Genesis 1:1-8 / Acts 2:1-21 / John 20:19-23
Four years ago, we brothers were gathered together at Emery House for the start of our annual retreat. The weather was hot and very still. Not a breath of air. I was sitting in my room, and was feeling very tired and, frankly, a bit discouraged. The renovations, living in a temporary home away from the monastery, had left me feeling depleted and spent. Usually, the prospect of a week’s retreat would have really energized me, but now it just sounded daunting. I offered a few desultory prayers – Come on Lord, help me get some energy. I want to feel alive again. Come, Holy Spirit – do something!
So I thought I’d go out for a walk, and went into the Maudslay State Park, and sat on a bluff over the river. As I sat there, the temperature suddenly started to plummet, and out of nowhere there came this huge wind, blowing over the bluff. I started laughing. It just seemed such a gift from God, an answer to prayer. Thank you God – and I remember running down the hill towards the river, feeling quite exhilarated. Here comes the Holy Spirit.
What is this Holy Spirit which we are celebrating today, this Day of Pentecost? How do we understand this Spirit, which we can’t see, yet can experience in the very depths of our being? It is a mystery, but our three readings from Scripture today give us a profound insight.
“In the beginning,” Genesis starts, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
The “wind” of God, the ruah of God, or the Spirit of God, as it hovered over the chaos and creation happened. It’s exactly the same as in Luke’s Gospel when at the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel said to Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon you – the power of the most high will “overshadow” you.
It’s the same amazing image in Genesis and Luke of the spirit of God being the power hovering over, and being the agent of creation and procreation. This Spirit is essentially the Spirit of Life, bring life out of death. Even when things look dead or hopeless, this spirit of creation can surprise and delight us.
This afternoon we will have the blessing of our gardens. Our gardens witness to the beauty and wonder of creation. This year something happened that surprised and delighted me. Tulips, planted many years ago, spent the last several years under many feet of masonry and rubble. This spring they have come back to life and bloomed once again. That’s the power of God’s creative spirit – the power of the ruah, the wind of God, hovering over each one of us. “The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
But we can know and experience God’s Spirit in a very different way. And we can see this in our Gospel reading today: John 20. The disciples are huddled together behind locked doors. They are frightened, perhaps ashamed of having let Jesus down, full of sadness and confusion.
But suddenly Jesus comes and stands among them. His first words are full of gentle reassurance, “Peace be with you.” Their Lord is risen and with them again, and they begin to rejoice. And Jesus then breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In that intimate moment, those frightened disciples are forgiven, restored and empowered to become apostles: the church is born.
We, too, can know God’s Holy Spirit in this way: in the intimacy of our personal relationship with Jesus. In our prayers, as we allow him to minister to us, set us on our feet again when we fall. In those private, intimate moments with the Lord, we can feel the power of the Spirit shaping and gently molding us into the men and women God longs for us to be.
The Spirit enables us to step out in faith and embrace our own distinctive vocation. (It was with very great joy that yesterday morning we brothers elected our brother Jim Woodrum to go forward to be professed in our Society. It is God’s Spirit which first called Jim and has empowered him to say yes to this vocation. And we are so grateful.) And that same Spirit calls and empowers each of us to follow Jesus in our own unique vocation.
But in our third reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit not primarily as creator, hovering over them mysteriously, nor as intimate communion with Jesus, but as sheer power. The power of the Spirit who like 4 mighty winds hurtled down the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision, breathed on the dry bones and brought them to life.
The power of the spirit who, as Ephesians puts it, with “immeasurable greatness raised Christ from the dead, and seated him at the right hand of God.” (Eph 1:19-20) That same power hurtled into the house where the disciples were sitting on the Day of Pentecost, like the rush of a violent wind, and filled the entire house, and filled them all with the Holy Spirit. And the church was born.
It’s this third manifestation of God’s Spirit – as power – which is perhaps the one we are not too sure about, and maybe don’t want to encounter at all.
In your own lives, I suspect you are very familiar firstly with the Creator Spirit – moments of wonder and delight before the splendor of God’s creation, or the mystery of the birth of a baby. God’s grandeur – “flaming out like shining from shook foil.” (Hopkins)
And secondly, I’m sure you know something of how the Spirit has brought you into a place of prayer and intimacy with Jesus.
But what about God’s Spirit as howling wind and burning fire? Do you know that God? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews knew that God and wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” (Heb 10:31) This Spirit cannot be controlled, nor tamed. This Spirit can be experienced as a consuming fire – a flame of living fire (St. John of the Cross). If you let this Spirit into your life, there’s no knowing where you may be led – no going back.
I was very moved to read the journals of Christopher Columbus describing the journey in 1492 from the Canary Islands due west into the unknown. As the days and weeks passed, the crew got more and more terrified. Not because of possible lack of food, or sickness, but because of the wind. They had caught the North East trade winds which were driving them ever further away from home. How will we ever get home again they cried, against these winds. Can we ever go back?
If you invite God into your life beware. There may be no going back. If you open your life to God’s Holy Spirit – if you dare to pray, with your heart, “Come Holy Spirit,” there is no knowing where he may lead you. But this I do know. God did not create you live life in the shallows, to fritter your life away. God created you to be fully alive.
This is the Day of Pentecost. I challenge you to examine your life as it is right now, and ask “Am I living my life to the full?” “Am I frittering it away?” And then – but think very carefully before you do this – like a great ship, open your sails that you may Catch the Life, and take off – filled with God’s Spirit and empowered by God’s Life.
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