Pentecost, 23 May 21
When I was about 14 I guess I would go and cut the grass at the house where my grandfather lived. My dad (his son) would usually come and pick me up in the car afterwards and drive me home. So, once I’d cut the grass, Grandad and I would sit in his little extension chatting away. When we heard my father letting himself in through the front door, my grandfather - knowing my father liked a drink - would say, “Quick, hide the whiskey away.” And I would leap up and hide the bottle (not that we’d been drinking from it) I’d hide the bottle behind some books on the book case. I loved this because I felt like an adult. I was part of the joke. I was permitted to play tricks on my dad, conspiring with his dad.
In today’s great Feast of Pentecost the Apostles are praying together with Mary the Mother of God and some of our Lord’s other family members (Acts 1:14) and the Holy Spirit descends upon them. It’s the last act of the great Easter drama. The Holy Spirit is the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth promised by Our Lord. He will lead us in to all truth. Who is He? Well, among all we could say about Him, He brings us to maturity. Just like I felt whilst playing a joke with my grandad on my dad, all grown up, so we are to be in the Household of our Heavenly Father (Ephesians 4:13).
Next Sunday, we’ll celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, that there is one God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons. We therefore know the Holy Spirit to be a divine person. When we use the word “person” in this context we don’t mean a human being, he’s not like so-and-so who runs the paper shop or someone in the sense that we might say “Who’s that person over there?” God the Holy Spirit is a person as opposed to a thing. There’s a danger that we relegate Him to being the interaction between God the Father and God the Son, or the movement between God and us, members of the Church. Here the Holy Spirit becomes a thing, a force, a feeling. He’s more than that.
God the Holy Spirit being a person means He is personable, we are called to have a relationship with Him, no less that with God the Father, God the Son and indeed the one God. (And if that sounds confusing you definitely need to make sure you’re here next week for Trinity Sunday). Prayer is usually addressed to the Father, through Jesus, with us empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is a good reminder that our prayer is never just about a crass simplification of “me and my God.” It’s particularly appropriate when we start a gathering or meeting to ask for the Holy Spirit’s presence so we continue the life of the Apostles and Mary waiting in that upper room for His descent. “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.”
This prayer and this action of God in our first reading today reminds us that God comes to dwell within our hearts. We have to be careful when we ponder this mystery that we don’t think we can therefore control God and create Him in our own image or with our priorities. It is also astounding to reflect that God gives not some pale imitation of Himself but His true Self. He does this substantially through the Body and Blood of His Son given in this Mass. He does it through His Spirit residing in us. One of the hymns we sing in Advent as we prepare for the birth of the Saviour is, “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.”
This indwelling is brought out in some of the symbols the Scriptures and the Church use for the Holy Spirit, which I now want to look at. First, oil and anointing. Early on in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting His seal on us and giving us His Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment,” (II Corinthians 1:22). Thus, one of the symbols of the Holy Spirit is as a seal, an anointing. Christ identifies Himself as the Anointed, the Messiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” (St Luke 4:18). The Holy Spirit clings, the Holy Spirit covers us, the Holy Spirit smothers us.
It is why the Holy Spirit comes to us in Confirmation through being chrismated, or anointed with oil, accompanied by the laying on of hands. Bishop Jonathan will be coming to confirm on the 7th November at St Mary’s and classes will start in August so those who would like to be confirmed should start thinking about it and letting me know soon. This Sacrament unites us to the Holy Spirit by strengthening us. The word means to make strong. The Holy Spirit give us gifts and fruits listed in the Scriptures in different places (xxxx). He is the equipping of God’s people. The rather scraggily and disorganised band of followers of Maundy Thursday are transformed in these fifty days of conversation with the Risen Christ and this gift of His Spirit in to the most effective apostolic band ever. We can be no less changed.
The Holy Spirit also brings life and order. The Spirit hovers over the waters of chaos at the beginning of the book of Genesis and into the great abyss emanates reason. The Spirit-filled worship that Paul describes (I Corinthians 14:26-40) is ordered so each speaks in turn and to the purposeful benefit of the other. The Spirit is breathed in to man and woman (Genesis 2:7) at the dawn of time, giving us a unique place in the creation.
Without God’s Holy Spirit, there is only death, as the Psalmist reminded us in our Psalm today. Jesus comes that we might have abundant living, as He puts it (St John 10:10). The Church is not to be a place where people are made to feel bad about themselves or indeed about life so as to despair but to realise that the world God made is good and this remains true irrespective of what life throws at us. This is why the Church will see herself encouraging folk in their creativity: musical, artistic, knitting, cooking, gardening, the list goes on. We do this through maintaining our beautiful buildings, built to the glory of God; through things like art clubs like we did on Thursday afternoon; or celebrating the achievements of our young people as at our Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Association display and awards evening last weekend. Through our creativity we recognise we have something of God in us, His desire to create, to nurture and nourish: to give life. One way we can support those who are feeling down is to help them engage with their creative side and thus find life.
These gifts, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Ephesians 4:13, God gives us so we can be mature. Paul associated this maturity with stability: he writes: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery.” The word Paul uses might equal be translated ‘babes’ or ‘infants’ or even ‘childish.’ It’s a similar sentiment we see in his writings to the Corinthians in that amazing passage from I Corinthians 13:11 “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” For while the trust-like faith that children have is commended to us and while we have a lot to learn from our young people about who God is, there are clearly words, thoughts and mental processes that are childish and to be ditched as we grow up, full of the Holy Spirit. I want to finish with two thoughts on the sort of childishness we need to ditch where we find it in our life.
First, children are very concerned with themselves, who they can see in front of them, what they have done that day, whether they want food or not, whether they are tired or not. That’s why they cry so we know exactly when they need attention! This selfishness is something they have to drop as they get older: they learn to share, they realise that maybe lunchtime will be when everyone has finished the shopping and not whenever they first feel hungry. The instant gratification of consumerist societies has a real danger of infantilising all of us because we think there should be no delay between establishing our desire and our obtaining of it. We thereby stay childish, stuck in selfish ways. The call to maturity for Christians is to deny self and follow Christ.
Note Paul talks about flightiness too, “being tossed to and fro.” Again, maybe imagine a child going constantly from one toy to the next to the next. This form of childishness exists in us when we say we’ll do one thing and end up doing another, when we struggle to commit to things because of a chaotic life, when we watch a video on the internet or a TV programme and assume whatever is there is Gospel truth, and abandon ancient truths; when we consult millions of people about things which they know nothing about, or at the other extremes make big decisions about faith or our life of relationships without talking to others. There’s no stability in life or routine or surety of purpose. We’re tossed to and fro. This is incompatible with the maturity to which we are called.
Such then, my friends, is the awesome gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on the Church today that we have to shift ourselves on from childishness to maturity. God dwells within us through His Holy Spirit, just like the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, the Mother of God, that God Incarnate might dwell in her womb. May our prayer be, “Come, Holy Spirit, and fill the hearts of your faithful.” Amen.
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From a prayer to the Holy Spirit by St Theresa Benedicta:
Are you not the sweet manna
That from the Son’s heart
Overflows into my heart,
The food of angels and the blessed?
He who raised himself from death to life,
He has also awakened me to new life
From the sleep of death.
And he gives me new life from day to day,
And at some time his fullness is to stream through me,
Life of your life indeed, you yourself:
Holy Spirit eternal life.