The Holy Spirit, God's life-giving breath
(Readings for Mass during the Day: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)
Introduction to Mass
Pentecost was originally a Jewish harvest festival, which followed on fifty days after the feast of Unleavened Bread. The harvest had been collected from the fields and Pentecost celebrated offering the harvest fruits to God. For Christians Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit and the giving of Christ's mission to the Church. The disciples, like Jesus himself, were sent out in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
As we begin Mass we think of the times when our faith has been half-hearted, when we've prevented the Holy Spirit from influencing us, and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
In the days after Jesus' death the disciples went into hiding. They were frightened, disappointed and confused. They couldn't make sense of what had happened and they were trying to come to terms with the fact - as they thought - that their whole experience with Jesus was over.
But only a few weeks later the same men appeared in public again, somehow completely changed. The leaders that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles hardly seem to be the same characters. Now they're full of courage. They're preaching about Jesus in the open. They're clear-headed and full of conviction about what they've got to do.
It's possible, of course, to doubt the events of the first Easter - Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension - and most people do. But that leaves us with no explanation for the sudden change in the apostles' behaviour.
The most obvious explanation, in reality, is that things happened the way today's readings describe them.
We have to remember that it all started when Jesus, after thirty years of obscurity, began to travel around his native region, preaching and healing "in the Spirit of God", as the gospels tell us. Jesus said himself in his first sermon in Nazareth: "The Spirit of God is upon me" - to bring good news to the poor, liberation to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.
This was the same Spirit that had blown over Creation as the breath of God at the dawn of history: a stormy wind, an unknown force. This was the divine force that took possession of Jesus as he went out to proclaim and unfold his message of liberation: liberation from sin, from false desires and false visions; liberation from all the harmful, negative forces that alienate human beings from themselves and from each other.
And then, at the end, when Jesus returned to his Father, Pentecost happened. The same Spirit that had taken hold of him seized the Apostles. In fact he sent it to them, as John says in the gospel, and he sent it so that a community could come into being, so that the divine life and salvation Christ gave to his followers could be shared and passed on.
The authors of the Bible, and Christian spiritual writers down through the centuries, have tried to find appropriate images for the Holy Spirit. They've called it the Advocate, like St. John; or they've talked about a powerful wind and tongues of fire, like St. Luke. But the Spirit of God is always a strange, uncreated life-giving force, it's always the divine power beyond our human control that changes us, joins us to God, leads us into a new and different life beyond worldly concerns and ambitions.
Thirty years ago, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council said that Christians had to be alert to the "signs of the times". In other words we have to watch carefully to see where the Holy Spirit is active in the Church and in the world.
We might feel, in our country, and in Europe and the west in general, that signs of the work of the Holy Spirit are hard to come by. In the third world millions of our fellow Catholics are living in great material poverty, but very often they also have great faith, and their Christianity is vibrant and alive. Whereas here, by comparison, the Church can often seem feeble, listless, weary. Men and women who are on fire with faith and love, who are seized by the Spirit the way the early Christians were, are few and far between.
This doesn't mean that we have to be pessimistic, though. One of Jesus' most important sayings was that unless a grain of wheat first dies it won't yield any fruit. This was his way of expressing a basic law of the spiritual life, and it's always the way the Holy Spirit works: there has to be a dying before there can be re-birth or renewal.
This applies to all of us as individuals: our worldly, selfish, sinful motives have to die before the life of God can begin to grow in us. But it also applies to human beings collectively, to cultures and societies.
If we want to read the signs of the times as the Council advised us to, we would see that the Church in our part of the world, on the whole, is going through the dying phase. There are signs of life springing up in all sorts of places, of course, but so many of the old structures, the old forms of church life, the received ways of thinking and doing things are collapsing and disappearing.
And itís necessary that this should happen. We should welcome it rather than resisting it, because a lot of the features of church life that we cling to or attribute great importance to - the current patterns and priorities of parish life, the attachment to buildings, the complicated, time-consuming activities which are really a kind of attempt to resuscitate a corpse - these are no longer acting as channels of the Holy Spirit, or communicating anything about God's Kingdom.
In fact the more we become turned in on ourselves, restricting our vision, the more we're actually stifling and inhibiting the work of the Holy Spirit instead of opening ourselves to the breath of God's life and being set on fire by the Spirit.
The way God works, as I said a moment ago, is that dying is always followed by rebirth. So much of what we build, taking our efforts so seriously and wrapping ourselves up in great busyness, is spiritually dead. But while we're caught up in all that God himself is quietly sowing the seeds of his Spirit in unpredictable places, creating little Pentecosts, inspiring men and women - breathing his life into them - and keeping his message of salvation alive.
Today, on the feast of Pentecost, let us pray for our own renewal and for the renewal of the whole Christian community. Let us ask God to breathe new life into our faith, to overcome whatever fear and timidity we might have, and to give us the passion and the faith he imparted to those earliest disciples on the first feast of the coming of the Holy Spirit.