The Difference the Holy Spirit Makes
Fifty-three days ago, the apostles were all gathered together in the Upper Room. Jesus washed their feet and instructed them about true service. He gave them his body and blood for the first time. He ordained them priests so that through them, He could give us that same body and blood. He prayed for them to His Father, prayed that they might be one, that the Father would protect them from the Evil one, that they might be consecrated in the truth, and that all those who would hear the Gospel through their lips might be one, too. But what happened when they left the room? They all went out and abandoned the Lord right after Mass, right after receiving the Lord Jesus within, right after their priestly ordination! Judas sold Jesus, valuing him less than thirty pieces of silver. All eleven apostles ran away from the garden terrified. Peter, for whom the Lord had prayed personally, denied even knowing Jesus. All but St. John were still hiding the next day as Love personified was being tortured and killed upon a Cross. Jesus had prepared them for three years about what would happen to Him and what they were called to do, but none of that preparation, none of Jesus' prayers, not even the sacrament of the Eucharist, sufficed to keep them faithful. Something was missing.
Today we see the Apostles return to the same Upper Room. Jesus has ascended to heaven, and so the apostles huddle around his mother for nine days to learn from her about Jesus, to learn from her how to pray, to learn from her how to say yes to God. This time they leave the Upper Room and begin to preach the Gospel fearlessly. Three thousand people were converted that first day. The same apostles who had scattered like frightened children in the Garden were now gathering God's children together for Christ. The same Peter who denied even knowing Jesus in order to keep himself warm by the courtyard fire, was now on fire confessing that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of the Living God. The disciples who were too ashamed to appear at the foot of the Cross now boldly and proudly proclaimed God's love seen by Christ's death on that Cross. What was different? Surely Mary's example had helped them. Doubtless the resurrection of Jesus from the dead had filled them with joy and given them a certain confidence. But what could have made these people turn from chickens to shepherds, from cowards to willing martyrs, so soon? The answer is what and whom we celebrate today: the Holy Spirit.
On Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit worked a miracle in each of the apostles, and through them, in the whole Church. As the apostles were huddled together around Mary in the Upper Room fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, suddenly from heaven there was the sound like the rush of a driving wind that filled the entire upper room. Tongues of fire came down and rested upon each of them and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. THIS was the difference. They received the Holy Spirit's help boldly to proclaim Jesus. The Holy Spirit came down upon them as tongues of fire tongues because they were to speak, fire because they were to speak with the passion of burning love. And they responded. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit he would send would teach them all things, lead them to all truth, remind them of everything he had taught them, and prove the world wrong about sin, holiness and judgment. Then, moved by the Holy Spirit, they began to fulfill this mission. The Acts of the Apostles had begun.
Well, the Acts of the Apostles continues down to our own day. God wants to write new chapters, with each of us and that includes you playing an important role. The wind is still blowing. The fire of the Holy Spirit still burns. Each of us, however, needs to let the Holy Spirit in to do his work. Each of us has to allow the Holy Spirit to bring about a similar miracle in us. Too often we are more like the Apostles on Holy Thursday than on Pentecost Sunday. We come to Mass, Jesus prays for us, he feeds us with his flesh and blood, but when we leave the upper room, we basically leave Him behind, giving in to various denials, perhaps for comfort like Peter, perhaps out of fear like all the rest. We know what our mission is to give witness to the whole world that Jesus is the Savior, that he is the truth worth living for and worth dying for but how many times have we failed in that mission, and how many times have we failed even to TRY to fulfill it? Proclaiming the Gospel today is surely not easy; so many reject Christ and his teachings and the Church he founded. But when we look back to what the first disciples encountered when first the Jewish leaders and eventually the Roman authorities were trying to kill them for proclaiming the Gospel, and when the culture was even more imbued by practices contrary to the Gospel than it is now we find great reason for hope. For if the Holy Spirit could work such wonders with those coarse fishermen and tax collectors, then surely he can do similarly great things through us if we allow him. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we, too, can turn from cowards to heroes, from apostates to apostles, from sinners to saints. The key is allowing the Holy Spirit to act.
