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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Pentecost: Pyrotechnics and quiet miracles

Posted May 25, 2013

The mighty rush of wind and the tongues of fire and the miracle of one language being understood by all the world’s nations is the picture of Pentecost that is familiar to us all.  Actually, it is only St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles who gives us this picture of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Other New Testament writers (for example, St Paul and St John) seem to know nothing about it, or at least they give us very different accounts of the manner in which the Holy Spirit was given to the Church.  No doubt St Luke has his own reasons for representing Pentecost in that way.  He wants to point out the parallels between the sending of the Holy Spirit and the giving of the Mosaic law on Mount Sinai (you will remember the fire and the thunder-storm in the description on Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus, when God gave his law to Moses and the people).  St Luke also wants to make the point that the birth of the Church which brought many nations into unity is the reversal of the story of Babel in the Book of Genesis, where God curbed the ambitions of humankind by scattering them into nations and assigning them different languages, to confuse them.

Important as these lessons are, it is equally important to acknowledge that elsewhere in the New Testament the gift of the Holy Spirit is only rarely associated with sensational phenomena, and has more to do with the quiet miracles of life and the hidden transformation of the human heart.  In today’s second reading St Paul seems to be saying that it is as impossible to be a Christian (that is, to confess Jesus as Lord) without the Holy Spirit as it is inconceivable that any Christian speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit should ever curse the name of Jesus.  St Paul is saying that the confession of faith made by the simplest of Christians is the essential miracle of the Holy Spirit.  No rush of a mighty wind, no pyrotechnics, no nothing.  The Holy Spirit is very close indeed to our experience, for he comes in very quiet miracles

If we are to grasp the true significance of the Holy Spirit, we need to look for him in our day-to-day experience as Christians.  Your experience of Jesus being close to you in your thoughts and feelings is itself the very presence of the Holy Spirit, a miracle more wonderful than tongues of fire; your attempts to lead a good life, to imitate Jesus, to embrace his truth and holiness: that is the Holy Spirit prompting you, and ‘leading you into all truth’.   Your moral struggles from day to day, your little victories alternating with moments of defeat, are themselves, as St Paul assures us, evidence of the presence of the Spirit in your life.  Your trust in God your Father is itself the Spirit of Jesus crying ‘Abba, Father’, in your heart.  When you try to pray and don’t succeed, or want to pray but don’t know how to: that is the Holy Spirit coming to the help of your weakness.  Your longing for redemption and freedom: that is the Holy Spirit interceding for you with sighs that cannot be articulated in language.  Your dreams for yourself and for your loved ones, that God will bring you all to permanence in him and to everlasting joy, that is the Spirit of Christ who never leaves you orphans.  We may not often notice the Spirit, or talk about him very frequently, but that’s just what the Spirit is like: as St John tells us, his input contains nothing of himself, only of Jesus.  The Spirit goes mostly unnoticed, just as real friendship unites friends without distracting them with too much talk about itself.

If we needed further persuasion that the Spirit is part of our familiar experience, we have only to listen again to St Paul in Galatians.  There he speaks of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’.  The ‘fruit of the Spirit’, he says, is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’  He might have put it more briefly by saying: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love.’  For all the other things flow directly from love.  This is God’s own love, poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, given to us.

This is where St Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit links up with St Luke’s representation of Pentecost.  For why does St Luke want to link Pentecost with Mount Sinai, if not to make the point that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit, the ‘finger of God’s right hand’, writes a new law, the law of love, not now on stone tablets but on people’s hearts, to create the Christian Church?

Today is the Church’s birthday.  I think it is about 1,980 years old.  And in spite of some terrible disfigurements during some periods of its history, including our own, its essential beauty is still there.  The Holy Spirit is still at work, silently etching God’s love upon people’s personalities.  I get glimpses of it every day – in the confessional, in the hearts of many couples on the threshold of marriage, in the quiet serenity of those who come to Mass, in people going about their daily work in hope and gentleness and love; in their acts of service, without fanfare and without complaint: I see it also in their quiet sufferings patiently borne.  I see it in their very failures and distress, as they slowly, painfully make their way to faith, or try to keep to it, ‘amidst th’encircling gloom’.  They are the Church.  We are the Church and we have a glorious vocation: to bring to other people the fruit of the Holy Spirit and gently draw them into the mystery of Jesus’ Passion, and into victory beyond defeat.  As Christians we are committed to believing that glorious truth, and shaping our lives on it.

Even without the wind and the fire, we are still a missionary church.  We may not make three thousand converts in one day, like the disciples on the day of Pentecost.  But if we should draw just one person to Jesus in a lifetime, that would be a divine miracle in itself.  It is the way the Holy Spirit works when the wind and the fire are no more and we are left with small acts of love in our ordinariness.  Jesus in St John’s Gospel calls this ‘much fruit’ ‒ fruit that will last.  It is the lasting effect of Pentecost and the most extraordinary aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit.  May Pentecost in that sense come down on us today and do God’s work in our lives and in the Church.

Fr Tom Deidun

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