This year, the great celebration of Pentecost occurs in a world fraught with anxiety and hurt, unusually so even in this tumultuous century. We feel the pain and distress of a brutal war in Ukraine, the proliferating mass shootings in the United States, the persistence of the coronavirus called COVID-19 and the unsettling appearance of yet another one. The natural world, over which the Holy Spirit broods, as the Poet claims, aches and trembles under the onslaught of humanity’s technological hubris. Time grows short to save the life-giving capacity of the planet itself.
So much for the bad news. The good news is that Holy Spirit has been given to us, sent to heal, restore, and renew. The perennial question remains: are we ready to receive the Spirit?
When we think about the Holy Spirit, we are likely to fall back on graphic symbols that obscure as much as they reveal. At this time of the church year, I can’t help but recall the humorous story told years ago by my Jesuit friend, Tom Gannon, who had recently returned from Japan, where he had given a talk on the Trinity. When he was finished, a well-educated man asked, “I understand Honorable Father and Honorable Son. But can you please explain Honorable Bird?”
Despite the imagery we read about in the gospels about the descent of the Spirit “like a dove” at the time of Jesus’ baptism [Matt 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32], Pentecost is not about a bird. Nor is it about “tongues of flame” or a mighty wind – all efforts to describe the indescribable. The Spirit is about power and tender care, about consolation, and the comforting presence of God in the midst of pain, suffering, and struggle.
In the scriptural tradition beginning with the Book of Genesis and in the Christian creeds, Creation itself is often attributed to the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of life itself [Gen 1:2, 2:7]. Some of the most beautiful imagery in this respect comes from the Psalms, especially the concluding verses of the mighty Psalm 104, which gives us a theme synonymous with the life-giving work of the Spirit: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth” [Ps 104-30].
Theologians and poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins have also noticed that the characteristic influence of the Holy Spirit on life is abundance, diversity, and beauty:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
“Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit is the ecological principle that holds the world together in all its wonderful diversity. That awesome variety is also reflected in the famous passage from Acts that we just read, which describes how, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles not only spoke in tongues, but people heard them in all their own languages, a no less greater miracle. Out of the many, one.
Pentecost is especially about unity in diversity, the richness and glory of diversity. This is especially true with the “gift of tongues” – that is languages, especially the language of prophecy. In the biblical tradition the Holy Spirit is above all the Spirit of Prophecy, sent from God to lead, guide, and guard his followers. In the Christian scriptures, the Spirit is that of Jesus himself, poured out among his followers as they spread the gospel to every corner of the world. The Holy Spirit is also the name we give to our personal experience of God in the real and daily events of our lives. It is the name we place on the ways God acts through us to renew the face of the earth, to lead and guide us, to create life, hope, and unity.
The Spirit is also the bringer of peace. Today’s gospel is from John, selected because of the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus makes when he appears to his disciples on the night of the Resurrection. Twice Jesus says to them “Peace be with you.” Then, “[Just] As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And after he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” [John 20:21-22].
In the biblical tradition, breathing was always spiritually effective, from Genesis, when “God formed a human being of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human being became a living person” [Gen. 2:7]. It is the same thought uttered in St Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. [Rom 8:10-11]”
If ever the world needed the gifts of peace, healing, and unity, it is especially now, when our ability to fragment and destroy seems all but unchecked and extremely powerful. And so we turn to the Comforter, the Advocate, recalling the words of Pope John XXIII as he proposed the Second Vatican Council in September 1959:
“Renew in our own days your miracles as of a second Pentecost; and grant that Holy Church, reunited in one prayer, more fervent than before, around Mary the Mother of Jesus, and under the leadership of Peter, may extend the kingdom of the divine Savior, a kingdom of truth, justice and love and peace. Amen.” [Journal of a Soul]