First reading Acts 2:1-11
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 103(104):1,24,29-31,34
Second reading 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13
Sequence Veni, sancte Spiritus
Gospel John 20:19-23
Wind. Fire. Dove. These are the primary “signs” or “symbols” associated with the person of the Holy Spirit. Wind and fire, from the Pentecost event described in our first reading today, and the dove, found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River (Matt 3:16-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22). But if you read the Bible texts carefully, dear brothers and sisters, you’ll notice that there was in fact no wind, fire or dove. “Suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.” Ah, so the sacred author tells us, not that there were wind and fire, but that there were sensible and spatial phenomena that were like wind and fire. If you read the accounts of Jesus’ baptism carefully too, you’ll see that there was no dove, but a physical manifestation which permitted human beings to perceive the Holy Spirit descending “like” or “in the manner of” a dove. How does a dove descend? It flaps its wings and flutters as it attaches to its target, producing a gentle wind or breeze.
The point I’m getting to, dear friends, on this great feast of the Holy Spirit’s grand entrance, is that we mustn’t reduce the Holy Spirit to a few familiar “symbols” and thereby domesticate him. The coming of the Holy Spirit, as expressed by the Scriptures, is something wild, something unpredictable, something elusive, whereby the overwhelming, ineffable and indescribable presence of God’s personal Spirit enters into mere human beings. In fact, the Holy Spirit is someone so beyond our comprehension that the Scriptures describe him primarily by the effects of his presence, which we glimpse in these mysterious phenomena: “They heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house.” This was an audible experience. What does a powerful wind sound like? Frightening, no doubt. Mighty. Uncontrollable. Comparing the sound to that of wind or breath also evokes a sense of the infusion of life –a powerful life– just as the wind of God hovered over the waters at the creation of the world (Gen 1:2), or as God took the dust of the earth and breathed life into it to create the first man (Gen 2:7). Thus is the coming of the Holy Spirit experienced by the disciples as an infusion or quite literally, an in-spiration of the life of God himself. Next, the disciples saw something. They saw what “seemed like tongues of fire” which “separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.” What does fire look like? It is bright and luminous; it’s mesmerising to gaze into. Fire is something which appears to be on the border between a material substance and something immaterial, evoking other-worldly realities– hence we pray with fire (candles) in Catholic liturgy to direct our minds beyond the material into the spiritual. Comparing the presence of the Holy Spirit to fire evokes also the effects of fire, that is to burn, to warm and to give light. The coming of the Holy Spirit was experienced by the disciples as an illumination, a sudden ability to see what was hidden. It was experienced as a being set ablaze with a love of God so ardent that they were compelled from within to go forth into the world and brazenly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus to the detriment of their own lives. Furthermore, they were able to do so in languages they had never learned.
We would do well to contemplate these effects, dear friends. How is it that these mediocre, unlettered and frightened fishermen, a motley crew indeed, are suddenly courageous to the extent that all of them are willing to die for their faith, and are able to speak before kings and governors and go to strange lands to promote the person of Jesus? What love, what a mighty life, what divinity they must have had within them! It’s these sensible, perceptible, concrete effects that reveal the hidden face of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God, who was infused into those clay-footed fisherman on this day. And the coming of that same Divine Person, dear friends, is intrinsically tied to the Church. For though the Church technically existed when Jesus first called his disciples, in some sense that Church comes to life at Pentecost. Just as God first took the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into it to create Adam, so at Pentecost God takes these weak and fragile men of clay and infuses them with the breath of a life far beyond what they had previously known, a divine life which perfects their broken humanity and raises them up in utter faith and charity. Thus, new Adams are fashioned, after the model of the new Adam, the crucified and risen Christ.
Brothers and sisters, it is to this same, apostolic Church that we belong to as Catholics. Furthermore, it is this Church that we manifest when we partake of the body and blood of that same crucified and risen Jesus. The Church is not an optional extra! It has become, in our day, more and more common to mistrust and even to separate oneself from the Church, imagining it to be a mere institution of human origin. This happens for childish and fickle reasons, such as not finding it exciting, or not liking the priest, or falling out with someone. It happens for lukewarmness and lack of real faith and conviction. But it also happens for understandable reasons, such as scandal and abuse. Yet, no matter the reason, the reality is that if we separate ourselves from the Church, we separate ourselves from God. In fact, we set ourselves up as more righteous than God, doing away with what God does not do away with. God doesn’t abandon the human! He doesn’t throw away what is imperfect and broken. He doesn’t abandon the sinner. Otherwise, you and I are both hopelessly doomed! No, God takes the clay and breathes his very own life into it. Thus, making the Church, built up of us earthenware vessels, the conduit and channel of the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, who alone has the power to make Adam into Christ.
My friends, if we realised the gravity and the preciousness of the privilege we have in being given the Sacraments, we would never forgo them. We would never be able to separate ourselves from the Church, no matter how bad things were. For it is the same Holy Spirit, who transforms Adam into Christ, humanity into divinity, damnation into salvation, weakness and fear into boldness and burning charity, who is given and received through the Sacraments of the Body of Christ, the Church. If that’s what we’ve received, dear friends, are we not compelled to do our utmost to share it with others? To draw others into the embrace of God’s Church so that they too can experience the redemption Jesus offers? Rejoice, dear brothers and sisters, that our Church was born on this day, and that you have the singular grace to belong to it.