Friday, 5 June 2009

Pentecost Year B 2009

For the Jews, Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. According to a legend, a mighty wind turned into fire that divided into 70 tongues of fire corresponding to the 70 nations. Thus, the Law was proclaimed, not only to Israel but to all mankind. In a way, Luke exploited this Jewish tradition and used it for Christianity where, instead of the Law, he had the giving of the Spirit taking place at Pentecost. Note the close parallel where in Luke, a mighty wind and tongues of fire came upon the disciples. Whereas, at Babel our sin of pride had scattered mankind, at Pentecost, when the Good News was proclaimed, the sentence of Babel was undone. Now, one voice could be heard by all.

Pentecost is often associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit—the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit, these are amongst the favourites of the charismatic movement. Pentecost is also an appropriate day for conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation, that is, if we are privileged to get our Archbishop.

Today, instead of focusing on the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, I thought it might be a good time to deepen our understanding of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church.

There is a necessary bond between the Holy Spirit and the Church—a bond that is sometimes taken for granted. Pentecost is rightly the birthday of the Church because at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit initiated the mission of the Church. However, this does not mean that the Spirit was not active before Pentecost. Luke is able to attest the Spirit’s presence prior to Pentecost since he is the author of the Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles. For example, Luke tells us in Acts 17:23 that the Holy Spirit was already at work as the “unknown God” worshipped by the Athenians. He was present at the Annunciation where the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you”. Jesus Himself experienced this at His Baptism. Later in Luke 4 where upon His returned to Nazareth He read from the scroll in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me”. Last but not least, John the Baptist tied the mission of this Messiah to a new baptism "in the Holy Spirit."

The Holy Spirit has been present all through human history but at Pentecost, 2 things happened. First, Christ, who was now glorified after completing His mission, poured out the Spirit to fill the apostles and all believers with divine life. [1] Second, the Church was publicly displayed to the gathering outside and the Gospel began to spread among the nations.

According to the Decree Ad gentes of Vatican II on the Missionary Activity of the Church, that gathering was the indication of the unity of all peoples in the catholicity of the faith by means of the Church of the new covenant, a Church which speaks all tongues, understands and accepts all tongues in her love, and so supersedes the divisiveness of Babel" (AG 4).

Such is the intimacy of the relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit that one can say that the Church stands for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, it does not make sense to speak of the Church as the instrument of salvation. This intimate relationship is possible because of the promise of Christ in Matthew 28: “Know that I will be with you always, yes, to the end of time”.

However, our challenge today is not because we are blind to the intimate relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit. We may have trouble appreciating this simply because our understanding of the individual is one who is over and above the group. [2] The best representation of this individual is the “rugged individual”. However, check out the 2nd Reading used in Year A. 1 Cor. 12. 3-7; 12-13. "There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all of them. Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink".

The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians speaks of gifts of the Holy Spirit in relation to the “group”, that is, the Church. But, because our individual is the “rugged individual”, the Holy Spirit has somehow been reduced to becoming the guarantor of “individual freedom”; in a way that often pits the individual’s “inspiration” against the Church’s “inspiration”. In fact, the Protestant practice of compulsory tithing (10%) that some Catholics marvel at because it helps in the fund-raising could be a result of a failed understanding of the relationship between the Spirit and the Church. If you follow St Paul’s thought, all gifts are given for the Church not for the individual. If a person understands that, why is there the need for compulsory tithing then?

Sometimes we hear of this person or that person leaving the Church. Sometimes people leave the parish as well. I am told that there are many people who have gone to the Assemblies of God. But think about it. The reason for leaving the Church is often because of disagreement with people. And that is a normal occurrence; sad but it does happen. But, to say that one has left because of a disagreement with the teaching of the Church needs a little bit more clarification. One can leave because of the manner in which the teaching has been conveyed. One can leave the Church because of the way it is run. One can leave because one feels that the teaching is no longer applicable. Some do because the teaching of the Church is inconvenient. But, to leave because the teaching is not true is to call the Holy Spirit a liar. This is the implication of the intimate relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit; the promise of Christ in Matt 28 is either true or Christ had lied to us. Ultimately, it is a question of the truth.

To leave the Church means that one no longer believes in the Holy Spirit’s power to work despite the weakness of members of the Church. My point here is not to defend the Church and not to say that whatever the Church, especially the Bishop or the priest, says is right. The point is that if one feels that he or she has a strong sense of the Spirit moving in his or her life, that is, the person feels that the Holy Spirit is speaking to him or her directly, then, he or she must have a stronger sense of the Church and vice versa. If you feel that you have a strong sense of the Church, then you must have a stronger sense of the Holy Spirit to know that He does not always work according to our convention—just like Peter had with the experience of the Council of Jerusalem in the 6th Sunday of Easter Year C. This is where the hierarchical Church must be attentive. It is a delicate balancing act.

If the Holy Spirit is intimately linked to the mission of the Church, then there is need for humble discernment and also the courage to obey. It is not always easy, especially when we work with weak and sinful people in the Church, especially in those who have been placed over us. But, the promise of Christ is to the Church and if we stick close to the Church, we know that Christ will never confound us. When there is a conflict between the opinion of brilliant theologian expounding scintillating theological insight and the teaching of the lowly Catechism, I would choose to stand on the side of the Catechism because it is guaranteed by the Church that carries His promise. As St Peter says in Acts 15, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves”... We trust Him because it is His Spirit that animates the Church, His same Spirit that makes the bread and wine become His body and blood. It is the same Spirit that guarantees that the other 6 sacraments are actions of Christ done in the Church and that the Church shall be guarded from all errors.
[1] Accordingly we pray at every Eucharist “May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit”.
[2] Our sense of the “individual” is too enclosed to the point of solipsism. It is too individual to the point of loneliness. The phenomenon of “Facebook” may reflect the ease with which we cross the digital divide or maybe an indication of our desire to reach out of our prison of individualism.