Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”
Pat Marrin, of NCR’s “Pencil Preaching” compares last week’s feast of the Ascension to a graduation. Jesus is preparing his disciples for a new and transformed way to live out their understanding of Jesus and his mission. I can imagine Jesus delivering a rousing, convocation speech to the disciples, “You’re ready! You can do this! You know the message by heart, so trust your experiences and your instinct. Don’t worry about not knowing everything ahead of time, you’ll get better as you go. And I promise, I’ll be with you in Spirit every step of the way. Now go out and change the world!”
Today, we celebrate Pentecost, (the birthday of the church) and we hear the story of how those “newly graduated” disciples begin their mission with a new-found strength and understanding of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had promised. Pat Marrin calls this interval between Ascension and Pentecost, “the most critical transition in our faith.” Just as the disciples had to move from their reliance on the physical presence to guide them, to a faith guided by the internal presence of the risen Christ, we too, must make a transition from a faith led by the knowledge and traditions passed on to us by others, to a faith that has joined this knowledge to an experience of the risen Christ deep within our own heart and soul. If it is to become a life-giving faith, it must be motivated by a love for God deep within us and not one driven only by dogmatic rules or a fear of breaking the rules.
This need to transition from Ascension to Pentecost has become very evident during our present pandemic upheavals. Our church gatherings had always provided us with structure and rituals to guide our prayer life. There were liturgical schedules that reminded us of where we needed to be and what the focus of prayer would be. A community of like-minded Catholics welcomed us, sang and prayed with us and helped hold us accountable to our commitment of faith. The present restrictions of social-distancing has meant that we can’t always rely on those physical structures or tangible rituals to be help nudge us in the right direction. Our community of faith is scattered and we can’t count on praying together or supporting each other at scheduled times. How do we maintain our commitment to our baptismal promises? How do we stay motivated to seek out the spiritual nourishment we need for a healthy faith?
Like the disciples who could no longer count on Jesus’ physical presence to guide them, we too, have to open our hearts and lives to the Holy Spirit to help us discern where we need to go and what we need to do to feed our faith and our relationship with God. Even if, like the disciples, we experience doubts or fears, we know what Jesus taught us to do. As the story of Pentecost shows us, to love, to forgive, to be compassionate, to help the lonely and afraid does not require a ritual or a building. These actions speak the universal language of Christ and are understood by all of humanity. As St. Paul reminds us, we are all given gifts by the Spirit, not for our benefit, but “for the common good.” Jesus tells us we don’t need to be perfect nor do we need to know what the future will hold. He is sending us out anyway – promising that he will never leave us orphaned to face the task alone. In other words, do what Jesus taught us and the Holy Spirit will help us figure out what comes next. When we ask the Spirit to guide us, our efforts to live out Jesus’ message will be transformed and make us into the Body of Christ we were always called to be.
Over and over the risen Jesus greets his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you.” The peace Jesus promises isn’t a peace defined by feeling serene or having a life without struggles or pain. It is, instead, a peace that comes from knowing that no matter what the future may bring, God’s grace will be there to provide hope, light and redemption. Jesus breathes his Spirit into us with the same power that he gave to the disciples and asks us, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”