The Influence of the Spirit
(Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)
Introduction to Mass
Today we commemorate the occasion when Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his original disciples and their companions. The readings for today's feast show how vividly aware the first Christians were that the community of the Church came into being, and is kept in being, only through the action of the Holy Spirit.
As we prepare to celebrate this Mass we think of the ways that we've closed ourselves off from the power of God's Spirit, and we ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith.
"No one can say 'Jesus is Lord'", Saint Paul writes in the second reading, '"unless he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit".
After Jesus' Ascension his first followers emerged from hiding and began to proclaim the message of salvation through Christ, calling people to conversion and initiating them into membership of the new Christian community by way of baptism.
And as they set about that task, which had been given to them directly by Christ, they were very aware that the conviction and boldness and zeal with which they were filled, as well as the evolving shape of the Church community, wasn't in any sense the product of their own resources or their own invention, but the work of God's Spirit, active among them.
They were very conscious in all their thoughts and prayers and actions - their public preaching, for example, and their gathering to share the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist - that they were "under the influence of the Holy Spirit" in Paul's phrase, rather than simply putting their own ideas into practice, and carrying them out with their own energies.
Saint Paul wrote elsewhere about his own experience of having been claimed by Christ, that now "it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me". And this fact of Christian spiritual life is something that also has to be true for the community of the Church as a whole.
The identity, the purpose, the mission of the Church isn't something we create. The Church isn't the source of its own life. The Church's identity and purpose come from God and it's only when the members of the Church are open to the Holy Spirit and willing to be guided by the Spirit that they remain faithful to their identity and purpose as the Body of Christ and the vehicle of God's salvation in the world.
History shows, after all, that in the same way that it's easy for an individual to close him- or herself off from God, it's very easy for the Church to close itself off from the influence of the Spirit and depart from its real mission.
Christians and Christian leaders are not always shining examples of Christian holiness. The lives of the baptised have often been as squalid and selfish as the lives of non-believers, and over the centuries the Church has often become mired in the very worldly priorities of wealth and power and status, a participant in the world's violence rather than a witness to Christ's peace.
In our own time our main temptation perhaps is more banal: the temptation to reduce the life of the Church to the level of a purely human fellowship, or camaraderie, in which God and prayer and the whole redemptive work of Christ, which gives the Church its reason for existing, become strangely secondary and irrelevant.
Of course it's important not to be too one-sided. The times of the deepest corruption in the Church have also been the times of the highest sanctity: for every Borgia pope there's always a Saint Francis or a St. Teresa. And in our own time, movements of spiritual renewal, often made up the Church's youngest members, are flowering amidst all the disorientation and weariness that afflict the Christian community in our part of the world.
We also shouldn't forget that God brings good out of evil, in the life of the Church as much as in the lives of individual believers: circumstances that seem dire and demoralising at the time are often the means through which God elicits lasting conversion and faith.
The important thing is to take to heart Paul's words in his letter to the new Church community at Corinth: in the one Spirit we are all baptised, in the Spirit it is God himself who is working in the Church, in different ways through different people - all, he says, "for a good purpose".
So long as we always remain conscious that in all our thoughts and prayers and activities we have to place ourselves under the influence of the Holy Spirit and not rely on our own resources, God will stay close to us, drawing us into his divine life and moulding us into his likeness. And it's to make that possible that the Spirit gave birth to the Church.