Sunday Sermon for June 8, 2014, the Solemnity of Pentecost, Year A
Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13; Jn 20:19-23
Between the first reading and the Gospel reading for today we are struck with an apparent contradiction. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, i.e., the fiftieth day. Indeed, we celebrate this feast fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection and commemorate the giving of the promised Paraclete. However, the Gospel reading tells us of Jesus breathing on His disciples and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit. This happened on the evening of Easter Sunday.
So, is there a contradiction here? No. St. John very intentionally explains the events of Easter night by showing an exact parallel to the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7 where God breathed the breath of life into Adam. Theologians have long taught that Adam and Eve were probably created with sanctifying grace. We note that God did not breathe the breath of life into the animals, but only into Adam. What this means is that humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, was intended, from the beginning, to participate in the divine life; this was supposed to be normal for us. However, with the tragic choice of Adam, sin came into the world and grace was lost.
Now, on Easter Sunday the humanity of Jesus was transformed and the divinity of Christ, which had remained hidden behind His humanity, now radiated through that risen and glorified humanity. This is the same humanity which we share and, although we still await the full participation in the resurrection, the glory of the divine life is already restored to us through Jesus. This is expressed in a profound way on Easter night when our Lord essentially demonstrates to His disciples that they had become a new creation having the infusion of new life.
With our humanity redeemed and divine life restored, we now had the ability to become who God had created us to be. Unfortunately, the effects of original sin remain in us, so even with the restoration of Grace, it is still difficult for us to conform our minds and wills to the mind and will of God. Because of the work God was calling the Apostles to do, it was clearly necessary for them to have more help.
Our Lord had promised that those who love Him would, in turn, be loved by the Father and that He and the Father would come to dwell within them. This indwelling is brought about through the Holy Spirit, Who is the love of God. When He, with the Father and the Son, come to dwell within a soul, they also impart whatever gifts they know to be necessary for that soul to be able to do the will of God. Thus, we see the gifts bestowed upon the Apostles which would allow them to preach the Gospel to the people of many nations.
While there was the extraordinary manifestation when the Spirit was given on this occasion, we can also recognize as we read on in Acts, that the Holy Spirit does not try to control us. He is present within and His grace is always available, but He waits quietly for us to seek Him. He offers us the grace to conform ourselves to Him, but He does not force Himself upon us. When the Apostles cooperated with the gifts they had been given amazing things would happen: people were healed, thousands were converted and baptized, the Apostles were no longer fearful, and so on. At the same time, there are certainly enough references to the fact that they fell back into their old habits at times: they squabbled, acted selfishly, tried to be politically correct, etc.
This gives us great hope because we can all see these same traits in ourselves. As St. Paul mentions in the second reading, the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each of us. We have all received a variety of gifts from God, each intended to help us to do what God has created us to do. All too often we look at other people and the gifts they have been given, then we become jealous or envious. We then get into squabbles, we become selfish, we do not speak the fullness of the truth out of a sense of political expediency. But if we would focus on the Holy Spirit and what He wants us to do with the gifts he has given us then, like the Apostles, great things can happen. We are already a new creation in Christ, now we need to cooperate and become who He wants us to be. So we can see the unity between Easter and Pentecost: the Holy Spirit gives us new life and the gifts necessary to live that life for God.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.