We have all experienced over the last couple of weeks both power and powerlessness. We experienced the power of nature when the storm hit this region, doing much damage to roofs and trees and cars, and, sadly, also killing a number of people. Someone I know likened the power of the wind as equal to several nuclear blasts. When we hear in our first reading that the Holy Spirit comes “like the rush of a mighty wind”, we should be thinking in terms of that kind of power. The Spirit’s coming is not negligible, not at all like a gentle breeze. It is meant to be something which demands to be noticed, and received with awe and which is a little bit terrifying as well, rather like being caught in the kind of storm we experienced recently would have terrified anyone unfortunate to be there at the time.
But this Spirit does not come to do damage, except to the kingdom of Satan. He does not come to kill people, but to kill sin in them, and bring them into a new life, the life of the Spirit. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans:” the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8: 1 -2). The Spirit brings death to sin and hell, but life to those who believe in Christ. The Spirit comes, in the words of our psalm today, “to renew the face of the earth”.
How does he do that? By falling on the individual members of the Church and endowing them with spiritual gifts. “Now there are varieties of gifts” says St Paul in our second reading, “and to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. Unfortunately, the editors of our lectionary have omitted the passage which comes next, where the various kinds of gifts, or charisms, as they are known, are listed. These are, as Paul names them, the gift of word of wisdom, the gift of the word of knowledge, the gift of mountain-moving, expectant faith, gifts of healings, gifts of miracles, the gift of prophecy, the gift of discernment of spirits, the gifts of tongues and interpretation of tongues. I have no way of knowing why these verses have been omitted. Perhaps the editors thought that those gifts no longer operated in the Church anymore. (St Augustine thought that, back in the 4th century, but soon reversed his position, when he witnessed healings breaking out all around him. St Cyril of Jerusalem, also in the 4th century, wrote the following to the newly baptized members of his diocese :”The Spirit makes one person a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one person’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another too fast and lead a life of asceticism, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same.”)
The Catholic Church clearly does not believe these gifts have disappeared. In its document on The Church, Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council wrote: “The Holy Spirit not only sanctifies and guides God’s people by the sacraments and the ministries, and enriches it with virtues, he also distributes special graces among the faithful of every state of life, assigning his gifts to each as he chooses. By means of these special gifts, he equips them and makes them eager for various activities and responsibilities that benefit the Church in its renewal or its increase.” The document, in a footnote, specifically references those gifts or charisms, mentioned by Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, but which have been omitted in our second reading today. The document then states the following :”These charisms, the simpler and more widespread as well as the most outstanding, should be accepted with a sense of gratitude and consolation, since in a very special way they answer and serve the needs of the Church” (Lumen Gentium , article 12).
You might think that it is pretty hard for people to realize and tap into the particular gifts given them by the Spirit when they are not even made aware of them. We have had , at various times, here in the parish, seminars on the gifts of the Spirit, other parishes run such seminars on a semi-regular basis, and Catholic ministries, such as ‘The Encounter School of Ministry” which now has a campus here in Ottawa based at St Mary’s, give explicit teaching on how to exercise and move in these gifts. Each believer has their own share of the gifts, and these gifts are meant to be exercised in various ministries in a parish. We have been calling, in the bulletin, for volunteers to step up and fill in the gaps in such ministries, such as counters, live stream members, parish council and temporal affairs council members, sacristans and intercessors. I would urge those who, at present, are not carrying out a ministry in our parish, to prayerfully consider whether God is calling them to step up and offer themselves for ministry in these or other areas of our parish life.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke describes the coming of the holy Spirit in very noisy, powerful imagery, violent wind, and fire and shaking of buildings. Luke does this because he wants his readers to understand that the Spirit is not someone to be overlooked, or ignored. No, this is God himself showing up and manifesting himself in unmistakably vivid and powerful ways. Just as God showed himself to the Israelites on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19: 16ff by means of thunder and lightning, trumpet blasts, and fire. But this is not the only way in which the Spirit can be experienced. Just as the prophet Elijah , in 1 Kings 19 :11ff, on top of the very same mountain, met with God not in wind, or earthquake or fire, but in a still, small voice, so the apostles in our gospel today , from St John, receive the Spirit in a gentle way , as a breath from Jesus. In fact, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the same word is used for Spirit, breath, air and wind. You cannot put the Spirit in a box, and predict how and when and where he is going to show up. “The wind”, says Jesus in the gospel of John, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3: 8). So it is with the Spirit. Why does the Spirit come to some in a very noticeable, perceptible way, and to others in a very quiet way? I don’t know, but I suspect that one reason is that, with a person who is in close relationship with God, through prayer and Scripture and sacrament, and good deeds, the Spirit does not need to shout. It is only those who have drifted away from closeness to God who needs a noisy reminder that God is not to be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant.
I am going to finish with a prayer, inspired by Pope Francis, invoking the Holy Spirit on us, and invite you to open your hearts to receive him in whatever way he chooses to make himself known. This is the prayer:
Once more I invoke you, Holy Spirit.
I implore you to come and renew your Church!
Open our cold hearts.
Shake up our lukewarm, superficial spirituality.
Make us fearlessly open to your workings in us.
Anoint us with divine love in a renewed experience of our salvation
In the crucified, risen and Eucharistic Lord Jesus within us.
Let us know experientially that Jesus walks with us, talks with us, works with us-
Really lives in us
To cure the infinite sadness of the human race,
By the infinite mercy and love of God the Father.
Transform our life, then, by the encounter with God’s presence.
Set our hearts ON FIRE with enthusiasm
To go out boldly to evangelize all peoples,
Full of your fervor, joy, boundless love, attractiveness and power.
We ask all this through the great intercession of Mary, Mother of the Living Gospel
And in the name of the Lord Jesus, Our Savior God, AMEN.