Last week, Fr. Jerry and I were in New York for the ordination of 3 new Paulist priests. The central act of the ordination rite is the ancient ritual of the “laying on of hands.” In total silence, the Bishop lays his hands on the head of each one to be ordained. Then the other priests present join in and also lay their hands one by one on those to be ordained. The laying on of hands” is an ancient gesture. We find it in the Acts of the Apostles, and in his 2nd letter to Timothy [2 Timothy 1:6] St. Paul refers to his having himself done it to Timothy. It is done globally to the whole group at Confirmation, and it occurs in every Mass at the Eucharistic Prayer. It is a symbolic gesture, which signifies the Church’s prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down upon those being confirmed or ordained or at Mass on the bread and wine to be consecrated. It is a very solemn and powerful gesture, the importance and significance of which is inherently evident, just from seeing it.
That is how the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are ritualized in the Church’s sacraments. But at the very beginning of the Church, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit were even more dramatically on display, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And the 120 disciples gathered in that Jerusalem Upper Room were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim [Cf. Acts 2:1-11].
Many people, if they think about the Holy Spirit at all, often picture him as some sort of bird. A strong driving wind and tongues of fire may be a bit more exciting, but may still seem somewhat elusive as an image of who the Holy Spirit is. God, of course, is, by definition, difficult to describe. Who the Holy Spirit is may be hard to pin down, but what he does is another story. What he does at Pentecost is kick-start the mission of the Church by getting it out of that Upper Room!
Next month, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 60th year on the British and various other Commonwealth thrones. Back when her Great-Great-Grandmother, Queen Victoria, celebrated that same milestone in 1897, she was too frail to walk down the long aisle of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. So the Thanksgiving Service was held outside, in front of the cathedral. That prompted a scowling comment from the Grand Duchess Augusta Caroline of Meckenburg-Strelitz, who complained about the Gospel being proclaimed out in the street – apparently forgetting (or ignoring) the fact that the street was where the Gospel had first been proclaimed!
A popular Easter hymn, which we used to sing a lot in another parish I’ve been at, In the Breaking of the Bread by the composer Michael Ward, recalls what happened that first Pentecost: “they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.”
Indeed, it was just as Jesus himself had promised: When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning [John 15:26-27]
So, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church left that Upper Room, never to return. Instead “they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.”
And just who was there to tell out in the street? In Jerusalem that Pentecost were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. So the second thing the Holy Spirit did was to breakdown barriers, beginning with the basic barrier of language. When the apostles spoke, each one heard them speaking in his own language. To those who knew their Bible, the meaning was clear. The Holy Spirit was undoing the evil of multiple languages in the world, the damaging diversity of languages that had come about as a result of human beings’ sinful attempt to construct a tower to get them to heaven on their own [cf. Genesis 11:1-9].. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, however, the Church undoes the disunity of the human race, reuniting it in something new, the kingdom of God.
Artistic renditions of that first Pentecost frequently focus on the 12, typically depicted as grouped in a circle around Mary, the Mother of the Church. In a famous mosaic in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, however, each of the 16 nationalities that are mentioned in the story is represented by a pair of figures, thus representing the universality of the Church. The point of the Pentecost story is not society’s diversity, which is just a human fact, but the Church’s unity and universality, which are among the accomplishments of the Holy Spirit.
Both before and after the Tower of Babel, of course, the damage done by human sinfulness has taken many destructive forms. In his letter to the Galatians [5:16-25], St. Paul listed at least 15 of them. Too many Christians sometimes seem to have gotten into the habit of singling out this or that vice for special opprobrium – as if, for example, the only sins that matter were the sins against the 6th commandment, as if idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, etc., weren’t just as important. Paul’s list is a long one, and we need to take it all to heart.
Thanks, however, to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, there is another list. Thanks to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the damage can be undone – in the lives of those guided by the Spirit, who live in the Spirit, and who follow the Spirit. In a world, which still seems to resemble the Tower of Babel more than the Kingdom of God, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are also evident in the fruit of the Spirit – in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We need no precise picture of who the Holy Spirit is, when we witness what he does, when we witness – and live – the fruit of the Spirit.
Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 27, 2012