By Sam Keyes
We know Pentecost as the day marking the descent of the Holy Spirit. Yet, as you might have noticed in St. John’s gospel, the readings present a potential discrepancy on this point. In Acts we read about the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles in power. Yet in John we hear Jesus saying, quite directly, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Which is it? Of course it’s both. In John, the mission of the Holy Spirit is specifically linked to the apostolic authority to forgive sins in Jesus’ name. This is one of the key pieces of scriptural background for the sacrament of penance. In Acts, the mission of the Holy Spirit is to set the Church on fire. And, in one sense, St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians help us link the two together passages: “there are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit.”
Unlike the sending of the Son in the Incarnation, the sending of the Spirit is marked by its multiplicity. Jesus’ visibility, especially before his Resurrection, is limited by the usual human constraints of space and time. But the Spirit, even at the start of the gospels, appears at one time as a dove, another time as a breath, another time as a fire, another time as miraculous communication. There is this amazing sense, in the stories of the early Church, that in ascending to heaven Jesus did not disappear — rather his presence and his power, through his Spirit, exploded — so that we can say, with today’s Introit, “The Spirit of the Lord hath filled the whole world.”
Who is this Spirit?
I doubt it’s very common anymore, but you used to hear pious teachers say, at high school dances, “leave some room for the Holy Spirit.” I don’t really know what that was supposed to mean. The Spirit can be invoked in some odd ways. I grew up hearing people mention the guidance of the Holy Spirit in everything from who they were supposed to marry to whether they should buy a new car. I know a young man who was approached by a girl saying that the Holy Spirit told him he was her future husband.
I think for some Christians, the Holy Spirit is this cosmic, invisible Magic 8 Ball that you consult — or make reference to — in moments where more concrete forms of prayer, or just making up your mind or having a difficult conversation, seems too difficult. Why seek actual religious counsel, why study the Scriptures or tradition, when you can just consult your gut and say that you’ve had a message from the Holy Spirit? Those of us who have come into the Catholic Church from Anglicanism know something of the directions that can go.
Is the Holy Spirit just a fancy word for a bunch of vague spiritual feeling? To the contrary, Catholic dogma insists that the Holy Spirit is a person, one of three persons in the Godhead, one of three persons in the Trinity. He is not an it.
To get a sense of who the Spirit is, we need to do some theology. Here’s my concise homily on some pretty big insights from the tradition.
God is love. But what exactly do we mean by that? Theologians, when they think about the Trinity, take it for granted that God is love, because Scripture tells us that God is love. But they think it is interesting and even important to think about what that means — to ask, how does it make sense to say that God is love?
Pretty quickly from there we get to this idea of multiple divine persons whose love for one another is identical to their nature. The idea that God is love has to be reconciled with the idea of God as totally unique and perfect and eternal. God can’t be love just because he loves us. Then he wouldn’t be God. God has to be love within his divinity; God has to be love even if there’s no creation around. And the only way for that to make sense is for there to be some kind of relationship within God’s nature that can be described as love.
That’s the first step, but that only tells us why Christians think it makes sense to talk about both the Father and the Son as God. Why do we need a third person? Here’s where, I think, it gets interesting. God is love, and is perfect, and so, if God is love, his love must be perfect; it must be the highest, most complete kind of love, or it would not be God, or he would not be love.
The perfection of love between two persons requires a third person whom the first two persons can love together — a co-beloved, so to speak. If the Father and the Son lacked a third equal person to love, their love would be in a way lacking; they would have the joy of loving each other, but they would lack the joy of sharing their love with another person. That third person is, of course, the Holy Spirit. And so it is that tradition speaks of the Holy Spirit as representing in some way the love between the Father and the Son. God is love, but the Holy Spirit is in a way the most fitting example of why it is that God is, in the divine nature, love.
Why does this matter? I think it matters a great deal, because it tells us something about the nature of love. Our culture tends to obsess over romantic love, over the kind of absolute union of two persons. But romantic love that only concerns itself with that self-enclosed relationship can become selfish. And that is exactly what people tend to celebrate with weddings today: brides, especially, are told, “it’s your special day,” as if it has no connection with anybody else, no openness to the other, such as the strangers who come to us as children. True love expands beyond itself.
That’s exactly what happens at Pentecost. The disciples have been sitting around, treasuring the love they had for Jesus, keeping to themselves. They are the models of private religious experience — they are what modern Westerners think religious people should be like: quiet, irrelevant, invisible. And when the Spirit comes, all that changes. Their love for Jesus remains, but the Spirit opens it up, points it outward, and makes what could have been a very private experience into something that sets the world on fire.
This, then, is the work of the Spirit: not a private feeling but a gift for the whole — an expansion and an outpouring of the love of God revealed in Jesus.
We live in strange times, fearful times. Some people are afraid of the Coronavirus, some people are afraid of threats to religious freedom, some people are afraid of racial injustice, some people are afraid of economic collapse, some people are afraid of it all.
It is tempting to imagine the solution as a kind of cleansing fire: judging the earth, wiping away injustice, smiting the evildoers. We all have a little bit of that St. Peter in us. But when the fire comes, at Pentecost, it’s fundamentally the fire of love. There’s always a bit of judgment in love — we feel that whenever we go to confession. But that’s just the momentary pain of becoming clean. And in the end, according to St. John, “perfect love drives out fear.”
The antidote to our present fears isn’t the sword, or anger, or being right: it’s being filled with the supernatural love of God that he offers us in the Holy Spirit. Since most of us cannot now receive the Eucharist, it is all the more important that we receive the Holy Spirit. Nurture the life of that Spirit who comes to us in baptism and confirmation. He is God’s love dwelling in our hearts. Let that love grow and fill us and spread wherever we go.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at St. John Paul the Great Catholic University, Escondido, California.