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This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, the day God comes to us not just as the one we learn from and follow, but as the one who recreates us from within, forming us into Jesus Christ himself.
This Pentecost comes as the pandemic’s restrictions are lifting in many places and as the fear, anxiety and division that the pandemic brought to so many of our lives is starting to loosen its grip at last.
The Holy Spirit comes bringing peace — but the peace that comes from victory in battle, not from truce.
We are used to thinking of peace in the “Give peace a chance” sense — the peace that comes from two enemies putting their weapons down and shaking hands instead.
But that isn’t the kind of peace we get at Pentecost. This is the peace that comes against an enemy that will never stop trying to destroy us; and this peace comes not just from winning a victory, but also from being equipped to stand our ground.
The Gospel this week from John Chapter 20 begins with Jesus coming to the Apostles despite their locked door, into the place where they are crouching behind their defenses, cowering from the enemy.
“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you,’” says the Gospel. “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.”
Why does he show them his wounds? Because he wants them to see that the enemy has already done his worse and could not prevail.
Think of it like a wounded knight standing in the castle courtyard and declaring that he has won the battle and restored peace in the land. Then, imagine this knight saying, “Now, you go and fight as I did.” This is what happened next when “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”
But with Jesus there is another step: He equips the apostles.
“When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
With that, Jesus makes it clear who this battle is against, and against whom the victory has been won: sin and its master, Satan.
One of the Second Reading options for the day is the letter to the Galatians that clearly identifies the enemy and the advantage we have been given.
Paul lists the obstacles that Christians have to be overcome. “Now the works of the flesh are obvious,” he writes, “immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.”
That reads like a description of the dark parts of our culture today: Our heavily trafficked Internet pornography sites; our consumerist idolatry that puts power and money in God’s place; the outrage culture of incivility and partisanship; the culture of pleasure and self-absorption.
St. Augustine, who had been defeated by these sins in his own life as a young man said that Christians can never feel safe from them. “A most furious war is waged against the gospel and against those who have been reconciled to God,” he wrote. “The remnants of fornication, though long lukewarm, can nonetheless be rekindled.”
But we have been given the weapons to answer these, Augustine adds: “The contrary of this war is the peace by which we are reconciled to God.”
Paul lists the fruits of the Holy Spirit; 12 total in St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation of this passage. They each serve to defeat the enemy: Love and generosity destroy our self-absorption. Self-control, modesty and chastity wrest our priorities away from our appetites and set them back on God. Patience, gentleness and kindness tear down the barriers we build between ourselves and others. “Forbearance fights to endure these vices,” writes Augustine, “faith struggles against heresy, meekness against envy.” Together these give us joy and peace which is the strongest armor God gives us.
But unlike a knight’s suit of armor, the armor the Holy Spirit gives us is on the inside.
It is significant that Jesus breathes on the apostles in the Gospel. This is an image of the first creation, of God breathing into the dust to make Adam.
The Psalm for Pentecost makes this effect on us explicit: “If you take away their breath, they perish and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
We are re-created by the Holy Spirit; we become a new creature built on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. You can see how the gifts change you from top to bottom:
Your brain gets wisdom, to think with God. Your eyes get understanding, to see things with God. Your heart gets fortitude, to give you courage. You are given hands that point the way forward and lead others, representing the gift of counsel. Your folded hands represent the gift of piety, the consolation found in prayer. And your knees express the gift of fear of God, bending in reverence before him.
The story of Pentecost shows exactly how God’s grace works.
On Pentecost Sunday, the narrative account of the day comes in the First Reading, from Acts. The Apostles are back behind in the upper room, but they are praying this time 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 is a strange new thing: A wind that blows inside. Think of it as the refreshing breath of God that finds us wherever we are. Or think of the grace of God as a wind that is always at our backs if we face the right direction — but blows against us if we turn against God.
“Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,” the reading continues, “which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” This is the fire of zeal that makes us burn with love for God and others — and this is also the crackling fire of comfort that calms us with God’s peace.
These gifts make it possible to be sent as the Father sent the son by breaking down the walls of communication so that we can speak to and hear people who seemed to speak a different language before.
Remember, though: This is comfort, not complacency.
But beware. Peace has been restored, but the enemy is still on the prowl. Too many people have let their guard down, thinking the Spirit has made them impervious to temptations that come from the world, the flesh, and the devil. When they fall, we can feel hopeless, and suspect that the promise of the Holy Spirit was empty.
Pray to cooperate with the Holy Spirit every day. I use the far more understandable prose version of the Pentecost Sequence whose poetic version we pray at Pentecost Mass, or this ancient brief version of it that my wife prays with her confirmation students:
Remake me, Holy Spirit.
Wash what is unclean.
Water what is parched.
Heal what is diseased.
Bend what is rigid.
Warm what is cold.
Fill the hearts of your faithful
And renew the face of the earth.