Pentecost Acts of the Apostles 2:1–11; 1 Corinthians 12:3–7, 12–13 (Year A); John 20:19–23 (Year A)
Transforming Spirit Pentecost celebrates the birthday of the Church, the extension of Christ’s body into space and time.
The 1980 Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York. That year the U.S. hockey team wasn’t much just a collection of inexperienced college kids. In an exhibition game before the Olympics, the Russians blew them off the ice.
Then came the Olympics.
The first surprise came when the U.S. team tied a strong Swedish team.
The second surprise came when the U.S. team upset a favored Czechoslovakian team. The kids who were supposed to be too young and too inexperienced had just advanced to the medal round.
Then came the big game with the Russians. The Soviets jumped off to an early lead. Then things settled down until the third period. That’s when the unthinkable happened.
The Americans closed the gap to tie the Russians. Suddenly the fans in the Lake Placid arena began chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’’
Then came the miracle. The U.S. team scored in the final seconds to win the game. Pandemonium broke loose. Crowds watching the game on TV outside the arena couldn’t believe it. Suddenly they began dancing in the streets. Crowds dining in fashionable Lake Placid restaurants couldn’t believe it either. Suddenly they began singing and toasting.
But the ones who really couldn’t believe it were the Russians standing in a neat line and waiting for the U.S. team to stop hugging and kissing one another so they could give them the Olympic handshake and get off the ice.
The spirit that radiated from the U.S. team that night swept across the country like a tidal wave. Even people who weren’t hockey fans got caught up in it. It was an experience no one would ever forget.
That totally unexpected happening in the 1980 Olympics gives us an insight into what happened on Pentecost Sunday 2,000 years ago.
The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and transformed them in the most remarkable way imaginable.
Before Pentecost they were a collection of confused disciples. After Pentecost they were totally changed. They were filled with a Spirit that radiated from them and swept across the world like a tidal wave.
On that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed the disciples into the Body of Christ. On that first Pentecost the Church was born. Something else happened that first Pentecost. The Holy Spirit not only changed the disciples into the Body of Christ but also breathed into them the mind of Christ. They received a whole new understanding. They became a new creation in Christ.
A story illustrates how remarkable their new understanding was.
A newspaper reporter once asked a biblical expert this question:
“If by some miracle you could trade the four Gospels for a film of everything Jesus said and did in his lifetime, would you make the trade?
In other words, if a film crew got into a time machine, flew back into history, and recorded on film the complete life of Jesus, would you trade the Gospels for that film?’’
Without a moment’s hesitation, the biblical expert said, “No!’’ Then he explained why.
He explained that even the disciples didn’t always understand everything Jesus said and did. It was only after Jesus rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit that they understood everything fully.
For example, one day Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man will be handed over to men who will kill him. Three days later, however, he will rise to life.” Mark then adds, “But they did not understand what this teaching meant, and they were afraid to ask him.” Mark 9:31–32 Likewise, after describing how Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, John says, “His disciples did not understand this at the time; but when Jesus had been raised to glory, they remembered that the scripture said this about him. . . .” John 12:16
And, finally, once Jesus told Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, “Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again.” John then adds, “But the temple Jesus was speaking about was his body. So when he was raised from death, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and what Jesus had said.” John 2:20–22
What happened to the disciples of Jesus to help them understand these things? Exactly what Jesus said would happen:
“The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and make you remember all that I have told you.” John 14:26
In other words, what makes the Gospels so valuable is that they were written in the light of the Holy Spirit’s coming on Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ followers a new understanding of the teaching of Jesus. It’s this understanding that’s recorded in the Gospels.
And so, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit not only formed Jesus’ disciples into the Body of Christ but also breathed into them the mind of Christ. They became the Church, the body and mind of Christ extended into space and time. They became a whole new creation. And that’s what we celebrate today. We celebrate the birthday of the Church. We celebrate the birthday of the Body of Christ.
It was into this body that we were baptized and confirmed. And through baptism and confirmation we received the Holy Spirit just as fully as did the disciples on Pentecost.
And like them, we received from the Holy Spirit the mission to continue the work Jesus began. We received the mission to complete God’s kingdom on earth.
