30 May 2009

Homily - 30 May 2009

The Vigil of Pentecost

This evening we gather, as it were, in the Upper Room with Mary and the Apostles awaiting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

Just before he ascended into heaven to take his seat at the right hand of the Father, the Lord Jesus told his Apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Humanity has always yearned for power, yet the power that the Holy Spirit bestows is quite different from the power typically sought. The first reading from the Book of Genesis is a perfect illustration of this.

By seeking to “build a tower with its top in the sky,” humanity sought to bridge the gap between the human and the divine “and so make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Humanity sought to raise itself to the heights of divinity, falling yet again for the cruel and cunning lie of the serpent: “you will be like God” (Genesis 2:5).

We must take note of what humanity feared. Mankind endeavored to build that great tower at Babel for this reason: “otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth” (Genesis 11:4). Up to now, “the whole world spoke the same language, using the same words” (Genesis 11:1). A common language is a sign of profound unity and humanity feared being separated and divided, of no longer being able to communicate clearly.

But presuming too much, what humanity feared came to pass because men trusted too much in their own power and saw God not as the author of life and freedom, but as a rival to be withstood. Consequently, “the Lord scattered them all over the earth” and “confused the speech of all the world” (Genesis 11:7-8).

At first consideration, we might view this as a drastic action taken by the Lord, an unnecessary and even cruel decision to scatter humanity. But is this really the case?

Recall what happened when the first man and woman - Adam and Eve – presumed too much and sought to be like God: sin and death entered the world and they were divided from one another and from God. They turned inward and tried to use each other – and God – for their own personal gain. In confusing the speech of humanity the Lord saved mankind from a much more fatal consequence; his action is – in this light – an act of mercy. The division of humanity he will heal with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

But let us return to that presumption of man that trusted in its own power. Is it any different in our own day? Are we not trying to build one common society on our own, without God? Are we not trying to unite our commerce, language and thought into one global society, with no real consideration given to God? Unless we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, this great undertaking of man will collapse.

Do not countless people still see God as a rival? Is this not what the world continually tells us, that God and religion takes away our freedom and place limits on our power, taking away our happiness? If we accept for these lies we, too, will fall for the lie of the serpent. Can any one of us make ourselves happy? Can any one of us – of our own power - ascend to the glory of heaven? Happiness and glory – the true and liberating power of love – come from the Holy Spirit; these are the gifts he gives, the gift that is God himself.

The Psalmist sings, “Creatures all look to you to give them food in due time” (Psalm 104:27). Even today – and every day – we pray the Lord “give us this day our daily bread.” Looking to God for food symbolizes our turning to God for all that makes life good and enjoyable. It is not simply food but happiness we seek from him and when he opens his hand to us we are filled with good things (cf. Psalm 104:28).

Christ Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, opens his hand to give us the spoils of his battle, to give us his great gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

But humanity was not looking for this gift and so many have turned away from him, seeking other things and looking to others to find them. What of you and I?

We too would expect quite different gifts from a Redeemer… For we would expect a house, money, good food, travel, success, other people’s esteem, comfort, peace, security. But not the Holy Spirit. For in reality the Holy Spirit is largely the opposite of all these things: he makes us restless with our possessions, our comfort, our respect that is so often based on dubious compromises. He is a tempest. He does not let us settle down in our comfort but exposes us to ridicule by putting us in the service of truth and obliging us to exercise the self-control that loves the other person “as myself…” And yet, this tempest that frees man from himself and makes him true and kind, is it not the most radical of all revolutions, the only real hope for the world?[1]
It is because of this revolution that turns man’s gaze from himself toward God and others that the Psalmist sings, “When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” in us (Psalm 104:30).

It is this gift of conversion – of this revolution – that the Lord has promised to send us in his Spirit. Indeed, “all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan” for this revolution to be fully realized (Romans 8:22-23).

Saint Paul recognizes the interior yearnings and longings of hearts – what he calls “groanings” – as the desire for the Holy Spirit, for God himself. Do you and I recognize this groaning for what it truly is?

So often, we want to “do something” to receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

Yet this power, the grace of the Spirit, is not something we can merit or achieve, but only receive as pure gift. God’s love can only unleash its power when it is allowed to change us from within. We have to let it break through the hard crust of our indifference, our spiritual weariness, our blind conformity to the spirit of this age. Only then can we let it ignite our imagination and shape our deepest desires.[2]
We must follow the example of Mary and the Apostles, who waiting in the Upper Room for the coming of the Spirit. How did they occupy themselves during their eight days of waiting? They spent their time in humble and silent prayer. We must do the same.

If we quiet ourselves and are still, we will then be able to open the doors of our hearts to the Holy Spirit, who will then unleash his transforming power within us. We must cooperate with this power and seek to be conformed ever more closely to Jesus Christ.

This is within his power; this is his true gift, the gift of union with God. Let each of us thirst for this living water, that we might drink of these waters and be kindled with the fire of his love (cf. John 7:38). Amen.

[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Seek That Which is Above: Meditations Through the Year. Graham Harrison, trans. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2007), 103-104.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 20 July 2008.

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