Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of divine power, came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it. For it was accompanied by an experience which pounded the senses. Divine power was invading them: an intense catastrophic experience. It sounded like the rush of a violent wind. Tongues, as of fire, rested on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
What was happening to them? Quite simply, it was the fulfillment of the promise made in our gospel reading today from John. Jesus is about to leave his disciples, but he tells them not to be sad: he promises that after he has gone, he will send them the Spirit. “If I don’t go away the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”(Jn 16:7) And it is this wonderful, overwhelming gift that Jesus sends to those disciples on the Day of Pentecost.
That very same gift has been given by Jesus to each one of us. When we were baptized we were marked on our foreheads with the cross, and these beautiful words were said over us, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”(BCP 308) At our confirmation, the bishop says this ancient prayer over us, “Defend O Lord your servant with your heavenly grace, that he or she may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit, more and more….”(BCP 309)
So how is that prayer working out in your life now? Are you daily increasing in the Holy Spirit? How are you experiencing the gift of the Spirit in your own life? On a scale of 1 – 10, with one being dormant—”I fell asleep spiritually years ago”—and ten being, “my heart is on fire with love for God,” where are you spiritually between 1 and 10?
If you feel you are rather nearer 1 than 10, what might you do about it? How might you, in Paul’s words to Timothy “rekindle the gift of God that is within you.”(2 Tim 1:6) Paul is quite clear that the gift is within us. “Do you not know,” he says to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?”(1 Cor 6:19) So if the Spirit is within each of us, given to us by God as a gift, how do we rekindle it, fan it into flames?
I believe, above all, that this can happen through prayer. And I think that because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit within us, so our bodies, and what we do with our bodies in prayer, can be incredibly helpful in reigniting our spiritual lives.
Last year I was on vacation in Italy. One day we drove into Rome to visit the catacombs. We walked down deep into the subterranean tunnels and caverns, and as we adjusted to the light, there all around were Christians who had prayed in this place, sanctified it, and were now buried here. The power of the Spirit was there. On the walls were painted such beautiful figures and depictions of the faith. There was the Good Shepherd gently carrying us on his shoulders. Here, the Risen Lord, shimmering in glory. But what most moved me, was the simple figure of a woman praying. It is one of the most ancient of Christian icons, depicted all over the catacombs. We don’t know if she is Mary, or the Church, or the soul at prayer. She is called the Orans – which is a word describing how she is praying. She is gazing up towards heaven, her open hands raised with the palms upwards. It is perhaps the most ancient depiction of Christian prayer: prayer as invocation, or epiclesis, waiting upon and calling down, the Holy Spirit.
I think what we do with our hands is a really important indicator of our inner disposition, and of our intention. We express so much. Our hands may be closed, our fists clenched, in defiance or in an effort to grasp and to hold fast. Aggressive or fearful. At the other extreme our hands can hang listlessly at our sides – neither defiant nor receptive. Perhaps even given up.
But this third way of using our hands is to lift them up like those of the orans. No longer clenched but open. No longer listless but open to God ready to receive the gifts of the Spirit. I hold my hands in the orans position when I preside at the Eucharist, and until about the ninth century the whole congregation at the Eucharist would hold up their hands, too, celebrating together. I know some here like to pray like this, especially at the Lord’s Prayer.
Today there is in front of me an icon. It is an icon of Mary, praying as orans. Mary is a wonderful model of Christian prayer, for she was completely filled with the Holy Spirit. As the angel Gabriel said at the annunciation, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you.” “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.”And Mary raises her arms in prayer – first as the offering of herself, an oblation, to God.” “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord.” (Lk 1:31-38) Then, secondly, she raises her arms in prayer to open herself completely to receive the Holy Spirit, to be filled with grace.
If you long to experience the Holy Spirit in your life in a more powerful way, why not, in your times of prayer, sit or stand like Mary. Open your hands and hold them up before the Lord. When it’s hard to pray, or you can’t think of the right words, this can be a wonderful way of simply coming into God’s presence. Placing yourself before the Lord, just as you are – with open and empty hands, and simply offering your life to God, and then longing and waiting to be filled, perhaps gently repeating “Come, Holy Spirit … Come, Holy Spirit … Breathe on me breath of God.”
Open hands remind us that God’s Holy Spirit cannot be grasped, contained, comprehended, controlled, manipulated or possessed. The Spirit grasps us, possesses us. The Spirit is like the fire and wind at Pentecost. Like fire, it is alive and free. We feel the heat of the flames, but we cannot enclose and retain them in our hands. Like wind, we can hear it in the trees, feel it on our faces as we walk in the hills, but if we try to grasp and hold it in our hands it is lost.
So this Day of Pentecost is perhaps a day when we can long for a new and powerful experience of the living God. A day to lift up our hands, that like the raised sails on a ship we may catch the life, and take off, filled with God’s Spirit and empowered by God’s Life.
Let us pray:
O God you are my God: eagerly I seek you:
My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place
That I might behold your power and your glory.
For your loving kindness is better than life itself
My lips shall give you praise.
So will I bless you as long as I live
And lift up my hands in your name.
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