The Fire of the Holy Spirit

Sixth Sunday of Easter. Acts 8:5-8,14-17; Ps 66:1-7,16,20; 1 Pt 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21  

Today the readings at Mass anticipate Pentecost, the great feast we shall celebrate in two weeks time. Pentecost marks the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Catholic Church. Today's readings look forward to this event: they speak about the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Spirit, the works of the Spirit and life in the Spirit. But what exactly is the ‘Holy Spirit’ and how do we prepare to receive Him? I would like to devote today's short homily to these questions.

From the outset it is worth saying that understanding the Spirit is not only difficult, but utterly impossible without God's revelation. Jesus tells us that the world cannot accept the Holy Spirit, “because it neither sees nor knows him.” Indeed, the fact that the world knows nothing about the Holy Spirit can be confirmed from experience. The vast majority of people believe, even if only in a vague sense, that there is a God, that is, a being who created and sustains the universe. People differ, of course, about the nature of God, but genuine atheists are quite rare. The majority of human beings also have access to knowledge about Jesus Christ. Even those who do not accept that Jesus was the Son of God can still learn about the personality of Jesus that emerges from the Biblical texts. So even people without the gift of faith can know something about the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. But people without faith know nothing about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit: the world “neither sees nor knows him.”

Now this inability to see or to know the Spirit is not due to God withholding information. The problem is that to know the Spirit is a peculiar kind of knowledge. Knowledge of the Spirit is personal - experienced rather than described. The Bible teaches us this by the image of fire. When the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost, they hear a mighty wind and they see “tongues as of fire” resting on the head of each of them. Now there is something strange about the nature of fire, as we can see from our altar candles. A flame is something that can be seen and experienced but it is very difficult to describe. How would you describe the shape of a candle flame to someone who had never seen such a thing? It is almost impossible because the flame is constantly changing its shape, dancing before our eyes. The flame can be extinguished, but it cannot be controlled in the sense of being captured and communicated by words.

The Bible implies that knowledge of the Holy Spirit is something like this knowledge of a flame; it can be experienced but is not easily described. Nevertheless, while we cannot easily put this experience into words, we can examine the situations in which people have this experience. Such situations all seem to involve divinely inspired action. So, for example, St. Paul in his missionary journeys constantly refers to the Spirit helping him, urging him and even, in some cases, preventing him doing certain things. This is a personal relationship in which St. Paul undertakes divinely inspired action. St. Paul works in partnership with God, with a heart that is on fire for the love of God, and experiences the Spirit of God in that action. On a more local level, perhaps the people living on the Hill in the last century also experienced the Holy Spirit, in the inspiration and many small miracles involved in the building of this beautiful church of St. Ambrose.

So this raises a difficult question. If we experience the Holy Spirit in divinely inspired action, why do relatively few Christians have this experience? Indeed, why do so few Christians have any experience of the Holy Spirit at all? One response might be to say that knowing the Spirit is for specialists, for 'super-Christians' you might say. But this cannot be correct. Scripture tells us that our Heavenly Father delights to give the Holy Spirit to his adopted children. Another response might be that we need some kind of technique to call down the Holy Spirit, to try to manipulate the Spirit for our own ends. This is, I think, the temptation and danger of the Pentecostal movements. My own answer to the question of why so few Christians experience the Holy Spirit is this: the Holy Spirit is experienced mainly in divinely inspired action, but very few Christians are willing to surrender to divinely inspired action. On the contrary, we want to remain in control of our own lives. Many of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are like the people that Jesus first encounters in the Gospels. We want God to help us and to heal us - but mainly so that we can then get on with our lives in peace and prosperity. God will, of course, help us often in material ways, but God wants us to go further than this. He wants us to surrender our whole lives over to Him, to really be able to say “thy will be done.” This surrender is an entirely different matter from asking for material gifts, and it is something that we tend to find very hard. This is, I think, why the coming of the Holy Spirit is the final revelation of the Godhead. This is also why the coming of the Holy Spirit lies on the far side of Calvary, the ultimate surrender to the will of God.

So I have what might seem a slightly strange prayer to finish. May God help us to cease to resist Him, so that we do only what is pleasing to God, for the love of God. In this, as in all things, Mary is our supreme example, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’”

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 27th April 2008

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