Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for Pentecost Sunday

May 23, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Acts 2:1-11
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins with the words, “When the time of Pentecost was fulfilled.” Pentecost was the second of three major feasts in Israel. The first was Passover or the feast of Unleavened Bread, recalling God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; and the third was the feast of tents and booths on the occasion of the harvesting of grapes and olives. Pentecost, or the feast of weeks, celebrated the first cutting of the grain harvest, thanking God for His abundant generosity in providing food for His people.

On the feast of Pentecost instead of grain, God gave Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended upon the Apostles huddled behind closed doors in the form of driving wind and tongues of fire and unleashed in them the gift of tongues and the courage and zeal to proclaim the Gospel. This experience brought the disciples together and opened their hearts and minds to understand what Jesus had taught them. The Spirit enkindled in them the desire to share their experience of Jesus’ friendship and love. As they publicly proclaimed the message of Jesus, people of many languages understood them and were transformed by their message and zeal.

The Solemnity of Pentecost marks in a certain way the redemption of the sin of God’s people in constructing for themselves the tower of Babel. Babel does not give us diversity and creativity; it gives us cacophony and chaos. The Holy Spirit fosters our identity as unique individuals and unites us as members of the Body of Christ at the same time, because the Spirit always selflessly draws our attention to the Word of God, the Word Incarnate — Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit draws us into the relationship of love between the Son and the Father that exists in the communion of the Trinity. The human word by itself cannot do that. In fact, the human word alone, unaided by grace, frequently takes us farther away from both our uniqueness and our sense of belonging to others as part of a family or part of the communion of the Church. We see the ill effects of the rejection of the Word of God writ large across our nation today and we pray for peace.

The events of Pentecost relayed in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles reveal God’s continued undoing of the effects of sin in the victory won by Christ over our accuser, the devil. Christ does so by keeping His promise in sending the Advocate who gives an accounting on our behalf in the face of the accuser, the devil, who is a liar and a thief, whereas human beings at Babel sought to speak and to live according to their own word rather than receive, be blessed by, and proclaim the word that God had already spoken to them. Babel results in acrimony and anguish, mistrust and misery among human beings. In contrast, the Apostles at Pentecost received the Holy Spirit and His seven specific gifts, the power of grace, the theological and infused moral virtues, and the consolation of such fruits as joy and peace. As the theologian Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “Paul and John agree essentially on yet another point. John calls the Spirit “Paraclete,” that is, advocate, helper, defender, comforter. He is thus the adversary of the devil, the “prosecutor,” the “slanderer” who accuses our brethren day and night before our God” (Rev 12:10). The Spirit is the Yes, just as Christ is the Yes.

Correspondingly, Paul emphasizes joy very strongly. We may say that the Spirit is the Spirit of joy and of the Gospel.” In a sense, this is the ministry of the priest when serving as a confessor for penitents — the priest, graced by the Holy Spirit, is to be an advocate for the penitent in telling the truth of God’s mercy in the face of the shame that is the mark of the great accuser who lies to us in claiming that our sins are more powerful than God’s mercy.

The first disciples found communion in their shared faith in Christ and in the power and grace given them by the Spirit. That first experience of Pentecost was proof that the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, would embrace diversity and difference. In our differences: our different gifts, different ways of embodying God’s love, and different ministries, we are made strong. Our unity in the Holy Spirit makes all our differences secondary to the primary oneness we experience in God offered to us through the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and breathed into us by the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The oneness of the Holy Spirit lets us be strong for one another. The gifts that the Holy Spirit gave to those first believers — courage, unity, and zeal for the faith — are the gifts we still need today. The Holy Spirit redeems Babel not by imposing a uniformity of one language as dominant among many languages, but by empowering the Church, the People of God, to speak and to understand the One Word, the Word made flesh — in many diverse languages that without Pentecost are a cause for rancor and division.

The Holy Spirit brings us together, unites us in the truth, and enables each member of the Church to share his or her gifts uniquely yet in harmony with each other. The Holy Spirit transforms the differences that we first see as a source of division, now as gifts when we face the myriad of diverse challenges the Church now faces together as one. The diversity of the challenges often requires certain members with select gifts to address a certain challenge and then another group with different select gifts to lead the way in addressing other types of challenges while all lend support with their own unique gifts to enable each and all to accomplish the mission at hand as one Body, the Body of Christ.

As Saint Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “With the Holy Spirit within us, ‘it is quite natural for people who have been absorbed by the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook, and for cowards to become people of great courage.’” Without courage and without a sense of unity and purpose, how can we bring the Gospel to the world? Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, our world can only run by competing self-interests — what is in it for me — … more concerned about ideas and causes than about persons … and more complacent to conflict, violence and hatred than desirous of justice and peace. Without the strength and gifts of the Holy Spirit we remain, like the disciples in the upper room, hidden and huddled in fear. Only the Spirit can free us and enable us to know the person and message of Jesus and empower us to bring His goodness and beauty to the world.

Lord, send out your Spirit to renew the face of the earth!

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