The daily readings last week contained one of my favorite passages from the Acts of the Apostles. (AA 8:26-40) It is the one in which Philip followed the instruction of an angel and left Jerusalem to evangelize. It marked the beginning of the spread of Christianity from its birth in Jerusalem ‘to the ends of the earth,’ which was the commission given the apostles by Jesus before He ascended into Heaven. In it, a man from Ethiopia was confused by a passage of Scripture over which he was praying, and moved by the Holy Spirit Philip went to the man’s chariot to help him. The trust in God that Philip displayed was remarkable: first he ventured out of the comfort zone of the community in Jerusalem and then he approached a mysterious foreigner, a man completely unlike anyone he had met before. There was no fear in Philip, but rather there was a joy which was apparent in the zeal with which he shared his understanding. By the conclusion of the meeting the Ethiopian was also filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Even more fascinating is that the end result of the man’s desire to understand was the fulfillment of the very prophecy over which he was praying: “Who will tell of his posterity?” Philip surely did just that.
If we want to understand the circumstances of the Ethiopian, we need to know exactly who this man was. First, the passage tells us that he was a man of authority, a eunuch who served the queen of Ethiopia directly. One who was a eunuch was not a threat to the queen and so he was able to be closer to her than any other person in her service. What is more important, however, is the significance of why the author mentioned the man’s physical ‘status’: a eunuch was a self-mutilated man and therefore considered unclean by Jewish law. Therefore when he was in Jerusalem he could not have entered the part of the Temple where the rabbis instructed people about the faith. This is why he had no one to interpret the Scripture for him. The eunuch was obviously a devout believer, desirous of growing in his faith, and so God sent the apostle Philip to help him. The joy and fervor of Philip, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, obviously flowed outward to the receptive eunuch, who asked for baptism and thus received it in the nearby water. The Spirit of the Lord then ‘snatched Philip away to another city,’ and the man brought the faith back to Ethiopia with him, spreading Christianity far outside Israel for the first time.
From the moment the eunuch was baptized by Philip he became a full member of the body of Christ. That his body had been altered voluntarily, something which kept him apart from those in his previous faith community, now meant nothing. After baptism he would have been welcomed by the Christian community completely. All divisions had been washed away by the waters of baptism and he had been given new life in the Spirit. He would have to continue to participate in the Eucharist, prayer, and reflection upon the teaching of the apostles in order to continue to have interior growth and to keep the connection from being stunted. And just as he needed to continue to nurture the life of faith, so too, do we. We must avail ourselves of good instruction in our faith, especially in our understanding of the Scriptures. The Bible is our lifeline to God, along with the Sacraments. It is meant to be our moral compass, the sustainer of our faith, our support when we are struggling, and a source of wisdom, joy, and gratitude as a direct connection to God. In short, it is at the heart of our spiritual life. The Scriptures teach us about our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and about salvation history. It is a book about love and mercy and it is our story, too. Therefore we need to find our own Philip if we need help in understanding what is contained within the pages of Scripture.
Another challenge brought to us through the passage from Acts, however, is whether we rise to the occasion to be like Philip in sharing our faith when opportunities present themselves. If we are waiting for someone ‘more qualified’ to share faith, we will continually miss the chance to share the beauty of being a member of the Body of Christ and the joy of knowing Jesus. Granted, Philip was an apostle and only those who are apostles (bishops today) have the authority to interpret Scripture and to therefore teach it. But we all need to be witnesses to our faith, just as the eunuch did when he returned to Ethiopia. What we learn from him is that while we may not be as qualified as Philip was, we are all ‘qualified’ to love. That is, if we have been baptized, if we are believers in that which has been handed down to us, then we are meant to ‘instruct’ others in the faith by our word and deed; we are witnesses to it through the mercy and love by which we behave. Just as Philip interpreted the Scriptures for the eunuch so that he could understand who Jesus was and why He came, we can bring people to Jesus, too. We do not have to be quoting chapter and verse, but what will evangelize is our love.
