We celebrate the Ascension of Christ and approach the Feast of Pentecost in the light of the Resurrection. Christ is risen. Truly, He is risen!
The readings in these past weeks of Eastertide have focused our attention on the appearance of the risen Jesus before the disciples, the first followers left distraught by the death of Jesus and struggling to come to terms with his rising.
The post-Resurrection narratives describe the disciples as “astounded” (Lk 24:22), “slow of heart” (Lk 24:25), “startled”, “terrified” (Lk 24:37), “disbelieving” (Lk 24:41) and “afraid” (Mk 16:8) as they grapple with this revelation – that Jesus is alive and walks among them in glory. In contrast to the authors of the Gospel who were writing decades after the Resurrection and knew how the story would end, the first disciples as contemporaries of Jesus did not yet have that same privilege nor did they possess that same confidence. Their experience of God’s revelation, of the new world signalled by an empty tomb, was far more hesitant if not uncertain. Salvation history was still unfolding before their very eyes.
As we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, it is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, promised to them by Jesus at his Ascension, that marks a new chapter in the disciples’ faith.
It is this Spirit that empowers the once frightened disciples to ‘go out’ into an unpredictable and even unknown world with courage and the conviction that life has conquered death in Jesus Christ. It is in the Risen Jesus that the promises of God had been fulfilled and it was his Spirit that made of the first disciples, and the apostolic generations to come, bold witnesses and bearers of this good news “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In short, it is the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that inserts the disciples more deeply into this mystery of Jesus, that leads his followers to receive, live by and share in word and witness the truth of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Being Christian Today
As Christians of the twenty-first century we can find ourselves feeling at times a bit like the first disciples of the Gospel narratives. We can encounter Jesus and yet harbour doubts or feel our vulnerabilities in a world no more certain or secure than that of other ages.
We know from personal experience that our discipleship is a pilgrimage, that it is the work of a lifetime to grow in holiness and understanding. In the course of this time, we learn to hand over our lives ever more fully to what God has accomplished on the Cross and on the third day. The new covenant comes to us as a grace but also sets before us the life-long project of accepting this new beginning by our conversion to Christ, “in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, and behaviour” (Pope Benedict XVI). Today we can find ourselves “slow of heart”, “disbelieving” and “afraid” standing before this call to conversion, reluctant to make that surrender to the Holy Spirit and to take that decision for Christ that faith entails.
It happens that in these past months the experience of surrender has come to us. A global pandemic has left us dependent upon and yet strangely cautious of others, all at once. Individuals and entire communities are now vulnerable to a terrible scourge, originating on a distant horizon, that has brought life as we know it – in our homes, schools, workplaces and churches – to a collective and sudden halt. This global disruption is a striking reminder for us as Christians, and others besides, that we are not masters of our own world.
Our fundamental vulnerability to life’s contingencies can be a particularly startling experience for a culture that feeds on and even profits from the illusion of control. In this day there are no lack of techniques, products or technologies that offer, for a price, a sense of self-sufficiency or that cast self-willed autonomy as the way to personal fulfilment.
As Christians we live by a very different story. This story is one in which our origin, life and destiny cannot be imagined apart from the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – nor can our culture, the economy or the future of the world itself for that matter. Our identity and the very meaning of our life arise from and depend upon the presence of another. It is by the Spirit that we encounter this Christ, the light of the world, with us “always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
It is our surrender to this Holy Spirit, who has been “poured out” so we can “both see and hear” (Acts 2:33), that enables us to receive God’s presence and power in our joys and our sufferings, to proclaim Christ in the face of opposition, to serve the poor with the love of Christ, and that offers us the virtue of hope for our future. In the language of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, it is new life in the Spirit that enables “the young to see visions” and “the old to dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).
As Christians we undertake a pilgrimage of discipleship that is not simply arduous but that is good and through which we are led to be ambassadors for Christ and of service to others. What the Gospels make clear is that we cannot walk or serve as witnesses in this world or aspire to the next without the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God who has been a part of the world’s story, and our story, from its very beginnings.
A Spirit-Filled Tradition
As we pray and reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in the world, we find this life-giving presence in the opening verses of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here we see the Spirit of God at the beginnings of creation as it “sweep[s] over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2).
Through this Spirit, God brings the world into being – night and day, sea and land, every living creature, humankind in his image and according to his likeness.
Reflecting on God’s creation in the thirteenth century, Saint Bonaventure would posit that it is the love in God that is so great and fruitful that God makes a gift of this divine love beyond Himself. In other words, the love that God is spills over into creation. It is this breath of Yahweh that communicates life in the world.