This is our mission. This is our calling. This is what we celebrate today.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.
Series II Pentecost Acts of the Apostles 2:1–11; 1 Corinthians 12:3–7, 12–13; John 20:19–23
The boy and the maestro Without the Spirit we are only a spark; with the Spirit we are a fire.
There is a delightful story about a mother who bought a ticket to a concert by Ignace Paderewski, the great Polish pianist. She took her five-year-old son with her, hoping the experience would encourage him in his own young efforts at music.
She was delighted to see how close to the stage their seats were. Then she met an old friend and got so involved talking with her that she failed to notice that her son had slipped away to do some exploring.
When eight o’clock arrived, the lights dimmed, the audience hushed to a whisper, and the spotlight came on. Only then did the woman see her five-year-old on the stage, sitting on the piano bench, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’’
She gasped in total disbelief. But before she could retrieve her son, Paderewski walked onto the stage.
Walking over to the piano, he whispered to the boy, “Don’t stop! Keep playing!’’
Then, leaning over the boy, Paderewski reached out his left hand and began to fill in the bass. A few seconds later, he reached around the other side of the boy, encircling him, and added a running obbligato.
Together, the great maestro and the tiny five-year-old mesmerized the audience with their playing. When they finished, the audience broke into thunderous applause.
Years later almost all those present forgot the pieces that Paderewski played that night, but no one forgot “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’’
That image of the great maestro and the tiny five-year-old at the piano makes a beautiful image of the Holy Spirit and the Church. It makes a beautiful image of how the Holy Spirit unites with the Church to make beautiful music.
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, just as Jesus had promised when he said:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, who will stay with you forever. He is the Spirit, who reveals the truth. . . . The Helper . . . will teach you everything and make you remember all that I have told you.
“I have told you this now before it all happens, so that when it does happen, you will believe.” John 14:16–17, 26, 29
Going back to the image of Paderewski and the five-year-old, we see that the boy resembles the disciples.
When Jesus departed from their midst, they were like spiritual children. Their knowledge of God and how to spread God’s kingdom was terribly deficient. It was like the little boy’s knowledge of music.
And, of course, the great Polish maestro resembles the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, encircling them with love, whispering encouragement to them, and transforming their feeble human efforts into something beautiful.
There’s a tremendous lesson here.
We look at the world and see so many problems that need to be addressed. We also look at our talents and see how inadequate they are in the face of these problems.
For example, we see the vast army of poor people in the world, and we say to ourselves, “How can I, with my limited talents, put even a dent into this enormous problem?’’
Or we see the immense ocean of hatred and anger in the world, and we say to ourselves, “How can I, with my limited love, change all this?’’
Or we see the immense apathy of Christians when it comes to following Jesus, and we say to ourselves, “How can I reverse this situation?’’
It is here that we need to recall the image of the little boy and Paderewski.
Musically, the little boy’s skill was minimal. But Paderewski built upon it and turned it into something beautiful something that completely mesmerized the sophisticated audience that gathered in the hall that night.
In a similar way, the Holy Spirit can take whatever we have no matter how small build upon it, and transform it into something powerful and beautiful.
This is the good news contained in today’s Scripture readings.
This is the good news that we celebrate on this feast of Pentecost.
It is the good news that Jesus has sent upon his Church the promised Holy Spirit.
We are not alone. The Holy Spirit is leaning over us, taking our small contribution, and transforming it into something that we never dreamed possible.
Let’s close with an adaptation of a poem by the Mexican poet and mystic, Amado Nervo.
In simple, powerful imagery, it sums up what we have been trying to say.
“Alone we are only a spark, but in the Spirit we are a fire.
“Alone we are only a string, but in the Spirit we are a lyre.
“Alone we are only an anthill, but in the Spirit we are a mountain.
“Alone we are only a drop, but in the Spirit we are a fountain.
“Alone we are only a feather, but in the Spirit we are a wing.
“Alone we are only a beggar, but in the Spirit we are a king.’’
