The Language of the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, Year A.
Acts 2:1-11 – 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13 – John 20:19-23.

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world and that which contains all things understands what is said (Wisdom 1:7). These words of the Entrance Antiphon, about the universal presence and omniscience of the Spirit of the Lord, form the bedrock of today’s Liturgy. It is Pentecost, the Solemnity which marks the end of the Easter season. Pentecost commemorates four things:

  • the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles
  • the gift of tongues
  • the discourse of St. Peter
  • the institution of the early Christian Church.

From the account in the First Reading, we understand that Pentecost marks the birth of the Church.

Pentecost was the first time that the Apostles (the bishops, appointed by Christ at the Last Supper), turbo-powered by the Holy Spirit, were welded into a living organism – the living Body of Christ – and witnessed to the world the marvels of God.

Easter is the fulfilment of the Feast of First Fruits. First Fruits commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the offering of two loaves to God in gratitude for the ingathered harvest, seven weeks after the beginning of the grain harvest. Jesus is the First Fruits from the dead (1Cor 15:22-23).

Pentecost (‘fifty days’) is the fulfilment of the Feast of Weeks. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was celebrated 50 days after the Jewish Feast of First Fruits. Pentecost (Shavuot) (Lev 23:9, 15-21) occurred (and is celebrated) 50 days after the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Feast of Weeks represents the summer harvest, a bigger harvest than that of the First Fruits. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit harvested 3000 people (Acts 2:41), counterbalancing the loss of 3000 Israelites as the result of their worshipping a golden calf while the Law was being delivered to Moses (Ex 32:28). Jesus insufflated the Apostles with the Holy Spirit (John 20:22) whose outpourings confirm that the Messianic times have been fulfilled from the moment of Jesus’ Resurrection (Acts 2:16-38).

Shavuot / the Feast of Weeks / Pentecost was rather like one of our public holidays or bank holidays, in that it was a nationwide day off from work (Lev 23:21), and it attracted lots of people to Jerusalem. After the Ascension, the disciples of Jesus had gathered together *in Jerusalem* to devote themselves to prayer. Ten days later, on the day of the feast, the Holy Spirit – the Ruach HaKodesh – descended on them like a mighty, rushing wind (Acts 2:2) and many people were astonished as they heard in their own native language the acclamation by the Apostles of the marvels of God (Acts 2:11). The First Reading asserts that the sheer power of the Holy Spirit gifted these men to witness to Christ in languages other than their own and to be fully understood. You could say that the Holy Spirit ‘became their translator’. At Pentecost, the language of man that had been deliberately confused by God as a punishment for the erection of the idolatrous tower of Babel (Gen 11:4-9) became coherent and understandable once again, thanks to the language of the Holy Spirit. This language of the Holy Spirit is manifested in other ways too.

1. The language of the Holy Spirit is a language of great witness. The spirit-filled Apostles were heard telling of the marvels of the Lord. Reading further on in Acts 2, when some people alleged that the Apostles were drunk rather than inspired, St. Peter spoke up in defence of his brothers and addressed the crowd. Now, witnessing to Jesus is a sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No one can claim to be a great witness to the message of our Lord without being filled with the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells the Corinthians this basic truth in the Second Reading: no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This means that, if any one of us finds it difficult to witness to Christ, by word and deed, in private and in public, in season and out of season, then the Holy Spirit is not indwelling in them. Jesus appeared to His disciples, who were huddled together in fear behind closed doors, to bring them peace and to alert them that their mission as His witnesses was about to begin in earnest.

2. The language of the Holy Spirit is the language of liberty from fear. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the disciples conquered their fear, and gained both the courage and the readiness to witness and to devote what remained of their lives to Christ. Christianity began with courageous men who were ready to lay down their lives for what they believed to be true; they had to drink the cup that their Lord had drunk (cf. Mt 20:22). In giving witness to Christ, many lost their earthly lives. With the exception of St. John, all the Apostles were martyred: St. Peter was crucified upside down, St. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross, St. James was thrust through with a sword, Philip was crucified, Bartholomew was flayed alive, Thomas was speared, Simon the Zealot was sawn in half, James Son of Alpheus was clubbed & stoned, Matthew was stabbed, Thaddeus was killed with an axe, Matthias was stoned & beheaded, and St. Paul was beheaded. St. John suffered in a vat of boiling oil, but having been entrusted with the care of Our Lady by Our Lord, he lived to a ripe old age. Christianity started out neither as a commercial enterprise nor as a company looking to recruit employees, but rather as The Way (Acts 9:1-2) with people who remained steadfastly loyal to Jesus in the face of persecutions and threats. We might ask ourselves how we are remaining faithful to the tenets of Christianity. One great example of a saint who witnessed to Christ with his life was St. Thomas More who, as Chancellor to Henry VIII, held on to his Catholic faith despite all the political and religious pressures exerted upon him. Immediately before his execution he declared, ‘I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first’.

3. The language of the Holy Spirit is the language of unity. Have you ever wondered why the Holy Spirit chose to descend upon the Apostles when they were together? Well, it was because the Holy Spirit is the spirit of unity. Unity is a fragrance that attracts the Holy Spirit. The Apostles were together too when Christ appeared to them and breathed out the Holy Spirit upon them. Wherever there is unity, there is peace and there is joy. The Holy Spirit unified all those in Jerusalem who listened to the Apostles of Christ in their respective native languages. Pentecost created – and continues to create – the Church in which each member can contribute his own gift in response to the same spirit, the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians. An exceptional gathering of Christ’s faithful is one where each member, gifted in his own way, comes together with others to contribute to the work and wellbeing of the Church as far and as fully as his gifts permit.

4. Finally, the language of the Holy Spirit is the language of Christ Himself. At Pentecost, the promise by Christ of the advent of the Paraclete was fulfilled. Remember what Christ had told His Apostles: the Paraclete will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit takes from what is Christ’s and declares to us the things that are to come. May the Holy Spirit continue to refresh in us the message of Christ, to enkindle in us the fire of His love, and to enlighten us always to speak His language of great witness, of liberty from fear, of unity and of Christ Himself. Come Holy Spirit! Come, our refreshment, our solace and our light in the darkness. Inspire our hearts with the hope of heaven and bring us safely through the trials and torments of this earthly life. May each one of us bring our differing gifts (1Cor 12:4) to benefit everyone sheltered within the Church. Amen. God bless you.