And Paul, of course, takes the story literally and states the obvious: Death came through Adam, but resurrection and eternal life comes through Christ. The Fathers of the Church (why are there no Mothers of the Church when we talk about theologians?) were inspired by such statements in the New Testament and were motivated to call Jesus the “Second Adam”, in the sense that Jesus undid the fall and reversed the sentence of death that fell upon humanity. As I said, powerful stuff – regardless of whether you take the story literally or not.

But here is a conundrum that arises in my mind. Let’s for the sake of argument take the story as factual history. Some of the Fathers of the Church saw dimensions in the story that Paul did not appreciate or conceive. Some of the Latin Fathers saw the fall as a felix culpa, a “happy fault”. Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus of Lyon saw Adam and Eve as childishly immature in the garden, before the Fall – with potential for growth, to be sure, but immature nevertheless. Here is my question. If Adam and Eve had not fallen and had remained in the Garden, would there have been any civilization? Would there have been a Homer or Socrates? Would there have been a Parthenon or the pyramids of Giza? or the Sistine Chapel? Would there have been a Shakespeare? a Beethoven or Mozart? a Tolstoy? Ella Fitzgerald or the Beatles? Sorry if I’m so eurocentric in my examples. I’m not one of these new folks who put down the achievements of western civilization.

Without the felix culpa, we would have none of the great achievements of human civilization – nor, of course, any of the evils, like the Holocaust or 9/11. We accept the evils as manifestations of the dark side in human coexistence, because the manifestations of light and beauty are so much grater and more enduring. This is the great tradeoff of human history. But the greatest gift of the fall is that it made possible the coming of Christ in our midst. We look at Christ and we can’t imagine life without him. And I prefer to focus on the felix culpa version of the Fall. Because it gave us civilization in all its great achievements. And it gave us Christ, who brings gifts and promises greater than anything Adam and Eve received in the proverbial Garden. We’re not in the Garden. Thank God for that. If we were still in the Garden we might still be Irenaeus’ immature children. We’re in a magnificent place called Planet Earth! Can we start treating it as a garden of delight and take better care of it? That would be another glorious result of the felix culpa.

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Let’s not talk of demons

Most people today don’t believe in demons and demonic possession. Yet, I claim that today’s Gospel reading is even more relevant today than it was 2,000 years ago. That’s because we don’t live in the age of demons; we live in the age of demonization! Yes, we demonize people; we demonize individuals we don’t agree with; and we demonize whole groups of people. And the greater tragedy is that people don’t want to stop demonizing someone else or another group because they need a scapegoat, someone to blame. So even when the facts don’t agree with them, people invent lies or simply refuse to believe what’s in front of them. That’s what happened with the Jews in Germany and Russia and other European countries in the previous two centuries. Fake documents were created – like the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – in order to support the demonization of Jews. And all this led to the Holocaust, the darkest act of evil perhaps in all human history. 

In today’s Gospel reading, the local people of the village had cast out this man. He was demonized – or, perhaps they demonized him. Jesus released him, liberated him – but the villagers were not happy. Who would they demonize now? Oh, wait, they got it. They demonized Jesus, and forced him to leave their area. But Jesus asked the man to stay behind, among his own people. The man they demonized now stayed behind to be their healer. A beautiful conclusion. Did he succeed? We don’t know. Human history would tell us that the strategy of staying behind to heal a village or a country rarely has succeeded.

So I, like Jesus, take my leave from this town of the Gerasenes. I don’t want to talk about demons – whether ancient or modern. There’s too much demon talk in the world anyway. I want to turn to Saint Paul. I want to be inspired by that one phrase we heard from him today: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). What an extraordinary statement. And as a perfect example of what it means for Christ to live in me or you, I go back to Colossians chapter 3, that marvelous paragraph I explored yesterday:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

If you want a description of what it means for Christ to live in you, you can’t do much better than this. Compassion and kindness in Paul’s mind are inseparable from humility, meekness and patience. Knowing our own neediness prevents us from judging someone who needs our compassion and kindness. Knowing our own neediness of God keeps us from becoming arrogant in our attitude toward others. The meek shall inherit the earth, not the arrogant. And those who are patient – a tough thing to be in our instant gratification society. But if we learn to be patient in our own healing we will be patient with others, “forbearing one another…forgiving each other other…And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in harmony.” Community is the training for all this. And unless love binds everything here where it is easiest, how can we bring love and compassion to the world out there that needs love and compassion so desperately?

