The Gospel Norm

         Like parrots who squawk a fresh phrase, the news media keep repeating that this pandemic will create a “new normal.” We are told, while screens emit images of busy hospitals and body bags, that this will be a “new normal.” Wearing face masks and gloves to fill your pantry, gatherings no larger than 10 or 50 in the months ahead, and social distancing until next year, all billed with the price tag: “new normal.” All the while, not even experts agree about the statistics of this pandemic, politicians certainly don’t all agree, and reports vary and diverge causing confusion and unrest. Reports came out stating that we now live in a time of the worst job loss record in the entire history of these United States. If this recounts the “new normal,” then we might look fondly upon the “old normal;” one that existed only a few months ago. But, when we think about the “old normal” in the Church, do we want to return?

What did the “old normal” in the Church look like six weeks ago? 80% of registered Catholics did not attend Sunday Mass. 75% of even regular Mass attendees did not believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Only 17% of Catholics read the Bible daily. From 2009 to 2019 the number of those who affiliate with no religious community leaped from 17% to 29%. In parishes across the country, parents would often have their children baptized and only return to church for their children’s First Communion. After Confirmation – a sacrament meant to impart a seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead – the majority of young Catholics soon stopped practicing their faith. If these facts recount the “old normal,” then I do not want to take a step back into that wilderness. The “old normal” gave us freedom of movement, sports, booming industry, the lowest unemployment in history, and gadgets that entertained us. But, peeling back the veneer of that “old normal” reveals a pandemic worse than any virus.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says this, “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light” (John 3:19). Could there be any worse affliction than the dark virus of sin and unbelief? What could possibly be worse than preferring the “old normal” of sin, the wages of which lead us to darkness? In Acts 4:12 Peter declares before a council ready to execute him for his faith in Jesus Christ, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” Yet, for too long, we treated the Gospel more like “good advice” rather than the Good News of the power for salvation. Because no one wants their friends or neighbors to consider them “Jesus freaks” or “religious fanatics,” you and I chose the fear of man over the fear of God, and made the Church stale. Public pressure, worry over odd looks, and not wanting to cause a stir all conspired to silence us, dampen our fire, and numb us to the power of the Gospel. Because of this, we turned our faith into a hobby, something optional, and based on preference. We began to worry and bicker more about how long Mass took, who sat in “our” seat, and how the ketchup packets would be set out for parish events, instead of attending to the presence of God, having a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, listening for His voice, reading His word, and striving for His spiritual gifts. I hope when we return, when the doors of our churches open freely, and parking lots fill again, that we gain neither the “new normal” nor backslide into the “old normal.” We need the “Gospel normal,” the Gospel standard, the Gospel life!

When the Holy Spirit filled the Church on Pentecost, Jesus Christ established the normal of his Church. We don’t set the norm, Jesus does. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, before the power of God filled the Church, Jesus said this to his disciples, “And, behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Jesus fulfilled this promise, then he sent them out on mission like many times before. They built the kingdom neither with persuasive words nor five year plans, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. The presence of God clothed the Church of Jesus so mightily that “none of the others dared to join them” (Acts 5:13). When people encountered the Body of Christ, filled with the Resurrection power of the Holy Spirit, their hearts shuddered. After Peter’s first sermon on the day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a crowd of thousands asked him, “What are we to do” (Acts 2:37)? And, Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those who are far off” (Acts 2:38-39). Did you catch that? God meant for the gift of the Spirit, that gift who scarily, even freakishly filled the Church of Jesus Christ, to fill each of us! This “Gospel normal” became the most divisive, transformative, nation shaking, and dangerous history-changer the world ever witnessed. Christians don’t preserve the dead memory of a distant God, by true faith we reveal the present power of the living God, with a living Savior, whose name is Jesus Christ! Don’t we want that life? Don’t we want that to be the “new normal” when we fill the pews again?

The world shudders from fear and looks to the “new normal” for some security. But, we Catholics, we disciples of Jesus, we chosen and beloved Christians, do not shudder with fear. Instead, the world will shudder when we shake off the dust of sin, press in for more, and call upon God to fill us with a new boldness in the Holy Spirit. That was how the Church prayed in the Acts of the Apostles, they didn’t shake, their prayer made the buildings around them shake: “As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). When Church becomes only what we do, people flee from us; because, people don’t want what we have, they want what Jesus offers. But, throughout history, when the Body of Christ joined together in prayer and longing, in fasting and repentance, calling out for that gift only God can provide, history changed, the world shook, sinners became saints, the heavens tore open, blessing broke out, and what looked like loss became the greatest victory. This “Gospel normal” can be the only norm for Catholics today. We cannot pretend that the “old normal” made us holier, even though it made us busier. We cannot claim “success” when one in five registered Catholics attended Mass monthly. “Success” will only happen when the mark of the Church’s holiness flows from the very Spirit of holiness who sanctifies the Church. This is the norm Jesus gave for us, his Church; a Church called the Body of Christ. Do you want this “Gospel normal”? Choose it today! Don’t settle for misleading dreams of the past, strive on to what lies ahead in hope. The “new normal” can be shaped by the power of God instead of the fear of world, if we choose to redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16).

Don’t let this Easter season pass with trepidation about a “new normal” from the “evangelists of fear” in the news. This Easter sets before us the power of the Gospel normal. Jesus lives! Hope broke the chains of death and conquered even Hell itself. A new light shown on Easter morning that the Holy Spirit makes present in power for us who believe. We know that we cannot “make this happen” on our own. The point lies in the dependence, the humble obedience, the trusting desire that asks for more of the Holy Spirit from our loving Father. Long for the Spirit. Fast for the Holy Spirit. Intercede for the Church. Unceasingly pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Don’t let another minute go by with a fondness for the past. Look ahead. Look up! As a Church, we must hit the ground on our faces with repentance, in sorrow for our apathy towards the Spirit and treating our sins lightly. As the Body of Christ, we need to choose Christ above all else. As the Church, gathered by Christ, we must worship him in expectation for the promise of the Father. As the Body of Christ, we must be ready to boldly witness to the power of the Resurrection, in both word and deed. What good is it to ask for more of the Holy Spirit, if we will never step out in faith to witness and pray with others? The Holy Spirit clothes us with the only power that will set a “new normal” that satisfies. Stir that fire into flame! Make your homes blast zones of the Holy Spirit! And, when we return to the “normal” of the ever new Gospel, we will set the world on fire!

Fr. Bearer