Pentecost: Do we live out the supernatural unity of the Holy Spirit?

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Pentecost Sunday, Year A: June 11-12, 2011
At the Vigil Mass: Gen 11:1-9; Exod 19:3-8, 16-20; Ezek 37:1-14; Joel 3:1-5; Ps 104; Rom 8:22-27; John 7:37-39
Mass during the Day: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104; 1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

It was the time of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks; called in Greek “Pentecost,” which means “50th”—and many of the People of Israel were gathered in Jerusalem. 50 days earlier, they had celebrated the Passover, celebrating when the Lord had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Now they celebrated when he then gave them the Law at Mount Sinai, for the Law was utterly central to their identity and life. The deliverance and the gift: two events that made them a people and defined their relationship with the Lord.

But that year, it was different. For during that Passover celebration, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, had made his definitive passage through his passion and death to his Resurrection—and opened the way for us to be definitively delivered from sin and death, and to be adopted in him as sons and daughters of God. 40 days later he ascended to the right hand of the Father; and on the 50th day, during the Pentecost celebration, he sent his definitive gift: the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, as another Paraclete, another comforter and advocate, to lead us in truth and holiness to the Father. Easter and Pentecost: the definitive deliverance and the definitive gift, that make us the People of God and define our relationship with him.

  • At the giving of the Law, the People had waited for three days, and there was an earthquake, and thunder and lightning, and a covering of smoke, and a loud ongoing trumpet blast, as the Lord gave Moses the Law.
  • And on the day of Pentecost, the disciples had waited with the Virgin Mary [Acts 1:14] for nine days, the original novena; and there was a noise like a strong driving wind, and tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

And it is good for us to pay attention to these signs in the 2nd chapter of Acts. Because so often we picture the Holy Spirit as a dove. That is great for paintings and stained-glass windows; and indeed it is how the Holy Spirit was made manifest when Christ was baptized. But not at any other time in the Scriptures! And the limitations of the symbol of the dove is that it can make us think that the Holy Spirit is small, and fluttery and nervous, and just perches nearby and coos.

Instead, we should see how he is made manifest in the original Pentecost: a strong driving wind; and as fire. And he is also associated with great waters: the surface of the waters in creation; the waters of baptism; the rivers of living water that Christ promised to place within us who believe in him. Wind, fire, and the waters: these speak to us of power and change; of being filled and moved; of being given life, and being transformed.

For Christ had promised: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. [Acts 1:8] Power; in Greek, dunamis, from which we get our word “dynamic.” Power that brings about change. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ intends that you will never be the same again.

What might the Holy Spirit do in our lives? There are many answers to that. Let us focus in on one that is suggested by the contrast between the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, and the Day of Pentecost.

For, we read, a group of people set about to build a city and a tower with its top in the sky. And in their motivations for this, there is much that we find familiar:

  • The people spoke the same language, using the same words. And so, on a natural level, there was something they had in common with each other; that made them feel that they could be together and work together.
  • And they had a common practical purpose: not wanting to be scattered, which would surely mean being less protected against danger and less able to provide for their needs.
  • But there was something more: there was pride. For we read that they wanted to make a name for themselves.

And therein lay the seed of the dissolution of their unity. For, even without a miraculous intervention by God to change their languages, we know that their thin unity could not have lasted. Once that tower was built, wouldn’t one subgroup have tried to throw another one out? Or enslave it? Or give it the less desirable levels of the tower? And even within the winning subgroup, soon it would have been one family against another, and one person against another. For, when pride and fear are involved, no natural commonality proves strong enough to hold back the forces that would tear us apart, one from another, in a never-ending struggle for power, possessions, or pleasure.

But the Holy Spirit can. For the Holy Spirit fills us and moves us to become more and more like Christ—if we will let him. In the Pentecost Sequence, we asked the Spirit to wash what is sordid, moisten what is dry, heal what is wounded; to bend what is rigid, warm what is cold, and guide what in us has gone astray.” Even if we are like the dead dry bones scattered on the plain, seen by the prophet Ezekiel in his vision, the Holy Spirit can reunite us and bring us back to life again.

For Pentecost is the reversal of Babel: not only in the miracle of communicating across the barrier of speaking different languages, but even more in the overcoming of pride; so that the apostles no longer sought their own power, possessions, or pleasure, but instead were united in faith, hope, and love, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and seeking only to do his will.

Brothers and sisters, on a natural level, this parish is divided in many ways. To be sure, we do speak the same language, and we do live within the same general area. But that is a pretty thin basis for natural unity, when we are divided in many other ways: by what town we live in; what racial or ethnic background we have; how long ago or how recently our families first came to this area; what schools our children go to; and in other natural ways that divide us and cluster us into different groups and different interests. On a natural level, a parish located right here must be remarkably fragmented.

But on a supernatural level, are we united? Do we have the unity and the life for which Christ gives us the Holy Spirit?

And I would propose and challenge you with my answer, which is: No, we don’t have that unity that he desires. To be sure, we’re not fighting each other. We’re coexisting peacefully. But this is not the unity that the Holy Spirit is meant to give us. The Holy Spirit is meant to move us all—each individually, and all collectively—closer to Christ. And the closer that each of us gets to Christ, the closer we get to each other.

There is no unity like the unity of having the mind of Christ, the heart of Christ, the will of Christ. When we have that, individually, our lives are transformed. When we have that collectively, then the community that is formed shows forth a supernatural unity that is stunning, because it could not come about naturally.

St. Paul taught us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. [2 Cor 12:9] And the very natural fragmentation that affects a parish in this location gives us an opportunity to show forth brilliantly the unity of the Holy Spirit—if it will happen. Brothers and sisters, I believe that it is not happening now; but it could. What love, what truth, what evangelization, what change could come forth from a supernatural unity in this parish—if we allow the Holy Spirit to fill and move us like a strong driving wind, like fire, like the great waters—to bring about his power, his life, his transformation.

This is something to pray for every day. And, in less than 4 weeks, this parish will have a new pastor—which will be a special opportunity to newly ask together what the Holy Spirit is calling the parish to be and do.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created;
and you shall renew the face of the earth.

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