20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Becoming a blaze in the fire of God’s Love
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
It’s true that fire is a symbol of destroying power, but that’s not so much what we’re hearing from Jesus in the Gospel today. This is not the fire of destruction. In fact, in scripture, destructive fire imagery is not as frequent as when it stands as a symbol of life. It is the fire of God’s presence. It is the fire of heat and light. It is the fire that purifies.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven he told His disciples to wait for this fire, he said “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49 The Holy Spirit that was known as the “promise of the Father.” According to that promise, the Holy Spirit came down to the disciples of Jesus in a unique way animating the ‘Mystical Body of Christ’ and giving birth to the Church.
As with coal that begins heavy and black in its deadness, when cast into the fire it is turned into the likeness of the flame which it catches and itself begins to glow red then white hot, and itself to break into a blaze. The fire of the Holy Spirit desires to consume us but not destroy us, but to make of us like incense rising to the heavens: the white-hot aroma of the fire of God burning within our souls ascends as a sweet smell, acceptable to God.
On Monday 23 November 1654, a French mathematician and philosopher had a mystical and ecstatic experience of the Spirit of God! His name was Blaise Pascal and he was transformed forever. He spoke to no one about it but, trying to express what he experienced he wrote some words on a paper. This was found at his death, sewn into his jacket. On the paper Paschal wrote this:
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight: FIRE God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy; tears of joy. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
The fire of which Paschal spoke is that same fire of divine love which Jesus spoke of; the fire of the Holy Spirit. An encounter with the blazing love of God that no one could emerge from unchanged. This fire of purifying, transforming, overwhelming, thrilling, energizing - Love.
Into our state of physical, mental inactivity, of our sluggish half-lives Christ was and is waiting for us to be enflamed with the Holy Spirit that makes us glow and flame with earnestness, burn with love, aspire with desire, cling to Him with firm conviction, and be in focus and measure like those mighty spirits that stand before the Throne, the seraphim that burn with adoration and glow with rapture. A fire that transforms all our imperfections, and desires to leave only the purified soul of glad obedience, of perfected love.
From human experience we know that fire purifies in a powerful way. So powerful and moving is our experience of this truth, that every ancient culture in some way ritualized fire as a symbol of purification. Every disciple of Christ / Child of God must come to know this same power within them. Each having been cleansed in the waters of baptism must yet be purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit. We are to be like clay in a furnace, as it warms it whitens, the stains melting off. What remains is more truly itself and more precious. Our anticipated Holiness is wrought in this cleansing and purifying water and fire. Through which we must pass if we are to dwell in the everlasting burnings of a Divine Spirit and a changeless love.
It was not in His power to kindle this holy fire in humanity until He had died for men’s sins. The Cross necessarily precedes Pentecost in the salvific plan of the Father. There can be no Divine Spirit in full and lofty power poured out upon humanity until the Sacrifice has been offered on the Cross for the sins of the world.
Feast of Pentecost:
To Live, Love, Learn and Lead… we need a relationship with the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit
Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Holy Spirit has been in some ways the neglected person of the Blessed Trinity.” In my experience as a Catholic and a Priest these last 30+ years, I would definitely agree. Although there have been so called ‘charismatic’ movements in the Universal Church, most recently in the past 60 years and, although there have been documents from various Popes and of course our belief and teachings regarding the Sacramental Theology of Baptism and Confirmation-the Holy Spirit still ranks in the average Catholics faith life as a sort of ‘oh yeah, and the Holy Spirit’.
I think that the role of the Holy Spirit, even though we intellectually understand that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person of the Holy Trinity, who exists as the communication and personification of the mutual, flowing, and never-ending relationship of love and unity between God the Father and God the Son – we do not know what it means for us to ‘have a relationship with that person of the Trinity, nor do we fully understand how we are to experience the Holy Spirit at work in ourselves and our Church.
All teaching in the Church about the Trinity begins in Scripture which shows how each member of the Trinity fulfills a specific role, and it also reveals how those three roles interrelate. The Church has conceived “a theological process by which an essential aspect of the Trinity – common to all three divine Persons – is specifically attributed to one of them,” explains the Dominican Gilles Emery. For example, the Creation is attributed to the Father, the Redemption to the Son, and the sanctification to the Holy Spirit; omnipotence to the Father, wisdom to the Son and goodness with love to the Holy Spirit. In simple terms: The Father creates a plan, Jesus Christ implements the plan, and the Holy Spirit administers the plan. However, we cannot forget that first and foremost, even though each has their own role, according to the scriptures, all three members of the Trinity are fully God:
The way of redemption showcases these roles in a clear manner. The Father designed and organized how mankind would be redeemed (Galatians 4:4-5). The Son carried out the plan (John 6:37-38). The Holy Spirit sees to it that every person experiences a desire for God's saving grace (John 14:26, John 16:8; Romans 1:19-20). For those who receive and cooperate with that grace, their lives are altered through the transformation of their minds and hearts.