However, the spirit of God does not stop at a single act of creation. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures it is the Judaic sense of rûaḥ or ‘breath of wind’ which signifies God’s power, a spirit that continuously and constantly acts in and upon human history.
This spirit of God causes humanity to act so that God’s plan in history can be fulfilled. It is God’s Spirit that empowers God’s people – persons such as Joseph, the example of faith; David, shepherd and king; Moses and Joshua, leaders of the people; the prophets and elders – to accomplish His mighty works.
This spirit-filled history of salvation continues into the New Testament where the revelation of God comes to fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ entire life unfolds under the sign of the Spirit.
It is by the Spirit that the young Mary conceives Jesus (Lk 1:35). It is the Holy Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, anointing him as the Beloved Son of the Father (Lk 3:22).
It is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert for fasting and prayer prior to his public ministry (Lk 4:1) and it is Jesus who will act through the Spirit, healing the sick (Lk 6:19), preaching and praying for his disciples and for the salvation of the world.
It is Jesus who sanctifies the ordinary things of this world – water, oil, bread and wine – by the power of the Holy Spirit. He renders all things holy, directs God’s gifts toward God’s glory, to the praise of his Father.
Finally it is the Risen Jesus, the glorified Lord, who gives the Spirit, the Advocate (Jn 16:7), to the disciples, to the Church, to continue and make present his truth, his Word, his teaching, his way, his life in the midst of the world.
The Holy Spirit and the Believer
If this is the ‘biography’ of the Holy Spirit, of God’s creative and redemptive power, what are the signs of the Holy Spirit in our time and in our world? What is more, what difference does the Spirit make to the world of our experience?
First and foremost the difference that the Spirit makes in our world is mediated in and through the lives of the Christian faithful and through the community of Christians, the Church.
The Holy Spirit is truly present in the world in each Christian baptised in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are confirmed in faith by the Spirit’s action and anointing, and receive the Eucharist, Christ’s body, by the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
By this sacramental initiation into the Church, we are made anew in Christ by the Holy Spirit. As St Paul declares of our Christian life, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
This Spirit comes to each one of us as a gift but also as a challenge to the ongoing conversion of our heart and mind. As the source and giver of all holiness, we implore the Spirit to keep us in grace and remove those artificial obstacles, habits and ways of thinking that prevent us from living fully in and for Christ. As St Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, our baptism in Christ calls us to live no longer by the flesh, by the material things or selfish desires of this world, but to live according to the Spirit (Rom 8:5). It is for this new life that the Spirit of God dwells in us, the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11).
In our Christian living, we are no longer beholden to a spirit of slavery or have need to fall back into fear (Rom 8:15). We have received a spirit of adoption, become sons and daughters of God. It is the Holy Spirit that bestows upon us the eyes of faith, the capacity to see others not as we would see them but as Christ sees them, to see the world as God looks upon the world. We appreciate what is positive in others and in the whole of creation, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God. The Spirit teaches us to ‘make room’ for the other and to bear one another’s burdens with gentleness (Gal 6:2).
The Spirit also enables us as Christians to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). We are endowed with the ability to respond to Christ’s words and open our minds to the understanding of his death and resurrection. In this way the Spirit keeps us faithful to Jesus in the present, activating and guiding our discernment to speak and act as Christians in the world so that this world reflects more and more of God’s Kingdom, the “fullness of life” that God intends for us and all creation (Jn 10:10).
The Spirit is particularly manifest in the world in the gifts that have been endowed upon each of the baptised. In addition to the gifts and fruits of the Spirit outlined in the writings of St Paul, which are gifts given for us to keep, the Holy Spirit also bestows charisms, special abilities for others, that enable us to be powerful channels of God’s love and redeeming presence in the world. Whether extraordinary charisms, like healing, or ordinary charisms, like administration, these are to be used in charity or service to build up the Church for the sake of our world (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 798-801).
We see the Spirit at work in the lives of the faithful, in such charisms as hospitality, of intercessory prayer, leadership and knowledge, the discernment of spirits, charisms of teaching and wisdom, and service and poverty among others. Received through Baptism and Confirmation, these charisms empower the People of God to have an impact on the world that surpasses their natural, human abilities. These are graces freely given by God, that call to be discerned among the whole People of God to actively help spread the faith, the Good News as missionary, Spirit-filled disciples.
