Today is Whitsunday, Pentecost, the birth of a new season in the Church and the day that some people like to call the birthday of the Church. I tend to think that the Church was born the moment a young virgin named Mary said yes to the Archangel Gabriel, but Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit was given to the Church, is a good birthday nonetheless. And if we are supposed to receive gifts on our birthdays, then all the better, for the Church received nothing less than that Holy Spirit, the original gift that keeps on giving, on that first Pentecost. That gift of the Spirit was and is more than we could have ever asked for, but like so many extravagant gifts, we don’t fully understand it, we don’t get the Holy Spirit, we either do not or can not fully grasp what receiving the Holy Spirit means for us. But that’s OK – let’s talk about the Spirit anyway.
To understand the Holy Spirit you have to understand the Holy Trinity. I can’t believe I just said that, because you can’t understand the Trinity, no one can, though several of our best scholars have taken a shot. St. Athanasius, writing his creed against the Arian heresy in the fourth century, got it about as right as we have gotten it. Athanasius wrote that the Holy Spirit is one Person of the Trinity, equal in Substance, majesty, glory, the Spirit is uncreate, eternal, and incomprehensible. Follow that so far? The Holy Spirit is God, along with the Father and the Son, not confounded in the Persons nor divided in the Substance. Just as the Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten, the Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten, and the Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
Which brings us to our Gospel lesson for the day. According to St. John, the first giving of the Spirit was not on Pentecost but on the day of the Resurrection. John tells us that on that same day at evening, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus breathed on them, the Holy Spirit proceeded from Jesus in His very breath, the very breath of God, the same breath that gave life to Adam and gives life to us all. The Latin word for “spirit” (spiritus), the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach), and the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) all mean “breath” at their most basic linguistic level, breath that is by its very nature life giving.
Jesus breathed on the Church and we received the Holy Spirit, and so the Church is alive and gives us life within her. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and empowers priests to forgive and retain those same sins. The Holy Spirit moves the unchurched, the pagan, the rebel, anyone who does not know Christ, the Spirit moves them to redemption; some accept that redemption, some do not. The Holy Spirit inspired Holy Scripture and helps us to interpret Scripture. The Holy Spirit is our help in leading the Christian life, He comforts and prods, He heals and speaks, He shows us Jesus. Where the Holy Spirit is, so also the fruits of the Spirit: the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, along with generosity, modesty, and chastity.
But make no mistake: the Holy Spirit is not the only game in town. There are any number of spirits in life that we can breathe in, get whipped up by, and so be shaped by. The spirits of this world are real, and they breathed in just as easily. The fruits of evil spirits are manifest; St. Paul lists them off for us: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, the complete lack of concern for human life, our own or the life of others. South American drug dealers actually have witch doctors come and curse the cocaine they produce, the witch doctors attach demons to the drugs, and then people quite literally breathe in those demons.
So you’re probably wondering why this is important. All this is important because all of this can be taken as one of the meanings of life, as defined by God. Life, life itself, is given by God, He spoke us into existence and His breath vivified us; now that same breath re-vives us, gives us new life, real life, eternal life, the life that proceeds from the Father and the Son, life in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit breathes life into us at our baptism, and that same Spirit expects to be breathed in by the Church; by being here, by being Christians, we breathe in that Breath of God, we breathe in redemption, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, generosity, modesty, and chastity, we breathe in life. And that life is to be shared.
Today is Pentecost, today is a day to celebrate our birthday, certainly, but also a day to think about what spirit we breathe, which fruits we see evident in our lives. A day to take stock, give thanks for the gift of the Spirit, to breathe in the very life of God. Happy birthday, everyone.