It is important to point out that the age we are in now, the age after the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son, is especially the age of the Holy Spirit! This is the time when the Holy Spirit is especially active in our world and in the Church. The Father is especially seen and revealed in the creation of the world, the Son is especially seen and revealed in the redemption of the world after it fell from innocence, and the Holy Spirit is now clearly seen and revealed as the one active in our lives and in the Church sanctifying (making holy) all who follow Jesus and all who seek the will of the Father.
Pope John Paul II wrote, "Having accomplished the work that the Father had entrusted to the Son on earth (John 17:4), on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was sent to sanctify the Church for ever, so that believers might have access to the Father through Christ in one Spirit" (Eph 2: 18).
What is Pentecost?
Now that we better understand the nature of the Trinity so that we can more clearly reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit, we can enter more deeply into the experience of the apostles who were all gathered in one room at the time of the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The feast was the only Old Testament festival determined by counting. On the day after the Sabbath after Passover, the ancient Israelites selected a sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring. This grain became an offering, and the priest waved it “before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:11-12). Judaism came to regard Pentecost as the anniversary of the giving of the old covenant and law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20–24) fifty days after the Exodus Passover. For St. Luke this would be seen as having a Christian fulfilment in the giving of the Spirit fifty days after the Christian Exodus Passover, the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The Spirit coming in human minds was a kind of “second giving of the law”; the Spirit replaced the law as the guide for God’s people. It was, in Paul’s expression, “the law of the Spirit who gives life,” which came through the new righteousness that is in Christ (Romans 8:1-2). The Spirit-filled church made possible by Pentecost existed in continuity with Israel. In the Pentecost experience, the Spirit becomes, in Paul’s words, “the righteousness of God has been made known…apart from the law…to which the Law and Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21). This makes it possible for humans to experience oneness with God through the connecting link of spiritual love. As Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).
Until the age of the Church and the Holy Spirit, the way of life for the faithful was Torah- or law-centered. The new covenantal way of life for the faithful became and remains Christ-centered and Spirit-directed. On this day, the “first-fruits” of disciples would be transformed by the Spirit as a token or representative offering, giving evidence that one day all the nations would seek God, and his truth would cover the earth (Isaiah 2:2-3, 11:9).
Descent of the Holy Spirit
John the Baptist had spoken of the Messiah carrying out a baptism of the Holy Spirit (hence, “wind”) and fire (Luke 3:16). For the disciples as well, these signs were instructive. They understood that Jesus Christ was bringing to fruition something he had promised (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8).
The descent of the Holy Spirit, as we heard, was described as the sound of a mighty wind from heaven filling the whole house. The word in Greek for ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’ is the same, so the wind clearly indicates the Spirit of God. First was the sound of a hurricane-like wind (Greek, pneuma) (2:3). Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek pneuma can mean either wind or spirit, as determined by the context. The wind was a physical manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wind symbolized the Spirit of God. The sound of a strong wind is also reminiscent of Old Testament theophanies in which God manifested himself (Ezekiel 13:13). The loud sound of this wind also had a practical result: It attracted God-fearing Jews who were curious as to what was happening.
The Jews who were present in Jerusalem and near to the location of the Apostles seemed to have become attentive due to the sound of the wind, and they were certainly awed by the second manifestation of the presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. Due to the “tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3), each heard the apostles speaking in their own language. Fire was another symbol of the divine presence. We remember that, as the Israelites wandered through the desert, they were accompanied during the night by a pillar of fire – God was with them. God appeared to Moses in flames coming from a bush (Exodus 3:2-5). Fire was a frequent feature of Old Testament theophanies, especially those surrounding the Exodus and the giving of the law. [Exodus 13:21-22; 14:24; 19:18; 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:12, 24, 33; 5:4; 10:4.].
These two signs — the wind and fire — were the outward demonstration of what was happening inside the disciples. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The church — the Israel of the Spirit — was born through the Holy Spirit, and the disciples were spiritually transformed. All Christians continue to participate in the internal transformation that Pentecost symbolizes. In the Sacraments of baptism and Confirmation all receive and are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38; 9:17; 11:17; 19:2; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 6:4; 1 John 3:24.]
A message for all, speaking in various languages
On that first Pentecost a third manifestation of the Spirit’s presence occurred. Immediately, the apostles go out and begin to speak to the crowds of people in other languages (“tongues”), “as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). Simple Galileans appeared to have sudden skill in most of the languages spoken in that region of the world.
Luke tells us there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in Jerusalem (2:5). Among the crowd there were also converts or “proselytes” from paganism to Judaism (2:11). The multitude was made up of devout Jews and proselytes, who were in Jerusalem to worship God during the festival of Pentecost. They were visitors and emigres from all over the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, even Rome, to celebrate the feast. Luke’s account makes it clear that the “tongues” were real languages, and they could be understood. The supernatural aspect of this was not lost on the hearers, who were “utterly amazed” (2:7). More than this, each person in the crowd heard the disciples speaking in his own native language (2:8). The Greek literally means, “We are hearing in our own language in which we were born.” The meaning is clear. What the apostles are preaching is a message destined for the whole world.
