50 days after Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, and 10 days after his Ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit came in power upon the gathered Apostles. He came under the appearance of wind and fire, and with the gift of speech in every language. The holy day of Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the Church, and it serves for us as a dedicated Feast of the Holy Spirit.
This year the lectionary offers us a composite reading from St. John’s Gospel: two verses from Chapter 15, followed by four verses from Chapter 16. Jesus here at the Last Supper prepares his disciples for his departure. Several times he speaks about the Holy Spirit who will come. Typically in this discourse he names the Spirit as Advocate, or Paraclete.
Who is this Holy Spirit? What is he? Where is he? In the first centuries of the Church no particular need was felt to define the Person or Nature of the Holy Spirit. But when some people or groups spoke of the Holy Spirit as somehow less than God, or as not truly distinct from God the Father, or from God the Son, then the orthodox and Catholic Fathers felt they had to respond. In accordance with what they understood from Holy Scripture, they insisted that the Holy Spirit is Himself fully divine; truly God; perfectly one with the Father and the Son; equal to them and co-eternal with them. The 4th century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, in speaking about the Holy Spirit, exactly quotes a phrase from today’s Gospel. It says that he “proceeds from the Father”. The Eastern Orthodox Churches retain this wording, as do the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome. But the Latin West, influenced especially by the theology of St. Augustine, has added the phrase “and the Son” - “Filioque”. In this way we clarify the distinct Personality of the Spirit, who differs from the eternal Son not by nature, but only by His relationship of origin. That the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father can be deduced from many saying of Jesus. For example in today’s Gospel: “I shall send him to you from the Father”, or twice: “all he tells you will be taken from what is mine”. In another text of St. John, in the last Chapter of the Apocalypse, we read of the Spirit under the image of a river, which has a two-fold source. “The Angel showed me”, John says, “the river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1).
In today’s Gospel we twice heard Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of Truth”. So the Holy Spirit is identified as one who reveals the truth. That is: above all He bears witness to who Jesus is. He leads us to the truth of God, and of our own relationship with God. That relationship has two apparently opposite facets. In the first place, we are sinners, cut off from God through our own fault. And so the Holy Spirit stirs up our hearts to tears of repentance, and he overcomes our sins by his sanctifying presence. But then also: in Jesus we are adopted as Sons of the Father; loved and honoured by God as Jesus is loved and honoured. So the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts also to cries of love and joy; He leads us to intimacy and even to union with God our Father. The Holy Spirit also gives us the grace to live and act in a way that is worthy of God’s children. In St. Paul’s words, that means living no longer according to the flesh, with all its bitter fruits, but according to the Spirit, with all the good fruits that flow from that (cf. Gal 5:16ff.).
“The Spirit”, says Jesus, “will lead you to the complete truth”. This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit will somehow convey new truths of revelation after Jesus has gone. No, Jesus has revealed all we will ever need to know: both by his teaching, and by his life, death and resurrection. But the Spirit will always remain necessary for us to receive this revelation, with ever deeper knowledge and understanding; with ever deeper love. We Catholics believe also that the Spirit guides the whole Church, when she solemnly defines or clarifies some doctrine of faith that has been disputed. Sometimes, it’s true, the Holy Spirit gives knowledge of future events to certain holy people, but this is a charismatic gift, not a new revelation. Ultimately, the Spirit’s leading us to the complete truth will find its term in the future life of heaven. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians: “Now - I know only imperfectly. Then - I shall know, even as I myself am known” (1 Cor 13:12).
In today’s Gospel Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will glorify him (16:14). In the life of the Church, the Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus by drawing people to him, by giving the grace of conversion, then of renewed conversion, in ever greater holiness and integrity of life. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus also by giving boldness to preachers, missionaries and all Christian witnesses, sometimes confirming their words by miracles of grace and power. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus also by inspiring prayer, perhaps above all the prayer of praise and of love.
These past 10 days especially we have been repeatedly crying out Come Holy Spirit! This prayer is always necessary and pleasing to God, but we rightly expect special graces of the Holy Spirit to be poured out at the time of Pentecost. So today we ask for them all. We ask for personal renewal in faith and love. We ask for our hearts to be warmed in prayer; for growth in the virtues, and for freedom from the vices. We pray also to the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the whole Church. Thank God this work is not just left to us, who are such inadequate and flawed instruments. But the Holy Spirit is omnipotent, and He is well able to do now what He did in the early Church: with rapid increase in believers, and deep unity among them, and true holiness of life, and many works of power, and the readiness of martyrs to shed their blood for Christ.
Unfortunately the grace of the Holy Spirit can be resisted. We can close our hearts to Him, or ignore Him, or even directly sin against Him. So with urgency today we ask for this grace too: that we may be perfectly docile to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit; that we may be completely filled with Him, and completely possessed by Him: for our eternal good, and for God’s eternal glory.