May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday


There is an old saying that there are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask, ”What happened?”  As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday and reflect on what happened on the day of Pentecost, we all seem to be in the last category, that is, asking what happened that day.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, even those devout Jews who were in Jerusalem that day and who observed marvelous things happened were said to be confused and amazed.  Probably even the apostles and other disciples of Jesus gathered that day did not fully understand at first what happened, and the cause of their activity was the work of the Holy Spirit, not their own.


The word “Pentecost” means fifty, and this Jewish feast took place fifty days after the feast of the Passover.  The Jewish religious calendar had three major feast days:  Passover, which celebrated the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the Feast of Weeks or First Fruits (Pentecost), and the Feast of Booths, a harvest festival that took place later in the year.  At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, but devout Jews were encouraged to come to Jerusalem for at least one of the major feasts.  Thus, on this Pentecost, some fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus, there were many devout Jews from all over the Roman Empire gathered in Jerusalem, and they were able to watch an unusual event taking place.  From a Christian perspective, the events of that day were caused by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the other disciples of Jesus who were all gathered in one place.  Elsewhere we hear that there were about 120 disciples altogether.  In the Old Testament there are references to the Spirit of the Lord.  The word “Spirit” originally meant “breath”, and the Jewish people believed that God had breathed life into Adam and Eve and all creatures.  Yet some individuals were said to have the Spirit of the Lord in an extraordinary way, and they were thus able to accomplish great things.  They were individuals such as Moses, the judges Gideon and Sampson, kings Saul and David, and prophets like Isaiah.  But now the Spirit of the Lord comes as a Person, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, known to us through divine revelation.  Jesus had promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples and had instructed them to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them.  There seem to be at least three major effects of the Holy Spirit that were true for the original disciples of Jesus and still true for us today.  These effects are: (1) the Holy Spirit gives power to us to proclaim the Gospel and live holy lives, (2) the Holy Spirit gives a variety of gifts that helps the Church to accomplish its mission, and (3) the Holy Spirit is a source of unity, enabling people of different backgrounds to have the same beliefs and to be part of the Body of Christ.


So, first of all, the Holy Spirit is a source of energy that enables us to be transformed by God’s grace and go forth as disciples of Jesus.  According to the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 1, verse 8), Jesus, after his Resurrection, had told his disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world.  On Pentecost we observe that the apostles and other disciples were changed from fearful people into people who boldly went forth to proclaim the Gospel.  Thus, we declare that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, the day when the disciples of Jesus began to make new disciples.   We live in an age that has appliances of various kinds.  They usually need a power source in order to operate.  Here in North Dakota, we have many sources of energy, such as oil, natural gas, coal, and wind.  The Holy Spirit is a source of spiritual energy that enables us to operate as disciples of Jesus and to live holy lives.  We receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism and have a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit when we are confirmed.  The Holy Spirit usually operates in quiet ways, but there are times in our lives when we might notice the influence of the Holy Spirit more than we usually do.  Those who enter into the Sacrament of Matrimony or are called to holy orders or to the religious life or to a conversion of life might notice the Holy Spirit at work.  We should call on the power of the Holy Spirit throughout our life, especially when we are making an important decision.


The Holy Spirit also gives different gifts to different people to help the Church to carry out its mission to bring Christ to all people.  There are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that are mentioned in Isaiah 11:2  and that are associated with the Sacrament of Confirmation, such as counsel, strength, wisdom and fortitude, that are intended for everybody.  These gifts are said to be permanent, if we have sanctifying grace within us.  There are some other gifts mentioned by St. Paul that are often referred to as “spiritual gifts.”  Nine of these gifts are mentioned in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12.  As today’s second reading mentions, these gifts come from the same Spirit and are given for some benefit.  Some of these gifts are rather unusual, such as the gift of prophesy or the gift of healing, but they are not given to every individual, and they do not always operate for the individual who has that gift.  Also, these gifts are not always a sign of personal holiness for the individual who exercises such a gift.  However, diversity of gifts is important for the Church as a whole.  St. Paul uses the analogy of the body.  Our bodies have many different parts, but they all operate together for the good of the body as a whole.  So, we should be thankful for the different gifts that people have, even if the gifts of others differ from our own.


Lastly, the Holy Spirit is a source of unity, even though members of the Church come from different backgrounds and have different gifts.  The Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem for that Pentecost event mentioned in our first reading today spoke different languages, but they somehow were able to understand what the apostles were saying.  Perhaps the apostles were able to speak languages that they did not know otherwise or perhaps the listeners were given the gift of understanding something spoken in a language that they did not speak.    At any rate, the people present were able to experience a certain unity that was a symbol of what was to come.  Through the help of the Holy Spirit the Jewish Christians were able over time to welcome Christians from a Gentile background, something that seemed impossible from a merely human point of view.  Later on the Church would spread to different continents and would include Christians from different races and cultures.  We can experience a sense of unity with Christians wherever we may be, even in Kenya or Guatemala or somewhere else.  Catholic social teaching speaks of the need for us as Christians to have a sense of solidarity with all people, even though who are not Christians, especially when people have a special need.  So, the Holy Spirit can help bring about unity in every situation.


Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church.  Let us be thankful for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and sanctify us so that we can attain our goal of everlasting life in heaven.