A non-Christian Japanese who was enquiring about the Catholic faith began going to Mass and reading religious books. One day a friend asked him how his search was progressing. He said he was happy with his learning but was having difficulty with the mystery of the Trinity. “The Father and Son, ok – I can believe,” he said. “But Number 3, the Honourable Bird, I cannot understand!”
Many Christians too have difficulty understanding the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. Father and Son are familiar names and both are often depicted in art with human features, while Jesus shared fully in our human life. The Holy Spirit however is usually pictured in non-human forms such as a dove, tongues of fire and a strong wind, so we have greater difficulty visualising the nature and role of the Spirit in our lives. Thankfully we are not as bad as the Ephesian converts who told St Paul, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2)!
Pentecost is the oldest feast in the Church, celebrating its birthday – the day when through the power of the Holy Spirit the life, death and resurrection of Jesus burst into life in the hearts and lives of his followers. It is a story of remarkable transformation, when fearful, discouraged disciples were transformed into powerful and courageous witnesses. It is a feast which offers us many thoughts for reflection but here I shall touch on just two.
The coming of the Holy Spirit is related in both John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. John describes how the disciples “were gathered together behind locked doors for fear of the Jews”, when Jesus stood among them, saying “Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so now I am sending you”. Then breathing on them he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:19-22).
It is one role of the Holy Spirit to give us peace, and peace casts out fear which can paralyse us as it did the disciples. Fear of failure, rejection, loneliness, illness and even of love can keep us buried in our tombs, turned in on ourselves. May the Holy Spirit liberate us from all such fear, freeing us to go forth like the disciples to live our lives fully and share the good news of Christ with those around us.
The Pentecost story in Acts tells how the liberated and transformed disciples went forth to proclaim the Risen Lord to “people from every country in the world”. These people could understand them speaking in their different languages “about the great things that God has done” (Acts 2:5-12). Indeed the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of all people of goodwill. Too often our world stresses our differences and divisions – different languages, races, social classes, tribes and religions, leading to mistrust, even hatred and conflict. Closed doors cannot block the presence of the Risen Lord, but closed hearts and minds can. Let the Holy Spirit open our hearts and enable us to respect and value difference, in our families, society and world, acknowledging that our God is the God of all.
Pentecost is not just a historic event of long ago, for the Spirit is still present and at work in the events of daily life. The fruits of the Spirit as described by St Paul seem very ordinary – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Yet when we experience and practise these gifts we know that the Spirit is present, that God is with us and that our world and our lives are still being transformed. Happy birthday to all!
Bro Columba Gleeson