Saturday, May 27, 2023

Embrace the gifts of the Spirit: Homily for Pentecost Sunday 2023


Detail from "Francis Xavier",    
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1670.

My dear brothers and sisters, two things struck me while reading from the days's lectionary the segment from the Acts of the Apostles, the reading which details for us what happened on Pentecost Sunday. Allow me to read out the two phrases:

And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind

Please note, the noise is not that of a strong driving wind, it is like that of a strong driving wind.

The second phrase is also a description of what happened when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles:

Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire

Once again, note the words as of.

This is to say my dear brothers and sisters, that what happened when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles was not the sound of wind, nor the appearance of tongues of fire, but something like these things. In other words, the appearance of the Holy Spirit was in effect indescribable, and those in the room, and St. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, were at a loss to describe what it was like.

This is a good reminder for us my dear brothers and sisters, that the Holy Spirit is in fact indescribable. Artists over the years have used various images to represent the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire, a dove, but remember that these are merely attempts to describe something that is so powerful that it sweeps us off of our feet. Words cannot contain its glory, and we can only grasp at material realities to describe it.

But if the appearance of the Holy Spirit cannot be described, what can most certainly be described are its effects, the way it manifests in the lives of those gifted with the Holy Spirit.

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul tells us that “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts”, and helpfully, the sequence that was read out this morning tells us that the gifts of the Spirit are seven-fold. What are these seven gifts? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a resource that is readily available online, and one which I urge you to check out from time to time indicates: “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.” Let me repeat that again: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

As the Gospel for today indicates at the very end of the selection for today, the apostles were given the spirit, and through this apostolic tradition, we are also given the Spirit, at Baptism, which is confirmed more wholly at our Chrismation, or Confirmation. However, as I preached some Sundays ago, while the Holy Spirit is all powerful, it requires that we cooperate with it.  We need to train our bodies so that we may cooperate with it. I had suggested consciousness of the way we dress, and care to the way in which we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, whether in the hand, or on the tongue, my personal preference being for reception on the tongue.

I had also recommended genuflection, not a simply bow, before the Blessed Sacrament. All of these are acts of piety. Act piously, with a desire to be pious, and in time, you will become pious. This has been the tradition of Catholics for centuries. With one gift of the Holy Spirit, namely piety, we can hope to acquire other gifts of the Spirit.

Another way in which the body is trained to be cooperative with the Holy Spirit is evidenced by our brothers and sisters involved with the charismatic movement. You may have witnessed them babble, as they “speak in tongues” and wondered at them. However, there is a method to their madness. The logic associated with cultivating the virtues relies on habituation. You do acts which are virtuous so often, that at some point you stop being conscious about it, and you simply do virtuous acts out of habit. Thus, our charismatic brethren may be consciously babbling today, but at some point it will become an unconscious activity. And that is when the Spirit can kick in. By babbling nonsensically, they are giving up the ego, and self-regard and opening themselves up to the Holy Spirit. They may speak nonsense today, but there may be a point, where if they have been genuinely cultivating virtues, and are genuinely desirous of vehicles of the Holy Spirit, then at some points the Holy Spirit will lift them up and make use of them. At this point, their babbling will in fact make sense – perhaps not to all, though this is also possible, but at the very least to a single person for whom the message is meant.

And also, pay attention to this detail from the Acts of the Apostles, that the Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem, and could hear the apostles speaking in their languages were "devout". We must be devout if we are to hear the Holy Spirit speak to us.

There is another way in which we can appreciate the gift of tongues in our Goan context.

Thanks to the way in which we received the faith, the Goan is the recipient of four languages which would easily be called Goan. We have Konkani, Portuguese, English, and most importantly, Latin. All four of these are languages that we can, and must, pray in. This to us, is our gift of tongues. What we have received through the Holy Spirit we must not despise, or reject, and thus it is my recommendation to you that regardless of your personal preferences, you learn to sing hymns, and pray in this language, even if the prayer is repetitive prayer – like the rosary. It has been my experience that when one prays in an unfamiliar language, as one starts to understand what one is praying, different aspects of the prayer manifest themselves. These aspects are not necessarily grasped intellectually, but are experienced affectively, in the heart. I have been urging for some time now, that regardless of the language that the Mass is prayed in, Goans should easily be able to sing hymns in any of these four tongues which have been gifted to us by the Holy Spirit.

In his teaching today, St. Paul, through his first letter to the Corinthians, stresses on the fact that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”. The response to the psalm today was “send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth”. The Catholic faith is not about a narrow, focus on the self, nor about nativism, or nationalism, but about a spirit that goes out into the world and embraces it, the spirit of universal inclusion under Christ.

Let us, therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, in this spirit of Pentecost, embrace the gift of tongues that the Holy Spirit has given us and actively take up the four languages that are the heritage of Goans, perhaps singing in these different languages at our regular Masses.

(A version of this homily was first preached at the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, on 28 May 2023.)

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