Receive the Holy Spirit
In the recent years I have been travelling and living in different cultural contexts. The question, “Where do you come from,” has become so difficult for me to answer. I am sure, these days many people are in similar situation, thanks to the opportunities that the contemporary world offers. I am grateful to God for the variety of cross-cultural experiences that I have had, and I feel I am a citizen of the world. One thing that has made this possible, easy, and enjoyable, is the fact that I am a Christian, and a Catholic! Catholicism stands for universality.
Today we celebrate the birthday of this Church – the universal church. We celebrate the presence of the Spirit in this believing community today, just as it was present among the community in Jerusalem. In some countries this day is celebrated as the feast of the laity. It is the feast of every believer. The liturgy of the Word on this day suggests the theme of unity of the Church.
I would like to develop this reflection focusing on three possible meanings of this feast, exploring also what the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – and his presence can mean for us today.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Risen Lord
Evangelist Luke considers the event of the resurrection (Easter) and the decent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) as two significant events, not necessarily as separate events. As the resurrection of the Lord is associated with the Jewish feast of the Passover, Luke considers it meaningful to situate the coming of the Holy Spirit within the Jewish feast of the Pentecost – a harvest festival that was celebrated fifty days after the Passover. Strongly prejudiced by this Lukan tradition we tend to consider the Pentecost as a separate feast, and the descent of the Holy Spirit also as a dramatic event always and fail to see that no other Gospel has this separate narration. On the other hand, according to the Gospel of John – as we heard it read in today’s gospel text (Jn 20:19-23), the descent of the Holy Spirit is on the day of the resurrection of the Lord. It reads: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood among them… he said to them: ‘Peace be with you…’. After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’!
Therefore, the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the Risen Lord. Pentecost cannot be separated from Easter! Holy Spirit could be considered as the continued presence of the Risen Lord. Jesus, after his resurrection is not present with us as he was present for 33 years in his incarnate form – as Jesus of Nazareth. But He is alive, and the Spirit completes His work.
Unity in Diversity
One of the works of the Holy Spirit is to bring people together. In the final discourse of Jesus during the last supper, He prayed: “Father that they may be one” (Jn 17:21-22). That prayer of Jesus is realized today in our believing community by the presence of the Holy Spirit even through our own cooperation.
In the first reading of today we hear that one of the first signs of the descent of the Holy Spirit was that the Christian message, the Gospel – the Good News – was proclaimed in different languages. The same message in different languages! And people of different backgrounds – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea… heard the message in their own native language. They were brought together under the umbrella of the one experience of the Risen Lord. This is the miracle of the Holy Spirit!
Unity, however, does not mean uniformity. If we are Catholics it does not mean we need to become Romans and we need to pray in Latin. No far from it! We need to learn from history. The exaggeration of the role of Rome is what led to the Reformations in Europe! But how will we express unity in diversity? How will we celebrate our differences?
The Church in Corinth faced a similar question, hardly 25 years after the first Pentecost. Being a port city it was truly a metropolitan. The Church there had its difficulties and differences. Therefore, Paul would write to them – as we heard in the 2nd reading of today (1Cor 12:3-6): “Nobody is able to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit. There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord. There are many different forms of activity, but in everybody it is the same God who is at work in them all.”
Of course, he will also talk about ordering and discernment of the gifts of the Spirit (1Cor 12: 27-31). Later in Chapter 13, St Paul would speak of love as the highest and the best gift of the Holy Spirit. Our prayer for ourselves today is that we be given this gift!
Variety even in the Descent of the Holy Spirit
One of the problems of the Church in some parts of the world is the Holy Spirit itself. How does the Spirit manifest himself? It is easy, but misleading, to identify the Spirit with miracles: deliverance and healing. We need to understand that the Holy Spirit can descend in powerful ways – tongues of fire, and powerful wind from heaven, with noise, as described by Luke in Acts 2:1. However, the other day I was intrigued by what I came across in Acts 8:5-17. This text says that the apostle Philip went to preach among the Samaritans. His preaching was accompanied by signs: “Unclean spirits came shrieking out of many who were possessed, and several paralytics and cripples were cured. As a result there was great rejoicing in that town” (Acts 8: 6-7). But the Holy Spirit is mentioned only later in the text (Acts 8:14-17): “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, and they went down there and prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet he had not come down on any of them: they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
What this text surprises me with is that signs may be distinct from the presence of the Holy Spirit. This takes us back to the gospel passage of today. The Holy Spirit can also descend as a gentle breath (John 20:22). Both these manners are valid. As Jesus said to Nicodemus (Jn 3:8), “The wind blows where it pleases.” Today, the Spirit is present in a priest who is able to preach in a powerful way – may be accompanied by the gift of knowledge and healing. The same Spirit is also powerfully present when an elderly priest prays over the altar with a very feeble voice: “Lord, send forth your spirit.” The fact is Jesus is risen; therefore He is alive; and when we recognize that at the depth of ourselves, the Holy Spirit is active in us.
On this important day, then, we want to allow the Spirit to work in us. In His own way! That we may be one! Let the Eucharistic celebration mediate an experience of the Spirit of the Risen Lord for each one of us.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.