By Corinne Winter
On Sunday, May 20, we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost. Many of us may have grown up experiencing Pentecost as the one day of the year when we heard about the Holy Spirit. Easter decorations had been put away and Catholic school bulletin boards lit up with paper flames, often 12 of them — one for each of the men we knew as the “Twelve Apostles.” A short while after the feast, all of these images would disappear for another year, along with teaching about the Spirit.
This isolation of theology of the Spirit was reflected as well in the way we tended to view Easter and Pentecost as separate feasts. Easter seemed to end with the Feast of the Ascension when Jesus, who had been appearing to his disciples for 40 days, disappeared from their midst, leaving them fearful and uncertain, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. Ten days later, that Spirit came. We celebrated the Feast of Pentecost during its own octave, wondering at the account of wind and fire that moved the disciples of Jesus out of the upper room and into the streets to preach. Then we turned to “Ordinary time,” when we were presented with the teachings and works of Jesus as the foundation for the life we were called to live.
But what we have come to call the “Pentecost Account” in Acts 2 itself suggests a much richer theology of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Peter, in explaining to astonished onlookers what has occurred, tells them it is the fulfillment of a prophecy found in Joel, of a time when the Spirit of God will be poured out on all humanity, on young and old, on women and men, even on servants (Jl 3:2). By the power of that Holy Spirit, many will turn to God and be saved.
Indeed, the whole history of God’s work as presented in the Scriptures draws attention to the Spirit as the one in whom divine work is accomplished. The Spirit, wind or breath of God, not yet identified as “The Holy Spirit” but generally considered applicable to our theology of the third divine person, hovers over the waters at Creation (Gen 1:1; 8:1), is breathed into the first human creature (Gen 2: 7), fills the prophets and leaders of Israel. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary when she hears God’s Word (Luke 1:25), anoints Jesus for his public ministry (Lk 4:18), is the one in whose power Jesus performs signs and wonders and is promised to his followers. St. Paul tells us that it is the Holy Spirit who joins us to Christ and who prays in us (Rom 8). The many gifts that mark the Christian community are one because the Spirit is one.
In the light of the witness found in Scripture and in the Tradition of the church, the celebration of Pentecost should turn our attention to the Holy Spirit as the one in whom all of the work God does in Christ is accomplished, not in a one-time past event, but always — in the past, present and future. Our sacramental worship affirms that conviction. In our Eucharist, we ask God to send the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine “so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” We ask also that God gather us, the community of faith, in the Holy Spirit to be the body of Christ. At every baptism service the priest or deacon asks God to send the Holy Spirit on the water so that the one being baptized may be joined to Christ. And similar prayers are found in all of the sacramental rites.
The celebration of Pentecost seals our Easter season as we are sealed with the Spirit in baptism and confirmation. In the power of the Holy Spirit and only in that power, we are able to live the paschal mystery, to profess faith in God who is revealed in Jesus and to follow his teachings. We turn, immediately on the day after Pentecost, to “Ordinary time,” to the mission of ordering our whole lives according to God’s Word. We should pray, not only near Pentecost, but daily, “Come, Holy Spirt, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in [us] the power of your love…”
The feast of the Holy Trinity, celebrated a week after Pentecost (May 28 this year) confirms that the Christian community, reflecting on all of God’s great work, came to understand that the Father, ultimate source of all, the Son in whom God is revealed, and the Spirit, whose power at work in us draws us to the Father through the Son, are One God. One God, a communion of divine persons, whose love flows out in Creation and salvation, calling us to share in their abundant love.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emeritus of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)