When we are not able to be there for some important occasion in the life of a friend or family member---a marriage, a baptism, a birthday or the like---how often do we find ourselves saying, 'I will be with you in spirit'?
What we mean when we say this is, 'I won't be with you---but I'll try to stop and think of you and say a prayer for you on your special day.'
Of course, this is a perfectly proper response when we are not able to join with these celebrations. But it is interesting how the word 'spirit' has become something of a euphemism: we say 'I'll be with you in spirit' when in fact we mean 'I won't be with you'. A spiritual presence somehow becomes an alternative to a real presence.
To take a different example, we sometimes hear people say, 'I follow the spirit of the law'. Usually, this means that they are not obeying the 'letter' of the law, but are 'creatively re-interpreting' it, either because of special circumstances or perhaps simply to suit their own desires.
In these ways the 'spirit' is often implicitly contrasted with the 'letter' or separated from what is 'real'.
Of course, a 'spirit' is by definition something insubstantial, something which is not tangible. But that doesn't mean a 'spirit' is not 'real'. Certainly the 'spiritual' goes beyond the material world around us; nevertheless, the spiritual should not be disconnected from this world, as if it had nothing to do with real people or real actions.
In today's gospel, as he prepares to take his leave of his disciples, Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor. This Spirit is not disconnected from the world. He flows from Jesus' own presence in the world, and is a continuation of that presence.
We are reminded today that we are called to love Jesus; that is part of the Christian calling. Those who love Christ will keep his commandments, he says; they will keep the 'letter of the law', if you like. Those who keep Christ's commandments will, he promises, receive the Holy Spirit.
We stand in need of the Spirit to take us forward, to be our counsellor in our journey towards God, to continue the guidance that Christ has given us. We do not find the answer to all life's problems written on the gospel page, and so need continued guidance. We are called to live not just the 'letter' of the commandments of Christ, but, with to 'life in the Spirit', to live 'in the spirit of the Gospel law'.
Nevertheless, life 'in the spirit of the Gospel law' is firmly based on love for the real person Jesus Christ and the following of his concrete commandments. If we neglect Jesus or his commandments, we are part of the world which cannot receive the 'Spirit of truth'.
Thus the 'spiritual presence' of God in our lives is inseparable from and flows from a tangible 'real presence': the real incarnate presence of Christ in his life, death and resurrection, and the continuing real sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Similarly the 'spirit' of the Gospel law is inseparable from and flows from the 'letter' of the concrete commandments of Christ which are found in the gospels.
So it is that the Christian spiritual life has as keystones very concrete things: the reading of the scriptures, our written link with Christ; putting the commandments of Christ into practice in our lives; and the celebration of the sacraments which he instituted for the outpouring of the Spirit.
And so in every age the Church and the Christian faithful, building upon these foundations, implore the guidance of the Spirit in preaching and putting into action in their own time the good news of Jesus Christ. We too must continue to ask for the renewal of the gift of the Spirit on each once of us especially as we approach the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost.
But at the present time in which we also stand at the start of a new era for the Church, it is especially appropriate that we should remember Pope Benedict in our prayers as he begins his mission as our pastor, asking that he be true in his love of Christ, faithful to the Lord's commandments, filled with the Holy Spirit in the guidance of the Church, and courageous in preaching the gospel. Amen.