When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (Jn 15:26) When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:13).
Balloons, red streamers, a sermon about some very mysterious member of the Holy Trinity who lives with us a lot. But what exactly do we really understand about Pentecost, or for that matter the Holy Spirit? We can see Jesus in the Gospels, in the bread and wine, in 2000 years of art, in our hearts. The Father we see, sort of, from what Jesus says, and what the Jewish Scriptures say when God talks people, and in the Psalms, which are awash in petitions. But the Holy Spirit? The Holy Ghost, as in the German der Heilige Geist, now often referred to as She in English. Spirits don’t make good pictures. We can feel the Spirit. We can see the glow on the faces of newly baptized adults. And feel the collective joy of a particularly rousing service. But picturing or understanding the Holy Spirit is sometimes less clear. And Scripture can be frustratingly vague.
The Early Church wrestled with the three Persons in the Trinity, breeding heresies by the bushel full, to understand the relationship of the Son to the Father. Peter in Jerusalem was trying to convert Judaism. Paul was out in the world converting whomsoever he could. And everybody was making up theology from what they remembered from the Lord. The Gospels were written even later. After a number of church councils were called, helped by the firmness of Athanasius, and a lot of spilt blood, it still wasn’t until the 4th century that the orthodox position was stated that Jesus was begotten, not made, and was true God of true God, not subordinate to the Father. But even then the realization that the Holy Spirit was a Person and one with the Father and Son took longer. It is hard to pin down a Spirit. The first mention of the Holy Spirit is in Genesis 1:1-2, but until the Incarnation of the Second Person in the Trinity that could have been a way of saying the God breathed creation and spoke to prophets, but not that God was two Persons. In the New Testament, we hear more about the Holy Spirit. She/He descends on Mary, John the Baptizer is filled with the Spirit. And the Spirit manifests on Jesus at his baptism. The most explicit description of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the people is in Acts 2. The epistles of Paul are full of testimony, especially Romans 8 which says that the Spirit of the risen Christ will dwell in us.
Pentecost has a much longer history than Christianity, and goes back into the Old Testament part of Salvation history. Many of our great feasts have old roots. Take Passover and the Passion, both about freedom and a promise by God for God’s people. Passover had another, even older, association as the Feast of First Fruits for the barley harvest. It was a time when every Jewish male was required to go to the Temple in Jerusalem and offer a burnt sacrifice. Our harvest and sacrifice occurred on the Cross, and the tomb, and the Resurrection. Fifty days later, Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, another First Fruits Festival, celebrated the wheat harvest, and was another day of sacrificial obligation for Jewish men. Our harvest is the descent of the Holy Spirit promised in John 14:16-17 and testified to in Acts 2:13.
We receive the Holy Spirit at baptism. We recognize Her in the Creed. It is in the Spirit that we live in the risen Christ. And in the Eucharist we Anglicans recognize Her in the Epiclesis, the part where we call upon the Holy Spirit to enter the gifts on the altar and into us. We add to our prayers, almost as an afterthought, “who with the Son and the Holy Spirit reigns one God, now and forever.”
We believe the Holy Spirit teaches us, counsels us when we stray, comforts us when we are in sorrow, and revealing the Holy One to us when we are overcome with faith or beauty. But we usually don’t pray to the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus, yes. Our Father, yes. But the Spirit is ephemeral, just sort of there. We don’t pray to the Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the gift by which we pray to God, God to God, God within us to God the Father on the throne of heaven, God the Son at his right side, our redeemer, our beloved. And it is the Spirit that is the celestial glue that binds our wounds as the Father binds the wounds of the suffering Son. And the Spirit binds the three persons of the Trinity into a relationship of immeasurable love. A love so profound that it can heal us, forgive us, gather us up after the worst that the world can do to us. And redeem that worst world, too.
If we let the Spirit guide us, speak God’s truth to us and through us, we have received the gift of the Great Priestly Prayer in John 17. Our sanctification. Lots of lists have been made to describe the gifts of the Spirit, but the one from Galatians 5:22-23 is as good as any: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control. Listening to that inner voice calls us to conform, obey, joy in those gifts. They bring us to harmony with each other and with our Lord and God. They are the First Fruits of all that Jesus taught us.
But the greatest gift of the Spirit is the church, the ekklesia, the people of God in Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that binds us into the Body of Christ. Christianity is build on community, from Jesus’ gathering of the Twelve, and increasing that number with other disciples, to the Early Church of Paul and his companions, bringing Christ’s Spirit through baptism to the world. And the Holy Spirit still calls us to preach the Gospel to a world in need of God’s love.
Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of Weeks, the First Fruits, in the New Jerusalem, together as one Body throughout Christendom. Today let us rejoice in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let us pray,
O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in her holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, 227)
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.