We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.
You know those words very well; we proclaim them every Sunday, and will proclaim them in a few minutes. This is the part of the Creed that speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today. Today is the birthday of the Church, the moment when the Spirit descended upon those first Apostles and was passed on through them to every Christian ever since. The Holy Spirit emboldened those first disciples and continues to pour gifts on all of us so that the Church can continue the creative and redemptive works of the Father and the Son until Christ comes in glory. That is what we gather to celebrate today.
At the Ascension of Christ into heaven, which we celebrated last Sunday, the apostles had been told to wait in the city until they were clothed with power from on high. This is exactly what we celebrate today. Christ returned to the Father in heaven, and they sent the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time. That Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary so that God can continue to work in the world and be in the world while Christ was no longer physically present.
The Holy Spirit works in us and in the world in so many ways. But the way that he works in us that jumps out at me today is through language. The Spirit is speaking powerfully in the world, and our Liturgy reminds us of that. It is the Holy Spirit that speaks to the world in the voice of God. Consider what we have heard and will yet hear today:
In the alternate opening prayer, the Church prays: “Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without your Spirit man could never raise his voice in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord.”
In our first reading, the Spirit spoke through the apostles. Even though all of them were Galileans, and spoke some dialect of Aramaic, still people who had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the then-known world, people of every race and language group at that time, all of them came to hear the Gospel proclaimed in their very own language, as though it had been spoken just for them, which of course, it was. This incredible miracle is often seen as the undoing of the Tower of Babel story, in which men who thought they could build a tower high enough to get to heaven all by themselves were penalized by the invention of all kinds of human languages which prevented people from speaking to each other. Pentecost, then, was the healing of this ill.
In our Gospel, words are still used by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells the apostles even before the Passion, that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Paraclete who would teach them everything, and remind them of all Jesus told him while he was alive.
In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, which I will sing in a few minutes, the Church prays: “Today we celebrate the great beginning of your Church when the Holy Spirit made known to all peoples the one true God, and created from the many languages of man one voice to profess one faith.”
The Holy Spirit speaks to us to give us what we need, and speaks through us in order to bring the world to God. The Spirit is the voice of the Church proclaiming the one, true faith, and the voice of each disciple courageously living that faith day in and day out. Jesus tells us elsewhere in the Gospel that when we are challenged for our faith, we need not fear that we do not have the words to speak in those moments, because the Holy Spirit will speak through us more eloquently than we could on our own.
The Holy Spirit is also the voice of our prayer. Saint Paul reminds us of what we certainly know: we do not know how to pray as we ought. But he also reminds us that we need not worry when words fail us and we cannot pray, because the Holy Spirit groans within us and speaks the language of God who hears us and hears the Spirit in us.
I am not a master of languages. I tried but failed to learn French, Spanish and Greek at various times in my life. Some days I even have trouble with English! And so not having the words to speak is very real to me in my Spiritual life. But I certainly learned what Saint Paul taught in my second year in seminary, when both my mother and father were diagnosed with cancer within about a month of each other. When that happened, I had no idea what to even say to God any more. The only prayer that I had in me was “help.” And that, along with the Spirit’s groaning, was enough. Fellow seminarians prayed for me and with me and over me, and I was eventually able to pray again. That was the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit speaks to us all the time, I think, and we would do well to tune in and listen closely. The Spirit speaks when we are about to embark on a venture or come to a decision and gives us pause because we have not prayed the issue well enough. The Spirit speaks to us when we are agitated or worried or upset or frustrated or dejected, and gives us peace to know we are not alone, that God is there with us in the storm. The Spirit speaks to us when we are discerning and helps us to know the way we should go.
Then too, the Holy Spirit speaks in us and through us all the time. The Spirit speaks through us when we know something is wrong and gives us the courage to say so. The Spirit speaks through us whenever we offer someone kind words, even if we’re not sure that our words are helpful – the Spirit even speaks through us if we have no words, and are just there to be present to those in need. The Spirit speaks through us when we perceive the injustice in our world and reach out to those in need, to those who are marginalized, and to those the world has forgotten. The Spirit sings in us when we join with the Church in prayer and praise to God, especially when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the greatest prayer of the Church. The Spirit is the one who puts the prayers we offer in our hearts in the first place, and who gives us the words to offer them to God, even groaning for us when our own words are not adequate.
When we are one, united in the Spirit, we speak to a world that is not inclined to understand the language of faith, in a way that moves them and brings them back to God who created the many peoples of the world to be one with him forever. That is the great project of our lives, the great project of the Church, the mission that owns us and defines us as disciples. As Cardinal George is fond of saying, the Church does not have a mission; the Mission has a Church. And it is that Church that speaks words of the Spirit to proclaim the truth, that Jesus is Lord, and that he is the way, the truth and the life.
In the Creed, we proclaim that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets. But that prophetic word is far from over. The Spirit-spoken prophecy goes on, in the words and actions of people of faith, every day in every place, so that all people can have the opportunity to know the truth that God is alive and fully intends to love his people into heaven.