The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, the gospels say. Scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson in his commentary on St. Luke’s gospel seem puzzled by the description. What’s the explanation? “Such is the nature of symbols–all are possible,” Johnson writes.
May I hazard an explanation? Doves are regular visitors at my window and at our bird-feeder outside. I notice how confident and unafraid they seem to be, so different from the nervous sparrows flitting from place to place. As far as I can see, the doves are without the usual signs of power, sharp talons and strong wings. What’s their secret?
St. Gregory of Nyssa seems to point to a fearless love in his Commentary on the Song of Songs:
“When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then the unity brought by our Savior will be realized, for all will be united with one another through their union with the supreme Good. They will possess the perfection ascribed to the dove, according to our interpretation of the text “one alone is my dove, my perfect one.”
A fearless, humble love, unafraid of chaos, brings peace. Is that why Noah chose the dove to go into the world engulfed by the flood and not a lion or an eagle? Such is the nature of symbols–all explanations are possible. We could use that kind of fearlessness today, couldn’t we?
Behind the Chair of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica in Rome, the artist Bernini created a beautiful alabaster window where a steady light pours into the dark church through the image of the Holy Spirit, in the hovering form of a dove. Light is also a favorite sign of the Holy Spirit.
Day by day, the light comes quietly through the window. Day by day, the Holy Spirit dispenses light for the moment, graces for the world that is now. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit dwells with us, his final gift.
“I sing of arms and a man” , words the Latin poet Virgil used to describe Aeneas, a founder of Rome. His fate was to take up arms and after much struggle found a great city. The words could also describe our generation. For most of the last hundred years, we have taken up the arms of war to achieve our various purposes.
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of one of the great battles of all time–the sea born invasion of Normandy by175,000 Allied troops, which led to the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control. The Second World War, which began in 1939 and ended in 1945 was followed by the Korean War (1950-51}, the War in Vietnam (1965-73) and the War in Iraq (2003-present). Other wars besides these have raged world wide.
Will the day come to lay down our arms? Not soon, it seems, and the arms in our hands become still deadlier. We don’t live in a peaceful world.
War over the years, with all its consequences, affects us in many ways. I’m wondering about the way it affects our theological imagination. Has it weakened our sense of hope in life and in God? Have the long years of war brought doubt about human life flourishing here on earth? Is personal flourishing now the only way to go? So let’s survive the best we can on our own, in a house or country surrounded by walls.
We take up arms to control land and resources. Has chronic war also affected the way we see our planet? Should we abandon our fragile and unsteady earth, and make heaven our goal? Or maybe survive the best we can on our own, here and now, without a thought of it?
The Feast of the Ascension points to heaven and tells us that’s our goal. But what about the world God created? Doesn’t it yearn for something new and needs our care? The Feast of the Ascension is linked to Pentecost and the promise of the Spirit who teaches us all things.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and renew the face of the earth.
The Holy Spirit is “poured out on all flesh,” Peter tells the crowd at Pentecost. The Spirit is like water poured out, St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells his hearers:
“The water I shall give him will become in him a fountain of living water, welling up into eternal life. This is a new kind of water, a living, leaping water, welling up for those who are worthy. But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.
“In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each one as he wills. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit. Although the Spirit never changes, the effects of his action, by the will of God and in the name of Christ, are both many and marvellous.
“The Spirit makes one person a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one person’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, makes another oblivious to the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good.
“The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance. He is not felt as a burden, for he is light, very light. Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as he approaches. The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, to console. The Spirit comes to enlighten the mind first of the one who receives him, and then, through him, the minds of others as well.
“As light strikes the eyes of a person who comes out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of someone counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.” (Catechesis)
The Easter season ends with the Feast of Pentecost and we’re into ordinary time in the church year. Unlike other feasts, Pentecost has no octave; ordinary time is its octave. Most of the church year is ordinary time; most of life is ordinary too, but the Spirit is there just the same.
“Their message goes out to all the earth.” We read the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season as Jesus’ apostles, led by Peter and Paul, ventured on their way from Jerusalem to Asia Minor and to Rome, empowered by strong winds and tongues of fire, Yes, the Spirit can bring us to the ends of the earth, but the Spirit is also there in the few steps we take every day, though we’re hardly aware.
