Pentecost: "In Head and Members"
In my lifetime, and certainly in yours, the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord—are genuinely spoken of as personal gifts, aids and challenges. At last night’s parish Vigil Pentecost Mass (the Sunday format, as I suspected it would be) one of our priests mused that when he says Mass and looks out over the congregation, he is moved by the thought that everyone is going through some kind of personal difficulty, struggle, or suffering. He spoke of the Holy Spirit in the highly personal way, and of course there is great truth in this.
That said, the Pentecostal event celebrated today was a group encounter with a group impact—the Spirit energized the disciples in the upper room for the expressed purpose of engaging in ministry, which is indeed what followed immediately. Today’s Pentecostal narrative at Mass reports only the first portion of the event, the actual encounter of the newly reconstituted twelve with the Spirit. It may be interesting to look at Acts 2 in its entirety, which describes what the disciples did with this new Spirit empowerment: Peter’s dramatic sermon and the baptizing of 3000 Jewish converts that every day.
Fittingly Pentecost is referred to often as the Birthday of the Church—a term that might be debated by theologians but does have an honest ring to it, for biblically speaking, one of the gifts of the Spirit is power. When Jesus breathed the spirit into the Apostles on Easter Sunday night (St. John’s description of Pentecost) he breathed into them divine authority: “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” You might recall from Mark’s Gospel the assertion of the scribes, in opposition to Jesus, that only God can forgive sins. The Spirit’s infusion of divine life and legitimacy into the twelve successors of Jesus’ mission is the empowerment of the Church itself to continue the Lord’s heritage until his second coming.
Pentecost can be described not only as the birthday of the Church but as the origin of its authority as well. From Pentecost forward the Church, even in its infancy, could legitimately baptize a remission of sin and invite the living Jesus into the breaking of the bread. The Church could interpret the Hebrew Scripture authoritatively in the full light of God’s plan, and two centuries later define the books that articulate the life and meaning of Jesus by teaching authoritatively which 27 texts would form the Christian canon, what we call the New Testament. The Church could define who would continue its tradition by laying hands upon select candidates, and determine that indeed Gentiles were worthy of baptism without Jewish circumcision. The Church could correct communities in disarray, as St. Paul did with the Corinthian Church’s Eucharistic abuses.
As I noted above, we are accustomed to think of the Spirit in assisting us as individuals; it is equally true—possibly more true—that the Spirit assists the Church itself in its challenges and travails. It is not uncommon to read of or experience personally the failures of the Church as a whole and/or those sacramentally charged to lead it. Nor is it unusual to hear of those who believe the Church is on the wrong path—most notably in regard to Pope Francis, accused of undermining timeless beliefs.
If everything were crystal clear from the beginning, no Gentile would ever have been baptized, there would never have been more than two sacraments, slavery and the rights of laboring folks would never have crossed the moral radar. When Jesus told his disciples that they had much more to learn, he explained that this would happen in the age of the Holy Spirit, when the Paraclete sent by the Father would make things clear. Despite the protestations of some, I believe that the Spirit works with the Church in the same way that the Spirit works with each of us the confirmed—as works in progress, perfected in an ongoing way.
Joseph Martos, in his discussion on sacraments in Doors to the Sacred (2014), observes that one of the great insights of medieval theologians was the idea that God offers himself fully in every sacramental celebration but that divine saving grace can be frustrated without the proper disposition or intention of the recipient. Again, what is true of individuals is true of the whole—there have been times when God’s Spirit has been poured out upon leaders but the disposition to receive it was lacking—for reasons of fear, intellectual pride, power, habit of longstanding. And conversely, there are times when we as members thwart the mission of the Spirit in the Church, for generally the same reasons.
Pentecost is a splendid time to reflect upon the living Spirit’s power in the Christian community--in capite et membris, in head and members, and how full participation of the Church in the Holy Spirit is possible only when we all stand in humility in the upper room, in capite et membris.
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