Twenty-eight years of preaching Mother’s Day sermons will seriously deplete one’s supply of stories. This year, not having recently read anything useful that featured a mother, I did what I always do when desperate. I called home.
“Hello,” my mom said.
“I need you to think about something, and I’ll call you back in a day.”
“This will be good!”
The nice thing about calling your mom is that you don’t have to identify yourself. The downside is that your mother always seems to know what to expect.
“I need a Mother’s Day story, and I’ll give you a day to think about it,” I told her.
Evidently my mother didn’t feel she needed a day. I had unleashed her inner Proust. She began without further encouragement: “I remember when we lived on Thirtieth. We had just moved there. You couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old. Your Dad had bought you and Harold a little red wagon. It wasn’t a big wagon.”
I don’t know why my mother felt compelled to mention the wagon’s modest size. Did she think that my childhood has become so blurred that we now appear rich in my memories?
“It wasn’t a big wagon, but you and your brother pulled it all over the neighborhood, and, at the end of the day, you showed up on our doorstep with the wagon full of the potted flowers, which the neighbor lady had spent the entire day planting. You had pulled up every last one!”
“How do you know that I pulled them up? Harold was with me, wasn’t he?” My not-guilty plea didn’t sidetrack or slow my mother.
“And I had to go over to that lady, Mrs. Manning, and tell her what you had done. I have to say that she was very nice about it. She had spent the whole day planting them. And your Dad had to replant all of those flowers when he got home from work. We were so new in the neighborhood. We hadn’t even finished unpacking!”
“That’s your Mother’s Day story? Nothing tender like tucking us into bed or teaching us to say our prayers?”
“It’s the first thing that came to mind.”
“I said you had twenty-four hours.
“I don’t need twenty-four hours. Oh, and we had just moved in.”
“You mentioned that.”
“And you were so proud of yourself. Look, Mommy, flowers!”
So much for “it’s the thought that counts.” But how is a toddler to know that he can’t give his mother someone else’s flowers? At the age of two, the entire world seems to be a gift, one that should be shared. And perhaps, on this sixth Sunday of Easter, that’s an access to our scriptures, which contain a rather startling experience of the very same: a world overflowing with the goodness of God.
While Peter is still preaching to the household of Cornelius,
the holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word. The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?” He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10: 44-48).
Note an inversion, which we don’t expect. The descent of the Holy Spirit precedes, rather than follows or accompanies, Baptism. It’s an important corrective to many sacramental theologies, which speak of sacraments as dispensing the Holy Spirit. Persons are not dispensed, and neither is grace, the very presence of God.
Of course the Church has long taught that when we celebrate a sacrament, we can be assured of receiving the Holy Spirit, provided that we ourselves have not placed an obstacle in the way of reception. Employed by theologians since the 13th century, the Latin phrase ex opere operato—by the work having been worked—expresses this truth of sacramental theology. If we’ve done our part, so has God.
But rather than speaking of the Holy Spirit binding self to the sacraments, we might better speak of the Church’s sacramental life as the preeminent form of the Spirit’s own act of self-expression. In other words, sacraments are the tangible way by which the Holy Spirit gives the self, just as Christ did upon the cross.
As human beings, we know that simply sending loving thoughts is not enough. Love takes flowers, hugs, kisses, cooking, and countless other physical acts of expression. Indeed, love unexpressed doesn’t quite arrive at what love is for a human being.
As pure Spirit, God isn’t bound to human expressions of love, and yet, in becoming human in Christ, God took on, once and forever, prosaic human acts, making them attestations of love. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4:9) This is why the Holy Spirit now washes us in Baptism with real water, nourishes us with real food, uses slithery oil to sooth and to consecrate, makes the very flesh of the spouse into an expression of grace.
Sacraments don’t “dispense” the Holy Spirit any more than Mothers dole out love. Acts of love aren’t measured or metered. The vision of humanity’s creator, the pattern set by humanity’s redeemer, is that of love constantly seeking to express itself. “This I command you: love one another” (Jn 15:17). My mother might not have had time to teach Harold and me the notion of private property, but at least we understood that truth. Like Mothers, sacraments are tangible expressions of God’s love, of the Spirit in our midst.