The Solemnity of Pentecost
May 31st, 2020 – Year A
A number of years ago, one of my friends went to Europe for an extended holiday. She happened to be in a small town in Germany on Pentecost Sunday and, being a devout Catholic, made her way to the local Catholic Church for the celebration of the Solemnity. Although she did not speak German very well, she was familiar enough with the Mass to follow the liturgy, regardless of the language barrier. As the presiding priest began his homily, he moved away from the pulpit and presented to the congregation two inflated toy balls, one in each hand. One of the balls was fully inflated and the other was only partially inflated. The priest then dropped the fully inflated ball and it bounced off the floor a number of times, as one would expect it too. He then dropped the half-inflated ball, which didn’t bounce but just plopped on the floor. Although my friend couldn’t understand what the priest was saying, as he was speaking German, she immediately grasped the meaning of his visual aid. The priest was illustrating the difference the Holy Spirit makes in the life of Christians. The Holy Spirit is to us what air is to an inflated ball. An inflatable ball can only do what it was made to do – bounce – if it is fully inflated, whereas a half-inflated ball is useless for sports or play. So we cannot properly live as Christians unless we are filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. That’s the insight my friend took away from the priest’s homily.
The priest’s visual aid seems apt as one of the central symbols of the Holy Spirit is air. The theological study of the Holy Spirit is known as pneumatology, taken from the Greek word pneuma, (πνεῦμα) which means breath or air. When one is using a pneumatic drill, for example, one knows that this tool works to break up rocks and concrete by means of compressed air. Jesus himself uses this image when, as the Gospel notes, he breathed on the disciples, then saying to them “receive the Holy Spirit.” Purposely breathing on someone in our culture is considered shocking and rude (even a form of assault in light of the COVID-19 pandemic). But Jesus here is performing a symbolic act to illustrate a spiritual effect; the giving of the Holy Spirit. His breath implies life; he is giving the life of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, for without that Holy Spirit they cannot be members of his Church and they cannot have communion with him or the Father.
So who is the Holy Spirit anyway? First of all, we describe the Holy Spirit as who rather than what. We do this because the Holy Spirit is a person, a divine person along with God the Father and God the Son, not an impersonal force or power. They are a Trinity of Divine Persons united and having no beginning or end. The Father is in an everlasting bond of love with God the Son, eternally giving and receiving this love. This love is so profound that it is itself a Divine Person, the Holy Spirit. All three persons are distinct, but are one God. This is the most fundamental mystery of our Christian faith.
When Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to his disciples, he is sharing the very life of God with them. He is bringing humankind into a communion of love with the Father, through the Son and in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Although this communion of love will only reach its fulfilment and perfection in heaven, it is understood that the communion with God, through the Holy Spirit, is to be lived and cultivated here and now.
Today’s scripture readings describe the signs that reveal the presence of the Holy Spirit. The first among those signs, as found in the First Reading, is unity. The Acts of the Apostles 2.1-11 describes the day the Holy Spirit powerfully came down upon the disciples as “a violent wind” (there’s that image of air again) and as tongues of fire. These tangible signs symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit.
One manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence is the ability to speak in foreign languages, so as to be understood by peoples of various language groups. To better understand the significance of this spiritual gift, one needs to go back to Genesis 11.1-9, which relates the story of the Tower of Babel. This passage describes how people, acting out of their arrogance and hubris, decide to build a tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11.4). This means that they wish to manifest god-like qualities and become competitors with God and his authority. Realizing this, God thwarts their plans by mixing up their languages. Not being able to understand each other, they cannot work together and their project comes to nothing. They become disunited and scatter “over the face of all the earth.”
The Pentecost event in Acts 2.1-11 reverses the effects of the Babel story. Out of the babble of many diverse languages, the Holy Spirit transforms this confusion into a common understanding. The disciples can miraculously speak in different languages about “God’s deeds of power”. And those speaking differing languages can understand the disciples’ common proclamation of the Gospel. God transforms babble, caused by human arrogance, into clear understanding by means of the Holy Spirit. From the disunity of scattered peoples and diverse languages, the Holy Spirit brings about unity in the one proclamation of the Good News.
A second quality that reveals the Holy Spirit is diversity. It may seem that unity and diversity are in conflict with each other, but that is not the case at all. In the Second Reading, from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that the diversity of gifts, service and activities in the Church exist to build up the Church. These gifts and services do not exist for themselves, but are like various parts of a human body, working for the overall health of that whole body. The Holy Spirit is like a maestro of an orchestra, where different musicians and musical instruments work together, under the maestro’s guidance, to create beautiful harmonious music. So it must also be for the Church, which is the Body of Christ. The one Holy Spirit draws together all the various parts of the Church, with various gifts, services and activities, towards one goal: to be the very presence of the loving Christ in the world.
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is revealed through the presence of forgiveness. In the Gospel, immediately after Jesus confers the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, he passes unto them delegated authority to forgive sins. This power to forgive sins is God’s alone. But Jesus passes on delegated authority for the forgiveness of sins to the Church. This is celebrated when priests or bishops offer God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is a great privilege for any priest or bishop because they are engaging in a divine act, not by their own authority, but by the authority passed onto them by Christ himself.
Pentecost is rightly called the Birthday of the Church, because, by the conferral of the Holy Spirit upon us, we become the Church. Christ has completed his earthly mission, but his work continues through the men and women who are members of his mystical body, the Church. During this Age of the Church, which will continue until Christ’s glorious return, the Holy Spirit enables us to be the Church and to act as Christ’s ambassadors in the world, to continue his work on earth.