To do so, we first have to get to know know the Holy Spirit. There's an episode in the life of St. Paul when he was at Ephesus and met some people who said they were disciples. Paul asked them: "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They, who had only received John's baptism of repentance, replied, "No, we have NOT EVEN HEARD THAT THERE IS a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:2). Many Catholics today might well say the same statement. In the mind and hearts of many disciples, the Holy Spirit is the GREAT UNKNOWN. That has to change if we're going to change and if our Church and world are going to change. What do we know about the Holy Spirit? We know much more than we think we do:
a) He overshadowed Mary at the Annunciation and helped her to conceive virginally within her the Eternal Son of God (Mt 1:18-20).
b) He filled St. Elizabeth and helped her and the embryonic John the Baptist recognize Christ in Mary's womb (Lk 1:41).
c) He filled Zechariah and helped him to prophecy about mission of John the Baptist, his Son (Lk 1:67).
d) He came down upon Jesus like a dove at Jesus' baptism (Lk 3:22) and then led him into the desert (Lk 4:1).
e) Throughout his public ministry, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit (Lk 10:21).
f) Jesus promised that the Father would give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Lk 11:13).
g) Jesus said it was in fact advantageous for him to leave them and go to the Father, because then, and only then, would he and the Father send the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:7, 15:26, 14:26). How great a gift must the Holy Spirit be if Jesus (who cannot deceive us) told us it was better for him to go!
h) Jesus also described very clearly what the Holy Spirit would do: He would teach us all things (Jn 14:26), would help us in a moment of trial to know what we ought to say (Lk 12:12), would remind us of everything he had commanded us (Jn 14:26), would convict the world concerning sin, judgment and holiness (Jn 16:8).
i) The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Sacred Scripture and is the principle author of every book of the Bible.
But the Holy Spirit is not just someone we should KNOW ABOUT, but someone we should know intimately and personally, as we know a friend. We encounter him first in prayer. We cannot pray without his help. St. Paul tells us that we cannot even say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Because we are children of God, God the Father sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that we might cry out, "Abba, Father!" in prayer (Rom 8:15). St. Paul tells us that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26).
But we encounter and get to know the Holy Spirit most intimately in each of the Sacraments, although sometimes we don't give him all the credit he deserves. In each of these, we receive his help as he tries to conform us ever more so that we might be other Christ's in the midst of the world.
a) John the Baptist had said that Jesus would one day baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mt 3:11). That's what happens in the sacrament of baptism. We beg the Father to send the Holy Spirit into the water of the font to make it holy so that it may make others holy. Baptism makes us temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) and the Holy Spirit, through baptism, makes us children of God.
b) In Confirmation, the bishop anoints us with oil and says, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit," in which we're changed for life by the Holy Spirit and given the graces we need to be real witnesses of Christ. We receive in Confirmation what the apostles on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit's help so that we might proclaim Christ's Gospel. That proclamation is a joint effort with the Holy Spirit. As St. Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles: "We are witnesses to these things, together with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 5:32)
c) In the sacrament of penance, the Holy Spirit, which Jesus gave to his first priests on Easter Sunday evening to forgive (cf. Jn 20:31) fulfills His mission in the absolution, which the priest begins, "God, the Father of Heaven, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins." The Holy Spirit is sent so that we might once again become an immaculate temple of God and a fully restored son and daughter of the eternal Father.
d) In the Eucharist, we pray to the Father, "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ." Later, we ask him to send the Holy Spirit to make us one, "Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with His Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ."
e) In the sacrament of anointing, when the sick person is anointed with oil, the priest says, "Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit."
f) In Holy Matrimony, the Holy Spirit is the one who unites spouses in love, just as the Holy Spirit is the unity between the Father and the Son.
g) Finally, in Holy Orders, the Holy Spirit is called down to sanctify the priests in the prayer of consecration, to make them in reality what Christ calls them to be.
h) The point of all the sacraments is to make us holy, to make us radiate with God's own life, and to bring us to heaven. That is the the great mission of the Holy Spirit.
"We never even knew that there was a Holy Spirit." To the extent that any of us feels still unfulfilled in the Christian life, it is because we have not yet allowed the Holy Spirit full reign in our lives by responding to the Gift of Holy Spirit with the same 100% docility as Mary did at the Annunciation, as the Apostles did on Pentecost Sunday. This Pentecost is the chance for us to thank the Father and the Son for the gift of the Holy Spirit, to pray like the first apostles did surrounded by Mary, and to respond docilely to all his promptings. When we remain in the state of grace, we are temples of the Holy Spirit, which is a reality that should astound us: God the Holy Spirit lives inside of us. The Holy Spirit blows within us. The Holy Spirit burns within us. But we have to let that flame grow into a bonfire.
The same Holy Spirit who filled the apostles on Pentecost is about to come down here in this Church. We are in the midst of the Upper Room, where Jesus himself gives us his body and blood, where the Holy Spirit himself comes down. If we wish to leave this Upper Room and carry out our mission as the Apostles of our own day, let us beg the Holy Spirit to fill us with tongues of fire, so that with passion, love and great courage, we might bring the Gospel out to our world which so desperately needs to embrace it.
Come, Holy Spirit, Fill the Hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!
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