As happens every year, the celebration of Pentecost Sunday (the descent of the Holy Spirit) occurs at about the same time as our young people finish their formal schooling and enter the workforce. We pray that our graduates may use their abilities to make the world a more peaceful, just place. And so they must. The human person is God’s greatest creation, because only human beings are created in His image and likeness; that is to say, only human beings can know and love. How appropriate it is that we turn our thoughts and prayers to the Spirit of God, especially at a time when our nation sends its young graduates out into the world to make their mark.
If you think about it, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles relates a kind of “going forth”; the disciples of Jesus, having seen and spoken with their Master over the course of fifty days, now find themselves together in the upper room, waiting in silent prayer. When the Spirit descends upon them in tongues as of fire, they are empowered and emboldened to proclaim to all the world, as it were, the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven, and of the mighty works of God in the person of Jesus. The miraculous aspect of this story is that the barriers that normally divide people – race, language, culture, and ethnicity – are no match for the power of God, who transcend the differences that keep people apart. It is not as if the disciples take a crash course in the languages of Mesopotamia and Egypt, a kind ancient “Berlitz” program. Rather, we who hear the reading realize that God himself reverses the cycle of sin and spiritual pride that fragmented the human family in the first place. The reading is composed in such a way as to underscore the fact that, when human beings are left to their own devices, there spring up division, violence and suffering. When God takes hold of the situation, there is reconciliation, healing and fullness of life.
Likewise, the author of St. John’s Gospel makes the same point using somewhat different categories. Instead of relating the coming of the Spirit fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Spirit descends upon the disciples that very first Easter Sunday. The point is that Jesus appears to the disciples and breathes on them that divine wind, the Holy Spirit who would keep them always connected to the mind and heart of Christ, who would be the principle of unity and peace in the family of God, who would indeed introduce Christians into the very life of the Trinitarian God.
While it is always important for us to work for the salvation of souls and the up-building of the human family, we will inevitably arrive at some limit to our competence, some point at which we can do no more. Such experiences, if we interpret them correctly, can be unto salvation. They remind us that salvation is God’s work, not our own. For one thing, we must instruments of the Holy Spirit who cooperate with, but do not substitute for, grace. But in a deeper sense, we must remember that the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – are just that: gifts that we neither deserve nor merit, and yet they are the ways in which God brings our own natural abilities to perfection.
Let us pray with the composer of the Sequence for the Holy Spirit, who says that “without your aid man can do nothing good, and everything is sinful . . . so soften the hard heart . . . and given your seven holy gifts to your faithful . . . give them reward for their virtuous acts; gift them a death that ensures salvation; give them unending bliss. Amen. Alleluia.”