Pentecost Sunday – Solemnity
Happy Birthday, Church!
All living things have a birthday. The Church is a living organism and Pentecost is her birthday. Pentecost was a Jewish Feast Day. The author of the Acts of the Apostles identifies the day before the Holy Spirit ever descended. But Semitic Pentecost immediately acquired a new and perennial Christian meaning when the wind swirled and wisps of flame descended upon the heads of the Apostles in the upper room in Jerusalem. In a frightening display of God’s raw and awesome power, the Lord and Giver of Life, as the Nicene Creed defines the Holy Spirit, vivified the nascent Church with fire. The Church is still vivified by that same Spirit which has never left the room. Every living thing has an esprit de corps: there is team spirit, company culture, a platoon’s bravado, an orchestra’s élan, or the country spirit known as patriotism. As a living thing, the Catholic Church has a Spirit too, one which indwells in her more fully than in any other Church. The Holy Spirit stamps Catholicism with a trademark of authenticity. It guarantees the Church’s fidelity to the God who gave her life.
The dramatic events of the first Christian Pentecost have linked, not illogically, the Holy Spirit with spontaneity, impetuosity, miracle working, supernatural gifts, and high octane evangelization. When a throng of Christians thunders praise and makes the ground tremble, no one attributes the heaving to God the Father. When a tumor disappears and a first-class sinner publicly weeps in repentance, or when upraised hands wave to and fro, heads jut toward the sky above, bodies sway, and pores drip sweat in the heat of the night, all agree that the Holy Spirit is pulsating in sync with the mighty deeds of God. And yet…there is also the still, small voice of the Prophet Elijah. There is also the Monday morning and the Thursday afternoon. Not every day is a rollicking God party. Few days, in fact, involve rollicking God parties. Everyday life is not a crashing wave. It’s more like a constant tide, rising and receding at regular intervals. The Church is often as mundane as everyday life because she is part and parcel of everyday life, as a real religion should be. And so the Church’s Holy Spirit is vitally present in the tide of everydayness just as she is present in the racket of a Saturday night bash.
The Holy Spirit is a spirit of unity, drawing all people toward the flame of truth. The Holy Spirit is not a third column creating churches-of-one who speak for themselves alone. Christ desires that His followers be one, “as we are one” (Jn 17:11). The Church’s unity is forged out of human diversity through a visible structure which channels the Holy Spirit through the Sacraments and their sanctifying graces. Structure and Spirit indwell. The Church’s visible nature embodies the Holy Spirit in the same fashion that an Independence Day parade with its well-known leaders and predictable route embodies a country’s patriotism. The tightly choreographed pattern walked by the smartly uniformed soldier at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier causes citizens to stand in respectful silence and their hearts to swell with pride for their nation because the ceremony makes visible what is otherwise only vaguely felt. Public rituals express communally what otherwise remains emotionally elusive and difficult for individuals to verbalize. The same applies for the role of the Spirit in the Church.
Watching the incense slowly rise over the altar at a solemn Mass, whispering on our knees in the deep quiet of the confessional, lighting a candle at the Grotto of Lourdes, or walking and praying as the Corpus Christi procession moves slowly forward are tangible experiences of a living Church. It is in moments such as these that we feel intensely the presence of the Holy Spirit. If we didn’t feel the Spirit in these events, we would not feel His presence at all, or we would not be sure it was not, instead, just powerful auto-suggestion at work. The Church protects us from such illusions.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit did not descend as a communal bonfire. The one Spirit of God parted and came to rest on each of the Apostles individually. The lesson? We each receive our share of God. God is the answer to the question that is every human soul. And God comes to us through a Church, not willy nilly in sweat and song. A tongue of fire is lit in every soul at baptism. We each house an eternal flame burning deep within. That flame will never be extinguished, even at death. Our personal flame of the Spirit, lit in our soul by the Church at baptism, will never die, because the Lord and Giver of Life is eternal. He waits patiently to gather together again every spark and flame that ever parted from Him into the one great conflagration of love that is the never-ending Pentecost of heaven.
Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest, fill the soul of every guest with that fire of love searing Father to Son. Hovering over the Apostles in flames of grace, You made a new high summit, the upper room, the source of unity for the human race. Holy Spirit come.