This weekend we celebrate Pentecost, which is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. You might remember that Jesus told his disciples that he had to go—he had to ascend into heaven—so that he could send the Holy Spirit to them. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit arrives. Before that, the disciples could see Jesus because he was a man—both God and man. So they could see him just as you can see me and I can see you. The Holy Spirit is God, too, but he’s Spirit, and spirits, by definition, are not physical things. You can’t see spirits.
So at Pentecost, the disciples don’t see the Holy Spirit. Instead, they see his signs. Those signs are a driving wind and flames shaped like tongues over the heads of the people there. One sign in particular tells us a lot about the Church. The people at Pentecost come from different countries, and they speak different languages, so normally they wouldn’t be able to understand each other. But when the Holy Spirit comes, they do understand each other. The Holy Spirit changes something inside of them.
The Catholic Church today is still very much like it was on Pentecost. Celebrating Mass at the cathedral in Perth, I’ve met people from Columbia, Indonesia, England, Singapore, Texas, Turkey, and the Philippines. I’ve thought to myself, “If it weren’t for the accent, I wouldn’t know what country I’m in.” Because people are from so many different countries. People of all races, all ages, all social classes. Today it’s fashionable to talk about diversity, but the Catholic Church was diverse before diversity was cool—from her birthday two thousand years ago on Pentecost.
There’s one final thing to say about the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is fully God, just as Jesus and the Father are fully God. They are the same substance, which means there’s no division between them. The Holy Spirit doesn’t change anything that Jesus did or taught. The Holy Spirit isn’t a Dockers fan, but Jesus barracks for the Eagles. There’s no division between the persons of the Trinity.
So when the Holy Spirit comes into the disciples on Pentecost, it means they become like Jesus. That’s why we call the Church the Body of Christ. And that’s why Jesus had to ascend into heaven. He sends his Holy Spirit so that we can become one with him, so that we can become the Body of Christ. That’s what happens in our baptism and in our Eucharist, and in reconciliation too, which is mentioned in the Gospel. And here’s the really important part—that’s what salvation means. It means that we don’t just see God, like I am seeing you or you are seeing me, but that we become united with God. That’s what communion means. That’s what being a part of the Church means. And since we are celebrating the Eucharist together it means that this Pentecost, I can wish all of you a “happy birthday” too.
Readings: Acts 2:1-11, John 20:19-23
Homily for Pentecost 2023
John XXIII College, Perth, Australia