Of course, the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit are especially manifest in the saints. These ‘bright patterns of holiness’ remind us that Christian sanctity is not just an ideal or possibility but a reality in concrete persons and the concrete conditions of the world. This cloud of witnesses, these Christian exemplars, are models of holiness who have responded to the needs, challenges and opportunities of their time. These saints allowed themselves to be filled with the Spirit. In the pattern of Mary, “full of grace” the saints give birth or expression to Christ in the world.
The diversity of their holy lives attests to the creativity of the Holy Spirit, each saint demonstrating that Christian holiness can be lived even in ‘this’ way. No doubt the Holy Spirit, agent of evangelisation and soul of the Church, is making news saints in our time who will open up new and fruitful ways for responding to the Gospel in the future, who will be new manifestations of the Spirit of Christ alive, illuminating the world.
The Holy Spirit and the Church
As evident in the communion of saints and those first disciples gathered in the Upper Room, a primary way the Holy Spirit acts in the world is to bring the Church into being.
The Church, as the third-century theologian St Hippolytus affirmed, is “the place where the Spirit flourishes”. The Church is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit animating and bringing to life and holiness its members through the Word and sacraments, the ministry of the ordained (our bishops, priests and deacons), the various gifts and charisms of the faithful of every rank, the varieties of religious orders and ecclesial movements that express the Spirit’s power and anointing.
So integral is the connection between the Holy Spirit and the Church that St Irenaeus would proclaim as early as the second century, “for where the Church is, there also is God’s Spirit, and where the Spirit of God is, there are also the Church and all grace” (Book III, Against Heresies).
A particular aspect of the Spirit in the Church is its role as principle of unity, enabling all people to be one and the unity to be a multitude. The Spirit gathers what has been scattered, overcomes division and unites difference. It brings into communion the People of God, a people of every culture, nation, tongue and tribe, in the one body of Christ.
Like a soul is to the body, the Holy Spirit binds all the members of the body of Christ to its Head and to one another. This unity is one of the ways in which the Church gives witness to Jesus Christ, through whom “God was pleased to reconcile… all things” (Col 1:20). As we have learned from our history, a lack of unity within the Church or poor witness seriously impairs the ability of the world to see the Church as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, as a source and expression of God’s love.
Therefore, to be fruitful in its evangelising mission, the Church privileges unity which will be not the product of our efforts or structures alone but the fruit of our common docility to the Holy Spirit. Just as St Paul entreated the community at Ephesus centuries ago, so too are we to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:4).
Not only does the Spirit make the Church one, it also leads the Church to be faithful, in ever deeper adherence to Christ. As identified by John’s Gospel, the Spirit guides the ecclesial community “into all the truth” of God’s revelation (Jn 16:12).
The Church Fathers of the third and fourth century were themselves conscious of a tradition or communication of the Holy Spirit that ensured the unity of the faith in the churches spread far and wide across the ancient Mediterranean. It was the Holy Spirit promised and given to the Church by Jesus that ensured the faithful transmission of the faith.
The Church remains today as it was then, ‘apostolic’ in its Spirit-inspired efforts to be faithful to the Gospel and to interpret it as Good News for the world. In this task, the bishops as successors of the apostles have a particular charism, to serve as the visible principle and foundation of unity in the particular churches and to exercise a special competence within the Church to ‘test all things and hold fast to that which is good’ (Lumen Gentium 12).
It is important to note here that the Spirit also enables the fidelity and adherence of the Church to Christ through the personal conversion of all the faithful, the reading of Scripture and immersion in the tradition, the initiative of local communities, parishes, families and groups, the teaching, sanctifying and pastoral government of our priests, the apostolate of our religious, whether obscure or well-known, and the birth of new movements and forms of evangelisation that are fresh signs of the Spirit active in the world. In the end, the Church is no less than the world as those who believe in Christ and who live by and engage this world by the influence and promptings of the Spirit.
‘Receive the Holy Spirit’
As the Feast of the Ascension brings us to reflect on our Christian pilgrimage in this world and to the next, we do not have a choice between God and the world. As Christians, we choose God by choosing the world as it really is in Him. We choose God by working toward the transformation of the world as disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit who inspires true freedom and furthers God’s plan of salvation.
In human lives transformed, in the works of justice and mercy that express Christ’s love, the prayer and worship that reveal his glory, in outreach to and inclusion of the poor and vulnerable that reveal his heart, the Spirit moves the world toward its fulfilment.
By the Spirit each of us are sharers in Christ’s mission and we are inspired by a constant and healthy unease in the world to make all things new in Him. As Christ himself beseeches each one of us “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22), the spirit of truth, love and holiness that leads us home to God.