Series III Pentecost Acts of the Apostles 2:1–11; 1 Corinthians 12:3–7, 12–13 (Year A*); John 20:19–23 (Year A*)
Seven gifts of the Spirit The seven gifts render us open and docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
J esus said . . . , “Peace be with you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21–22
In his book Meditations, Anthony Bloom quotes a Japanese Christian as saying about the Holy Spirit:
In the Christian religion I think I understand about the Father and the Son, but I am confused about the honorable bird.
That Japanese Christian is not entirely alone in his confusion over the role that the Holy Spirit plays in salvation history.
When we think of the Holy Spirit, we usually think of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus, as described in today’s first reading.
When we refer to the “coming” of the Holy Spirit, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not deeply and directly involved in the work of salvation prior to Pentecost.
On the contrary, Scripture describes the Holy Spirit inspiring King David (Acts 1:16) and speaking through the prophet Isaiah (Acts 28:25). And the Gospels describe the Holy Spirit as being active in the life of Jesus long before Pentecost.
The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism by John the Baptist (Luke 3:22), filled Jesus with power (Luke 4:1), and led him into the desert to confront Satan (Luke 4:1).
But even though the Holy Spirit was active in salvation history long before Pentecost, something monumental and unique did take place on Pentecost.
Recall that after washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples:
“I shall not be with you very much longer. . . . I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper. . . . He is the Spirit.” John 13:33, 14:16–17
Then, just before ascending to heaven, Jesus gave this instruction to his disciples:
“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift I told you about. . . . John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts of the Apostles 1:4–5
And so the stage was set for one of the most important events in history: the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. It changed their lives forever.
Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles:
When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing. Acts of the Apostles 2:1–2
The “noise from the sky” was so loud that it attracted a huge crowd to the place where the disciples were gathered.
The disciples went outside and Peter explained that it was what God had foretold through the prophet Joel:
“I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message.” Acts of the Apostles 2:17
The effect of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples was to form them into a single body, with Christ as their head.
Just as the prophet Joel had foretold that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all believers, so another prophet, Isaiah, referred to the seven spiritual gifts the believers would receive in this outpouring.
Commenting on the seven gifts of the Spirit, Saint Augustine says:
Isaiah begins with wisdom and ends with fear of the Lord. . . . He begins, therefore, by identifying the goal we are striving for and ends with the starting point where we must begin. Quoted in The Teaching of Saint Augustine on Prayer and the Contemplative Life by Hugh Pope
Let us now take a brief look at the seven gifts to see how they fit together and help us in our spiritual journey to the Father.
The first three gifts are fear of the Lord, piety, and knowledge.
Fear of God empowers us to turn our backs on a life of sin and begin the spiritual journey for which we were created.
The gift of piety gives us our first insight into the beauty and mystery of God. It has been called the foundation of the spiritual life. This is because it gives us our first glimpse of a world that up to this point we never dreamed existed.
The gift of knowledge empowers us to see how all creation has its origin in God and is intended to help us in our journey to God.
The next three gifts arefortitude, counsel, and understanding.
Fortitude empowers and strengthens us to meet the challenges and obstacles along our journey to God with courage and joy.
Counsel helps us discern the right path when it is obscured with confusion and darkness.
Understanding helps us probe the meaning and truthfulness of God’s revelation as it comes down to us in Tradition and Scripture.
The final gift is wisdom. It enables us to perceive God’s presence in all things and how it acts as a foretaste of what God has in store for us.
As we meditate on the seven gifts, we begin to appreciate the tremendous role the Holy Spirit can play in our life if we open our heart fully to these gifts.
Let me conclude with an excerpt from a letter sent to a priest (the author) by a prisoner in a Florida work camp.
At one point in his confinement, he embarked on a serious program of daily prayer and meditation. The impact that the program had on his life was remarkable.
Concerning the role of the Holy Spirit, he writes:
It dawned upon me a few days ago that I’d never seen a prayer to the Spirit. I’m sure there are some very good ones. It’s just that I’ve never seen one.
So the other night while I was thinking about it, this prayer came to me:
“Holy heavenly Spirit, embrace me with your grace and love.
“Be my light as I study the word of the Father and walk the path of the Son.
“Be my inspiration and guiding hand as I strive to grow in faith and wisdom for the greater glory of God.”