Sermon for Pentecost, 2016
Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
The Descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles (c. 1570)
Chiesa di San Marco, Capella di San Giuseppe, Milan
“When the day of Pentecost came….” (Acts 2:1)
When it came….this must mean that its coming was important, and not only for those who were in that Upper Room, for this is about the marvels that God has accomplished. But if this is that important, if this is not merely a local event, then it must be from the very beginning, the beginning of all that there is: it must be from the void, from the times when all was a formless void, and the mighty wind, the ruach, swept over the waters, when the large bird breathed over the formless void, when the beating of its wings compressed everything into the singularity point that exploded into the myth of the big bang. If this is important, ultimately important, then it must be present, must be a part of creation itself, of life itself: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
The ruach, the breath, of God, the Spirit who animates, who gives life, the Lord, the Giver of Life. If it is so important this Spirit must in-form history itself, pre-history. It is the Spirit who fixes the meeting, the strange, wonderful mysterious meeting between Abraham, our father in faith, and Melchizedek, the priest of Salem. It is the Spirit who drives Abraham to offer the gifts of bread and wine to this priest without lineage. It is the Spirit who drives Abraham to leave his own country to set off for the Promised Land, the Spirit who tests Abraham’s faith with Isaac, the Spirit who calls Moses, the Spirit who parts the Red Sea, the ruach now a hurricane holding the water back, the Spirit who moves the fingers of Moses as he writes the Law on tablets of stone, the Spirit who makes the prophets prophesy, the Spirit who causes men to dream dreams to go beyond themselves, to reach out to God, the Spirit who clears away the darkness lighting up the future: “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Immanuel.” It is the spirit who overshadows the Virgin: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word.” It is the Spirit who hovers once again over the waters, the waters of the Jordan river, when the heavens open: “This is my beloved Son”. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus into the desert for the first confrontation with the Evil One It is the Spirit who groans at the tomb of Lazarus, the Spirit who hovers over the void of the Cross and who is breathed out in that cry of death that is life: “Into your hands I commend my spirit”. It is the Spirit who works in the silence of the tomb, who cries out in the silence of the mighty Resurrection, the lightening bolt between the Father and the Son, the Spirit who steps aside as the Son returns to the Father as the Son punctures the eternity of heaven with the wood of his Cross, as the Son stands before the Father showing Him his glorious wounds and the wood of the holy Cross, and the Spirit breathes the sigh of God, that sigh that is love, that is life, that sigh which sounds like a mighty rushing wind that overpowers and empowers, that transforms, changes, takes death and makes life.
But all this is history, not mere religion. This is history, for if the Spirit does not make history, inform history, human history, then this is all myth and play acting, all mere symbol. What happened to Mary, to Peter, and the other apostles on that day in the Upper Room is history at its deepest and most fundamental—“when the day came”—at long last, the beginning of the fulfillment of history, the history of God, the history of God’s relationship to his people. And not people in general, but the people of God, the Church. This is not the birth of the Church, for that birth is from the beginning, from the creation, from the rainbow covenant of Noah after the flood, from the giving of the Law on Sinai, from the sanctuary of the holy of holies in the Temple, from the kingship of David, from the longing of Isaiah and the prophets: all this to the breathing out of the Spirit on the Cross, to the flow of blood from the Son’s wounded side, to the angels collecting his Precious Blood as it flowed from his head, his hands, his feet, his side, to the sigh of God on the Cross, consummatum est, to the Risen One who breathes his peace: “Then he breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit”-- that peace which is nothing that the world can give, that peace which no one can give to each other, that peace which can only follow on the forgiveness of sins: “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are held bound”. To the coming into the world of Truth: “But the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, whom the Father will send you in my name, He will teach you all things”. This is where it leads: the chaos of creation, the giving of life, the covenant, the Passover, the longing: to the forgiveness of sins, the end of deadliness, the beginning of life, not life which comes and goes, not life which ends in death, not the life that bears the mark of Adam’s banishment from Eden, but the life of heaven.
But once again, this is history, the world’s history, my history, your history, this is God in action, swooping down like the wings of a giant bird, filling the whole world with his Spirit: “Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarium”, the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth, transforming Peter from the frightened fisherman to the fearless apostle of Jesus Christ, changing Saul, the persecutor of Christians into Paul, the great preacher and teacher of Christ, the Spirit moving and changing,transforming, making holy countless numbers of men and women throughout history, the Spirit making all things new, working through joy and sorrow, through health and illness, through war and peace, calling men and women to the new life in Christ, reality, history, filling the here and now, no mere idea, no mere spirit as the world understands spirit, no pie in the sky, but coming down, here present, hovering, brooding, in-forming, catching me unawares, surprising me, coming down on bread and wine and changing it—“See, I make all things new”—changing it into the Body and Blood of Christ, the Body of God, the life of God, living in me, preparing me for death and life.
“And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown bring eastward springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
G. M. Hopkins