Pentecost: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

In Acts 1:1 Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…” [emphasis mine]. This strongly implies that Christ’s words and deeds will continue with the Church in Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, which one noted British New Testament scholar, F.F. Bruce, has called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

This assertion is confirmed in Christ’s words to his disciples after his resurrection: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” It is also reinforced in the last words we hear at Mass: “Ite missa est.”

Fathers Trigilio and Brighenti accurately point out that the correct translation of these Latin words is “Go, the [congregation] is sent.” The people are told, in so many words, “You’ve celebrated the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; now go forth, in word and deed, and be my ambassadors (II Corinthians 5:20) in all the earth; be that bread that is broken for a hungry world.”

The preceding paragraphs highlight the what of the Catholic faith but don’t say anything about the how; they underscore the chief end of the Church but not the means to accomplish this end. This is why the Solemnity of Pentecost on May 20 is so important because it’s all about the rocket fuel (the ministry of the Holy Spirit) that is used to accomplish the daunting mission (imitating Christ in his life, death and resurrection; Philippians 3:10) of getting the spacecraft to a distant planet like Neptune.

A basic but sometimes overlooked premise embedded in this Solemnity is this: if Christ himself needed the fullness of the Holy Spirit to accomplish his earthly mission, then so do we: “…and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’ ” (Luke 3:22).

This discloses a breathtaking humility from the One we regard as God in the flesh: as British evangelical, Roy Hession underscores, the Dove descended on the meek and lowly Lamb (John 1: 29-34). The power, grace, and enduement of God in the Person of the Holy Spirit rested on the humble Lamb thus fulfilling the biblical declaration that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34 LXX; James 4:6-7).

We see this humility in the upper room as the followers of Christ waited for the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13). Mary, the Mother of God, though already full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:28), was present anyway: like her Son being baptized by John, she was there “to fulfill all righteousness.”

The apostle Peter, the First Pope of the Church, was there too and had been greatly humbled by his thrice denial of Christ before the rooster crowed during the Passion only 50-plus days before. The other disciples also had been rendered contrite because they also, save John, did not comport themselves well during the Passion.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. We often hear other Christians say things like “except for the grace of God there go I,” or “I made it through this or that difficult ordeal because of the grace of God.”

What’s sometimes overlooked is that this grace is not a thing or a doctrine; no, this Grace is a Person. In fact, Hebrews 10:29 calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Grace.

And, in receiving the Holy Spirit at Baptism, we also receive the Son and the Father (CCC 732, 735) because the Trinity is indivisible. Receiving the Spirit is a down payment (Ephesians 1:14) or guarantee that points to the fullness of life that awaits us in heaven.

At Pentecost we enter into fellowship with the Three-in-One and receive a foretaste of eternity and the Beatific Vision. Pentecost is like an engagement ring the betrothed Bride of Christ wears in this present life that points to the glories to come in the hereafter in the Marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-8).

In celebrating the Solemnity of Pentecost, there are certain spiritual realities of which all practicing Catholics need to be acutely aware. For one, just because you received the fullness of the Holy Spirit at Baptism doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be proactive in cooperating with the Grace of God in maintaining that fullness.

Ephesians 5:18 tells us “… do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” A strong case can be made from the original Greek that the verse connotes the need for a continuous in-filling and ongoing replenishment: “Keep being filled with the Spirit.”

The three verses that follow Ephesians 5:18 are very telling: “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

These verses show how we can (1) cooperate with the Grace of God in order to maintain the fullness of the Spirit and (2) they also reveal what the outcome of a Spirit-filled life looks like. When I meditate on these two dimensions, I can’t help but think of celebrating Mass: we may come to Mass feeling empty and receive an in-filling of the Spirit as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or we may come full of the Spirit and reflect that in our worship.

In the Lord’s Supper, there’s the singing of the psalms, hymns, and choruses and the profound giving of thanks in the Eucharist. We subject ourselves to the priest because he is ministering in our great High Priest’s place and we should, in the humility of Christ, “…count others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

For the practicing Catholic the fullness of the Spirit is inextricably bound up with availing ourselves to the sacramental life. Fathers Trigilio and Brighenti are on-target in saying, “The seven sacraments involve a physical, tangible symbol such as water used in Baptism and the oil when anointing, to represent the invisible spiritual reality, the supernatural grace given in each sacrament” [emphasis theirs]. Again, supernatural grace and the fulness of the Spirit are synonymous.

It’s no coincidence that the directive to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” in Ephesians 5:21 is followed by a long section of exhortations to husbands, wives, and children to model relationships that are marked by humility and serving one another. Humility in relationships can both be the cause and reflect the reality of the fullness of the Spirit in believer’s lives.

St. Paul goes so far to specifically identify the evidence of the fullness of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).  The evidence of spiritual bankruptcy is also made plain: “…fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21).

We can easily identify and highlight the “sins of the flesh” (e.g., fornication) in this list and then downplay sins that are characterized by the toxicity of pride in our relationships (e.g., enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, dissension, party spirit, envy). Such a lack of humility in the way we treat others can grieve the Holy Spirit:

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice” (Ephesians 5:29-31).

Satan is more than happy to have us be completely free of sexual sin if can facilitate pride and discord in our relationships, especially in our immediate family. As someone who has spent years in both evangelical Protestant and now Catholic churches, I’ve noticed, over the years, many believers can be both intellectually and spiritually catechized but not emotionally catechized.

Put simply, they are knowledgeable in their faith (the intellectual), they pray and embrace spiritual disciplines (the spiritual), but many of their relationships are a mess (the emotional). Many needed healing of damaged emotions and didn’t see this need because they were doing well in the intellectual and spiritual, thus having a blind spot rooted in pride.

For example, I know a woman whose father left her and her mother when she was very young. She was subsequently raised by a mother who was self-centered and therefore emotionally distant from her daughter.

The daughter then married a man who had a demanding career and was very motivated to advance in said career. We can all see where this is going as the daughter’s feelings of abandonment are reignited all over again, resulting in a marriage marked by great acrimony that has no place for the fullness of the Spirit.

Hence, we can see the need for gifted and competent counselors and “physicians of the soul”, people rooted in the teachings of the Church and working in concert with the Holy Spirit, who can facilitate healing and deeper levels of emotional catechism. They are like the people who helped Lazarus (John 11) after Christ raised him from the dead: yes, he had been raised from the dead but he still needed others to help him remove his grave clothes.

image:  [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fishermen,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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