This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Pentecost commemorating the great event when “on the day of Pentecost they were all in one place together . . .and what appeared to them tongues as of fire came to rest on them . . . and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2. 1-4)
Originally, Pentecost was a Jewish feast (and still is) commemorating the time when the Law of Sinai written in tablets of stone was given to Moses in the desert 50 days after the first Passover meal in Egypt. This is celebrated with pilgrimages and festivities in the temple for it is through this handing down of the Law that Israel realized its new identity as the people of God, “a people peculiarly his own." It is by this Law that the covenant between God and man was established with its observance as man’s part of the promise.
The placement of the descent of the Holy Spirit during the feast when the Jews celebrate the handing down of the Law to Israel is a happy coincidence for Christians, for it speaks clearly of the role of the Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit is the New Law given to us by the Father, written no longer in tablets of stone but in hearts of flesh. Through it we are made into His new creation, the Church, the new people of God in Christ thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah about the day when God will establish a new covenant with Israel by putting “my law within them . . . writing it upon their hearts.” (Jer. 31.33) Thus through this feast we recall the ultimate moment in the work of redemption brought by Christ by forming us into the new people of God. This is the reason why this feast is properly referred to as the birthday of the Church.
For so many years and even for centuries, there seems to be a kind of “forgetfulness” in our lives and the lack of awareness of the role of the Holy Spirit in history of salvation, particularly in our own personal history. He is like the air we breathe. It gives us life, it sustains us, it nourishes us -- it is so common that we only become aware of its importance when we are gasping for lack of it. Yet the Holy Spirit is there all around us. The Catechism states that it is the Holy Spirit who prepares us to encounter the Lord. Thus we see Him from the time of creation when he hovered above the waters of nothingness to begin life. When man and woman fell into sin and lost God’s friendship forever, it is the Spirit who pointed towards the fulfillment of God’s plan and purpose for humankind whose fulfillment will be marked by an outpouring of the Spirit and create an unheard of intimacy between God and man. For this purpose he raised up prophets for his people beginning with Noah, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and the last and greatest of all the prophets, John the Baptist who became the precursor of the new age of intimacy in the incarnation of Christ. In this the prophets became the bearer of the Spirit of God.
In the New Testament when the appropriate time has dawned, the Spirit brought forth the new creation -- a new and redeemed people of God which the prophets of old foretold and prepared Israel for. In the words of the Catechism He made Christ manifest in the flesh when His lowly servant Mary consented to be His spouse. Through her the Spirit fulfills the plan of the Father for the salvation of the world. The Son took upon himself the humility of the flesh so that he could redeem the world through his death and resurrection and “teach all men to reach and find God."
Before Jesus left this world, He promised the Holy Spirit “as his first gift to those who believe," for it is the Spirit who will complete the work of God through his Church until its fulfillment in the end times. On the day of Pentecost this happened and the Spirit began his work in renewing the face of the earth. It is through the love of God poured into our hearts by the Spirit that we are saved It is through the Spirit that our faith is awakened, transforming us into a new being. Through the Spirit a new relationship with the Father is established for it is through the Spirit that we cry out “Abba, Father." Through the Spirit we will come to understand the thoughts of God and be lead to the truth, for it is only in Him that we can say “Jesus is Lord." It is the Spirit who gathers us as a church so that the salvation wrought by Jesus on the cross two thousand years ago will reach the ends of the world. The Spirit continually nourishes us for He continually makes present in the here and now the mystery of Christ, making it alive and active through the preaching of His Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Thus even today the mission of Christ is brought to completion through the work of the Spirit in the Church by bringing all men to Christ.
Throughout the two thousand year history the power of Spirit is always evident in the life of the Church. Because of the work of the Spirit in the Church, men and women throughout the years have risen up to stand as witnesses for Jesus through their holiness of life. Foremost among them were the martyrs who shed their blood for Jesus. Their death and their courage to accept it, reveal to us today the presence of the Spirit for “martyrdom, not miracles, is the ultimate testing of the Spirit.” It is through the witness of these martyrs that the Church of the first millenium was born for “the blood of martyrs are the seed of Christianity.” In the second millenium it is the same blood of countless and nameless martyrs, the same wittness enlivened by the Spirit, that enriched the ground for the blossoming of the faith in many parts of the world -- in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Finally, as we enter the third millenium, it is the same Spirit who leads us to the final fulfillment when all will be one in the Kingdom promised us for all ages.
Yet in all its glorious history there were countless times when the church heeded the world more than the Spirit. In a time of complacency and decadence, power became more attractive than service, riches more than poverty, worldy allurements more than love, and pomp and pageantry more than sincerity and simplicity in prayer. Through all these the Church became deaf to the promptings of the Spirit, refuse to bow its head in repentance and because of this the one church of Christ became divided, a division which even today remains a scandal for a religion which teaches only love. Unity afterall is the gift of the Spirit, the fruit of love.
There were times too in the history of the Church when she heeded the call of the powers that be more than the gospel which the Spirit constantly recalls in her heart. Because of this she has become party “to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of the truth.” Inquisitions were made, holy wars were tolerated, crusades were called for to save a shrine when all the world is made holy by the incarnation. In all these the Church did not express profound regret for the weakness of her many sons and daughters. Yet despite all these the Spirit continues to call men and women of exemplary virtue to rise above these callousness and take seriously the words of the gospel -- love, service, poverty, sincere prayer, chastity. Thus reformers were born and the mendicant orders flourished. All these experiences, good and bad, praiseworthy and regrettable, has taught the Church one thing: it has to constantly heed the call of the Spirit, to discern its ways and to be lead by its promptings.
In all these we could see the action of the Spirit in our lives and in our Church. Indeed the words of Jesus are proven true when he said that it is “the Spirit that gives life”. Every time life is granted the Spirit is there and every time life is transformed and made whole once more the Spirit is invoked.
In the beginning I stated that for years there is seemingly a lack of appreciation of the work of the Spirit in our life and in our Church. He suffered the fate of one who has become too familiar and too common. However we could not for long ignore his presence in our lives and his promptings in our hearts. We have to learn from our glorious and ignoble history for it has a way of repeating itself. It is the Spirit who brings the memory of Jesus alive in our hearts. It is he who makes it active. It is He who constantly renews the whole world.