We tend to minimize ordinary life. Just ordinary, nothing’s happening, we say. Yet, day by day in ordinary time the Risen Lord offers his peace and shows us his wounds. Every day he breathes the Spirit on us. No day goes by without the Spirit’s quiet blessing.
The Pew Research Center regularly reports on trends in America and in the world and recently they reported on how Americans see their place in the world. Most Americans, the report said, think that we should deal with our own problems and let other countries deal with their problems as best they can. Reports like this don’t make a judgment whether this is a good trend or a bad trend, they just tell us the facts. But the trend seems to indicate that there’s an increasing fear in us that the world in becoming unmanageable, and so we should beware of taking on too much.
Today we’re celebrating the Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to send not only to his disciples but to the whole world. The Holy Spirit comes not only to us as individuals, to guide us on our way, to teach us all things, to help us to pray, but the Spirit also is sent into our world. Our temptation, unfortunately, is to see faith as just a personal thing and not affecting our whole world.
As we were preparing for this feast, I have been thinking how differently we know the Holy Spirit from the way we know Jesus and, to a certain extent, God the Father. Jesus is God come to us in human flesh, and so he has our “likeness” as St. Paul says. He’s born a child, lives as a man, reacts to events and people around him, he speaks in human words, he suffers and dies and rises. However distant the time of Jesus is from ours, we see and hear him as human like ourselves.
God the Father is also described in human terms. God is “Father”, a description we know is an analogous term. Calling God “Father” doesn’t mean that God is masculine, but the term itself offers us a human reference for God, the creator and sustainer of all things.
But the description of the Holy Spirit is more difficult to grasp, I think. What does “spirit” mean? The scriptures use symbolic ways to describe the Third Person of the Trinity. Our readings for the feast speak of the Spirit as a driving wind, tongues of fire that empowers the disciples to speak with wisdom, with new words, and to act bravely instead of fearfully.
I have been thinking lately of other symbolic ways the Spirit is described. One is a familiar symbol found in the New Testament and in art. The Spirit is a dove who rests on Jesus when he’s baptized in the Jordan by John.
There’s a bird feeder outside the monastery where I live in Queens, NY, and in the early morning before Mass I usually go out with a cup of coffee to watch the birds. Mostly house sparrows, but there’s a pair of doves who are regular visitors. Every once in awhile a hawk flies over and immediately the sparrows disappear. But the doves are the last to go and first back at the feeder. You might call them simple or dumb. But you could also say they’re fearless. They’re not afraid of the hawk.
Remember the bible story about Noah in the ark. Noah wonders if the flood waters are gone, so who does he finally send out? He sends out a dove, who returns with a twig from an olive plant. There’s life there, you can get out of the ark. The dove is not afraid of dangerous places or floodwaters. The Holy Spirit is not afraid of the chaos of our world, but recreates from the chaos.
The Spirit who appears at Jesus’ baptism as a dove also leads him into the desert, the realm of Satan. The scriptures say Jesus is hungry there, but he’s not afraid. Jesus defeats Satan in his realm.
Where are the disciples of Jesus in today’s gospel? They’re locked up in a room in fear when Jesus, risen from the dead, comes into their midst. He breathed on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” the Spirit whom he promised to give them. And what did they do? They left that room and went out into the world they feared, a world that the Spirit promises to recreate.
To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:
The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is recalled briefly in Mark’s gospel (Mark 16,19) and described in more detail in Luke’s gospel (Luke 24, 44-53} and in the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 1, 1-14) As he leaves his disciples, Jesus promises to send them his Spirit.
What are his final instructions to them before he ascends into heaven? They are to be witnesses to him. They will have power from the Holy Spirit to witness, but there’s no promise of security, safety, or immunity from fear or suffering. Just the opposite, Jesus sends them on a mission that’s insecure, unsafe and hard.
Here’s what Jesus says in Mark’s gospel, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” “The whole world?” we might say. “To every creature?” It’s a dangerous world out there, and there are creatures in it I don’t particularly like. Yet, that’s the mission Jesus entrusts to his disciples–and us.
