In the northern hemisphere, Christmas hallows winter, Easter hallows spring and Pentecost summer. In the beginning, the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, hovered over the waters, and the world – nature in all its exuberance – was the result. “The earth is full of your riches”, says the Psalm. And now today, as the sound of a great wind wraps round the apostles and tongues of fire rest on their heads, the Holy Spirit comes afresh. He continues in the realm of grace what he begins in the realm of nature. He brings us the summertime of the divine life. He fills us with God.
There’s a fulness about today. The coming of the Holy Spirit occurs on the 50th day of Easter, 50 being 7X7+1, a symbol of fulness. His coming completes the Paschal mystery of Christ. It fulfils the promises of Christ and the prophecies of old. And just before the Gospel, we prayed: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love”, love the fulfilment of the Law.
Tohu wa-bohu! I have not pronounced that properly, I’m sure. But it is the Hebrew for chaos, literally “formless and void” (empty). Tohu wa-bohu! We hear that phrase in English at every Easter Vigil, when we read the beginning of Genesis. “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2). It was the Spirit of God who began the move from chaos to cosmos, from shapelessness to form, from void to fulness. And this he still does. Again and again, the world, society, we ourselves, we slide and relapse into chaos. The prophet Jeremiah uses the words of Genesis to describe an invasion of his own country (cf. Jer 4:23); formless and void. Look at the pictures from Ukraine! Again and again, we sense an unravelling of God’s creative work. We are the chaos, of course. So, Pentecost is always timely. As Christians, we are not meant to be hand-wringing bystanders of history. We are God’s priestly people in the world. We are intercessors, God’s co-workers – every day, of course, and also every time “Pentecost day comes round”. We are moved to call on the Holy Spirit; to pray, “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth”; to add our voices to the beautiful Sequence and ask for form and fullness to come in from above.
So today, with the pupils of St Joseph, we celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. St John Paul II called it “a personal Pentecost for the whole of life.” He wrote a poem about celebrating Confirmation in a mountain village, and he called it “The Birth of Confessors” (Narodziny wyznawcow). The Holy Spirit gives birth to those who confess the faith. Today, what will happen? When the Bishop says, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit” and anoints your forehead with chrism, you will answer “Amen”. And a fullness, gentle and strong, will come into you – a free download, with the 7 free apps of the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the energy, the electricity, the power of God. He’s breath, water and fire. He’s the life and the light and the love of God. The Father and the Son pour the fulness of what they are into him; and he in turn pours himself into us. He injects us, as it were, with his presence and grace. He is the inoculation, the vaccine, the booster – the “Lord, the Giver of life”, as the Creed says. He’s God’s finger touching us.
And just as the first Pentecost completed the Paschal Mystery, so our Confirmation completes, confirms our Baptism. There’s much debate about the best age for Confirmation, and the best order for receiving the Sacraments. Our pattern here makes sense, I feel – with Baptism first (naturally), first Confession and Communion around the age of 7, and in the last year of Primary School at the age of 12, childhood’s completion, the gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation. In a sense, he comes to seal the graces of our childhood, to keep them secure for the years ahead with all their tohu wa-bohu.
There is a fulness to Pentecost – and to Confirmation too. But here we come to the rub. What for? To overflow. The Holy Spirit is fullness overflowing. When he came on the Apostles at Pentecost, they “began to speak”, and to speak in a way that people of different languages could understand. The crowd gathered in Jerusalem was the universal Church in embryo and through it the Gospel began to flow into humanity. When summer fills nature, it overflows into flowers, seeds and fruit. It blooms. The birds and animals reproduce. Fertility is everywhere. The Holy Spirit moulds the formless into unity and fills the void to overflowing. When the Holy Spirit came on the warriors and kings and prophets of the Old Testament, their lives came together and they began to do and say great things for God. When the Holy Spirit came on young David, he could use his gift for music to console afflicted Saul and his skill with a catapult to fell Goliath and free his people. When the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, she was empowered to bring Jesus into the world. When the Holy Spirit came down like a dove on Jesus in the River Jordan, he “began in Galilee”, became “mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Lk 24:19). Remember the saints whose names you are taking: the Holy Spirit came on them and turned their lives into something beautiful for God. The Holy Spirit is a Gift of God and makes us more than getters and grabbers; he makes us gifts ourselves. He helps us contribute to the life of society and of the Church. He makes us fruitful in doing good and willing to serve. Confessors are born. The Holy Spirit wants us to be living confirmations of his generosity, channels of his excess, “radiators” of his warmth.
Tohu wa-bohu: that’s us – chaos and mess, formless and empty, and sometimes darkness over the face of the deep. But the Spirit comes. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”, and “the Holy Ghost over the bent / world broods with warm breast, with ah! bright wings.” May he fill us! May he “summer” us! Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 5 June 2022