The Gift of the Holy Spirit

If you ask people what the Solemnity of Pentecost is about, most will say “the sending of the Holy Spirit.” But Pentecost was not the first time the Holy Spirit had been active in human history.

On Easter Sunday evening, Jesus appeared the Apostles in the Upper Room – although the doors were locked. He said, “Peace be with you,” and showed them his hands and his side. Then Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” Earlier in the Gospels, at the Annunciation, Mary asked the archangel how the Messiah, the Christ, would be conceived in her; and Gabriel replied it would be a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. And then soon after, at the Visitation, her relative Elizabeth, with the little John the Baptist within her, was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” moving Elizabeth to joyfully exclaim the hidden knowledge: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” And the Holy Spirit worked in more than just the time of the Gospels. The Nicene Creed says the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” He inspired all the books of both the Old and New Testaments.

So what was different about Pentecost? Before answering that, let’s review what happened. On that day, the Holy Spirit descended to the sound of strong, driving wind and in the appearance of flames, which separated and came to rest upon each of the gathered disciples without doing them any harm.

They were moved to voice ecstatic praises glorifying God and the Holy Spirit gave them the power to speak in different languages they did not naturally know to address Jews visiting from many lands of the then-known world. These devout Jews were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Jewish feast of Pentecost, their feast of first fruits celebrating the new harvest from the earth. Similarly, the first Christian Pentecost was the disciples’ first abundant harvest of souls into Christ’s Kingdom.

The Holy Spirit not only gave the disciples the capacity to speak but embed them with courage to bear witness to Christ. Previously, they had hidden behind locked doors. Now they spoke openly in the streets. Peter, who during the Passion had denied Jesus three times out of fear, is inspired this day to begin preaching the Gospel to total strangers. “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about 3,000 persons were added that day.”

On Pentecost, the curse of Babel is reversed. In the Genesis story of Babel, people tried to reach Heaven by building a towering city apart from God. God confused their language as a kindness, to limit the evil they could do. But at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is building and populating the city of God, the Church, gathering them to God with this miracle of all languages united as one. Indeed his Church is catholic, that is universal, for every land and people, tribe and tongue.

So, returning to the previous question, what is different about Pentecost? Notice that these gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to each of the disciples gathered in the house; not only the Blessed Virgin full of grace, not just the Apostles—the first leaders of the Church, but each and every one of the roughly one hundred and twenty Christians gathered together there. The Holy Spirit was not acting in the world for the first time at Pentecost; nor was his presence and gifts meant for only for the most famous saints in the Early Church. The Holy Spirit’s activity continues in the Church today, not only within a favored few but in all of us in Christ.

As St. Augustine preached: “What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” In a living human body, all the parts of the body are joined to each other and joined to their supremely important head. Without the head, the body dies. Without the soul, the body is lifeless. We are the Body of Christ, Jesus is our exalted Head, and the Holy Spirit—the Soul of the Church—animates the body and every living part of it.

You and I first received the Holy Spirit at our baptisms, probably at an age earlier than we can remember. (I wish I had the time and opportunity to ask people baptized as adults to describe the difference having the Holy Spirit in their life has had.) We were more deeply configured to the Holy Spirit at our confirmations. (After my confirmation at Zorn Arena in Eau Claire, as my family and I were driving to a restaurant, I remember feeling particularly happy and wondering why. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah, the Holy Spirit.” Joy is one of his fruits.) The Holy Spirit was not new at Pentecost but he outpoured amazing gifts into all the Christians. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not new in you, but he desires to outpour himself to you with his gifts anew.

How can this happen for us? Simply by asking and inviting him. Jesus tells us, “Everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” In those days, a round, baked, loaf of bread could resemble a brown stone, so Jesus adds, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread? If you, who are wicked (who are sinful), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Ask for the Holy Spirit to empower you.

Try some experiments with the Holy Spirit. For instance, invite him into your prayer times. Anyone committed to regular prayer will have times of dryness, listlessness, lack of direction. St. Paul writes to the Romans that the Holy Spirit “comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes…” At dry times in prayer, when I remember to ask the Holy Spirit for help, my prayer immediately becomes easier.

Invite the Holy Spirit to inspire your work. Though I care a great deal about writing good homilies, most Friday nights I don’t know what I will be preaching on Saturday afternoon. I think the Lord does this to improve my trust. After ten years of priesthood, he has never left me high and dry without anything to preach for Sunday.

And ask for the Holy Spirit’s aid in your interactions with others. I ask for his help in confessions or before challenging conversations. Now I share these examples because they are examples from my life, but don’t think that the Holy Spirit only comes to our air with church-y things. He wants to be present, to share his gifts in your everyday life, because this is where souls are lost and won for the Kingdom of God.

About a dozen years ago, I was lying on my bed one afternoon praying to the Holy Spirit rather apologetically. I said, ‘Holy Spirit, you are like the forgotten and ignored third Person of the Trinity. You’re just as much God as the Father and the Son, but we address many more prayers to them than you; and when we do pray to you it’s because we want something, but you’re more than just some divine vending machine.” Then I heard in my mind these words: “I am gift.”

Now whenever you receive a word in prayer it’s good to verify it against the truths that you know. So I thought, “Let’s see if this checks out.” From all eternity, God the Father gives all that he is to God the Son, and the Son gives himself back as a total gift to the Father. From this exchange of self-gift and love, God the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds. The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to earth as a gift to sanctify and transform us so we can join the life of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit rejoices to be gift. It is who he is. And when we ask for his gifts we are implicitly welcoming for his presence; for how could his gifts be manifested where he is not?

So conduct some experiments with the Holy Spirit. Invite him, and ask that his gifts be manifested in you. He is happy to give.

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