There is a pious story I recall from childhood about St. Augustine walking along a beach one day pondering and reflecting on the Trinity. He finds a young child digging a hole in the sand. Repeatedly, the child takes a few steps to the ocean, fills a small pail with water, and dumps the water into the hole. When asked by St. Augustine what he is doing, the child casually explains that he is putting the ocean into the hole. St. Augustine laughs and tells the child he could never do such a thing in a million years. The child tells St. Augustine that neither could he ever understand the Trinity on which he is reflecting.
Yes, we cannot understand the doctrine of the Trinity. We can reflect on it and we can pray about it; we can find meaning in it for our own faith. But there is no way to explain it. On this feast of Pentecost we celebrate one aspect of our Trinitarian life - the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Pentecost means 50. We are 50 days from Easter and our celebration of the second Person of the Trinity. We refer to today as the birthday of the Church. It is the end of the Easter season and tomorrow begins Ordinary Time. These are liturgical terms that signify change in the way we worship during this season. Pentecost is the culmination of the work of Jesus on earth. Just as he ended his time on earth by ascending to the Father, so now he Jesus sends the Holy Spirit who he promised would guide the Apostles in their ministry of preaching the good news about Himself.
We continue to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit specifically through the sacrament of Confirmation. Bishop Robert Barron identifies three ways in which this sacrament strengthens Christians: the Spirit strengthens us in our relationship to Jesus; the Spirit strengthens us in our capacity to defend the faith; the Spirit strengthens us in our capacity to spread the faith.
Yet if we associate this Spirit only with the sacrament of Confirmation, then we have missed much that is vital in our lives of faith. The Spirit is alive among us to guide us in our daily lives of faith, in the decisions we make, in the way we live.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, one of the Church Fathers, tells us that for the first believers it seemed that as long as Christ was with them they “possessed every blessing in him.” But “when the time came for him to ascend to his heavenly Father, it was necessary for him to be united through his Spirit to those who worshiped him, and to dwell in our hearts through faith.” St. Cyril continues, “Only by his own presence within us in this way could he give us confidence to cry out, Abba, Father, make it easy for us to grow in holiness and, through our possession of the all-powerful Spirit, fortify us invincibly against the wiles of the devil and the assaults of men.”
The Spirit is the active life of the Trinity within us that transforms us. We even hear of the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament. The prophet Samuel, for example, said “The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you, and you shall be changed into another man.” St. Paul wrote, “As we behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, that glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us all into his own likeness, from one degree of glory to another.”
What happened to the Apostles after the Ascension of Jesus? They hid away in that Upper Room spending time worthily in prayer and reflection, it is true. But they were afraid to go out of that room and face what is in the world. Is that not how we often carry our own Christianity? In its extreme, we are sometimes tempted to fill the moat around our castles, pull up the drawbridge, and withdraw from all that is taking place in our world because we fear being destroyed by it. We are often afraid to confront and face the world which is hostile to us and we try to remain closed up in our own upper rooms. Pope Francis calls us to be missionaries. Once the Apostles received the Spirit, they went forth to preach and to teach. They were strengthened in their relationship to Jesus by that gift of the Spirit. They were strengthened in their capacity to defend the faith. They were strengthened in their capacity to spread the faith. In St. Cyril’s words, the strength the Apostles “received from the Spirit enabled them to hold firmly to the love of Christ, facing the violence of their persecutors unafraid.”
In a word, the Apostles overcame the fear they had because the world seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. The world was a frightful place. And it can still be so. But it is all too easy for us as Christians to forget that God is running this show. He is the one in charge. It is human for us to be afraid of our own attempts to confront and change the world. Thomas Merton called this the spirituality of evasion. In 1963 Merton referred to this ‘spirituality’ as a “cult of other worldliness that refuses to take account of the inescapable implication of all men in the problems and responsibilities of the nuclear age.” This spirituality of evasion is not a spirituality at all. It is the extreme of what was happening to the Apostles after having been cooped up in the upper room for a while. They were afraid to go out and face their critics, their enemies, their accusers. But then the Spirit descended on them. And that changed everything. It changed the world.
It is no less true today. Jesus had to go to his Father so the Spirit could come to us and strengthen us to continue Jesus’ work through this Spirit. It is what each and every Christian is called t be. We are all witnesses of the truth of the life of Jesus. We cannot help but live a life of witness to his truth and to preach in his name if so called. Some of those who heard the Apostles on Pentecost thought them drunk. So be it! Whatever names we may be called, we are not free not to live as witnesses to the Gospel. We must speak the name of Jesus!