Pentecost, Jan Joest (c.1450–1519), c.1505; Church of St Nicolai, Kalkar

Fr Neil’s homily at Pentecost, 23 May

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

Theologically, the Holy Spirit is not an unconscious force directed by God, but a conscious intelligence with his own personal integrity. He is the third person of the Trinity. God the Holy Spirit hovers over the formless void before the Word of God says, “let there be…” and Creation and life springs into being. It is the same Holy Spirit who overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation; who sees the Word of God, who spoke Creation into being, entering into that same Creation in the Incarnation.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, breathed into Adam as he is formed from the dust of the earth. This is the same Spirit whom Christ breathes into his disciples in the Gospel of John. It was the loss of this same Spirit of life that Adam and Eve experienced, in the Fall, as death as we now know it entered into the world. It is the same graces that are lost when we, like our ancestor Adam, commit mortal sin.

Throughout the Old Testament, it is the Holy Spirit who animates and gives special gifts and graces to the offices of prophet, priest and king so that through them God’s will could be communicated to his people, Israel. The gift of the Spirit didn’t however guarantee that those chosen for these high offices wouldn’t sin. Indeed it was so often the failure of the prophets, priests and kings that saw God’s judgement fall on Israel, and ultimately led to their destruction and exile.

Those who authentically received the Holy Spirit were giving a deep personal experience of God which enabled them to speak and act with an element of divine authority — “thus says the Lord.” It is the same authority that enables the priest in the confessional to say, “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father,Son and Holy Spirit.” This personal gift was never given for the personal benefit of the individual but always for the revealing of the glory of God and the building up of his people.

Pentecost marks the beginning of the New Creation, breaking into our fallen world. The Holy Spirit actively animates the twelve Apostles as the new Israel through whom the salvation of God would come to all the world. Babel is reversed and there is one common language of truth and divine charity that seeks to unite all people in God’s Kingdom. The truth to which the Spirit bears witness is the unfolding events of redemption made possible in Christ’s, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension into glory. The Spirit bears witness to Christ as the way, the truth and the life.

The Holy Spirit speaks with the unitive voice of the Godhead, “who proceeds from the Father” — “he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” says our Lord. Therefore anyone claiming to speak in the power of the Holy Spirit, yet who contradicts what has already been revealed, whatever standing the person may have, is a brigand and robber, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This Counsellor and Comforter is the revealer who guides the individual follower of Christ into all truth. Yet the fullness of the Spirit is only encountered in the fullness of the body of Christ, the Church. It is to his body, the Church, that the Holy Spirit continues to unveil the deeper truths yet to be fully understood. Christ tells his disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, yet you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into the truth.”

The Holy Spirit was planted in us at our baptisms, strengthened at confirmation, and is most powerfully active within the Church through the sacraments. Yet the Holy Spirit’s presence as a personal encounter with the living God, Christ resurrected and glorified, can often be easily neglected, reserved in people’s minds for the excesses of the loony fringe at the far end of the Charismatic Movement.

The Holy Spirit is the regenerative presence of Christ within us. Therefore praying to the Holy Spirit, for guidance in how we might best unite our will with God and be enabled to fulfil our particular baptismal vocation, is essential to the active mission of the Church. That mission is seen in the twin activities of offering divine worship in our liturgies to glorify God, and the proclamation of the Gospel in the evangelisation of the world.

In our fallen world there are however many ‘spirits’ that would seek to deceive us into error and sin — they may even appear as angels of light, peddling words of wisdom, kindness, compassion and love but yet are demonic. St Paul provides a clear, straightforward means of discerning these spirits. Does the spirit lead ultimately to the indulgence of the flesh as a means of our own self-fulfilment and desire, or to the revealed will of God?

Paul is speaking of flesh as humanity’s fallen nature which looks for fulfilment in the temporal world, apart from God; and he is very clear what its fruits are: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Is it any wonder, as our western culture moves further away from the revealed will of God, that our society falls into greater disintegration? The fruits of a culture of death are plain to see. Of course there are temporal issues that require a response from the Church, such as the environment, the education of our children, identity politics, poverty, modern day slavery, trafficking of people and abuse of the young and vulnerable. Pentecost however reminds us that the renewing of the world begins with our own continuous conversion and transformation as temples of the Holy Spirit. This transformation is both for us as individuals, and through us individuals to our communities. For, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

Here begins the true transformation of the world.

The editorial title to this article is a phrase from Come down, O Love divine translated by R F Littledale (1833–1890) from the Italian of Bianco da Siena (d 1434).