Homily preached by Abbot Cuthbert Madden at Conventual Mass on the Solemnity of Pentecost, 8th June 2014.
In our Opening Collect this morning, we prayed, dear brothers and sisters, that God would “pour out ... the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth”. Many of you will recall from your preparation for Confirmation that the Catechism tells us that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and the Fear of the Lord (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1831). That being so you might regard it as a little curious that the first reading speaks about the gift of tongues which was bestowed upon the Apostles at the first Pentecost (cf Acts 2.1-11); the second reading speaks of the variety of gifts of the Spirit which have been, and are, given to the Church (cf 1 Cor 12.3-7, 12-13); and the Gospel speaks of the gift of the power to forgive sins which is given to the Church when Jesus breathes on his disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit. | For those whose sins you forgive, | they are forgiven; | for those whose sins you retain, | they are retained” (John 20.22-23). In none of these readings are the gifts of the Holy Spirit named in the catechism expressly named – so clearly we are being challenged to think a little about the precise nature of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order that we might make some kind of sense about what Pentecost might mean to you and to me.
Let us begin with the Gospel. I want to begin here because the Apostle and Evangelist John has given us the words of the Lord Himself and so we are on firm ground in beginning our exploration of our question from this starting point. Jesus breathes upon the Apostles: he breathes the breathe that gives Him life into the nostrils of the Apostles. By this deeply symbolic action Jesus shares His life and so His gifts with the Apostles. And you note that he accompanies this action with words, he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Hence we know that there is a Holy Spirit and we know that Jesus Himself is able to send and share the Holy Spirit which is within Him to be, in some sense, “possessed” by his followers.
In this Gospel Jesus links the possession of the Holy Spirit with the power to forgive sins. All of us immediately recall that one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry among the men and women of his own age was His proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. It was a controversial aspect of His ministry. It was not controversial because Jesus was speaking of sin. In His time everyone, Jews and Pagans alike, were ready to admit that men and women frequently chose to do what was wrong and laboured for the remainder of their life bearing the burden of their sinful actions; no, it was controversial because everyone knew that sin could only be forgiven by God. This understanding was particularly strong among the Jews, but it was also present among the pagans as we can see from their practice of sacrifice to appease the gods for human wrong doing.
Let us just pause for a moment and reflect. I am suggesting that our Gospel today shows Jesus, the Son of God, sharing the power of the almighty God with human beings, with his Church. The Holy Spirit is his gift to the Church, the abiding presence of the Father and the Son, of God, among human beings like you and me. This abiding presence of the Spirit makes it possible for the Church to continue the ministry of Jesus, makes it possible for the Church to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. There is a second reflection which we can draw from this Gospel. We can ask a question. What kind of God is it who wants to forgive sins; what kind of God wants to release human beings from the burden of their wrongdoing? Surely we must answer that the God who forgives must be a God who loves. Our experience and our reason teach us that true forgiveness is only possible when there is at least a spark of love in the one who is forgiving. In this Gospel Jesus reveals that the God in whom we believe is a God who loves all of his creation, loves you and loves me. It is for this reason that he reaches out to us and forgives us.
The Gospel today tells us that Jesus sent his disciples to preach God to the nations. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you” (John 20.21). The first reading from the Acts tells us that after the coming of the Holy Spirit the disciples preached the Good News of God where they were in Jerusalem. The remainder of the book of Acts describes the spread of the Gospel to the boundaries of the known world. You and I, if we are truly followers of Christ, are commissioned in the same way; commissioned to tell our world the Good News of a God who loves us, who gives meaning to our lives, who enables us to live up to our highest aspirations, who even enables us to live and to love beyond our highest and best aspirations. The most extraordinary aspect of our preaching of the Good News is that we are called above all else to be ourselves; our transformed selves, that is true – but nevertheless ourselves. As Paul tells us in the second reading, we have been given our own particular gift. We do not need to ask how we are to preach: all we have to do is to allow the Jesus we discover in the Gospel into our lives. All we have to do is to live the commands of the Lord we find in the Gospel, wholeheartedly, day by day – and God will use us as he wants to use us, as he has foreseen using us from all eternity. Of course, we have free will; we can refuse to allow the Spirit into our lives. We can choose to be utterly self-centred – and many people do in fact choose to live in this way. But the invitation from God is clear: He has sent His Son into our world to show us how a human life can be lived. He sent his Son into our world to set us free from our burden of sin by dying for us and then by rising from the dead. He has invited us to continue His mission of love and forgiveness. He has offered us the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to make this mission possible for us. Now he awaits our response. In the monastery each morning we sing of this invitation of the Lord in the words of the psalmist: “Oh that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 94.7-8): dear brothers and sisters, what will your answer be today?
Finally, to return to our point of departure in this homily, I hope that you can see that Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and the Fear of the Lord are gifts of God which allow us to fulfil the commission which He has entrusted to us. He imbues us with his gifts in order that we may live and preach his message of love.