Sunday, June 12, 2011
Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Our Lady of the Assumption church, Fairfield, CT (1939). Click image to enlarge.
In today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke gives us the well known account of the extraordinary appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the upper room. The Apostles had gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast which commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Next week we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity but today's feast is about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Let's start out by clearing up a few misconceptions that some of us may have about the Holy Spirit. First of all, the Spirit is not a bird. I know that the traditional image of a dove given us by Christian artists is probably ingrained in all of us. It is hard to portray a purely spiritual being in art for a spirit has no body to paint or sculpt. In one gospel passage the movement of the Holy Spirit is likened to the fluttering flight of a dove and so I guess the early artists used the dove as a kind of artistic shorthand.
Speaking about images I have to confess that as a child I thought that the "tongues as of fire" that rested on the Apostles at Pentecost were actually human tongues on fire. It took me years before I realized that the "tongues" were actually similar to the darting flames that we would see in our own fireplaces. Also back then it was more common to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost, which only conjured up images from Abbott and Costello movies.
But in today's readings we see that although we cannot see or feel or hear the Spirit of God, It dwells in us and works through us. St. Luke says of the Apostles that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit."
So who or what is the Holy Spirit? First, let's think about the word spirit. In my bedroom there is a picture of me as an infant. Next to it is a picture of me as a young man taken a short while after my wedding day. Next to that I can look into the mirror and behold a senior citizen. Which of these three pictures is me? I guess that even though I look different they all are me. In other words my "spirit" is in all of them. My spirit is the real me. Another word for spirit is "soul," a word that is somewhat out of fashion today.
So when Jesus, on the evening of that Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead, breathed on the Apostles, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," He was giving them His own self or spirit. He also makes it clear that He is sending them to continue the work that His Father had sent Him to do. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." His Spirit will give them the strength and courage to continue the work.
Fifty days later He comes to them again in the roaring wind and in tongues of fire.
If we can't see or feel or hear the Spirit, how do we know that He dwells in us? As Christians we have to learn to read the signs. Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe knew that there were other men on his lonely island when he beheld their footprints, we will know the Spirit by His signs. St. Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians,
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
Then, talking to us as well as to the Corinthians, Paul says that to "each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." In other words we all have a role to play in bringing the Spirit of God to each other.
What are the signs that the Spirit dwells in us? In years past we used to speak of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you pick a fruit from a tree and it tastes and smells and feels like an apple, then you can conclude that it's an apple tree. The same goes for a peach or pear tree. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits or signs of the Spirit as charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity." Some of these words might sound strange to us today but we surely get the general idea. Who would not want to receive the Holy Spirit? Would we want to be uncharitable, miserable, quarrelsome, impatient, malicious, bad, mean-spirited, offensive, unfaithful, immodest, wasteful, or promiscuous?
We don't need miraculous, mystical, or ghostly experiences to encounter the Spirit today. After all, we have all received the Spirit at Confirmation. Right after Pentecost the Apostles saw that it was necessary not only to preach the Word but also to lay their hands on all the baptized in order that the Spirit might dwell in them. Generation after generation have continued this practice. Every confirmation is a kind of Pentecost.
Even though the Apostles had walked with the Lord and had seen His Risen Body, they still needed to receive His Spirit before they could leave the upper room and go out and face the world. St. Paul says the same for us.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!
Reading 1. Acts 2: 1-11
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Gospel. John 20: 19-23. (Recive the Holy Spirit).