Pentecost, the Virgin Mary, and saying Yes to the Holy Spirit

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Pentecost Sunday, Year B: May 27, 2012
Mass during the Day: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104; Gal 5:16-25; John 15:26-27, 16:12-15

We read in the 11th chapter of the Book of Genesis about the Tower of Babel—about how, in the mists of early human history, there was an attempt, in a valley in Mesopotamia, to build a large tower—a tower with its top in the sky, so that its builders could make a name for themselves. (Gen 11:4) It was a project of human pride and ambition, trying to build themselves up apart from God—and it resulted in tension, confusion, and division—those who had tried to work together then separated, speaking different languages, living in different places.

On this day, the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the reversal of Babel. For here, in the 2nd chapter of the Book of Acts, the Church is born. And the Church immediately begins to cross those language barriers, so that, as we heard, people from so many different places hear them speaking in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God. And these diverse, divided peoples are drawn together into one. And this was no accident: for the Second Vatican Council taught us that the Church is “a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” (Lumen Gentium, 9)

Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. Division moves to unity; confusion to understanding. But how does this happen? And we have to make sure that we get this answer right—because if we think that the Church is merely a human operation, then we will only be building the Tower of Babel again, and the same terrible things will result.

What is needed is a change of heart. What is needed is a change of spirit. As St. Peter says that very day, just a few verses later, what happened “is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘It will come to pass in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh.'” (Acts 2:16-17) It is by the gift of the Holy Spirit that this change occurs—a gift that our Lord Jesus had promised many times, including just 10 days earlier as he was about to ascend into heaven: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8)

On the day of Pentecost this promise was fulfilled: for on this day, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, was sent forth upon the Church. This is the mission of the Spirit—who proceeds from the Father and the Son, or is “breathed forth” by them, coequal and coeternal with them. This is the mission of the Spirit—hand-in-hand with the mission of the Son, who had finished blazing the trail of return to the Father in his Ascension 10 days earlier—and now the Spirit is sent forth upon the Church, to move and animate us in following where our Lord, our Head and Founder, has led.

And so the Holy Spirit has moved us for 2000 years, guiding us to all truth, indwelling us from our baptism, strengthening us in confirmation, active in the sacraments, active in our hearts—making one heroic saint after another in the great array of the history of the Church.

But are you ready for that? Doesn’t it all seem a little scary? Though you have the Holy Spirit dwelling within you, if you have been baptized—it is something else to be open and responsive to the Holy Spirit’s promptings, whisperings, guidings each day. Doesn’t it seem like it would much easier to remain in charge, captain of our own ship, forger of our own plans—like those who tried to build the Tower of Babel on their own? Isn’t it a little scary to begin listening to the Holy Spirit?

And that is probably how the apostles felt on that first Pentecost so many centuries ago. For they knew their history, and the unusual things that had happened when the Holy Spirit had come upon judges and kings and prophets in the People of Israel. What could it mean for them?

But there was someone among them who could tell them. For we read in the 1st chapter of Acts that together with them was the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus (1:14). And she knew what it was like to say yes to the Holy Spirit; for some 33 years earlier, the angel Gabriel had said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35) Perhaps more than any other human being, she knows what it is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Her presence, her example, her testimony surely reassured the apostles on that day; as they can reassure us today.

For do we not see in her what we heard from St. Paul in the second reading? We do not find in her the works of the flesh that characterized those who wanted to build the Tower of Babel themselves, and so many others. There is no ravenous internal hunger that leads to aggression and tearing apart inside and in relationship to things, and people, and even spiritually. No, instead we find that she truly is filled with the joy and peace that everyone desires; and from that filling could be patient and kind and generous to others; faithful and gentle and self-controlled in herself and in relationship to God; and above all, always, moved by love.

This is what it looks like to be filled and moved by the Holy Spirit. This is the mission of this Third Person of the Trinity. This is the soul of the Church, and why it is that the Church can be the healing restoration of what Babel tore apart. This is the heartbeat of all the saints, and especially of our Blessed Mother. May each of us take in her reassurance and allow ourselves to be moved by the Holy Spirit each day.

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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