One authority estimated that over 100,000 people attended Passover in Jesus’ day. Josephus wrote of the large crowds in Jerusalem for this feast. [Josephus, Antiquities 14:337; 17:254; Wars 1:253; 2:42-43.] Jews would come to the city from throughout the Roman Empire, and from eastern kingdoms. Philo (20 B.C.–A.D. 50), a Jewish philosopher from Egypt who lived at the same time as Jesus and Paul, said that there were “vast numbers of Jews scattered over every city of Asia and Syria.” [Philo, Embassy to Gaius 245.] He claimed that there were about a million Jews in Egypt. [Philo, Flaccus 43, 55.]
Luke’s point is clear. The miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit was witnessed in Jerusalem by Jews from all over the world. Many of these individuals from far-flung international areas believed the gospel and received the Spirit. They were later scattered because of persecution and “preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4).
In the experience of our own ‘personal pentecost’ during Baptism / Confirmation – being born of water and the Spirit, we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Those seven gifts according to Catholic Tradition are, wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God. The standard interpretation of how we are to understand these gifts, has been the one that St. Thomas Aquinas worked out in the thirteenth century in his Summa Theologiae:
These are heroic character traits that Jesus Christ alone possesses in their plenitude but that he freely shares among the members of his mystical body the Church. These traits are infused into every Christian as a permanent endowment and are nurtured by the practice of the seven virtues, and sealed in the sacrament of confirmation. They are also known as the sanctifying gifts of the Spirit, because they serve the purpose of rendering their recipients docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their lives, helping them to grow in holiness and making them fit for heaven.
These gifts, according to Aquinas, are “habits,” “instincts,” or “dispositions” provided by God as supernatural helps to man in the process of his “perfection.” They enable man to transcend the limitations of human reason and human nature and participate in the very life of God, as Christ promised (John 14:23). Aquinas insisted that they are necessary for man’s salvation, which he cannot achieve on his own. They serve to “perfect” the four cardinal or moral virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and the three theological virtues(faith, hope, and charity). The virtue of charity is the key that unlocks the potential power of the seven gifts, which can (and will) lie dormant in the soul after baptism unless so acted upon.
Because “grace builds upon nature” (ST I/I.2.3), the seven gifts work synergistically with the seven virtues and also with the twelve fruits of the Spirit and the eight beatitudes. The emergence of the gifts is fostered by the practice of the virtues, which in turn are perfected by the exercise of the gifts. The proper exercise of the gifts, in turn, produce the fruits of the Spirit in the life of the Christian: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, modesty, self-control, and chastity (Gal. 5:22–23). The goal of this cooperation among virtues, gifts, and fruits is the attainment of the eight-fold state of beatitude described by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3–10).
Today’s second reading speaks of the gifts that the Spirit of God and Jesus gives to each one for this work. We are not all called to the same thing in the same way. “There are all sorts of service to be done but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them.” We all have exactly the same ultimate goal, energized from the same Source, but, with our different qualities of character and ability and depending on the environmental situation in which we find ourselves, we aim at that goal in different ways.
Working together in different ways towards a common aim, Paul compares us to a human body. It consists of many parts but each part is ordered to the well-being of the whole. That should be a picture of the Christian community, of our diocese and of each parish and of each community within a parish. We are all equal in dignity – Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, man or woman, cleric or lay – but different in calling and manner of service.
On this feast of Pentecost, as we celebrate the formation and the mission of the whole Christian community, we also need to reflect on the particular role that God has for me, to reflect on the particular contribution that I can make to the corporate mission of the Church and of the particular group with which I am involved.
It would be wrong to conclude from the account of the decent of the Holy Spirit in the first reading, that the Holy Spirit's normal way of acting is through dramatic fireworks. The truth is that God's actions are most often gentle and hardly perceptible at first. How does Jesus send the Spirit to his Apostles after his resurrection? He breathes on them - quietly and subtly. How does St Paul describe the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church? Like the soul of a body - powerful, essential, but invisible and subtle. The Holy Spirit works quietly.
There is only one condition attached to this gift. To experience God's transforming presence in our lives, we must obey his will out of love: "Whoever loves me will keep my word," as Jesus says in the Gospel. All of us here today want to obey God's will in our lives - some want to do so passionately, others reluctantly, but we all want to - otherwise we wouldn't be here. The Holy Spirit quietly reveals God's will to us in two ways. First, he inspires and guides the teaching of the Church through the commandments of the Bible, the instructions in the Catechism, the examples of the saints, the regular updates from the pope's encyclicals - the Holy Spirit wants us to know how a Christian should live.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.