Born, Shaped and Filled with the Holy Spirit
Pentecost Sunday. Fr Fergus Kerr shows us how the Holy Spirit gives birth to the Church, shapes the Church and enables us to stand against evil.
Pentecost — meaning fiftieth in Greek, counting the days from Passover to the Feast of Weeks, from the exodus from Egypt to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Symbolically also it’s the beginning of harvest in a Mediterrean climate. Whatever the layers of meaning, the first disciples maintained this chronology to designate the fulfilment of the Paschal Mystery in the descent of the Holy Spirit, the creation of the Church, the harvest of Easter so to speak.
Our three readings highlight different aspects of the Church: how it all began; how the Holy Spirit works here and now; and what demands are placed upon us.
Historically, the Church begins in the collective outburst of pentecostalist enthusiasm recalled in in the Acts of the Apostles, with the disciples overwhelmed by what sounded like a gale force wind, releasing them into strange tongues, so ecstatically that the bystanders assumed they were drunk. They weren’t, it was all happening too early in the day, as Simon Peter notes, perhaps with a touch of humour (verse 15). It bewildered the crowd: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language, telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God?” — the descent of the Holy Spirit, and thus the creation of the Church, occurred in this eruption of mutually unintelligible languages, in which nevertheless the mighty works of God were praised and proclaimed accessibly to all and sundry.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church was, however, not so intoxicatingly wild and totally out of control, as this scene might suggest. Rather, as in our second reading, dating early in church history, we find St Paul describing — or perhaps only prescribing — a considerable degree of order and stability: every disciple has his or her own gift, ministry, way of working: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. The community, pervaded by the Holy Spirit, already displays a certain shape, common aims and shared responsibilities. Moreover, Paul wants us to understand, no individual can proclaim “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s culture many people no doubt were polytheists. Since their exodus from Egypt the children of Abraham had long been trained to break with idolatry in order to worship the one true God and Lord. Now, for Christians, the Lord was revealed to be Jesus. One might reject this as blasphemy, or even admire the figure portrayed in the gospels; but to see Jesus as Lord you have to see him with the eyes of faith, you have to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. That is how the Holy Spirit creates the Church and individuals as Christians.
And then what? What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord? “Receive the Holy Spirit”, the risen Lord tells the disciples, in the scene described by St John: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In the Catholic tradition that solemn promise has often been limited to a ministry in the Church with the authority to absolve repentant sinners or otherwise. That may seem awesome enough. It looks more likely, however, that the disciples on whom this mandate was first imposed, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, stand for all Christians in every generation, sent as Christ was sent into the world by the Father, on a mission then that is charged with the fearful responsibility of exposing and resisting evil in the world, as well as with the power to heal. forgive and make the world holy.
Pentecost, then, is the day when we commemorate the spectacular eruption in which the Church came to birth; secondly, it is the day when we remember the countless ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes the Church as an institution and ourselves as individuals (much as it has changed since St Paul’s time); and finally it is the day when once again we are reminded that, having received the Holy Spirit, we are required and enabled, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, to take a stand for good and against evil.