But Paul is not finished pouring out inspiration for us who hear him: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

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The True Icon

Who is Paul referring to in Colossians 1:15? Jesus Christ, of course: ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως. He is the icon – that’s the Greek word translated as image – of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see God. Not physically, for there is no physicality to God. God is spirit, Jesus told the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the true icon/image of God in the sense that Jesus is everything God is. He represents God to us. He is the Word of God, the wisdom and power of God.

But an icon or image is meant to have a viewer or witness; someone to receive and see the image – just as you are receiving and seeing the image that is attached to this email. We are the witnesses, the recipients of the “image”! When we honor him, when we listen to him, when we follow him as disciples, we are recognizing that he is the image of the invisible God. God who is invisible chose to become visible to us through Jesus Christ. Can you understand the profundity of that statement? For us and for our salvation, God became visible.

Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation,” proclaims this verse. Does that mean that Jesus Christ was merely the first to be created by God? Would that mean that Jesus is none other than Adam? After all, Adam was the first man created by God, according to the archetypal language of Genesis chapters 1 & 2. And Adam and Eve were created “in the image and likeness” of God. So is Jesus Adam? It would have been very weird indeed if Paul meant anything like that. After all, he clearly differentiated between Adam and Christ in his other letters:

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:14 – the one to come is Jesus Christ, and Adam was a “type” of Christ, someone who foreshadowed Christ. Typology is a topic on its own.)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)

Clearly Paul is not equating Jesus to Adam, nor is he implying that Jesus was the first of God’s created beings. Translating πρωτότοκος as the English word “firstborn” is misleading if we don’t go on to include the remainder of what Paul wrote: for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17) This is a big statement that can sustain a separate email exposition.

Not only is Jesus the one in whom everything was created (remember John 1:3?), he is also the Savior. Note how he links the theology of who Christ is to what Christ has done. It’s brilliant: He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:18-20)

Just as in yesterday’s extraordinary paragraph in Colossians 3:12-17, so also here he sees the church as the place where everything finds its purpose. In chapter 3, the church is the body of Christ, where our discipleship has its true home, and from where we learn how to go out into the world as disciples and messengers of Christ. In the chapter 1 passage, Jesus Christ’s works of creation, re-creation and reconciliation (which is another word for cosmic salvation) all find their culmination and focus in the church.

The church is all-important to Christ’s work. The church is the home of God’s purposes to save the world and bring us to glory. Is the church important to you? If yes, then how is it important to you? And how do you express that importance in your life and your participation in the life of the church? 

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Some choice words

Some words for “God’s chosen, holy and beloved.” Yes, that’s how Paul addresses his fellow believers in Christ, and that’s how I address you this morning. What a privilege! But it is not a privilege in the way that human beings privilege themselves to the exclusion of others. These three epithets in Greek, ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιοι καὶ ἠγαπημένοι, are not meant to make us proud or boastful. They describe what is our standing before God, how God sees us. And they have consequences: “as God’s chosen, holy and beloved” put on….the five attributes that Paul singles out. If you are God’s chosen, holy and beloved, it follows that you will have a compassionate heart, that you will be kind, humble, meek and patient. And I love the symbols that this slide uses to accompany each of those qualities.

σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ is best translated not as “compassionate hearts,” but rather as compassionate guts! The compassion Paul is talking about is not just an emotion: “Oh, I feel so sorry for that poor child.” No, it’s compassion that stirs you in the depths of your being and leads to action and personal involvement in the other person for whom you feel pity. Every time the Gospels describe Jesus as having compassion on someone it’s the verb that comes from σπλάγχνα that is used to describe his reaction. Jesus didn’t just feel an emotion, he was stirred in his guts to acts of compassion.

The compassionate person is also kind – χρηστότητα is Paul’s word here, which also means goodness. Just as God is kind and pours his goodness on us, so also we show goodness to those we encounter. Paul is not talking about emotion of pity which might last for a few seconds or a minute before we move on. Anyone can feel pity. But the true Christian response to suffering is not pity but gut-stirring compassion that arises from the goodness/kindness within that reflects God’s goodness to us. Paul is never superficial. He never deals in slogans. He used words carefully, making full use of the rich meanings that these ancient Greek words had.

