Everyone seems to love a mystery. I first became fascinated with mystery when I read Hound of the Baskerville’s in high school. Just the other night, Amy and I were watching the latest movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. I have to confess that I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes and Hecule Poirot. Mystery is more than just murder mystery. It’s anything that can be difficult to explain, or to wrap your mind around, or to put a finger on. If you share my love of mystery, the Feast of Pentecost will be up your alley. If you are not a fan of mystery, I hope to begin your conversion process in the next few minutes.
This solemnity we celebrate today is called the Feast of the Holy Spirit. Many of you are wearing red today since red is the color associated with the Spirit. Today is also called the Birthday of the Church. We get a hint of this in the first reading. It is the final act in this play called salvation history; an act we are still living in. All of the above are true, but I would like to take us a little deeper into the mystery of the Spirit.
Pentecost didn’t begin with the coming of the Spirit. It is a Jewish feast that marked the end of the Passover celebration. On the fiftieth day after Passover, the Jews would bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as an offering to God in thanksgiving for their bounty. That is why there were so many people in Jerusalem. In an interesting twist, God does the reverse. The Holy Spirit is given to those present in the Upper Room as a type of first fruit- a first fruit that gives us the real opportunity for a relationship with God.
For those who received the Spirit that day, the effect was immediate. Our first reading tells us they began to preach in different languages and the crowd was stunned by the power of their words. So, what exactly is the Holy Spirit. It is a mystery. It isn’t a human person like Jesus. Jesus doesn’t describe it as a father figure, like he does with God the Father. In our gospel reading, he calls the Spirit the Advocate. The Greek translation is Parakletos. This word is not easily translatable into English, but it generally means someone who is called in. The word was often used in legal proceedings to describe someone brought in to give testimony on behalf of another. It was also used for someone from the outside who would inspire a group to accomplish a task- like a modern-day inspirational speaker.
The Spirit appears to those in the Upper Room as wind and tongues of fire. We see that depiction in the stain glass window on the lower right-hand side next to the Choir so take a look at it if you get a chance. The Spirit is often depicted as a dove descending from above. These representations give us a framework, but they don’t allow us to point our fingers and say, “There is the Spirit.” The Spirit in many ways is like the wind. We really don’t see the wind, but we do see and feel its effects. On a hot summer day, there is nothing better than a cool breeze. We see it moving the trees. We also see the damage it can cause if it gets too fast.
We see the same effect with the tongues of fire. That fire lit a flame inside the heart and mind of Jesus’ followers; the flame of faith. Luke tries to show us that in the reaction of the Jerusalem crowd and in the ability of Jesus’ followers to be understood in so many different languages. Once again though, all we can see is the effect. It doesn’t get us any closer to putting our hands on the Spirit or wrapping our minds around the Spirit.
We can fast forward through the events of 2,000+ years of Church History, and we will get no closer to an answer. Through all the struggles over doctrine, all of the Councils, all of the scandals and corruption, the Church is still here, teaching the faith. No other institution has lasted uninterrupted for so long. The arrival of the Spirit that day was like a stone tossed into a pond that represents the timeline of history. The circles continue to radiate out from the initial splash all these years later despite every effort to break it up.
So, what is the Spirit? It is the faith that brings this community together every week. It was the motivation that built the cathedrals of Europe, North America, and this beautiful church too. It was the power behind the founding of Christian hospitals and charitable organizations to care for the sick and the poor. It is what motivated the great missionaries that spread the gospel to the entire world. It is what inspired the great saints to be examples of faith.
On a more personal note, the Holy Spirit has played a key role in all of our lives. Paul tries to explain that to the Corinthians in our second reading, and his words have the same meaning for us today. We are all different. We have different gifts. We serve each other in different ways- both here in Church and in our professions. To each one of us, the manifestation of the spirit is given for some benefit. And as a result, we all fit into God’s plan as a body part fits into our bodies.
As Christians, we receive the Spirit first at our Baptism. As we grow in age and faith, we come to more and more recognize the presence of the Spirit within us. At Confirmation, we are finally sealed with the Spirit. Yet, the Spirit is still a difficult thing to explain. Even within ourselves, we cannot really point to the Spirit. We can only get to it, by going backward through our gifts.
That means, that I have a little bit of homework for everyone this week. Think about the gifts you have within yourselves. What is special within you? What do you excel at without really trying? That is the Spirit. What did you struggle with at one time, but now have mostly conquered? I will confess that I was, at one point, petrified of speaking in public. I wanted to sit in the back row and hoped not to be noticed. Yet, here I am. That is the Holy Spirit.
Why are we here today? That is the Spirit. The closest I can describe the Spirit is as a tug or a pull that won’t go away. What we do with that tug or pull and how we respond to it is up to us. There are some in this world that ignore the Spirit. There are others who work with it to accomplish great things. The Spirit will remain a mystery. Fir those who are aware of it though, it is everywhere, urging us on to a deeper faith and relationship with Jesus and the Father.