Pentecost Sunday. What are we celebrating today? ‘The outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ is the obvious answer in the light of today’s first reading, fifty days after Easter (that’s what Pentecost means). On the other hand, today’s gospel reading tells us that Jesus offered the Holy Spirit to the Apostles on the very day of his resurrection. To add to the confusion, forty days after Easter, ten days before Pentecost, just before his Ascension, Jesus instructed the Apostles to ‘stay in the city [Jerusalem] until you are clothed with the power from on high.’ (Luke 24:49) So, when actually did Jesus give his Holy Spirit to the Apostles?
This sort of confusion seems to be reflected in the practice of the Church too. When babies are baptised, they receive the Holy Spirit. A good few years later, they receive the Holy Spirit again in the Sacrament of Confirmation – which is a ‘must-have’ requirement to be a godparent and to get married in the church. Well, this apparent confusion is deeply rooted in our western way of thinking, and also stems from one common misunderstanding. I’m going to explain the former, and to put the latter right.
Our ‘western’ or ‘European’ perception of the world is essentially based on the ancient Greek philosophy, developed and expanded over the centuries all the way to the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason on the turn of 17th & 18th centuries. That period in our history is considered as the birth of modern science, with its seeming obsession to define everything in very fine detail; to classify, to categorise and to label everything with very clear distinctions between different classes. Undoubtedly, this approach massively helped to advance our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, and subsequently dramatically changed our civilisation. Life expectancy has nearly doubled, we can deal with previously deadly illnesses, life standards have increased in many parts of the world, hunger has been replaced by epidemics of obesity. So, this very orderly, categorised, labelled and scrupulously described perception has great advantages. However, there are realities that fall outside any definition in the classic or common meaning of the word. In his discussion with Nicodemus Jesus hinted at such realities: ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:8) The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, can and does come down upon believers whenever and wherever he wishes, falling outside any prescriptions or man-made rules.
That leads us to a common misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit as a static reality. That, once given, be it at the Sacrament of Baptism or at the Sacrament of Confirmation, it remains in the person in question forever. It’s certainly true on the Spirit’s side, but not necessarily on our side of the deal. I’ll give you a silly example. About eleven years ago I bought a bicycle in Elgin. I used it a couple of times shortly after the purchase, but then I stopped using it. Recently it was reported to me that the bike is still at St Sylvester’s, secured to the garage inside wall; dusted, rusted, unloved, unused and forgotten by his first and sole owner and user. Similarly, we can effectively put the Holy Spirit aside in our lives, either by chasing worldly indulgences, or simply by following thoughtlessly our routines in spiritual life. The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives can be emblematic, but not active; we can use the name of the Holy Spirit in prayers but remain deaf to his promptings.
In today’s gospel, on the evening of the first Easter day, the Apostles stayed behind the door closed for fear of facing similar fate as that of their crucified Lord. The Risen Jesus came and gave them the Holy Spirit. We can compare it to our Sacrament of Baptism. For another fifty days the Apostles were at the school of the Holy Spirit, recalling Jesus’ teachings, learning to understand the Scriptures and – basically – getting ready. When at Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes down in a very public and rather spectacular way, the doors are thrown open and the Apostles openly proclaim Jesus to the world. We can compare that first Pentecost to our Sacrament of Confirmation. Jesus’ commission of the Apostles, made on Easter Sunday: ‘as the Father sent me, so am I sending you’ became their mission, their reality, their lives.
For us, Christians of the 21st century living in Aberdeen, today’s solemnity is a call to refresh and renew our own readiness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us has a set of skills and talents we can and ought to use to serve others, within and without our parish community. In today’s second reading St Paul reminds us that this community is built out of living members, each giving their best to the community. Today each one of us should ask ourselves what role in this community the Holy Spirit designated for us. Having found the answer, we should joyfully commit to that role to make this community grow in faith, hope and charity, consequently reaching out to the world in need. We must remember that faith is always personal, but never individual; it’s communal.