Today is Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles and to the church. Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church. On the Church calendar, Pentecost is one of the Sundays when we sing something called the sequence before we hear the gospel proclaimed.
The sequence for today is an ancient and lovely poem beseeching the Holy Spirit to come and be with us. It reminds us that the action of Holy Spirit was not just what happened 50 days after Easter Sunday. On that Pentecost, the apostles were given the gift of tongues, so that men and women of every race and culture could hear the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. The Holy Spirit is working today with each and every one of us, and it is doing the same thing it did on that Sunday: it is letting us hear in words we can understand, and in other forms of communication, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.
The gift of tongues given here in the gospel reading is basically the gift of translation. The people in the audience are surprised to hear men who are clearly from Galilee and Judea able to speak to them in their own language: Persian, Median, Greek, and others. But the gift of tongues is not only translation. It is nonverbal prayer and communication between us and our God. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that the gift of tongues is the least of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul is in no way demeaning or diminishing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is reminding us that we speak to God, and we hear from God, all the time in nonverbal ways of communication. The sequence today reminds us of some of the ways that we hear from God through the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives.
After the Ascension, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God. After the ascension Jesus has risen to his throne in heaven. He is truly Christ the King, the Lord of the universe. He continues to make himself present to us, fully, really, his body, his blood, his soul, his divinity, in the Eucharist, even though it continues to look like bread and continues to taste like wine. And this is a personal relationship with Jesus. Indeed, we can have no more personal relationship with Jesus than to receive him into our bodies at Holy Communion. It is however, the third person of the Holy Trinity, whom Jesus sent to us after his ascension, who is that sense of presence that we feel. The sequence today reminds us of some of the ways we do feel him.
And we need to feel God’s presence. We are flesh and blood human persons. We cannot live fully with only an intellectual or metaphysical understanding of God. We need to feel his presence. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, what Jesus called the Paraclete, is that sensation of love, of rest-filled hearts, of good deeds, of warmth, of good thoughts. God sends the Holy Spirit, as the Sequence says, to heal our wounds and to renew our strength.
All the saints, and most likely all of us here today, have had periods of spiritual dryness. These are periods when we felt that we did not sense God’s presence. The sequence today reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who “on our dryness pours out God’s dew,” who drenches us with his love.
Think of the times when you go to confession. After you confess your sins, the priest, acting in the person of Christ, gives you absolution, and your sins are forgiven. Many of us walk out of the confessional with lighter hearts and a spring in our step. Perhaps this is what the sequence means when it says the Holy Spirit will “come and wash the stains of guilt away.” We leave confession knowing we are forgiven, thanks to the words of the priest, and we leave feeling better, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit. God sends us an advocate, a protector, and a holy comforter to give us the good feelings that will strengthen us and renew us.
All of us should welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives. He is with us when we leave this sacred space. He is with us as we are fighting traffic in Atlanta. He is with us when our children are a struggle, or when our parents are a struggle, or when our boss is a struggle, or when our subordinates are a struggle. When we are at odds with each other we can be reminded to ask the Holy Spirit to “bend our stubborn heart and our stubborn will.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to “melt what is frozen and to warm what is chill.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to guide our steps when we have gone astray. It is the Holy Spirit that speaks to us in our inmost heart. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us, let’s go to Mass it’s been a while, or let’s go to confession it’s been too long. It is the Holy Spirit that lets us see joy when we are not very happy. It is the Holy Spirit who lets us see the grace of God when our lives are a mess. It is the Holy Spirit who lets us see peace when our lives seem to be full of contention.
Come Holy Spirit, come.
And from your celestial home shed a ray of light divine.
Come father of the poor, come source of all our store,
come within our bosoms shine.