The Catholic Thing
Pentecost Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 29 May 2012

I have always liked that passage in the first chapter of the book of the Acts, the Ascension scene, where, on beholding Christ’s last earthly moments, two angels appear to inquire of the Apostles, “Why stand ye there looking up?”

With all due respect to the angelic mind, I cannot figure out just what else they would be doing on beholding such a remarkable scene. The admonition is generally understood to mean that the Apostles are being prodded to get about the business the Lord left for them. Contemplation should overflow into action. But still, the Apostles needed some time to take it all in.

The other passage is found in Acts 19. Paul is somewhere around Ephesus. He asked some local disciples whether they had received the Holy Spirit. They replied to Paul frankly that they “had not even heard whether there be a Holy Spirit.” No doubt, when we think about it, most people in the world today, if asked, would reply the same way. And we Christians who have heard of the Holy Spirit are puzzled by His presence within the Godhead and in our world. This puzzlement is our incentive to think about this same Holy Spirit.

The Pentecost scene in John’s Gospel startles us in another way. The disciples are in a room with doors shut for fear of the Jews. Christ appears among them. He says to them “As the Father sent me so am I sending you.”

They know what a charge coming from the Father meant. Christ then breathed on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, but whose sins you retain, they are retained.” With this charge, they are now connected to the divine plan through this same Holy Spirit sent from the Son and the Father. What can it mean?

St. Basil the Great wrote a treatise on the Holy Spirit. “The titles given to the Holy Spirit must surely stir the soul of anyone who hears them,” Basil tells us. “They (the titles) make him realize that they speak of nothing less than the supreme Being.” What are these titles? He is “called the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, the steadfast Spirit, the guiding Spirit. But his principal and most personal title is the Holy Spirit.” Holiness is the sign of the Godhead in its inner life.

      Pentecost by Pierre Reymond, c. 1550

In the Nicene Creed, we say: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; with the Father and Son He is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.” How do we understand that the Spirit “spoke through the prophets”?

Obviously, what went on in the Old Testament, indeed in the cosmos itself, when spelled out, was the preparation for the Incarnation of the Word in our midst. Likewise, after Christ’s return to the Father, the Spirit – the Advocate – is sent among us to carry out this same plan.

Any notion that we might be involved in a “plan” being carried out by the divinity in our midst strikes some of us as an attack on our autonomy. We don’t need any help. That supposedly is our dignity. Yet, in his farewell to the people in Ephesus, Paul, who does not expect to see them again, says that he had preached the plan or purpose of God. It is not his own private plan.

Another of the names of the Holy Spirit is “gift.” The inner Trinitarian life of God ends in the Holy Spirit. The fullness of life is already here. It does not “need” anything but itself. Our relation to God is not such that He needs us for something lacking in Himself.

At first sight, this fact might seem to lessen our significance. But it is just the opposite. We are related to God wholly by gift. That what we are in this world came about through something beyond justice. We exist because of the abundance, not necessity, within the Godhead. This fact means that everything about us, including ourselves, is gift.

Basil also tells us that the Sprit “enlightens those who have been cleansed from every stain of sin and makes them spiritual by communion with himself.” We sometimes forget that Christ came into the world to redeem us from our sins. He did not come to bypass them, tell us they were all right, or pretend that they never happened. He came to forgive us, if we would.

What makes Christianity different from other philosophies and religions is not that they have no knowledge of sin or of something wrong with man, but that they do not have a way to forgive sins. By themselves, the Christians do not have it either. It too is something given to us.

 James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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written by Stanley Anderson, May 29, 2012
I have wondered if the various references to the actions of the Holy Spirit in people before the "fullness" of Pentecost might be likened to the fetus that can be felt kicking within the womb, but that at Pentecost His presence is akin to the birth of a baby.

And perhaps we can look at the Holy Spirit's role and actions in baptism and confirmation in a similar manner -- ie, that between baptism and confirmation is a sort of gestation period where movement and effects can be felt, but that the fullness of those effects and presence are more like a birth at our confirmation.

I might guess that this is or has been a standard illustration, but I have not heard of or run across it before -- my wife and I are relatively new converts (five+ years now). If you or anyone is familiar with such an illustration, I would be grateful to hear of any references.

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