Fr. Joseph Levine; May 23, 2021
Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:1,24,29-31,34; Gal 5:16-25; Jn 15:26-27,16:12-15
Why Pentecost? Or since the word means ‘the fiftieth day’, why did Jesus send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples 50 days after his resurrection?
Among the Jewish people Pentecost is known as ‘Shavuot’ or the ‘Feast of Weeks’; the law of Moses prescribed that it should be celebrated seven weeks after the Passover; it was the celebration of the first fruits of the harvest. Nevertheless, it took on another meaning, because when the people of Israel were delivered from their slavery from Egypt on the first Passover, it was on the fiftieth day that the reached Mt. Sinai, entered into a covenant with God, and received the law through Moses. That law, as we know, was inscribed on stone tablets, which actually served as a symbol of the hardness of the human heart. (cf. Mt 19:8)
Next, we have to consider that Jeremiah had prophesied that God would establish a new covenant, unlike the covenant on Sinai, which the people of Israel had violated; the new covenant would be characterized by the forgiveness of sins, God writing the law on the heart of the people, and the people coming to know the Lord. (cf. Jer 31:31-34)
The prophet Ezekiel, for his part, announced that God would wash the people with clean water, take from their breasts their stony hearts, giving them instead a heart of flesh, putting his Spirit in them, making them to walk in fidelity to his law. (cf. Ez 36:25-27)
When we come to understand that the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel were brought to fulfillment on Pentecost, the first fruits of Christ’s redemptive work, then we can grasp that Pentecost stands in relation to Easter, the Christian Passover, as the Feast of Weeks stands to the Jewish Passover.
Instead of the law written in tablets of stone, we have the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven by Jesus Christ, writing God’s law on heart of man. (cf. 2 Cor 3:3) This is the great gift of the new covenant in the Blood of Christ.
Pentecost is the solution to a problem that has plagued humanity since Adam disobeyed God. The problem can be put very simply: people do not like being told what to do, not even by God. The gift of the Holy Spirit renders us docile to the law of God.
The wound of Adam’s sin had left us with a perverse inclination to disobey God, to do the opposite of what God commands us. St. Paul observes that the law given on Sinai, though good, in a way made things worse, precisely because men not only continued doing bad things, but they did even worse things by directly disobeying God. (cf. Rm 7:7-11)
St. Paul effectively makes the same observation in today’s 2nd reading when he declares that the flesh has desires against the Spirit. Or elsewhere, the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rm 8:7)
The biblical concept of ‘the flesh’ effectively refers to human desire stripped of God’s grace. Human desire is like an arrow; naturally, no matter how high you aim, it will fall back to earth. Only God’s grace enables the arrow of human desire to surpass nature and mount up to heaven. The weight of the arrow, which draws it back to earth, is what sets our desire against God’s law. That is the origin of the instinct of rebellion. That is why written law, divine or human, by itself, without the Spirit of God, ultimately fails to change human life for the better.
The modern world, which has rejected God and has sought to rebuild the tower of Babel, has produced an ever growing, incomprehensible mass of human ‘rules and regulations’, ‘policies and procedures’ – they are not worthy of the name of law – which are obeyed only in the measure that people feel they have no other choice. Otherwise, those who are able to do so seek ways to get around the rules, like tax-loopholes. Rules are multiplied to close the loopholes. Those who are more powerful or skillful find new ways to get around. Those who are in the flesh follow the ‘law’ of the world, which is ‘every man for himself.’
So, let me set before you the fundamental and decisive question, which do you want: life according to the flesh, or life in the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus Christ known exteriorly through the word of God and the teaching of the Church; at the same time he gives the light of understanding interiorly to the soul. The interior light of understanding from the Holy Spirit is how we come to ‘know the Lord’. The outward word and the interior light go hand in hand.
The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus Christ crucified, leading the soul to repentance of sin, convicting the person of his slavery to the flesh, yet giving him hope and leading him to long for deliverance and salvation. (cf. Jn 16:8-9)
The Holy Spirit then leads the soul to faith in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, who forgives our sins and bestows the life of grace through baptism.
That is the path by which the Holy Spirit leads an adult to Christ, but there are many who after having been baptized as children have lost their baptismal grace through mortal sin; the Holy Spirit leads them back to the life of grace by pretty much the same steps that he leads an adult to baptism; in this case, however, the resurrection to grace comes in the confessional.
Through sanctifying grace the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the soul as in a temple and, in the measure that soul renders herself docile to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the Holy Spirit leads from within. The Holy Spirit leads the soul on the path of God’s law, giving the soul a desire, contrary to that of the flesh, a desire to do what is good and right and just; the law of God no longer appears to the soul as an imposition from without, but a welcome guide that leads to God.
The soul begins to understand the words of Jesus: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Mt 11:29-30)
Likewise, the soul begins to understand the words of the Psalmist: The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, giving wisdom to the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps 19:7-10)
The Holy Spirit, who bears witness to Jesus, shows us how Jesus Christ fulfills the law in his person, feeding upon the will of his Father, seeking always to please his Father, teaching us to follow his example. (cf. Jn 4:34, 8:29; 13:15, 34)
The law of God, however, is not the goal, but the way, the way that leads to the knowledge of God. The Holy Spirit, who bears witness to Jesus, leads us to the knowledge of Jesus, the knowledge of the Lord. This is not merely the knowledge of words on a page, but the intimate knowledge of the person. The light of the Holy Spirit gives us the knowledge both of the inner meaning of the law and of the reality of the person of the Son of God whose words and deeds are recorded in the Gospel and summarized in the creed.
The result is that the Holy Spirit makes us to become like Jesus Christ; he reproduces the image of Jesus Christ in the depth of our soul; leads us into intimacy with Jesus Christ that mirrors the intimacy that Christ has with his Father. Jesus said, He who sees me, sees my Father. (Jn 14:9)
We can sum this up with the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon:
“Baptism gives us the grace of new birth in God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit. For those who bear God’s Spirit are led to the Word, that is, to the Son, and the Son presents them to the Father, and the Father confers incorruptibility on them. And it is impossible to see God’s Son without the Spirit, and no one can approach the Father without the Son, for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of God’s Son is obtained through the Holy Spirit. (St. Ireneaus of Lyon, Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching 7, cited CCC 683)
Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit does not lead us alone, as isolated individuals. When we were baptized, we were baptized into the Church, the Body of Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit. The Church is the place of the Holy Spirit. Citing St. Irenaeus again: “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace.” (Against heresies, III.24.1, cited CCC 797)
On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles and disciples were together in the same place. They were in the same place with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, who was filled with the Holy Spirit from her Immaculate Conception. Today the Holy Spirit leads us into the same place, physically, the church or temple in which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated, so as to lead us into the same place spiritually, through the true Body of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.