By: Fr. James Gross
A number of high schools in North Dakota have banners hanging in their gyms with the words “Spirit Award” on them. At a State Tournament, an anonymous panel of judges is scattered throughout the arena to pick which town’s fans and cheerleaders displayed the best sportsmanship and most positive attitude. At many a sporting event at Napoleon High School, during a lull in the action, our student section would lob the following chant across the gym: “We’ve got spirit—yes, we do! We’ve got spirit; how about you?” Usually it only took a couple of attempts to draw the opposite side into this little back-and-forth. A friend of mine once shared with me a response he wanted to use: “We’ve got spirit just the same; please sit down and watch the game!”
When we think of the word “spirit,” there are certain images that quickly come to mind. People in the stands at events like the NBA or NHL finals can cheer like their very lives depended on it. It makes me wonder if, for those who will be at Church on Sunday, they are ever even half that animated while praying or singing. What does it mean, in a religious sense, to be filled with the Spirit? What demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s activity in us? As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, let’s take a closer look at the working of the Holy Spirit.
If I were to describe someone to you as “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” what images come to your mind? Are there certain behaviors or actions that you’d expect to see from that person? Would the exterior evidence be that obvious? Sadly, many Americans would use that kind of narrow set of criteria. Unfortunately, people often define being “on fire with the Holy Spirit” as a dramatic, exterior spectacle, the domain of a rare and elite group that has little to do with them. This attitude even crept into parts of the Catholic Church as the “charismatic movement” which took off in the 70’s and 80’s.
The Church’s message to us on this Day of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to all. How we manifest that gift and apply it will yield different kinds of fruits, from one person to the next. But the Father and the Son have sent the Holy Spirit, their dynamic bond of love, into the world, to abide with us on our pilgrimage and to confirm us in the truth.
We cannot behold the Holy Spirit with our senses, and so the Church points us to various symbols. I’d like to share some great analogies from two saints of the early Church to help us better understand the Holy Spirit. St. Cyril of Jerusalem used the analogy of water in saying this: “All things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects: one in the palm tree, another in the grape vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.”
Saint Basil employed the analogy of the sun’s rays. “The whole of the Spirit’s being is present to each individual; the whole of his being is present everywhere. Though shared in by many, he remains unchanged; his self-giving is no loss to himself. Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature, not by his ability to give.”
I like to explain Pentecost as a present tense and future tense celebration, not just a past tense celebration. Yes, at one moment in history, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, he sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the Blessed Mother. They experienced the Holy Spirit’s descent in the signs of a rushing wind and tongues of fire coming upon them. Fortified with this gift, their whole outlook changed. No longer did they need to sequester themselves in uncertainty. As if knocking down the front door, they strode out into the streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming to all who would listen that Jesus is the risen and triumphant Messiah, not only of the Jews, but of all who would place their faith in him. The miracle which accompanied this first day of preaching was two-fold; all the listeners could understand the Apostles as though their message were in their own language, and secondly, heeding Christ’s call to repentance, three thousand souls came into the fold that very day.
All of this is true and worthy of celebration. But that was only the first chapter of a long and beautiful story. The history of the first Day of Pentecost is not the whole story. For the past two thousand years, missionaries have been bringing about the Day of Pentecost to the new lands and peoples to whom they ministered. It has not been easy. Many of them, in saintly acts of courage and perseverance, endured mistreatment, torture, and even death. But they knew that the Holy Spirit would not allow their efforts to be in vain. The blood that they shed became the seed, so to speak, that later blossomed and grew.
There is nothing stale about our celebration of Pentecost. We not only look backward on this occasion; we look to the future, too. The gift Jesus bestowed upon us in the Gospel, along with the twice-uttered greeting of “peace be with you,” is the same gift offered to us here and now. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that what we mean by peace is not merely the absence of war or a temporary setting aside of hostilities, but a power that transforms the heart. This is why he speaks immediately about the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit takes us farther than we can go by ourselves. He is working, not only in our parish community, but in our own hearts. Let’s think about the obstacles in our lives that we need to remove so that the Holy Spirit can dwell with us as He desires.