Today is the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. On this day we remember and celebrate the moment when the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem, as Christ had advised them to do. On that day, the Holy Spirit descended upon them, and they were changed. They were enlightened by the Spirit and they were empowered by the Spirit.
But how were they enlightened, and for what mission were they empowered?
The Holy Spirit is the least understood person of the Holy Trinity. Most of our life as Christians is spent studying and following Jesus Christ. Our church calendar turns around the events in his life. Our growth as disciples is mostly about becoming more like Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Scriptures talk a great deal about God the Father, as indeed does Jesus, always pointing us towards the one he called Abba, Father.
But we hear less about the Spirit. We talk less about the Spirit. It’s really only on this day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit leaps to the front of the stage. And because we understand the Holy Spirit so little, it can be difficult to allow the Spirit’s power into our lives.
What do we know then about the Spirit? We know that the Spirit is a person of the Holy Trinity, along with God the Father and God the Son. With the Father and the Son, the Spirit is worshipped and glorified. The Spirit is called by several names.
The Spirit is called the Lord, and the giver of Life. Jesus calls the Spirit “the Advocate” and “the Comforter”, and this reveals some of the functions or roles that the Spirit plays in our lives. As Advocate, the Spirit helps us to be prayerful, teaches us to pray and even prays for when we don’t know what to pray. St. Paul said so in his letter to the Romans “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Jesus calls the Spirit “The Comforter”, for the Spirit keeps our hearts warm with the nearness of the divine presence.
We know that the Spirit descended in a powerful and public way on that first Pentecost, but this is not the first time that the Spirit is at work in salvation’s history. The Spirit is at work all through Jesus’ life, right to the very beginning of his incarnation, when it was the spirit that hovered over Mary and conceived the Christ-child in her womb – only after she said yes.
But the Spirit is working before Jesus as well. The Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were inspired, literally breathed into by the Spirit. And way back to the creation of the world, it was the Spirit that moved over the face of the water and breathed the order of the word into creation. It was the Spirit that God breathed into the first dust-filled nostrils of the first human, giving life and awareness and strength and potential.
Always, always, the Spirit comes and goes through the story, working behind the scenes, making it all happen, and staying out of the limelight. Life the air that surrounds us, we don’t tend to notice the Spirit until we feel the gentle breezes of its motion.
About a week after my ordination, a parishioner asked me a great question about the Holy Spirit, and I had no good answer. She asked if we received the Holy Spirit in our baptisms – which we do – then why do we have so many prayers asking God to send us the Holy Spirit? It’s a great question. I’ve been pondering it ever since.
We receive the Holy Spirit, maybe even before we’re baptized, but certainly on the day we’re baptized. We’re anointed with the specially blessed oil called Chrism, and the Spirit is locked into us. The Spirit lives within us. As St. Paul says, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. But our hearts are like a great mansion, like the big house in Downton Abbey. And while the presence of God dwells everywhere in creation, it does not dwell where it is not allowed. The Spirit of God is not an uninvited guest. It does not barge through closed doors like a SWAT team or sneak in like a burglar.
The Spirit stands in the hallway of our hearts, but it is up to us whether to throw open the doors and let the Spirit into every room. But often we want to keep some portion of the house off limits. We want to keep a bit of the mansion of our souls private, so that we can retreat from the inquiring gaze of the Spirit from time to time.
The Spirit dwells within us, but it can be uncomfortable to have God so near. It can be uncomfortable because God is constantly trying to change us, and we don’t know if we’re ready to change. We want God to hurry up and change the world, and we’d certainly like God to change those people we find frustrating and perpetually wrong. But we’re hesitant to ask God to change us. Change is tough. And if we let the Spirit into every corner of our hearts, we will be changed.
When we pray again and again that God should send the Holy Spirit upon us, I think we’re really praying that God will make us brave enough to open another door in our hearts, to let the Spirit into the next room of our souls. We’re praying that God will give us the courage to change.
It does take courage to change and to grow. But it’s worth it. We don’t easily take risks until someone we trust shows us the benefit of the risk. It’s why guides and teachers and parents and spiritual directors are so important. We need people who can tell us what happens when we take the risk. St Paul tells us what we can expect if we take the risk, the characteristics of a life that has allowed the Spirit into every room in the mansion of the heart. He calls them the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
These are all good things. I’d love to have half of them in my life. St. Paul has laid them out. The lives of thousands of saints show that the fruits are true and the risk is worth it. So why not try it? Why not invite the Spirit into a new room in your heart?
On that Pentecost day, the Spirit descended upon the followers of Jesus. It gave them the ability to proclaim the Gospel in all sorts of languages. Not because, I think, the Spirit is like an instant Rosetta Stone course, but because the Spirit filled them with something deeper than human language. It filled them with joy. It filled them with love. It filled them with hope. It filled them with peace. It filled them with confidence that God was with them. These are things that every person understands in a way far deeper than language. These are things that every person seeks and needs. And they are gifts that the divine pours out on every person who opens the doors of the heart to let in the fresh wind, the gentle dove, the bright flames of the Holy Spirit: the Advocate, the Comforter, the giver of life.