As we prepare to celebrate Pentecost Sunday we ought to consider how the Church is strengthened and empowered for her great mission to go unto all the nations. The principal account of it took place in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2).
As we encounter the Church we find a Church that has been given quite a tall task:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20).
And Luke adds a detail in his account:
Jesus said Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And (behold) I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Lk 24:46-49)
And so the Church gathered in Jerusalem, about 120 in all, and prayed for nine days (the origin of the Catholic practice of Novena wherein one prays nine days for an intention). On the Tenth Day the Holy Spirit came. During those nine days we find the little Church somewhat fearfully gathered. There is no evidence that they are boldly seeking converts. They are a small community huddled together, fearful, behind closed doors, and awaiting a fulfillment of the promise of Jesus to send the Spirit. This was something they probably only vaguely understood.
So theres the image: a community fearfully and apprehensively huddled together, wonder how they would ever Go unto all the nations when they were too afraid even to go out side the doors where the huddled together.
This is all about to change, but for a moment, grasp the picture and consider with me if it does not look a lot like many of our Catholic parishes today. Increasingly small communities that huddle together and talk only privately about the Lord but are afraid to go out of the doors of the Church and speak a word about the Lord. Perhaps they will be laughed at, scorned or asked questions they cannot answer. The general approach of most Catholic parishes in terms of evangelization does not seem to be to open the doors and go out but, rather to open the doors and hope people come in. But Christ said GO. And still we huddle together fearfully and with an inward focus. We spend most of our time talking about inward things like what color to paint the womens restroom, who will be the new Holy Name Society President, why women cant be ordained etc. All perhaps important issues to resolve but the main mission of evangelization is neglected and we focus on inward things too much.
Hence we are huddled together, fearful, and lacking in proper focus. Outside the Church doors is a world that needs to hear from us, but still we huddle together, timid and fearful of opening the doors and going out.
To be sure it is not wrong to huddle together. It is essential for us to gather each week as a community to ponder the word of the Lord, hear his teaching and plan, be fed and strengthened for our mission. But if all we do is huddle, we are missing the point.
Consider a football game. The offensive team always huddles before the play. This is essential to make sure all the team members are on the same page and know their roles. The quarterback makes clear what each is to do. But at a certain point it is time to break the huddle and come out and execute the play. If you went to a foot ball game where all they did was huddle you wouldnt stay long. The huddle is not the game or the point, is to prepare the play. And then it is time to hustle up and run the play.
What would you think of a football player that was afraid to come out of the huddle and run the play? Perhaps he is afraid of getting hit or something. Well its clear that wed think hes a pretty poor excuse for a football player. But this is our struggle as Christians. Too many of us are afraid to come out of the huddle (the Mass) and run the play. What play you say? Go there are make disciples of all nations .. The deacon or priest says it at every Mass: The Mass is ended, Go in peace. And this is short for Go make disciples . And so it is that the huddle is supposed to break and we are to go out on the (mission) field. But in too many of our parishes this is not happening. We are not passing on the faith well even to our children, let alone strangers.
Come Holy Spirit The early Church was also huddled together behind closed doors. But on that tenth day (Pentecost) the Holy Spirit descended on them as a strong rushing wind and tongues of fire. And suddenly they started speaking boldly. The next thing we notice is that the door is open and Peter preaches a sermon to the crowd so bold that three thousand are added to their number that day.
And the Church went forth that day, unto all the nations. Sure there were fits and starts but the mission to the world had begun. The huddle broke and the play was executed. Surely the Church would huddle frequently, but then they would break huddle and hustle up to the line to execute the play: Go therefore.
How about your parish? How about you? Dont just huddle .., hustle! When the Mass concludes Go in peace dont miss that this is a commissioning. Get out on the field and execute the play. Move the ball, gain some yards! And if you loose some yards, get back up, huddle up again, and hustle again. But dont give up! First huddle then hustle.
Here is an excerpt from the Sermon I preached last Pentecost at my parish here in Washington DC that makes some of these points. We have been conducting a neighborhood outreach this past year.
What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost. A feast like this challenges us, because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus had said to Apostles, and still says to us: I have come to cast a fire on the earth! (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world.
The Readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: The Portraits of the Spirit, the Proclamation of the Spirit and the Propagation by the Spirit. Lets look at all three.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit The Reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind, and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50 which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest. (Psalm 50:3).
Rushing Wind Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word Spirit. For spirit refers to breath, and we have this preserved in our word respiration, which means breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this saying the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man, not the animals: then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Gen 2:7).
So the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! But, as we know, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians (120 in all) experience the rushing wind of Gods Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire The text from Acts says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms. Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up on to a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says, The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory. (Ps 97:1-6). Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; & Mal 3:3).
And so it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through his Holy Spirit. And as a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
And he is also preparing us for judgement, for if God is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of his coming or of our going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus we must be set afire by Gods love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, he purifies and prepares us to meet him one, He who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit. - You will notice that the Spirit Came on them like tongues of Fire. And the reference to tongues is no mere accident. For notice how the Holy Spirit moves them to speak, and ultimately to witness. The text says: And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.
So behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just in the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds who have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago these were frightened men who gathered only behind locked doors, in secrecy. They were huddled together in fear. But now they go forth to the crowds and boldly proclaim Christ. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
And how about us? Too many Christians are silent, dominated by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names, or not being popular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at, or resisted, or of being asked questions they dont feel capable of answering. Some Christians are able to gather in the upper room of the parish and be active, even be leaders. But once outside the upper room they slip into undercover mode. They become secret agent Christians.
Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that, and to the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced his Holy Spirit we are less able to keep silent. An old Gospel song says, I thought I wasnt gonna testify, but I couldnt keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me. The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, and burn away our fear, so that testifying and witnessing are natural to us.
Note also how the Spirit translates for the apostles, for the crowd before them spoke different languages, but all heard Peter and the others in their own language. The Spirit therefore assists not only us, but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent only on my eloquence, but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubtful encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit who translates for us and overcomes many obstacles that we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit In the great commission the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, as we have noted, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
But how is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title: Holy Comforter. Above the high altar is the Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See photo, above right, of our high altar).
And yet, we may wonder how He will do this.
But the walls of my parish Church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish Red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the lives of 20 saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also, video below). And over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not magic fairy dust, it is in the fiery transformation of every Christian, going forth into the world to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. THIS is how the Lord casts fire on earth, THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth: in the lives of saints, and, if you are prepared to accept it, in YOU.
In the end, the Great Commission (Matt 28) is standing order No. 1. No matter what else, we are supposed to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us. The spread of the Gospel has been placed in your hands (scary isnt it?).
Last year, my own parish, after a year of training, stepped out into our neighborhood, and went door to door and into the local park. And we announced Jesus Christ, and invited people to discover him in our parish, and in the sacraments.
Before we count even a single convert, this is already success because we are obeying Jesus Christ who said, simply, Go! Go make disciples. And, truth be told, we ARE seeing an increase in my parish. Our Sunday attendance has grown from about 450 to 520, a 15% increase. We are growing, and our attendance, while average for a downtown city parish, is going in the right direction. God never fails. God is faithful.
Spread the news: it works if you work it, so work it because God is worth it. Go make disciples. Ignore what the pollsters tell you about a declining Church and let the Lord cast a fire on the earth through you! Fires have way of spreading! Why not start one today? The Spirit of God will not disappoint.
I know this, my parish has a future because we are obeying Jesus Christ, we are making disciples. How about you and yours? If parishes do not obey, they do not deserve to exist and can expect to close one day, no matter how big they are today. I, in my short 50 years on this planet, have seen it: parishes once big, booming, and, (frankly), arrogant, are now declining and some are near closure. It happens to the best, if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish Job 1. The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become totally fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you (I am not talking about the person next to you, I am talking to you).
Happy feast of Pentecost. But dont forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the upper room, opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you, and then, you cant help but spread light and heat to a cold and dark world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
This video features details from the clerestory (upper window level) of my parish of Holy Comforter here in DC. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth, (see photo above), through the lives of the lives of the saints (this means you). It is not magic, it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts, and your relationships, that the Lord will reach each soul. The cloud of witnesses on the walls of my Church say simply, You are the way he will fill the earth and set it on fire. Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song says: We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy, and be faithful to Gods call .We must not grow weary !