May 23, 2015

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

The descent of the Holy Spirit.
(Click here for today's readings)

There is a famous story about the prophet Elijah in chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings. He has made powerful enemies and is hiding in a cave. The Lord tells Elijah to stand outside and wait for the Lord to pass. There is a strong violent wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by fire, but the Lord is not in any of these. Then comes a “light silent sound,” which is the New American Bible equivalent of the better known “still small voice” of the King James version.

Sometimes, especially at a retreat, for example, there is a tendency to take this story to mean that God always comes quietly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at what happened at Pentecost. There was “a noise like a strong driving wind,” and “there appeared to them tongues of fire... and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” What about the earthquake? In chapter 4 of Acts we read this, “As they prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”

In other words, the Lord can manifest himself in any way he pleases. In John 3:8, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Would it surprise you to learn that in this verse the same Greek word is translated as “wind” at the beginning of that verse and “Spirit” at the end?

It is this unpredictable Spirit in whom, as we recite the Creed, we profess faith as “the Lord, the giver of life.”

In ordinary usage, the first, most obvious meaning of “giver of life” would refer to parents, whose loving union gives life to a new human being. But that is only the beginning of their giving of life. If all goes well, they will continue to give life, under a variety of forms, for many years. Nor is it only the parents. There are grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and others, all of whom “give life.”

“Giving life” is clearly much broader than “bringing into being.” We can engage in many “life-giving” activities with respect to persons who are already alive, because we understand life to mean more than simply being alive.

Blood donors and organ donors are givers of life. So are those who dedicate their lives to the service of others, or those whom we honor on Memorial Day who gave their lives to and for their country.

The prayer of St. Francis describes many other such activities that any of us is capable of—bringing hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, pardon after injury, faith in a time of doubt, and so on. Francis identifies these with being “instruments of peace,” and peace is one of the nine “fruits of the Spirit” listed in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Even those who provide hospice care to the dying bring life through the respect and dignity with which they endow the situation. Think of Mother Teresa, finding persons who were left in the gutter to die and bringing them into a place where they would be surrounded by love in their final moments.

The first sign of life in a newborn child is “inspiration,” i.e., when it draws its first breath. The first sign of death is the final “expiration,” i.e. when you exhale your last breath.

Would it surprise you to learn that the Latin word “spiritus,” from which these words come, means breath, and that “Holy Spirit” could be translated as “Holy Breath?” What do we see in the Gospel? Jesus “breathed” on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What do we see in the creation of Adam: “Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

It’s all about giving and what is given. The Spirit is the “giver of life.” The Spirit inspired Mother Teresa. The same Spirit inspired St. Francis. The same Spirit is alive and well and active in the Church today and giving life in whatever form it is needed.

Giving, of course, implies receiving, accepting, putting the gifts to good use. That’s where you and I fit in.

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