Today we come to the conclusion of the joyful Easter season and are given an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us for the journey ahead as the Church year continues to unfold. The significance of the first Christian feast of Pentecost was not likely fully understood by those who shared in it, who were ecstatic over the gifts of the Spirit they received, yet struggled to connect them to the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection.
Soon enough the Church would begin to sound the depths of the grace of the Holy Spirit and come to recognize that this was the same Spirit that Jesus himself had promised before his death and resurrection (e.g.: John 14:15-17). Belief in the Holy Spirit as the very Spirit of God—as “a person of the Holy Trinity” as Christians would say later—was thus part of the core of our faith from the earliest days of the Church in Jerusalem, even if Christians’ insight into the Spirit and its role developed over time.
On that first Pentecost the presence of the Spirit “appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:3-4). This was a dramatic beginning for the Church and for her missionary commission. Although the circumstances may not be as dramatic, we are charged to carry out the same mission in our own day, responding to Jesus’ command to “Go forth, and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19).
To this end, throughout the centuries every Christian who is baptized has received a portion of God’s Holy Spirit. While the particular gifts vary—we do not often speak in tongues as we hear in Acts today—the descent of the Holy Spirit does gather us all into one body in Christ, just as it did the first Christians.
This point is brought home in the second reading, which (in one option) can be taken from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. There we read of the “fruits of the Holy Spirt” which you may have had to memorize for a Baltimore Catechism or CCD lesson in your earlier days. Paul tells us: “the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:21-22). It is by means of these gifts of the Spirit that we are to contribute to the unity of the Church, the living Body of Christ.
A beautiful means of building up unity in the Church is given in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus appears to the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). Forgiveness of sins is something greatly needed in our Church and in our world today. As we reflect on the Holy Spirit received by the earliest disciples on Pentecost and by us in our baptism, we should remember that the forgiveness Jesus commanded the disciples to extend to others was a reflection of the forgiveness he had shown them.
Relying on the fruits of the Holy Spirit and grateful for our place within the Body of Christ animated by the Spirit, may we take heart that we have been given the very same strength that the earliest disciples were given—to go forth and share the Good News.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.