In Victor Hugo’s story of “Les Miserables” the little girl Cosette is left orphaned at the death of her mother, Fantine. She was a single mother, the father had abandoned her and was neither part of her life nor the child’s life. Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the novel and Fantine’s former employer, is with her when she is dying. He promises to find Cosette and to care for her as his own.
After Fantine dies, Valjean goes to the village where Cosette is being looked after by a pair of unsavory characters. He pays off Fantine’s debts to them and take’s Cosette into his home and life. He becomes a father to her and loves her deeply. She is liberated through his love and grows to be a woman of fine character under his care.
Jesus uses the term “orphan” when he speaks to his disciples about his departure. Orphans have lost their parents and have no family of their own. They are isolated in the world and are in great need. The needs are not only temporal such as food, clothing and shelter. They are in need of love, kindness, mercy and compassion. They need to be cared for in a loving family.
When Jesus uses the expression “orphan,” these images come to mind. His departure will be difficult for the disciples, especially the manner of his being “taken up.” He will endure the passion and cross and for those three days before the resurrection the disciples will feel like orphans.
He also refers to his return to the Father in his ascension which will happen after the resurrection. It is in this context that Jesus promises an abiding presence with his disciples in the church: “I will not leave you orphaned. I will come to you.”
Jesus promises to stay with his church through the Holy Spirit, the “Advocate” or “Paraclete.”
We mark the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that will be celebrated in two weeks on June 4. This Sunday we continue to celebrate Easter yet there is an anticipation growing in our observance. The Spirit is promised and Christ Jesus will remain with us and abide with us. The outpouring of the Spirit is recalled also as we remember our Christian initiation during this season.
The first reading from Acts of the Apostles helps us reflect on this presence in our lives and that of the church.
Philip had brought the Gospel message to Samaria, the ancient capital of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel. Great joy filled the city as the Gospel was proclaimed in word and deed. Hearing that “Samaria had accepted the word of God,” the apostles back in Jerusalem send Peter and John who go to Samaria and “they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
It is this presence of the Holy Spirit that fills the disciples with divine life and binds them in the communion of faith. They become part of God’s family, the church.
The presence of the Spirit fills our lives with divine love. It is this love that enables us to live the Gospel and be transformed by it into the persons God is calling us to be. The words of encouragement found in the passage from our liturgy’s second reading speak to this transformation when the author writes: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”
The author continues by calling for a witness. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear … for it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”
We might respond, that is difficult, how can I do it? It is now that we remember that we are not alone, Christ dwells among us through the Spirit. It is God living in us who calls us but also strengthens us and transforms us by his love.
There are many people today who feel isolated or alone, like “orphans.” We are reminded today that we are never alone. We are part of God’s family, the church. He remains with us and dwells among us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as Jesus told us: “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.