Receive the Holy Spirit
(Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Apocalypse 1:9-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel for today's Mass Jesus appears to the apostles after his Resurrection and gives them the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit changed them very markedly, as it changes every individual believer who wants to know God better and share his life more fully.
So we begin Mass by apologising to God for the times when we haven't been willing to receive his Spirit and we ask for his mercy and guidance.
Already, before he died, Jesus had told his apostles that he would have to go away so that the Spirit of God could come to them. John ends his gospel by telling how the disciples received the Holy Spirit - not in the noisy, dramatic way that happened at the first Pentecost, but quietly and uneventfully, during one of Jesus' appearances after his Resurrection.
Many Christians today seem to find it easier to think about God in the person of Christ than in the person of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was a real person and he said things and did things we can read about in the gospels. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to imagine. It seems too vague and abstract.
We know what we mean when we talk about the spirit of community, for example, and what we mean when we say somebody has great spirit - that he or she is animated, full of enthusiasm and positive motivation.
God's Spirit acts in a similar way. After Jesus was killed, the apostles were frightened men, hiding in the upper room. After receiving the Holy Spirit, they were changed men - filled with God's energy and animated by enthusiasm for God, so that they start to play their part in God's saving work, in the ways the first reading describes it.
It has also become common for people to be attracted by the person of Jesus, or drawn to the moral teaching of the gospel, the principles outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, say. But despite that they don't have faith in God in the sense of a relationship with a person to whom they pray and to whom they hand themselves over wholeheartedly, asking for God's guidance in their every decision and action.
They see Christianity as a set of ideas and they accept the truth of many of those ideas, but it remains an intellectual exercise, lacking the joyful self-surrender of genuine conversion which always involves our will and our emotions as well.
When people have been touched by the Holy Spirit, by contrast, their relationship with God becomes the main source of their identity: they think of themselves primarily as children of God and as disciples of his Incarnate Son. They no longer want to possess and control their own lives; they open themselves increasingly to the influence of God's Spirit instead. And that shows itself in the kind of person they are, or maybe, more accurately, in the kind of person they gradually become.
In one of his letters Saint Paul talks about what he calls the fruits of the Holy Spirit: patience, gentleness, kindness, all the other qualities that mark someone who's possessed by God's Spirit.
When we're impatient with people, we push them and manipulate them. Even if we're involved in worthwhile work, we can spoil it and sour our relationships by wanting to see visible results and measurable achievements. Or else we can be impatient with ourselves, which really means that we're too vain to admit that we're pretty poor material and that we're dependent on God for any good we achieve.
But when we have patience - which is one of the effects of the Holy Spirit - it produces the other two qualities: gentleness and kindness. Being gentle isn't the same as being weak. The gentle person, in the Christian sense, is someone who is uncompromising about principles, but he or she knows how to be compassionate with human weakness.
The things that poison our character - spite, bitter judgements, jealousy, cruelty - are motives that eventually become impossible to people who are living in a state of openness to God's peace and patience.
Even when people behave aggressively towards them they don't fight back in the same way, because spiritually, they know they would be moving backwards instead of forwards if they did so. Their attitude is to be gentle, to be kind - not childish and sentimental but self-sacrificing and strong-willed for their own and other people's good.
Saint Teresa of Avila wrote a prayer which has become very well known:
"Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which must look out Christ's compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now".
To my mind Teresa is describing the way the Holy Spirit works now that Jesus himself is no longer physically present among his disciples. Unlike Jesus during his ministry, the Spirit can't be seen or heard or touched - it can only be known by it's influence or its effect on us. And the main effect of the Spirit is to make us more like Christ.
So perhaps our prayer today, consistent with our continuing celebration of the victory of Christ's Resurrection, could be that we will have a stronger desire to receive the Spirit sent to us after Jesus' rising, and a stronger desire to be changed by the Spirit - like the apostles, in spite of various doubts and weaknesses and obstacles on our part.