Because We Are Weak, We Need the Holy Spirit - Pentecost
Pentecost – June 3, 4 2017
Notoriously, the clergy fret about preaching on Trinity Sunday – that’s next week! – because of the assumed difficulty of the doctrine. I have never shared that anxiety because of the richness of possibilities and because explaining the doctrine does not have to be done on that day; it happens throughout the year as we encounter the triune God in the biblical story.
However, Pentecost is another matter, for the challenge of talking comprehensibly about the Holy Spirit is real. We can see, we think, the work of the Father in creation and we can know the Son he sent, for there is much to say about Jesus. When it comes to the Spirit, there is a danger of vagueness, partly because we think we cannot see the Spirit’s work and partly because spirituality has become a largely meaningless word in our culture.
Since the beginning of the last century Christianity has experienced a vigorous Pentecostal and Charismatic movement with its highly energized worship services, speaking in tongues and claims of prophecy, healing and the like. The movement is vulnerable to a great deal of criticism and has known its fair share of fraud and silliness, but the authenticity of at least some of the manifestations cannot be denied. But surely the Holy Spirit is not confined to that movement and has not been absent from the Church and the world since similar phenomena appeared and then faded in the first generation or two of Christianity.
Through the years I have endeavored to preach in a way that helps us see the reality of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures and in the Church. I have called attention to the two important specific acts of the Spirit mentioned in the Creed: the conception of our Lord and the speaking of the prophets. These were visible, real, audible phenomena.
I have also reminded people that the forgiveness of sins is a real work not just a divine attitude adjustment. Keep in mind that the formula of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance says God the Father of mercies . . . has sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Surely, these claims are correct and I hope they have been of some help in making clear the reality, the work and the presence of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.
This year my thinking about how to preach on Pentecost has been deeply affected by the readings from Sunday and daily Mass. The Book of Acts provides all the First Readings, and the Holy Spirit is constantly in the foreground, steering the apostles, strengthening them, effecting conversions, causing people to speak in tongues, and generally making things happen. This starts with the Pentecost event that we celebrate today, when the tongues were not ecstatic speech but comprehensible languages – the opposite of the tower of Babel.
In the Gospels for the last portion of the Easter season Jesus repeatedly promises the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to sustain and lead the disciples and to teach them after he has ascended and they go forth to bear testimony to him in a dangerous and hostile world.
The Spirit of truth, whom the Father gives and Jesus sends will make the incarnate Word, who is full of grace and truth, known to the world through the frail, humble, ill-equipped band that followed Jesus around during his ministry.
Jesus promises what we see in the Acts of the Apostles: all of the goodness and truth and faith and hope that flourish in the Church are the work of the Holy Spirit. The sins and disasters – we know whom to blame for those!
Wherever we see strength and truth and vitality in the Church, we are seeing the work of the Holy Spirit. As Bishop Robert Barron wrote in his daily commentary on the Gospels a few weeks ago, When the martyrs went to their deaths, it was with the help of the Holy Spirit; when the missionaries went to proclaim the faith in hostile lands, it was the Holy Spirit who pleaded on their behalf; when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling, it was the Holy Spirit who lifted him up; when Thomas Aquinas wrote his theological masterpieces, it was at the prompting of the Advocate.
Pentecost is sometimes popularly called the birthday of the Church, and that makes a lot of sense. On this day of Pentecost let us take that to heart. The Holy Spirit is utterly visible and audible in the proclamation of the faith and the celebration of the Sacraments. If you wish to see the work of the Holy Spirit look around you at those baptized persons whose bodies are his temple, at this sacramental celebration, and at the building that testifies to the faith of those who have gone before us.
Moreover, the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole earth, and so we can surmise that when human beings acknowledge the good, the true and the beautiful and stumble in shadows and images toward God, the Spirit is quietly, anonymously at work there. As the Spirit is not overwhelmed by our weakness, neither can he be forced out by the errors of the world – sooner or later lies stumble over the truth.
But when we thus look at the Spirit’s work and allow our eyes to recognize the Spirit in all of them, we recognize something else. We recognize our own weakness, or feeble knees, our confusion, our fear. The great hymns of this season point to this, the sequence and the ancient hymn, Veni, Creator Spiritus. Their words by themselves may be all we need for a proper theology of the Holy Spirit.
I was particularly captured this year by one verse of the Veni, Creator Spiritus, especially in the translation I remember from my youth and my ordination as a Lutheran pastor: “The weakness of our mortal state with deathless might invigorate.”
Because we are weak, we need the Holy Spirit. It is that simple. Even mighty Samson in the Old Testament was stirred to his works by the Spirit of God. It was the power of the Spirit, notes Protestant theologian Peter Leithart, that enabled him to strike down the enemies of Israel with the jawbone of an ass – not just his enormous physical strength. And it is the Spirit, as were reminded on the First Sunday in Lent, that drove Jesus into the wilderness to do battle with Satan. In his humanity which was prone to hunger and mortality he needed to rely on the Spirit.
Well, so it is with us. We know our weakness. We know that our sinfulness goes deeper than our peccadilloes – all the way down to the desire to be our own god. We can be nice on our own strength, but we cannot be truly good and we surely cannot be holy on our strength. It is from that weakness that we can understand the role of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, moving us ever outward from the idol within to the God who comes to us from without and the neighbor he gives us.
So the theme of this great feast can be summarized in one word: Veni / Come. We sing and pray not because the Spirit is absent because we are. Through sin we lose our very selves; we pray from our weakness and lost-ness. We pray that the Spirit would come to our lost, unhappy, and increasingly tortured society to bring it back toward sanity. When we understand our weakness we can much better recognize the work of the Spirit.
And whenever we are found and whenever we are stirred to faith, hope and love; whenever and wherever we see the goodness, the truth, the beauty, the joy, wonder and light of God break in – the Spirit is at work.
We pray today that the Spirit will enable us to better know the Father and the Son, so that we might make the triune God known and visible in our lives.