On the Gifts of the Spirit
[Acts 2:1-11; Gal.5:16-25; Jn.15:26-27; 16:12-15]
Today, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we also celebrate the Church’s birthday. Happy Birthday!
Something we associate with birthdays is gifts, and happily Pentecost’s no exception.
After Jesus returns to his Father by ascending into heaven, the disciples go into hiding. On Pentecost Sunday they’re huddled in the Upper Room, when suddenly a great noise like a mighty wind rushes through the house. A tongue of fire rests on each disciple, and they’re all filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit they receive is the same powerful Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and in that instant the disciples’ lives are changed completely. Instead of cowering in fear, they walk bravely into the streets of Jerusalem and start telling everyone the truth about Jesus. And despite the differing languages, everyone in the crowd can understand. That day some 3,000 people become Christians and the Church is born.
Now, the Holy Spirit’s work didn’t stop with Jesus and his Apostles. Today the Holy Spirit continues to work throughout the world in many different ways, transforming the lives of many people (1Cor.12:4-11). For each of us, our own personal Pentecost started with the Sacrament of Baptism, and this gift was strengthened through the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Through these two sacraments, the Holy Spirit gives us the same special graces he gave the Apostles. At Baptism we receive the gifts of faith, hope and charity. At Confirmation these graces are strengthened by the gifts of wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence and fear of the Lord (or wonder and awe).
These graces, these spiritual strengths, are exactly what the Apostles need to get going. They’re also exactly what we need if we’re to live our lives to the full.
St Thomas Aquinas described these spiritual gifts as being like the sails of a boat. Just as sails catch the wind and move the boat forward, so these gifts catch or receive the impulses that come from the Holy Spirit. They drive us onward, helping us to love God and helping us to live as good disciples, doing what he wants us to do.
St Thomas also described these gifts as ‘perfections of man’, through which we become amenable ‘to the promptings of God’.
The Spirit can only unleash his power if we allow him to change us from within.
But we’re only amenable to God’s promptings if we play our part. If we’ve forgotten our gifts of the Spirit, if we’ve packed up those sails and put them away, our boat isn’t going anywhere, no matter how hard the Spirit’s wind blows.
Three years ago, Pope Francis said, ‘Man is like a traveller who, crossing the deserts of life, has a thirst for living water, gushing and fresh, capable of quenching his deep desire for light, love, beauty and peace. He said this living water is the Holy Spirit, which Jesus pours into our hearts.
But only last week, Pope Francis commented that the Holy Spirit seems to be a ‘luxury prisoner’ in the hearts of many Christians. He said that too often the Spirit is someone who’s welcomed to stay, but he’s not allowed to move us or push us forward.
Pope Francis added that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves the Church, who works in the Church and in our hearts. The Spirit does everything, knows everything, reminds us what Jesus said and can explain all about Jesus. But too many Christians don’t understand the Spirit’s role. Instead they’ve simply reduced the Christian life to a code of ‘morals and ethics’.
Pope Francis said that the faith is not just an ethical life: it’s an encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s an invitation to a personal relationship with God himself, but to accept this invitation we must open up our hearts to the Holy Spirit.
‘This is what we must do’, he said. We must ‘think of the Spirit and talk to him.’
In 2008, in Sydney, Pope Benedict XVI described the Holy Spirit as the spirit of God’s love. He can perform miracles. But the Spirit can only unleash his power if we allow him to change us from within.
We need to allow the Spirit to work his magic in us, transforming us, just as he transformed those fishermen and tax collectors 2,000 years ago.
If we do allow the Holy Spirit to work his magic in us, we’ll then start reaping the fruits that St Paul spoke about in Galatians 5:22: ‘love, joy, peace, generosity, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’.