Homily for Pentecost Sunday

Come, Holy Spirit!

Today, Pentecost Day, Whit Sunday, we recall that coming at Pentecost in Jerusalem around 30 AD.

We give thanks for it.

We believe this coming can be renewed in all of us, here and today.

And, enlarging our hearts still more, we pray this coming will be felt ‘in every people and nation’, ‘across the face of the earth’, touching the whole world like a fresh wind and a warming fire.

This afternoon, the Holy Father is meeting in Rome with the Presidents of Israel and the State of Palestine, and with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. They are meeting to pray for peace. And the Holy Father has asked all of us to join with him.

‘The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world.’ That’s the scope of this feast. In the Byzantine liturgy today there’s even a prayer that the damned, the lost in hell, will have a moment of refreshment. Who knows? But we know there are people on this earth living private hells. We know about the public hells people are living in Syria, eastern Ukraine, northern Nigeria and elsewhere. May the Holy Spirit come even there: ‘solace in the midst of woe’.

But let’s go back to Jerusalem and that first Pentecost. It was narrated in the 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

There are four things in this passage: first, a setting; then signs; then the heart of the matter; and last, the overflow, miraculous in character.

1. ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.’ It was 7 weeks after Passover, 50 days since Christ’s Resurrection, and the Jewish feast of Pentecost (which this year was kept last Wednesday). It was the day Israel commemorates God’s giving of the Law through Moses on Mt Sinai. How appropriately, then, the day the risen and ascended Christ should send the Holy Spirit, the new inner law, the law of freedom and grace, from the mountain of his Father. ‘They were all together in one place’: they the Apostles but others too, some 120 in all, including Mary and other disciples. They’re the first Christian cell, the nucleus of all who would follow, us in embryo, sign of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of every subsequent time and place. They’re together in a house in Jerusalem, traditionally the Upper Room. They’re where, before his Passion, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and gave the commandment of love and where he came on Easter Sunday evening, saying ‘Peace be with you’. So, they were among all these memories. They were at prayer, in obedience, at peace, expectant. This is always the setting for the Holy Spirit.

 2. Then ‘suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven…and something appeared to them like tongues of fire, separating and resting on the head of each of them.’ These are the signs. Something heard: the noise of a wind; something seen: tongues of fire. Signs that God himself was drawing near. Signs of the Spirit of God, of his freedom and his awesome power. This is the fire ‘which burns away the thorns of sin and gives glory to the soul’, says St Cyril of Jerusalem. It sets on fire with love.

3. And ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’. Here we come to the heart of Pentecost. This filling meant unique things, surely, for the apostles and the Mother of God. And yet it is something for us as well. ‘They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.’ The Spirit has always filled the world. All the existence and life and structure, unity and beauty of the world come from the Spirit. And then too he spoke through the prophets of Israel. So he has always been present through his power. But from Pentecost onward he’s present in person. He’s no longer merely texting us, as it were. He’s at the door; he’s crossing the threshold. The Father who sent us his Son now sends us his Spirit, revealing himself as a holy Trinity. The God who’s above and around us as Father, beside us as Son, now comes to be in us as Holy Spirit, a spring of water welling up to eternal life. ‘The Holy Spirit himself dwells in us and remains with us. We are called temples of the Holy Spirit, something that was never said of the prophets,’ says St Cyril of Alexandria. This is what we mean by the ‘state of grace’, or the forgiveness of sins, or justification, or ‘habitual grace’ or union with God. This is what makes us, in all our diversity, one body in Christ. This is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. For all our attempts to quench him, he is present in the Church, present as grace, present in person and present with a fullness of power and an entourage of ‘gifts’, and ‘fruits’ and ‘charisms’, re-connecting us to the living God. At the end of Pentecost day, Peter will say: ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’, the gift who is the Holy Spirit.

4. ‘And they began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech.’ And their listeners in turn ‘hear them proclaiming in [their] own languages the marvels of God.’ This is the miracle of Pentecost. This is the Spirit overflowing. In a sense, it was a ‘one-off’ – something spectacular to kick-start the Church. But I think this miracle goes on. It’s just that we miss it. Aren’t the marvels of God being proclaimed in almost every language of the world? In Scripture, in the Eucharist? And more still. There’s the word of God, the Gospel, the faith, what we believe. In the power of the Spirit, the apostles proclaimed it and now the Church does. Isn’t it wondrous that it can make sense to children and adults, to intellectuals and people without education, to people in the past and people now, to people from India and South America and Africa and Europe, people of different backgrounds and characters and mentalities (and incomes!)? Isn’t it amazing that in the body of Christ, there’s such a diversity of gifts? That Jesus’ way, his truth, can be translated into so many different ways of life, has so many different expressions?  Think of the saints. This is the miracle of Pentecost. It isn’t dead or past. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God can reach the stony hearts of each of us. Thanks to the coming of the Spirit, our whole being, selves, lives, bodies, behaviour, actions can be a word of God, can be Christ. Think of the saints! The Holy Spirit comes to make us holy. This is what the linguistic miracle of Pentecost really, abidingly means: that the word of God can translate into each of our lives.

In many medieval churches, if you look up at the roof, you will see an opening, an aperture. It’s called the hole of the Holy Spirit: a window, a pane of glass, for the Holy Spirit to come through on to the worshippers below, his little door into the Church and the world. Often today, it’s opened and a dove is released down or rose petals showered. There is a dove window in our Cathedral here. I think today’s feast is that hole, that opening. I think what the Holy Father is doing this afternoon is trying simply to open such a thing above the intractable Holy Land. May this parish, this city, this diocese, this country, the Church throughout the world always keep this aperture open! May each of us have a hole in our heart the Spirit can enter! May the grace of Pentecost be renewed among us!

Aberdeen, 8 June 2014


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