Two examples of living the gospel, instructing as Philip did, are saints who shared a feast day this past weekend. The first of these was St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-83) who, after trying unsuccessfully to enter religious communities, found that he was called to bring others to Christ as a pilgrim, which meant that he was a beggar who traveled from city to city to pray at various shrines or churches. He was so dirty that he referred to the vermin which lived on his body as his friends. But St. Benedict was generous with everyone, sharing anything he had received while begging. He was known for his love, compassion, generosity, and prayerfulness. After he died on the steps of the cathedral where he both prayed and begged, many proclaimed him a saint. It is doubtful that he spoke theologically to the other homeless people he encountered, but I am sure he talked about Jesus all the time, whether it was in actual words or through his acts of love.
The second of the saints who led others to the faith was St. Bernadette Soubirous, the young woman who saw the Virgin Mary at Massabielle in Lourdes. (1858) Bernadette was only 14 years old at the time and was so unschooled that she was almost illiterate. Though not very book-intelligent, she was a pure, humble soul. It was to her that Mary entrusted her identity as the Immaculate Conception, a concept totally ‘over the head’ of Bernadette. Yet she lived the gospel by making the message known to pray, do penance, and offer works of mercy. She acted with love toward everyone she met, even the bullying town authorities who disrespected her and her story. She stayed strong, living the gospel message of love in the convent where she was forbidden to speak of what had occurred (unless she was asked), and where she was treated almost cruelly in order to ‘protect her humility.’
Both St. Benedict and St. Bernadette revealed and taught the gospel message with everything they did, though neither of them were scholars. But they possessed what Philip had: faith in Jesus, hope in His message, and love which manifested itself in joy. Although Benedict was homeless and filthy, everything he did was directed toward joyfully sharing faith. And though Bernadette suffered both physically through illness and interiorly from the bad behavior of those who were jealous of her, every time she spoke of Mary or Jesus, and with every action to help the sick sisters in the convent where she lived, she did it with love and hope in the promise that life in Heaven would be filled with joy. Therefore if we are seeking to be like Philip or any other saint, the gospel message must first penetrate our own hearts. During this Easter season we can ask the Risen Lord Jesus to empower us with courage so that through the baptismal graces we have received, enlivened by the Eucharist, we might take the message ‘abroad’ just like Sts. Philip, Benedict, or Bernadette. We can have the same impact on those around us as they did since we are filled with the graces given to us by the same Holy Spirit which inspired them. When the question is asked of us as to who will tell of His posterity, we can respond as true disciples so that others may share in the joy of knowing Jesus.
May we be inspired by the example of St. Philip, following where the Holy Spirit leads! May we seek and be open to greater understanding of the Scriptures! May we ask for the intercession of St. Benedict Joseph Labre and St. Bernadette Soubirous that we might have the courage to live the message of the gospel in the circumstances of our daily lives! May we have the perseverance to be a witness to our faith, putting it into action through love and mercy! And may the Word find its home in us so that we may rely on it at all times! Let us continue to meet in the heart of the Risen Jesus! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The title of this entry is a reference to the passage which the Ethiopian was pondering, Isaiah 53:8. It was quoted in Acts 8:33.
The first image is an icon of Philip and the Ethiopian. It shows the hand of God imparting the wisdom with which Philip teaches, and also the angel who inspired him to leave Jerusalem. It also shows that the Ethiopian is indeed a man of authority because of the opulence of the chariot in which he is riding. Last, you can see the water nearby which represents his baptism at the end of the passage.
Next is a photo of my Bible. You can see that there are highlights within it. I took the photo with the pencil on the desk so that it would represent study. Our Bibles are meant to be written in!
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. Benedict Joseph Labre Patron of Homeless and Lost. It depicts his chosen poverty, but also that he carries the light of Christ and as I see it, the light of holiness. God's hand, as in the first icon, reaches out in blessing and mercy. Benedict's eyes are always heavenward. You can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-benedict-joseph-labre-062-william-hart-mcnichols.html. You can purchase a copy there, or you can peruse the other icons by Fr. Bill.
Next is a photo I took of some stained glass while in Nevers, France. This depicts St. Bernadette at the grotto in Lourdes as Mary appeared to her.
The gallery to follow are also my photos. The first is the tomb of St. Benedict Joseph Labre which is in the church where he died in Rome, Santa Maria ai Monti. The second is the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette in her glass tomb in Nevers, France. The final photo is the grotto of Massabielle at Lourdes as it appears today. The statue is at the exact spot where Bernadette saw Our Lady.
The last photo is also mine. It is of the sky over New Mexico.
Heart Speaks to Heart