A Time of Fulfillment

Pentecost Sunday (Year B)

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. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Acts 2:1-4

On the great solemnity of Pentecost, we commemorate the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles with “a mighty wind” and “tongues of fire.”  This day is often celebrated as a new beginning, the “birthday of the Church,” marking the start of a new age, the age of the Spirit.  While all of this is true, in many ways the day of Pentecost is also a fulfillment of what came before.

The feast of Pentecost itself predates the birth of the Church.  As it says in the Acts of the Apostles, the very reason the Apostles and so many other Jewish people from all over the Mediterranean world were gathered in Jerusalem at this time was to celebrate the feast of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1). Pentecost was a spring harvest festival celebrated by the Jews fifty days (hence the name pentecost) after the Passover.  During the festival, bread made from the first spring harvest of grain was offered as first fruits to the Lord.  

But more than this, the Jewish feast of Pentecost marked the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19-20).  So on this great feast when Jewish people from all over the world were gathered together to celebrate God’s gift of the Law to His people, God once again gives His Law, the Law of the Spirit, to His new people, the Church.  It is a completion and fulfillment of what came before.

And what were the effects of this gift of the Holy Spirit?  Many things, one of which was the gift of speaking in tongues.  The scriptures testify that when the Apostles began preaching to the gathered crowds, who came from many different countries and spoke many different languages, each person heard them preaching in their own native tongue.  This gift of the Holy Spirit is also a completion, this time in the sense of being a remedy.  It recalls the episode of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) which describes how mankind, once united in one language, built a great tower which reached to the heavens.  To keep them from being too prideful, God destroyed the tower and confused their language, scattering them to the different corners of the earth. 

This is how the Jewish people understood the reason for there being so many different languages spoken by man.  But in Pentecost we see the undoing of this.  Instead of confusion, what we see with the coming of the Holy Spirit is the gift of understanding.  In the Genesis account of the tower of Babel, God says there is nothing the people could not accomplish with the understanding that comes from a common tongue (Gen 11:6).  Truly, under the common language of the Spirit, there is now nothing we cannot achieve with God’s help — including our own salvation.

And finally we have in our gospel reading another example of how Pentecost marks a completion. This reading from John takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday, just after the Apostles have first seen the risen Christ.  Jesus breathes on them (spirit means “breath) and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained.”  This power to forgive sins, realized in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is made possible through the Holy Spirit.  This reading appears here in our liturgical celebration to show us how Pentecost is a completion of Easter Sunday, which is why today marks the end of the Easter Season.

In considering the various ways that Pentecost represents a fulfillment or completion, I cannot help but consider what many call the Sacrament of the Spirit, confirmation.  The Holy Spirit is often called the mysterious Person of of the Holy Trinity, and not without reason.  The Spirit is hard for us to imagine.  For God the Father, we have the image of earthly fathers, with which we all are familiar, to assist our imagination.  For God the Son we have the human face of Jesus Christ to envision.  But for God the Spirit we have metaphors.  We have fire, a dove, or a mighty wind.  These are all symbols of the Spirit, but hard for us to imagine as a Person.  And so the Spirit is mysterious, which seems fitting.

At the same time, though, it is somewhat of a shame that the Spirit is considered so shrouded in mystery by most Christians, because of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit ought to be most active in our lives.  It is the Spirit that is the animating soul of the Body of Christ, the Church — a Body of which all the baptized are members.  It is the Spirit that makes our lives as Christians possible, uniting us to the Father, through the Son.  So the Spirit, while being mysterious, ought not be unfamiliar.  If He is, perhaps we are not paying attention.

Likewise, because the sacrament of confirmation is called the “Sacrament of the Spirit,” we consider it the “mysterious sacrament.”  I have heard many catechists struggle to explain to those preparing for the confirmation just what the sacrament is for, and what it achieves in us.  “You receive the Holy Spirit,” they are taught.  But didn’t I receive the Holy Spirit when I was baptized?  “Confirmation completes baptism,” they are taught.  Do you mean to say my baptism was incomplete?  Was it lacking in some way?  Any confusion in people’s minds is understandable.

Those who are confirmed do receive the Spirit, and this does complete and seal the graces received at baptism.  But this does not mean the previous baptism was ineffective any more than Jesus’ gift of the Spirit to the Apostles on Easter Sunday, from today’s gospel reading, was ineffective.  The Apostles had the authority to forgive sins.  But the descent of the Spirit upon them at Pentecost gave them the tools needed to put that gift into action.  And this is what we see immediately after the Spirit comes to them — a Church in action, with the Apostles preaching the gospel fearlessly and receiving people into the Church.

Likewise, confirmation gives us the tools we need to put the graces of baptism into action.  The Catechism teaches us that confirmation completes baptismal grace and obligates us to spread and defend the faith by both word and deed (CCC 1285).  What’s more, the sacrament gives us the strength to fulfill that obligation.  Confirmation “gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC 1303, quoting the Council of Florence, 1439 AD).  

The Apostles received this power in a very radical and particular way on the day of Pentecost, at the very beginning of the Church.  But you who are confirmed share in this same power.  However, we must be mindful that gift does not take away free will.  The Apostles had to choose to put that power into action, and you and I have the same choice today.  The gifts we are given do not bear fruit automatically.  We have to cultivate them and put them into action.

As we complete the season of Easter, we recall how Easter Sunday and Pentecost are bound together, one flowing into another.  Just as our baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Paschal mysteries of Easter, we can think of our confirmation as uniting us to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the divine gift that completed the Easter miracle.  Those of you who have been confirmed possess this gift already.  Those preparing for confirmation live in the hope of receiving it.  It belongs to you to put this gift into action.  Spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  Defend the faith, giving a reason for the sure hope that is within you (1 Pt 3:15).  Do this by word and by deed.  You have this power.  God has given it to you in the Spirit.  Go put this power into action and set the world on fire.

Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God’s presence.  Guard what you have received.  God the Father has marked you with His sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed His pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts.

St. Ambrose (340-397 AD)