Homily for Pentecost

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB homily at online Mass for Pentecost:


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On Pentecost day in Jerusalem, as described by the 1st reading, the sound of a wind filled the room where the disciples were, tongues of fire appeared above them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. This is what we commemorate today. This is what we hope will be renewed today – not so much in its outward phenomena as in its inner meaning, in its grace. Today’s Prayer is ambitious: “you sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation…pour out the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth…fill now the hearts of believers.”

Aren’t we, this year, perhaps beyond this year, going to need the Holy Spirit more than ever? It may be more challenging emerging from lockdown than going into it, even going through it. We can anticipate complexity certainly, some unexpected fallout, some unknown waters to navigate; many imponderables, frankly. We will need confidence and buoyancy. We will need to adapt and be creative, and patient. Well, these are precisely things the Holy Spirit is good at, makes us good at.  So, come, Holy Spirit!

And what happened when he did come? The first thing, I think, was this. He made those disciples a unity. They already had a unity of course. They had their commitment to Jesus, they had Peter and Mary, they had shared stories and memories. They had been praying together in one place and surely drawing closer to each other as they did. But now something new happened. This unity was given an added dimension. One image the Fathers like is that of the Holy Spirit being poured like water on loose flour, making it dough, and then the fire of the Holy Spirit baking it into a loaf of bread. Another image is of a body receiving a soul, an animating principle, making it one and alive. Or we might think of various voices suddenly transmuted into a choir, or an orchestra tuning up suddenly launching into the music. There was a leap, and a new sociology, a new way of being together, came about. The Church is born. Not just a voluntary association, or a club, or a society devoted to the memory of Jesus, or another item on the spectrum of Jewish parties. A mystical-historical entity, unique, Christ’s Body. A diversity of people, as human as it gets, but gathered, permeated, filled, consecrated, united by a divine presence. A Unity flowing from the unity of the Trinity. A new way of living in the light of God and of being together as human beings. Think of the scattering of humanity that follows Babel, all the confusion of tongues and opinions and factions and nations that fills history, the enmities; think of what’s wracking the US at the moment. In the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, two newly-baked wheaten loaves were presented to the Lord in the Temple. Why two, asked the rabbis? Ah, the Christians said, Jew and Gentile, distinct but together before the Lord, in the unity of the Church. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. Humanly, we are always squabbling, centrifugal. The Spirit of God, without eliding our differences, relishing our variety actually, moves the other way. He’s centripetal. He makes the difference between cacophony and symphony. “In the one Spirit we were all baptised”, says St Paul, Jews and Greeks, slaves and citizens, “and one Spirit was given to all to drink.” How the world needs this unity! Come, Holy Spirit!

Something else happened too. The passage says: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak”. This new Unity, this Body of Christ, began to speak. That’s remarkable, really.  The apostles spoke, we’re told, in “other languages”, or at least they were heard in other languages, by those from all over the Mediterranean world and the Middle East. This is sometimes called “the miracle of Pentecost”. They began to speak, and what they said was heard by everyone – because it’s a message, a word that is for everyone. It’s not local. It’s not tied to one culture. It’s a word for each and every human being, wherever, whenever. It’s the word of God for man as such, a word about what we are and what God has in mind for us, “the marvels of God” in our regard.

They began to speak. What does this Unity, this Body of Christ, say? What can we, as members of the Body, as singers in the Choir, say? Say with our words and our lives? The story of Pentecost continues in the rest of Acts Chapter 2. After the miracle of tongues, Peter stands up and “raises his voice.” He begins to speak. He delivers the first Christian homily. And what does this homily essentially say? This is the Spirit-filled Body of Christ speaking through Peter to the world, urbi et orbi, like the Pope at Easter. Leave out everything secondary in what Peter says, and what do we get? We get “God raised him up.” We get the Resurrection of Christ. We hear the affirmation: evil forces got their hands on Jesus, sin and death got their hands on Jesus, and erased him, “but God raised him up.” What is this? It is a word of Hope. Hope with a capital. A sure and certain hope, embodied in the risen Christ, that God’s justice is greater than human injustice, God’s power stronger than human weakness, God’s mercy more than human sin, His goodness more than our evil, life – eternal life, unquenchable life in body, soul and spirit – greater than the forces of death.

“They began to speak”. We often say that we can hear the wind in the trees, but in reality we hear the trees, and their leaves, in the wind. It is the leaves which speak. In the wind of Pentecost, we leaves on the tree of the Church, we begin to speak. This is the grace of Pentecost, this is the grace of our Confirmation, that “personal Pentecost for the whole of life”. The mission of the Church from Pentecost on, the mission of each of us anointed by the Holy Spirit, is to be speakers of hope. Saying Hope to ourselves and to others, in the small things and big things, in the daily things and the epic things, in the face of life’s challenges and beyond death. We are called to be purveyors, conveyors, distributors, live-streamers, not of a false, illusory hope, not of any unworthy hope, but of the clear, upright, ennobling, great and beautiful hope released by the Resurrection. Don’t we need it?

“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak.” Come Holy Spirit!