Homily for June 12, 2011: Pentecost Sunday

This Sunday, we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the great birthday of the Church, Pentecost.  It may be one of the most neglected of the church’s feast days.  We don’t hang lights, as we do at Christmas, and we don’t wear fancy hats or eat lots of candy, as we do at Easter.  There are no big Pentecost sales at Macy’s.

But maybe there should be.

I don’t think we give this feast the credit or attention it deserves.  Part of that may be because the one who dwells at the center of this great feast, the Holy Spirit, is surprisingly low key.  Despite arriving with a roaring of wind and tongues of fire, the Spirit is very much someone who likes to stay in the background.  He works behind the scenes.

To many of us, the Holy Spirit seems to be the quietest member of the Blessed Trinity.  After all, in sacred scripture, the Father speaks often, and so does Jesus.  But you’d be hard-pressed to find famous quotes from the Holy Spirit.   It sometimes seems as if the Spirit is the Trinity’s silent partner.

But this morning, I’d like to suggest that, in fact, the Spirit does speak.  Eloquently.  Passionately.  Fearlessly.

And He continues to be heard, even today.

It began in the Acts of the Apostles, and the account of Pentecost:

“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

Moments after His descent, the Spirit gave the disciples a voice – a voice that could not be contained in that upper room.  A voice that needed to be spread to the wider world.

Despite the wide range of cultures and languages gathered in Jerusalem that day, everyone there heard and understood.  Someone even exclaims, incredulously: “We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

God’s great work transcends time, place, language, culture.  It is infinite.  It is “catholic” in the truest sense of what that word means: it is universal.

And it is courageous.  If you keep reading this chapter from Acts, the next important voice belongs to Peter.  The apostle who only weeks before had publicly denied even knowing Jesus was transformed by the Spirit.  On Pentecost, Peter stood before the world and began to preach the good news without hesitation or qualification or fear. “Let this be known to you,” he said.  “Listen to my words.”

And so it began.

The Holy Spirit has spent the ensuing centuries expressing the inexpressible – from the mouths of saints and the pens of popes and prophets, gently but insistently making sure that the world continues to hear, in every language, in every medium, across every barrier, the good news about the “the mighty acts of God.”

The Holy Spirit has worked to inspire, to encourage, to uplift.  He has inflamed hearts, again and again, to preach and to proclaim, to counsel and console.  Just before his Ascension, Christ described the Spirit as our “Advocate.”  And so He is.  This member of the Blessed Trinity stands with us and beside us, pleading our cause, acting on our behalf.  He helps to lead us where God wants us to go, to help fulfill His holy will.  I’ve seen it in my own life.  It was in 2002, during a retreat in Georgia, that I first felt the stirrings of my own vocation to the diaconate.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this happened at a place called the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.  I have no doubt that Holy Spirit was doing His work, fanning the embers of my faith until they’d catch fire.

My prayer is that the adults who are about to be confirmed here today will feel similar stirrings in their own hearts.  Every one of you has a vocation, a call to live out your lives in a particular way as Catholic Christians.  This moment, literally, confirms it.

This morning, you may not see tongues of fire fall.   But pray for the light – and for the heat.  Welcome the Spirit’s warmth and friendship.  Turn to Him.  Call upon Him.  Ask Him for guidance and direction.  He will always answer.

Pray that the one who gave voice to Peter will also give YOU a voice, so you can share in your own way, in your own lives, all that you know of “the mighty acts of God.”

Birthdays, of course, are a time we look forward to receiving gifts.  So, too, with today, the birthday of the Church, when we recall the gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord.

Those really are gifts that keep on giving.

You may not see any “Happy Pentecost” cards in the Hallmark store.  And tomorrow, you won’t find Pentecost decorations that are half off at Rite Aid.  But this great feast, this great holy day, stands as a towering and enduring moment, the day when our Church was born.  Celebrate this day of days.  Give thanks for it.

And give thanks, as well, for the one who seems to be the silent partner in the Blessed Trinity – the quiet Spirit who, despite what we may think, is often the one who speaks the loudest.

Comments

  1. Barbara Peters says:

    Deacon, I am curious as to why you refer to the Holy Spirit with the male pronouns?

  2. This is a wonderful homily, Deacon Kandra! It’s very quotable!

  3. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Barbara…

    The Spirit is referred to as a masculine entity in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the gospels.

    From the CCC:

    687 “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Now God’s Spirit, who reveals God, makes known to us Christ, his Word, his living Utterance, but the Spirit does not speak of himself. The Spirit who “has spoken through the prophets” makes us hear the Father’s Word, but we do not hear the Spirit himself. We know him only in the movement by which he reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome him in faith. the Spirit of truth who “unveils” Christ to us “will not speak on his own.”8 Such properly divine self-effacement explains why “the world cannot receive (him), because it neither sees him nor knows him,” while those who believe in Christ know the Spirit because he dwells with them.9

    From the Gospel of St. John:

    But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.

