The Pentecost depicted in a 14th-century Missal
20 Mar 2023
Feast of Pentecost 2021
You’ve got to admire those first Christian preachers in St Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-11). At a moment’s notice they were able to stand up and tell of the mighty works of God before a very mixed congregation and, with only a bit of help from St Peter, they made three thousand converts in the space of a couple of hours. But then they had the distinct advantage of a very impressive pre-stage warm-up: a sound like the rush of a mighty wind that filled the whole house, and tongues of fire descending from heaven and coming to rest upon their heads ‒ which looks to me like every preacher’s dream come true. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to preach as the Spirit gave them utterance. And so fluently did they speak that St Peter had to explain to the crowd: ‘These people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it’s only nine o’clock in the morning’. We may not be altogether convinced by the logic of that argument, but we get the point. There they were, with no sermon notes. The Holy Spirit took over and they were heard by everyone in the congregation in his own language, Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, the Barbican, and everywhere.
One of the difficulties I find in preaching on Pentecost is that of relating it all to our own real experience. I mean: to speak about Jesus, well, that is not difficult, because Jesus took upon himself our humanity and became like me and you. We have a great deal in common with Jesus. But many of the things that the New Testament says about the Spirit probably fall well outside our experience. I mean: those bits about tongues of fire or doves descending from heaven, about speaking in strange tongues, or working mighty wonders. Then there is the problem of recognizing the Spirit as a person, as Christian doctrine requires us to do. The New Testament does attribute to the Spirit some personal characteristics, but it keeps referring to the Spirit as ‘it’. (In Greek there’s no way you can refer to the Spirit as ‘he’; still less as ‘she’; it’s got to be ‘it’.) So we may get the impression from New Testament usage that the Spirit is not so much a person as an impersonal force, like the earth’s gravity or the sun’s energy. Many things are said about the Spirit that are not part of our own experience even at its most religiously exciting – not to mention the fact that unlike the Pentecostals, we Catholics seldom allow our happiness to spill over into clappiness, so that for us the Spirit tends to remain an idea rather than a felt experience.
One thing is certain, though. The New Testament teaches that every Christian possesses the Spirit, by the mere fact that he or she is a Christian. St Paul says in Romans: ‘If anyone does not possess the Spirit, then he does not belong to Christ’ (in other words, he is not a Christian). He says the same thing in today’s second reading (1 Cor 12: 2-7), when he says that without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit it is not possible to confess Jesus as Lord; that is, it is not possible to be a Christian. St Paul is saying (against the Corinthians who thought that only the charismatic elite possessed the Spirit) that Christian faith as such is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. No rush of a mighty wind, no pyrotechnics, or anything. That brings the Holy Spirit closer to our Christian experience. Jesus in St John’s Gospel takes us further in personalizing the Spirit and in making the Spirit less alien to our own experience when he speaks about the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth. It is the Paraclete’s role to interiorize Jesus in our minds and hearts, to convert the light of Jesus into inward warmth and energy. With the coming of the Paraclete, we are as close to Jesus as Jesus is to the Father. ‘On that day’, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ In other words, the Spirit does not take us onto unfamiliar territory, after all. It (or he or she) is present in our ordinariness.
St Paul explains in Romans that your everyday Christian experience is testimony to the presence of the Spirit in your life. Your experience of Jesus being close to you in your thoughts and feelings is itself the very presence of the Holy Spirit; your attempts to live a good life, to imitate Jesus, to embrace his truth and holiness: that is God’s Spirit prompting you, leading you, imparting to you the character of Christ. Your trust in God your Father is itself the Spirit of Jesus crying ‘Abba, Father’ in your hearts. When you try to pray and don’t succeed, or don’t know how to pray, but want to: that is the Holy Spirit coming to the help of your weakness. Your deepest desires for redemption and freedom: that is the Holy Spirit interceding for you with sighs that cannot be articulated in language. Your dreams for yourself and for your loved ones, that God will bring you all to permanence in him and to everlasting joy, that is the Spirit of Christ who never leaves you orphans. We may not often noticethe Spirit, or talk about him, but the Spirit is like that: his input contains nothing of himself, only of Jesus. The Spirit goes unnoticed, just as friendship unites friends without distracting them.
If we needed further persuasion that the Spirit is part of our lives, we have only to listen to St Paul in Galatians. There he speaks of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’, he says, is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.’ St Paul might have put it more briefly by saying: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love.’ For all the other virtues flow directly from love. Or, he might have said: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is the character of Jesus himself showing through our personalities.’ As St Paul himself says elsewhere, through the Spirit we are being changed into the likeness of Jesus. If our meditations have brought the Holy Spirit closer to home, and have reminded us that Pentecost has more to do with Jesus in the ordinariness of our daily lives than with mighty winds and signs and wonders and tongues of fire, that’s not to say that St Luke’s stage effects can be dismissed as meaningless. St Luke has a reason for associating such phenomena with the coming of the Spirit. For he means to evoke Mount Sinai, where God gave the Law to Moses and established his covenant people amidst signs and wonders and lightning flashes and the roar of thunder. The Jewish feast of Pentecost was after all a celebration of the events of Mount Sinai. St Luke wishes to tell us that the Christian Pentecost is the giving of a new law, the law of love.
Pentecost fulfils God’s promise of a new covenant: ‘I will write my law deep within you’: ‘I will put my Spirit within you.’ As St Paul says: ‘God’s love has been poured out in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit given to us.’ Indeed, the power of God’s loving that filled the heart of Jesus on the cross is now imparted also to us. Today’s feast of Pentecost is the completion of the Paschal mystery, and the key to its meaning. Without Pentecost, the Paschal mystery would be Jesus’ destiny only. With Pentecost, it becomes ours as well. Make it yours today and always.
Fr Tom Deidun