Today is Whitsunday, or Pentecost. I wonder how many of you know the origins of either or both of these words, which we regularly use in church. Pentecost is the day when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples, after Jesus had left this earth and returned to his heavenly Father. The word ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek word for fifty, and this day is exactly fifty days after Easter (including the Sundays at the beginning of the period and at the end). So Pentecost Sunday, depending as it does on the date of Easter, also changes its date from year to year. In fact, Pentecost was a Jewish feast, which the Jews celebrated long before the first Christians adopted it - it was a feast of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest. Whitsunday became the popular name for Pentecost in this country, because it was often a day on which baptisms took place - Whit meaning ‘white’, in old English, and referring to the white robes of baptism.
So who or what is the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate today? Let’s start by looking at the first and the third of today’s readings, which are the traditional readings for Pentecost. In the gospel reading, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to be with the disciples after he has left them. He calls him the ‘Counsellor’ - which is one translation of the original Greek word ‘paraclete’. The Holy Spirit, as ‘Counsellor’, will give the disciples guidance, inspiration, and the wisdom of God. The word ‘paraclete’, however, has two more meanings. One of these is that of ‘advocate’. An advocate is a person who stands up for you, or defends you. So the Holy Spirit would speak through the disciples when they were persecuted. The third meaning of the word ‘paraclete’ is ‘comforter’; he would also give the disciples strength and comfort in times of distress. Jesus added that the Holy Spirit was the means whereby he will remain with the disciples after he has left this earth – he says that in this way he will come back to them, and not leave them as orphans.
The first of today’s readings, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, is the famous account of the Spirit’s coming like a mighty wind, being seen in the form of tongues of fire resting on each of the apostles. The Holy Spirit gave them the power to speak in languages other than their own, so that people from many different races could hear about Christ in their own language. I hope that you are beginning to get some idea of what or who the Holy Spirit was, for the first Christians. Incidentally - it is usual to refer to the Holy Spirit as ‘he’- not as ‘it’. The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity, and so should not be seen as an object.
You should probably also be realising that it is not possible to define the Holy Spirit in any systematic way. We have entered the realm of divine mystery; the realm where words can act as signposts but not as scientific labels. We will see that we have to glimpse what we can of the Holy Spirit by looking at the effects he has on the world, rather than what he actually is. And sometimes what he does is discerned better by our imagination than by rational thought.
Let me try to build up a picture of the Holy Spirit, as he is seen at work in the New Testament. He assists with the conception of Jesus, through Jesus’ mother Mary; he is also with John the Baptist, from the time when he was still within his mother’s womb. He is said to have descended on Jesus when he was baptised by John the Baptist. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that the ‘Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me to bring good news to the afflicted’. Jesus casts out demons in the power of the Spirit; and tells his disciples to go out to all nations and baptise people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We’ve seen how the Spirit is described as being like the wind - in fact this is the meaning of the Hebrew word which is used for the Spirit in the Old Testament. The Greek – New Testament - word is similar - pneuma, or breath. Jesus also likens the Spirit to ‘streams of living water’. He says that when people receive the Holy Spirit they are ‘clothed with the power from on high’. He refers to the ‘Spirit of truth’. And he contrasts life in the Spirit to life as governed by one’s lower nature - he urges his followers to be born of spirit, not of human nature.
All these images of the Holy Spirit are not designed to be confusing - they are simply what we find in the Bible, and reveal how difficult it is to describe one who is beyond all description. That being said, St. Paul is quite clear about what the Holy Spirit does:
- The Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts
- he gives us new life: ‘the harvest from the Spirit will be eternal life’ (Gal. 6.8)
- he helps us to pray, by praying through us when we cannot pray ourselves
- he sets us from the law of sin and death
- he brings saving justice, peace and joy.
St. Paul describes the Spirit as giving gifts to believers, different ones gifts different people: the gift of wise speech; the gift of faith; the gift of healing; the working of miracles; the gift of prophecy; the gift of speaking in different tongues and of interpreting these tongues. The Spirit also enables those in whom he dwells to bear spiritual fruit; such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control.
I’ve set out how the Holy Spirit is described in the New Testament. But does he still work among us in the same way today? The answer is yes - and there should be no great surprise that he does so. Jesus said to his disciples that he would be with them until the end of time - the Holy Spirit is the way in which he brings this about. The Holy Spirit is in fact none other than God himself at work within us, both as individuals and as a society; forever trying to draw us closer to him, if we will open ourselves to him and respond to him. This response need not be spectacular or dramatic; it does not require the fervour and emotional intensity of a pentecostalist or charismatic service. In fact, the Spirit’s work is usually more lasting if we keep sight of the immense mystery which lies at the heart of God, and allow this to quieten our hearts and minds so that we can little by little see the Spirit active in our lives, and hear his voice deep in our hearts. This is the voice which takes us beyond narrow self interest, to things which will be of wider benefit. This is the power of God which creates the water of life welling up within us when we live lives which are rooted in prayer, and centred on God. It is the power which gradually gives us the gifts which nourish the fruits of the spirit which I quoted earlier - particularly faith, hope and love -the greatest being love.
On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Their lives were dramatically transformed: they turned from being uncertain about their future into people who now devoted their whole lives to God and were given the strength with which to do this. We may not experience a rushing wind or tongues of fire. But the Spirit is still present to those who desire him; as that still, small voice noticed even as far back as in the time of Elijah; our guide, our spiritual power, and companion even to eternity.