Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. May 31, 2020
Today, the Church celebrates its “birthday” with the feast of Pentecost. It is a scene of great drama – rushing wind, tongues of fire, the uttering of many languages. It is also a scene of inner transformation: timid disciples empowered to speak boldly, in a way that no matter what the religious, cultural, and linguistic differences, each hears the message in a language they can understand. Such is the power of God’s Holy Spirit: to break down the walls of division and to create the unity that is the Father’s desire for all creation. From the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Church is born – and reborn, in every age.
Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? A group of people with fire in their bellies and the wind beneath their wings, empowered to break down the boundaries of narrowness and prejudice with a spirit of courage and conviction, of inclusivity and welcome. But let’s be honest – when we think “Catholic Church” – is that the connection we make? When the world looks at us, do they see a community that has inherited and lives out this legacy of wind and fire?
Does the wind at our backs push us beyond our boundaries and borders to bring the Gospel to new peoples and situations? Does the fire in our bellies inspire others to believe as well? The election of Pope Francis in 2013, the fresh air he has enabled to blow through the church through his witness of joy, mercy, and Christian love, has certainly made a big difference. Again and again, he reminds that we are called to focus outwards, to concern ourselves less with the preservation of our own structures than with the transformation of the world around us. And in this world just beginning to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s still lots more work to do!!
So let us embrace today as a time to make a new beginning. God’s wind still blows, breathing life into us and filling our sails, propelling us into the future. God’s fire still burns within us, purifying our hearts and enlightening our path. When we are tempted to stay in the confines of our upper rooms, safely locking out all threats, Jesus comes and stands among us, breathes his peace upon us, invites us to share in his joy. He then invites us, as in the Gospel we have just heard proclaimed, to share in his mission: to be bearers of peace and joy to all people, to break down barriers of hatred and injustice, to bear witness to his truth and love among all the nations. And the particular challenges our church and our world face as we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic make this mission all the more relevant and important.
We cannot do this by sheer will power, memorizing our Bibles till we know every chapter and verse, our Catechism till we know every question and answer. We need the Holy Spirit. The One described in the beautiful Pentecost sequence as “Wise Consoler, Welcome Guest, Sweet Refreshment, Cool Breeze, Shining Light, Indwelling Presence.” It is the Spirit who can “bend the stubborn heart and will, melt the frozen, warm the chill, guide the wayward home again.” God’s Spirit is revealed in an amazing diversity of gifts, reflected in a marvellous way in so many cultures and traditions, in the incredible diversity of Creation. Yet the Spirit is always a unifying and integrating force, not a source of division or separation.
How do we know if we are living according to the Spirit? After all, we can’t be blazing flames and whirling windstorms all the time!! It’s fascinating how in Biblical chronology, Luke associates the gift of the Holy Spirit with the Pentecost experience, fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection: it is the launching of the mission to the Gentiles. Whereas for John, Jesus himself breathes forth the Spirit on the very evening of his rising from the dead, in a more intimate and personal encounter, bringing inner peace, joy, forgiveness, and healing. Ultimately, there is no contradiction between the two: for the gift of the Holy Spirit was so great that it needed to be unfolded gradually, as new aspects were discovered, others appropriated as a deeper level as time went on.
As the early Church grew and developed, so too did its understanding of how the Spirit was at work in the Church. Writing to the Corinthians – a community plagued by divisions and infighting – Paul stresses the metaphor of the Body of Christ, with the Spirit as its animating and unifying principle. There is a diversity of gifts, services, and activities – all necessary for the building up of the Church as Christ’s Body. But the Spirit activates and unifies all these gifts, orienting them to the common good and shared mission of the community.
Writing later to the Galatians – a community pressured to enclose the freedom given by the Spirit within the rigid structure of obedience to the whole Law of Moses – Paul insists that justification comes not through minute observance of external rules and regulations, but a life lived in accordance with God’s Spirit, whose identifying “fruits” are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful; and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created; And you shall renew the face of the earth!
Many of us learned this prayer to the Holy Spirit in our youth. Imagine what might happen if we really prayed that prayer as if we meant it! What would our Church look like if each of us was so consumed with the desire to be set aflame by this indwelling of God? What kind of transformation might we witness – in our individual lives, in our parish community, in the world around us? Pentecost is thus far more than a celebration of the Church's “birthday” as a remembrance of things past. It is to experience anew the divine impulse that led to the birthing of the Church through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon ALL: breaking down boundaries of gender and race, of language and nationality, of wealth and social status, of age and power. In the Spirit, each of us is called, gifted, transformed, and sent forth. The Spirit is alive in you, in me, and in ways that extend far beyond the confines of the church. The Spirit is so much greater than we can imagine!
Here at St. Monica’s, we form a richly diverse community. We come from many lands, we speak different languages, we have different gifts and talents, we express our faith by diverse devotions and spiritualities, we give witness through a variety of ministries. Yet in the Spirit, we truly form One Body. These past three Sundays, during my illness, I delighted in participating in the online Sunday service, seeing how presiders, readers, preachers and musicians shared their gifts so that we might continue to worship together as a community. Although I missed presiding at the Eucharist, I was happy to see that we could come together in prayer and worship, whether or not a priest was available. We heard the word broken open for us by Martina, by Fr. Robert Assaly, by Sr. Beverley. Today, let us listen to the witness of Sr. Marjorie Moffatt SNJM, missionary and liturgist, who will testify to her experience of the Holy Spirit at work in all of God’s Creation:
Let us conclude with a poem to lift our spirits, and to remind us that the same Spirit that moved over the waters at the dawn of Creation is still at work: in all the members of the church, in all those who seek after truth and love and justice, in the entire Creation which God renews and refreshes:
Our Mother-tongue Is Love; A Sonnet for Pentecost (Malcolm Guite)
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.