“These signs will accompany those who believe,” Jesus continues. “In my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
That seems to mean if you really believe in Jesus you confront the evil in this world, you learn new things all your life, you deal with snakes–they’re out there too, you can recover from the deadliest experiences, and you can bring healing to those who need healing.
In Luke’s Ascension account in the Acts of the Apostles the disciples wonder if this is the time when God’s kingdom will come now, her and now. Heaven on earth. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
We have hopes like that too, don’t we? That God’s kingdom come here and now, and everything will be perfect. Jesus tells his disciples they wont know the day or the hour. Perfection doesn’t happen here on earth.
As the disciples stand looking at the Lord ascending, Luke writes, angels ask them “Why are you standing here looking up into the sky?” Jesus will return. Go back into the city and live as he asks you to live. You will receive what he promised there. No standing looking up into the sky. Stay where you are; that’s where the promises will be kept.
Luke goes on to describe the disciples making their way back to Jerusalem and praying there with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Prayer prepares them for the Spirit who comes. Prayer prepares us too.
The scriptures for the Feast of Pentecost describe the coming of the Holy Spirit in dramatic terms. Strong winds and tongues of fire come upon the disciples of Jesus in the Upper Room, the Cenacle, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. They’re filled with energy and joy. It seems like an unrepeatable experience.
Then, immediately, confidently, they preached the gospel to people from the ends of the earth who are amazed at their new knowledge and new words
Certainly the Holy Spirit gave them a burst of new enthusiasm that day. We marvel–as their first listeners did– how these ordinary Galileans were transformed by the gifts they were given. Peter eventually made it to Rome. John may have gotten to Ephesus in Asia Minor. Maybe Thomas got to India. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, “their message went out to all the earth.” Transformed, they began a universal church centered on Jesus Christ.
But, like the other mysteries of our faith, Pentecost is repeatable, on-going. It’s not one burst of enthusiasm, a jump-start never to happen again. Without the strong wind or tongues of fire we experience the Holy Spirit too, usually in quieter ways.
Behind the Chair of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica, the artist Bernini, created a beautiful alabaster window where a steady light pours into the dark church through the image of the Holy Spirit, in the hovering form of a dove.
Day by day, the light comes quietly through the window. Day by day, the Holy Spirit dispenses light for the moment, graces for the world that is now. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit dwells with us. The Spirit remains with us as Jesus’ final gift.
“Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth…Come, Holy Spirit, and fill our hearts with the fire of your love.”
Some wonder if our talk about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; about the story of Pentecost which we celebrate today, means anything at all. Is it just an old tale that has nothing to do with life and life’s challenges today?
Let’s look at this great story told in our first reading. (Acts 2,1-22) The Spirit of God came down on some people in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, our story says. Who were these people? Those mentioned first were disciples of Jesus gathered together in one place, as we are today. They had previously seen Jesus die and then they saw him risen from the dead.
They were gathered in Jerusalem on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, when the Jews celebrated the blessings of the harvest that gave them food for life and the words of God that guided them.
On this feast of Pentecost a new blessing of life would be given, a blessing from Jesus, risen from the dead.
A fierce wind shook the house, tongues of fire fell on them– symbols of light and power–and those in the house were filled with new hopes, new dreams, new thoughts, new energy, new words.
The Spirit of God was given to them.
But notice that the Spirit of God is given to others as well, not only to those in the house, but those outside. There were visitors from all parts of the world in Jerusalem for the feast and they experienced this blessing too.
When they ask Peter what’s happening, he says the Spirit of God is being poured out on all flesh, “and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2.17-18) Even your slaves, the poorest among you, will be blessed by God’s Spirit, Peter says, quoting from the Prophet Joel.
Pentecost is a world feast, therefore. We not only celebrate the birth of the church as this feast signifies. We celebrate God’s abiding promise through Jesus Christ to recreate the world. “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”
Christians can easily become too parochial, as if God were our private God, given only to us. But the Feast of Pentecost reminds us that God reaches with divine blessings to the ends of the earth. The Spirit has been poured out on “all flesh,” on all our world.
Strong winds and tongues of fire may not be the signs of his presence everywhere, but the Spirit of God dwells in our world all the same, blessing it with power and truth.
On this feast God opens the horizons of our minds to a greater world where God’s Spirit is at work.