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 feast of Pentecost holds a special place in my heart because I presided at my first Mass on Pentecost Sunday. This year is the fifth anniversary of my ordination, so, for kicks, I dug up my homily from that Mass and thought I’d repost it here. A lot has happened since that day, yet in some ways it still feels like yesterday…
I’ll begin with homework. Today’s first reading from Acts 2 tells the story of Pentecost, but it’s just the beginning of the story of Pentecost. So on your i-Phones on the drive home, pull up Acts of the Apostles and read all of chapter 2. (Unless you’re driving.)
Now, since in my 22 years of formal education I have noted that occasionally students don’t do their homework, I will go ahead and tell you what happens in Acts 2. The part we heard this morning takes place after Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven. One thing I don’t think we realize when we talk about Easter is how disoriented the disciples were even after Jesus rose from the dead. The Resurrection doesn’t immediately bring understanding to the disciples. If you read all of John 20, the chapter from which today’s Gospel is taken (extra credit), you’ll note that even after the Resurrection there’s still disbelief, confusion, and fear. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener. Then, when she realizes who it is, she won’t let go of him—to the point that Jesus has to tell her, “Stop holding on to me.” After the horror of the crucifixion, we can understand why the disciples would be fearful and why Mary Magdalene wouldn’t want to let Jesus go. But Jesus says he has to go to do something necessary for the disciples. He promises that when he has ascended to the Father, he, with the Father, will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples.