Groaning, hoping, and the down payment of the Spirit

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Pentecost Sunday: May 18, 2013
At the Vigil Mass: Gen 11:1-9; Ps 104; Rom 8:22-27; John 7:37-39

The world is groaning. We heard St. Paul write in our first reading: all creation is groaning—is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves… we also groan. Why this groaning? You know. In the verses immediately before this passage, he speaks of the sufferings of this present time; of futility; of slavery to corruption. And we all know what that means. It means political corruption and terrorism; it means sickness and death; it means drudgery and depression; it means conflict and heartache. And so we groan.

And like children on a trip, we say: “Are we there yet?” Because we have hope. We know that the new heaven and the new earth are coming, when he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, when he will make all things new. (Rev 21:1, 4-5) We know this. We long for it. And we know that we haven’t gotten there yet; we don’t see it in front of us yet, we don’t grasp it with our hands yet. And so we hope. As St. Paul wrote, Who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

Or maybe just a little impatiently. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How much longer? And we keep groaning.

And as we wait, and as we groan, we have the firstfruits of the harvest—the very first part of the crop, which stands as a first taste, a first promise, of the rest to come. Throughout the history of the Old Covenant, the People of Israel offered the firstfruits of their harvest as a sacrifice to the Lord; now, interestingly, it is turned around, and the Lord himself offers the firstfruits of that great future harvest to us. Or, St. Paul uses a different metaphor in a few other places in the New Testament (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14): the metaphor of a “down payment,” a “first installment,” a “guarantee,” a “pledge,” that much more will be given in the future. To anchor our hope; to help us to wait with endurance.

And what is that firstfruits, that down payment? The indwelling Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity: together with the Father and the Son, three Divine Persons, one divine nature. As we profess in the Creed each week, he proceeds or is “breathed forth” by the Father and the Son; with the Father and the Son he is adored and glorified. As the Son was sent forth on his mission to become incarnate as man, to live among us, to serve, to suffer and die and rise and ascend to the Father—so the Holy Spirit was sent forth on his mission in the Church and in the hearts of each of the baptized: to prepare us to meet Christ; to show him and his word to us; to make him present in the Eucharist and the other sacraments; and to draw us together in communion with the Father and with each other. (CCC 737)

And the Holy Spirit, given to us to dwell within us in baptism, and strengthening us through the anointing of confirmation, is the first taste, the firstfruits, the down payment, the promise of what we hope and groan for.

And do you notice how he does it? It is not through following the example of the people of Babel in our first reading who, in their groaning, tried to draw in on themselves in fear and pride in their tower with its top in the sky. It is never through closing down or pulling away or sealing ourselves up apart from the pain. No, it is always through opening us in love—in true, generous, self-giving love—in opening us up and sending us out to love more, connect more, and truly hurt more, because that is what love brings.

With the down payment of the Holy Spirit, we don’t groan less—but instead he himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. We groan more, and he groans most of all, because that is what love does in a world of sin and suffering that longs for the perfection of heaven.

And he groans more in order to draw us into prayer: in order to draw us into true communion, true relationship, with the Father and the Son: telling the Lord about what we suffer in love, and receiving his answer. And what is that answer? Speaking for myself, the answer I have received several times in moments of groaning has been: that he is with me; that he himself is truly with me. And it turns out that that is enough—that it is far more than enough! It is indeed as our Lord Jesus said: rivers of living water flowing from within me, and within you. And if this is merely the firstfruits, the down payment, then what will the full harvest and payment be?

And so we groan in hope, savoring the sweetness of the Holy Spirit, and looking forward to what is coming in his time. For the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. (Rom 8:18)

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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