Today is the solemn feast of Pentecost – which, if you want to be understood, it is better to call the Descent of the Holy Spirit. And that’s what happens today. The Holy Spirit, who is God Himself, descends on the Apostles in a spectacular way, in wind and tongues of fire.
That Spirit comes to us, too, today. But to know in our bones that we have received the Holy Spirit, we have to be willing to receive him. We have to react.
Some have compared this relationship to a dance. God gives, we take. God calls the tune, and we do the jig.
In the eighteenth century, some Shakers wrote a hymn about this. It goes:
Who will bow and bend like the willow, who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom, from the bower of union flowing
Who will drink the wine of power, dropping down like a shower?
Pride and bondage all forgetting …
Oh ho, I will have it, I will bow and bend to get it
I’ll be reeling, turning, twisting, shake out all the starch and stiff’ning.
That power is there, that Spirit is there, for those who cast off their pride and receive it.
And that jibes with the words of Jesus. After his death and resurrection Jesus promised to give his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit. He said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit! (John 20:22). Receive. Jesus knew that his disciples would need the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission that he entrusted to them. But he needed them to choose, to freely elect, to accept this gift.
And you’ll note that the gift of the Holy Spirit was conditional; it was conditional upon the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father. That is why Jesus instructed the apostles to wait in Jerusalem – as he said, “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
And so we find them in today’s first reading, doing as he said. They’re waiting in that upper room – the same upper room where they gathered in the dark on Holy Thursday night. They’re afraid today, but they’re back in that room, and they’re waiting, just as Jesus said.
Now when Jesus asks us to do something, he not only tells us, he shows us. He always goes on before us to show us the way. He wants us to receive the spirit. And in fact Jesus himself received the gift of the Holy Spirit – even though he was already holy. When? At his baptism.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit when he was baptized by John at the Jordan River:
„And John bore witness, 'I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him… this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'” (see John 1:32,33; Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11).
And look what happens after that baptism and after Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit: the Spirit suffuses him and takes him over and makes him do things he would not otherwise do. The Spirit moves him.
So we read: „And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness… and Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee” (Luke 4:1,14).
And when does this all happen for Jesus? Right at the beginning, right before he is going to go out and walk all over the Holy Land from north to south teaching and healing and setting people free. Right before his mission, which means his “sending-out.”
And now it’s our turn.
In the first reading today, it’s the turn of the apostles. It’s their time to go out and spread the Word. And what do they need? The Spirit. Just as Jesus was anointed with the Spirit at the beginning of the time of his teaching, so the Apostles needed the anointing of the Spirit to carry out the mission entrusted to them.
And does that Spirit work? And how! We hear all these amazing effects:
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. (Acts 2)
We hear that and we say, “Wow, awesome.” But then we might turn a bit acidic. We might say, “Well that’s fine for them, but what about us?” Where are our tongues of fire?
When do we get to be swept up in a storm of glory and filled with the Holy Spirit?
Well, look at Jesus. Where did he receive the Spirit? At baptism.
Most of you reading this are baptized. And the Holy Spirit is given to all who are baptized into Jesus Christ to enable us to live a new way of life – a life of peace and joy and virtue (see Romans 14:17). The Holy Spirit gives us the strength and courage we need in order to live as disciples of the Lord.
Do you know what’s happening here? Through the Holy Spirit God is taking us back to our original state, to our more beautiful, more fully human state, free from sin. He is taking us back before Eve and Adam’s fall, and he is taking us back to the Garden of Paradise, the Garden of Eden.
In the Spirit, we are no longer so weak. And that’s why the Spirit makes people want to shout and dance. The Spirit helps us in our feebleness (Romans 8:26), and makes us grow in freedom – freedom from fear and slavery to our wild desires. The Spirit instructs us in the ways of God. The Spirit is the giver of all holiness.
And you know, this intuition about the Holy Spirit – this idea that God has an almighty Spirit that can blow through the world like wind – is very, very old. It goes back long before the Gospels, before the New Testament. We see it in the prophet Isaiah.
In fact: Isaiah, who could not name the Spirit as such, nevertheless named the Seven Gifts that the Spirit would give. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit – you might have learned them in catechism when you were a kid – are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude (which is another word for bravery), knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2). The ancient prophet gave us that.
And the great Church Fathers, those thinkers and leaders of the early Church who were also great saints – they too were fascinated by the power of the Spirit. Basil the Great (329-379), who lived in what is now Turkey, explains what the Spirit does in our lives:
„The Spirit restores paradise to us and the way to heaven and adoption as children of God; he instills confidence that we may call God truly Father and grants us the grace of Christ to be children of the light and to enjoy eternal glory. In a word, he bestows the fullness of blessings in this world and the next; for we may contemplate now in the mirror of faith the promised things we shall someday enjoy. If this is the foretaste, what must the reality be? If these are the first fruits, what must be the harvest?” (From the treatise On The Holy Spirit)
Basil is saying: Thanks to the Spirit, Heaven is on the way. In the Holy Spirit, Heaven is here.
And that is why we are so brave when the Spirit is within us. That is why we are brave enough not only to dance and shout for joy but also to go out into the world, whatever the cost and whatever the cross, and proclaim the marvelous deeds the Lord has done for us.
Missionaries and Martyrs? They were filed with the Spirit. Teachers and preachers? The Spirit made them do what they did.
And the Christian man and the Christian woman who come faithfully to pray in the corner church day in and day out – even when it’s hard, even when life seems grim, even when there is nothing less fashionable than faith – even then: it’s the Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is God Himself, that suffuses them and saturates and pervades them; that floods over them like the waters of baptism and blows through them like a storm and leaves them totally transformed and totally new. They do what they do because the Spirit moves them.
That’s life – life in the Spirit.
And that’s what’s happening in the Church. Right now.
O guide our minds with thy blest light,
with love our hearts inflame;
and with thy strength, which ne’er decays,
confirm our mortal frame.
Far from us drive our deadly foe;
true peace unto us bring;
and through all perils lead us safe
beneath thy sacred wing.
(From Veni Creator Spiritus („Come Creator Spirit”), a hymn believed to have been written by the German Benedictine Rabanus Maurus in the 9th century.)
[Acknowledgements to rc.net for contributions to this meditation.]