Last Sunday, we celebrated the Ascension of the Lord. Today we celebrate the return of the Lord in a new manner through the coming of the Holy Spirit. This feast of Pentecost is also called the feast of the Church because it is the time when we celebrate the coming into being of the Church. So, how are this coming into life of the church and the sending of the Holy Spirit connected?
To see the bond between the Holy Spirit and the Church, we need to cast our attention back to three biblical incidents. Let’s start by considering the first two.
The first is at the start of the book of Genesis, when we are told that the Spirit hovered over the formless void and brought order out of the chaos. The second is the incarnation of the Lord Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
In the book of Genesis, the Spirit creates, and order emerges from chaos. In the incarnation, the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and the child she conceives is Holy, because Jesus is born of the Holy Spirit. Both events in the Bible speak of the power of God’s Spirit to transform reality into a place of divine dwelling. The order of the creation mirrors the divine order of God and proclaims the beauty of life and all that is created. The world is literally ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, as the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his 1877 poem God’s Grandeur. In the incarnation, we find the very self of God in Jesus coming to dwell in the womb of Mary: The most power symbol of the capacity of the creation to reveal the wonders of the Lord.
In our readings today for Pentecost, this same creative Spirit now hovers over the apostles in the house in which they are staying and appears as tongues of fire over their heads. The immediate effect of this is that the apostles start to speak in other languages, the languages of the diaspora, the various nations within which the Jews were living at the time.
The shaping of the creation in an orderly manner in the Book of Genesis, and the speaking of languages both represent the work of the Holy Spirit, of creating a unity out of what is fragmented and disunited. In Genesis, it is a literal shaping of the formless void into the order that we recognize as the creation and at Pentecost it is a removal of the barriers of misunderstanding that arise because of different languages.
This powerful symbol of the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire at Pentecost draws on the long tradition of experiencing God in fire that was common in the ancient near East. We have a first glimpse of this in the burning bush episode in the Book of Exodus, when God appears to Moses at Mount Horeb and reveals the name of God as, ‘I am’, or, ‘I will be who I will be’. Fire is the symbol of God’s purifying presence, the light in our darkness, which enables us to be reconciled with God, to know that God is with us.
But, in order to understand how this all connects with the coming into being of the Church at Pentecost, we need to cast our memories back to a third biblical passage? Again, we have to return to the book of Genesis, this time to the story of the tower of Babel for an answer (Gen. 11. 1-9). The original unity of the people, who all spoke one language, was scattered by God with the introduction by God of various languages between the people. This stopped them being able to complete the building of the tower and they were scattered throughout the earth. The point of the story is to illustrate the folly of human beings who attempt to live without God. God’s punishment is to divide the people by making them speak different languages, and so they are unable to communicate with one another and so to finish the building of the tower.
It is this act of pride that is overcome by the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The new tower, the new place of dwelling that will be built on earth for all peoples to dwell in, will be the Church. But this building will be the fruit of the Holy Spirit and not of the pride of human self-aggrandizement, as it was at the tower of Babel. The Church is the new Holy City, the place where all peoples are now called to dwell. Different languages will no longer be a barrier to mutual comprehension for those in the Church, because the Holy Spirit allows peoples of all languages to communicate with one another and to be understood.
But the events of Easter have now taken this story in a new direction. Following the Ascension of the body of the Lord into heaven, the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, now comes to create the body of Christ on earth: this is the Church. As our second reading from 1 Corinthians puts it, ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’. This one Spirit works to unite the diversity of peoples and nations into the one body of Christ on earth, with the Head of the Body, Jesus, now in Heaven.
It is, so to speak, a new incarnation, a new hovering over the earth, but now a hovering over the heads of the apostles so that they can be God-bearers, literally new Mary’s who will give birth to the Lord in their own flesh.
This is the connection between the Spirit and the Church. It is a connection which is made through the body of Christ, and we can distinguish three moments in this: The creation in Genesis, as the manifestation of the order and beauty of God, the grandeur of God’s glory as Gerald Manley Hopkins puts it, as the first incarnation in the body of the earth; the incarnation of Jesus in the womb of Mary as the body of Christ as the second incarnation of the very self of God amongst us in the body of Jesus; and now the third incarnation in the coming of the Holy Spirit who forms the new body of Christ on earth, the Church.
The body of Christ in each of the three incarnations can now be seen to reveal the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity: The Father at the Creation, as the creator of all; the Son at the incarnation of Jesus, as the saviour and redeemer of the world; and the Holy Spirit, at the event of Pentecost, as the sanctifier of the world through the Church.
The world is to be sanctified by the Church through the ministry of the forgiveness of sins, which is spoken of in our Gospel from St John today, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. This is the work of the Church in this final age of the Spirit: to reconcile the world with the Lord through the forgiveness of sins; through healing us of all that prevents us from receiving the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the divine revelation, which begins with the creation of the world, is now in its end phase, its period of sanctification. As St Peter says in the first reading from the Acts, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…..before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’. With this final phase, we now await the return of the Lord for the final judgment.
Let us therefore pray that at this most holy feast of Pentecost, we may be made ready by the Spirit of the Lord to call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.