True compassion comes with humility, meekness and patience. Many times we reach out and help someone while silently also passing judgment on the person, thinking he or she is lazy, or wondering whether drug use brought him or her to such a bad state or illness. Sometimes pity is little more than an expression of judgment of the person we are pitying, and even a sense of superiority to that person. So Paul connects the attributes of humility, meekness and patience to compassion and kindness so as to prevent judgmental pity that comes so easily when we label others. The Christian who is humble, meek and patient is far less likely to show judgmental pity on someone. If you know your own lowliness, your own neediness for God’s compassion and goodness, you will not be arrogant; you will be meek in your attitude to life. And if you have had to be patient in your own life to reach a certain goal or to overcome a sickness or a temptation, you will be less likely to judge the other person. If it took you time to overcome something, you can hope for time in the other person; and you will be patient in your estimation of the other person.

So you see, Paul is not just piling on good words here. He has thought this through; maybe not exactly the way I’m thinking it through and almost certainly far more profoundly than I am capable of connecting the meaning of these beautiful words. Perhaps I can conclude my short exploration of this verse by quoting the rest of the paragraph that begins with this verse in Colossians. It is all a further expression of what it means to be “God’s chosen, holy and beloved”:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17, RSV)

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On the Lord’s Day

It is a pity that the book of Revelation has been turned into a money-maker for books and movies that are more science-fiction fantasy than Christian teaching. Revelation is used to create a timeline for all sorts of fantasies of destruction. What’s even more tragic is that while it’s easy to misinterpret the book of Revelation and indulge in fantasies of futuristic destruction, why is it so difficult to care about the present realities of destruction, especially the destruction of the environment?

Yes, the Book of Revelation contains many visions of global death and destruction, but it belongs to a particular type of religious writing which was very popular in the time of Christ – what we call apocalyptic writings. We who read this book 2,000 years later do not share the mindset of the time in which it was written. I don’t want to trivialize things, but it’s almost like someone 2,000 years in the future, when human civilization is on the brink of calamity, people find a movie called Avengers: Infinity War and think it’s a prophecy about the end of the world. I know I’m being silly, but it’s not a completely unacceptable analogy.

Ceiling Icon of Christ Pantokrator at our church (click to enlarge)

But thank God the Book of Revelation is not only about scenes of destruction. It starts with a dazzling vision of Jesus Christ. The words of verse 8 in chapter 1 are inscribed in red letters around our icon of the Pantokrator Christ in the ceiling of our church: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty [Pantokrator].” Jesus dictates “seven letters” to seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 – which should prompt us and every church to wonder which of the seven churches are we most like, or what kind of letter Jesus would write to our church! Then follows a scene in the next two chapters of Revelation which can only be described as a heavenly liturgy. Indeed, the development of our own Liturgy was greatly influenced by the vision of chapter 4. Our illustrated verse today (Revelation 4:8), in combination with Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9, became part of a hymn we sing at every Liturgy. It is perhaps a little known or rarely acknowledged fact that our entire Liturgy is permeated with words and phrases taken straight out of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments!

The entire vision that John describes in the Book of Revelation took place on a Sunday: On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit (Revelation 1:10). And in chapter 4 he again reiterates: At once I was in the Spirit (verse 2). Of course he is referring to the Holy Spirit, the one whom elsewhere we have called the Comforter, the Helper, the Parakletos. The Holy Spirit can come into our lives in so many ways and in so many different situations of need or blessedness. We don’t tell the Holy Spirit how to impact our lives. The Holy Spirit is boundlessly free, like the wind in John 3:8. All we can do is call the Holy Spirit, be open to the Holy Spirit, just as John was on the Lord’s Day. And the Spirit showed him a vision of worship in heaven – certainly not a vision to be taken as something that happens for all eternity. It was a vision for that particular day or time in John’s life, when he was given to understand the mystery behind world events. And it was the unveiling of the mystery that gives his book the title Αποκάλυψις, Apocalypse or the Uncovering/Unveiling – or, Revelation in most English versions. The scene of worship described in our verses today and in all of chapter 4 sets the stage for the appearance of Christ as the Lamb in chapter 5, which itself marks the beginning of the incredible visions to come. Everything is an unveiling – but not necessarily an unveiling of any particular events, but rather an unveiling of the general movement of human history and human apostasy. But all that is beyond my ability to discuss today.

We also call upon the Holy Spirit every Lord’s Day at the Liturgy: We pray to the Father to “send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here presented. And make this bread the precious body of your Christ….” The Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. But what the Holy Spirit does “upon us” we don’t dare specify. One thing is for sure: the Holy Spirit acts in the life of everyone who is present on the Lord’s Day. Are you?