Feast of PentecostCycle C
Last year I got to travel to Paris on business. I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and took the train to the Gare du Nord. My hotel was only a few blocks from the station, but when I got off the train I saw signs for at least six exits, all with different street names. I had no idea which one would take me in the right direction, so I just picked the closest one and went outside. I fired up my handy GPS on my phone to get directions.
It wouldn’t work. Must have been because it didn’t speak French. So I pulled up the hotel’s website. It had one of those little street maps on it with the location of the hotel. I pulled that up and expanded it. There it was, so easy to see. So I set off down the street in the direction I thought I should go. But as any of you who have been to Paris know, the streets run in every direction with no logical order. I was soon lost. I would walk in one direction hoping to run into a street I recognized on the map, but when I didn’t hit it I figured I’d gone in the wrong direction, so I turned around and went the other way. No luck there either.
After about an hour of this, I did something I never do. I asked people on the street for help. Now, Parisians are known for being friendly, helpful and polite, especially if the only words of French you know are parley vous Anglais. All I got were stares, some blank, some amused, and some hostile. They all brushed me off in their perfect French, and I was more lost than before.
Finally, I went into a small hotel, thinking that surely somebody there would be able to speak the international language of English. Negative with the front desk clerk. Negative with the manager. But finally they pulled someone from the back office who in her broken English pulled out a little tourist street map, circled where I was and drew a line directly to where I needed to go.
Finally, someone who spoke my language! I got it. I understood. It made sense to me. I was lost and now I was found.
It says in the story of Pentecost that after hearing Peter’s exhortation that day some 3000 people were baptized and became disciples. 3000 people! About one percent of the population of Jerusalem at that time. In one day! Wow. That’s some sermon. What caused such a response? What attracted them to the apostles that day and what was it about Peter’s message that changed their lives so dramatically?
They came to the spectacle. They heard the noise of the rushing wind and gathered around the house. Suddenly they realized that they were each hearing the apostles preach in their own languages. At first they thought the apostles were drunk, but then they realized that something amazing was happening. They understood what they were saying. And it wasn’t that the apostles knew a bunch of languages, people standing right next to each other heard the same words being spoken, but each in their own language simultaneously.
The message got through to them because finally somebody was speaking their language. They were not preaching at them, they were speaking to them. The message was universal, no matter what language it was spoken in. But now it was personal. Now they got it. They had been lost and now they were found. And it says they were shaken to the core.
It wasn’t the message that attracted them at first. It was the messengers. The excitement, the enthusiasm of the preachers attracted them. Initially they were confused; at first they discounted and ridiculed the messengers. Most of them had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, they were from other countries. But then they listened and were able to understand because someone was speaking their language. They came for the excitement, they stayed for the miracle, and they were changed by the gospel.
Something drove the apostles out into the street. Something gave them great power in their speech and bolstered their confidence. Just that morning they had been a bunch of illiterate men cowering in a borrowed room in a borrowed house. Suddenly they were out in the street preaching fearlessly. They had no idea what they would do or say. They just let it rip. They were in the grip of the Spirit and they just went with it.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever just let ‘er rip? Has something ever gotten you so worked up you just had to tell people about it, and you didn’t worry or care about what you would say?
I think that we all have experienced that to some extent during our lives. A marriage proposal, the birth of a child, a new job, a political position, anything we’re passionate about. We have those major moments in our lives where we have a feeling of deep joy and excitement that compels us to share it with others.
It’s the same with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is within us every second of our lives. We wouldn’t exist without Him. But sometimes the Spirit moves within us in much deeper ways. Sometimes we feel His presence almost physically, and we feel compelled to share it with others. We don’t worry about what we will say, we just have to say it. The sacraments are like that.
Last week and today/yesterday we celebrated first communion here at St. Mary’s. I think we’ve all been to a first communion for the little ones. They were all sitting here up front so shiny and scrubbed and beautiful. The girls in their white dresses like little brides, the boys with their shirts untucked and ties askew. They were excited, you could see it in their eyes. They had been preparing for this for so long. At last they would be able to experience what had been denied them their whole lives. At last they would be like everybody else in church. They would receive Jesus.
And sitting right behind them were their parents, grandparents, family and friends. They had traveled from all over to be there for this very special day. And I was struck at the contrast between their faces and postures and those of the children before them. They were not, how should I say it -as enthused. Rarely did they open their mouths to join the children in prayer or song. It was as if they had forgotten why they were really there.
I know that at their own first communions they were as precious and innocent and excited as those children in front of them. And perhaps they did feel the joy that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit, but their faces didn’t show it. Sadly, I see those same looks when I look out every Sunday.
What happens to us as we get older? What changes in us that we oftentimes forget the joy and wonder of our first holy communion? Have we been worn down so much by our everyday lives that we cannot recognize and rejoice in the wonderful gift we have been given? Does the Spirit work less in us as we mature? Do we lose sight of Him in the routine of coming to Mass every Sunday? During any relationship, we feel closer to the other sometimes more than others. We get comfortable with one another, and oftentimes we take each other for granted. Can we take the Holy Spirit for granted?
For the little ones it is new and wonderful. What can we do to keep the joy within us everyday throughout our lives? It’s hard to maintain that enthusiasm. It’s easy to see the workings of the Spirit in the major events of our lives, but like anything, with repetition it can seem stale and routine. We lose the joy we had at our first communion.
How do we get it back? How do we maintain it? Can we increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, or does He just come and go as he wishes?
Yes, we can increase the Spirit’s presence, simply by asking for it. Why not just ask? The Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us just as He did with the apostles that first Pentecost. Why are they any different from us? We are all disciples, we all lack confidence, we are all scared from time to time, none of us really knows what to say or do most of the time. Jesus told the apostles to wait for the advocate who would give them understanding and power and guide them. Don’t we all need that? And Jesus has given us the mechanism for being closer to Him, he has given us the way to increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He has given us the sacraments.
Peter told those 3000 people that day to be baptized and they would receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples to do this in memory of me. He said what sins you forgive are forgiven them. At every Mass at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer the priest asks the Holy Spirit to be present in the gifts of bread and wine so that they will become the body and blood of Christ. At the end of that prayer he asks the Holy Spirit to come upon us, His people, so that we will be changed and prepared to take the gospel out into the world.
Our little children know that. For them the Holy Spirit is someone special. He has touched their hearts and souls by making them receptacles of Jesus Christ himself. They understand how special the gift is, even if they do not understand the theology behind it.
Our children are apostles to us, their parents and grandparents, family and friends. Jesus said that unless we become like the little children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those 3000 people that first Pentecost were not converted by the apostles arguments but by their enthusiasm. We will not be changed by our children’s arguments, but by their enthusiasm.
Maybe if we listen to them better and see their joy we will be able to enter into that joy again ourselves. Maybe we will be able to reclaim the wonder and innocence of our own first holy communion. Maybe we can experience the wonder and enter into the mystery of every Mass, every sacrament, every time we celebrate together. And maybe, just maybe, driven by the Spirit we will reclaim the enthusiasm that was so attractive in the beginning and will renew the face of the earth.