    Dcn. G.

  4. Barbara Peters says:

    Deacon, Thank you for expalaining. But as a woman I can’t help to feel alienated – God the Father is male, Jesus is male, the Holy Spirit is male,only men can be ordained as priests and deacons yet the Scriptures say we are created in God’s image – according to the Church, is there a feminine aspect to God? I am not trying to be difficult – I am sincerely curious about the Church’s viewpoint on this. I have been a Catholic all my life and attend Mass regularly – I honestly am starting to feel alienated as a woman from the religion I have practiced all my life and would appreciate any guidance you can give me. Thank you – and Happy Pentecost – I think we should be hanging lights on our houses!! I love the Holy Spirit!

  5. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Barbara…

    You’re not the only one who takes issue with that — and if you do a little Googling you’ll find a lot of interesting debate about what gender we should assign the Holy Spirit, and why. The Church’s teaching is that God is actually a figure who stands outside of gender.

    The catechism states, in section 239:

    239 By calling God “Father”, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.

    Personally, I’m intrigued at thinking of the Holy Spirit in feminine, maternal terms; in fact, the Spirit at its most playful, imaginative, and persuasive actually reminds me a lot of my wife. :-)

    And I appreciate the way a very orthodox friend puckishly refers to the Spirit: “She who must be obeyed.”

    Dcn. G.

  6. Barbara Peters says:

    Thanks Deacon – This was very helpful – and I will keep exploring this issue – perhaps this is the Holy Spirit’s quiet way of calling me to come closer?

  7. Michelle Russell says:

    Barbara, Dcn. Greg:
    Here is a little snipper from page 14 of COME, CREATOR SPIRIT, by Raniero Cantalamessa:

    “In Semitic languages, the noun ‘spirit’ is feminine, and this has certainly made its influence felt, so much so that…there has been a rich development of doctrine on the Holy Spirit as ‘mother’, which stresses these ‘gentle and tender’ characteristics of the Spirit. In one of these authors, we read that Adam’s disgrace after the Fall was that ‘he no longer saw the true Father of the heavens, nor the benign, good Mother, the grace of the Spirit, nor the agreeable, desireable Brother, the Lord.”

    I have not finished this book, but so far it is a wonderful resource on the Holy Spirit, though it has been slow reading for me. Happy Pentecost!

  8. I honestly thought that in the Old Testament, there were verses that described the Holy Spirit in maternal terms. Actually God’s love is described that way on at least one occasion. “As a mother loves a child…” something to that nature.

    That’s why I am so glad that the Catholic Church honors the Holy Mother. So many women turn to her at times of need. Because they know that only a mother can understand. Or at times we are ashamed to look God in the face, we know that the Holy Mother will take us by the hand and bring us back to her son, and her son will do everything she asks of him.

    But within the Church (the Bride of Christ) there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, freeman or slave…We are all one, united in our Lord.

  9. Deacon Norb says:

    Byzantine Christianity has picked-up on the insight that the Holy Spirit is best described in feminine terms. Their holiest of their special shrines/cathedrals/basilicas (whatever they call them) is “Hagia Sophia” in Istanbul.

    Loosely translated from the ancient Greek into English, “Hagia Sophia” means “Holy Wisdom” but it is often the term used to address/refer to the third person of the Blessed Trinity.

    It absolutely is a feminine term.

    In fact, the term has been picked up over the two millenia of Christianity as a given name — but only for women. In English it is “Sophie.” My own mother was a second generation Ellis Island Polish Catholic and her given name in Polish was “Zoyshia.” She has two great grand-daughters named after her: one named “Rhayanne Sophia” and the other named “Sophie Marie.”

  10. Using the title “Wisdom” to refer primarily to the Holy Spirit instead of primarily to the Son is pretty late-period stuff. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it makes reading patristic texts confusing if you don’t know that.

    And of course it’s fascinating how people Focus Hard on the fact that “wisdom” is a word of feminine gender, while totally neglecting all the others, like “alethia” or “veritas”.

    Meanwhile, if you really want to be threatened by God being necessarily sexless in two of His Persons (two of His Persons -not having bodies, duh-), but that God freely chose to reveal Himself as more like a male in two of His Persons than anything else, and to become incarnated as a male human …

    Well, honestly, as a woman I feel that’s kinda missing the point. Eve and Mary are purely human and they are lynchpins of Creation’s history and salvation. God totally orients Himself to respond to women, and plans for women to be Humanity 2.0 — and somebody takes that as a rejection? I don’t get it. Women have got to stop drinking the Kool-Aid, and stop thinking that mixing it for ourselves is a feminist, empowering act.

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