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Filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

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Pentecost homily - the catholic weekly - Archbishop fisher
El Greco, Pentecost (c.1600), Prado

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the solemn Mass of Pentecost (Year B) and adult confirmations at St Mary’s Cathedral on 19 May, 2024.

Around 1600 Doménikos Theotokópoulos—known as El Greco—painted his Pentecost, now in the Prado in Madrid. Born in Crete, where he studied Byzantine iconography, he honed his skills at the feet of the master Titian, while imitating the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Tintoretto. Yet he had his own distinctive style, with tortuously elongated figures and phantasmagorical pigmentation—a style so advanced it puzzled his contemporaries but was only appreciated in the 20th century, influencing artists like Manet, Picasso and Pollock.

Most of his works were religious, portraying the effects of the spiritual on human subjects. His prolific output included an altarpiece for the Colegio de la Encarnación, an Augustinian seminary in Madrid, commissioned by its founder, Doña María de Córdoba y Aragón.

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Originally the altarpiece featured three descents of the Holy Spirit: at the Annunciation, when He overshadows the Virgin so she might conceive the Christ; at the Baptism, where He appears as a dove above Jesus in the Jordan; and at Pentecost, as He descends upon the disciples as flaming tongues.

In El Greco’s rendition of our first reading (Acts 2:1-11), the Spirit appears at the top of the picture like a searchlight illuminating the scene. The Blessed Mother, with hands together in prayer, dominates the scene through her central position and standout red and blue robes. The apostles are dressed in diverse colours and look this way and that, emphasising their differences. Yet they are perfectly aligned, highlighting their equality as children of God and their unity as the Church. Before our very eyes we see God transforming these ordinary men and women—for El Greco unusually includes Mary Magdalene along with the Virgin receiving the Spirit.

The disciples are in the Cenacle, where we celebrated the first Eucharist; where we hid in the days following Christ’s crucifixion; and where we first encountered the Risen Lord. But thanks to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we will no longer cower in trepidation, instead going out to proclaim the Gospel to all. The fears that once paralysed us and the differences of ethnicity, culture and language that once separated us are now subsumed in the light and love of God. So we see tongue-shaped flames that enable the disciples to speak many languages. El Greco has them as white flames, instead of the usual red, and he so elongates and positions the disciples as to make each look like a lit candle and the group to look like a menorah (candelabra) or like the line of candles on the altar.

The Holy Spirit, then, is the great enabler, the ultimate empowerment. But power can be a dangerous thing. We think of the tyrants throughout history who have sought and exercised power ruthlessly and arbitrarily. Still today we witness acts of domination, bullying, domestic violence, terrorism and war. Others abuse their power corruptly to serve their own interests, failing in justice and compassion toward others. This is not Holy Spirit power. Divine grace enables us to discover and communicate the true, to choose and do the good, to appreciate and generate the beautiful. In our Gospel (Jn 15:26-27, 16:12-15), Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit of Truth, a power that opens our minds to the fullness of divine wisdom, understanding and knowledge. He bequeaths us the Holy Spirit of Love, to infuse us with reverence and awe for God and neighbour, impelling us to service (Gal 5:22-25; 2Tim 1:7; 1Jn ch 4). He grants us the Holy Spirit of Witness, firing us up with the counsel and courage to be His witnesses to all the world (Acts 1:8).

Then the Spirit drives the Church forwards, as He drove Jesus. Peter and the others are “filled with the Holy Spirit” and soon all the growing Church. Peter preaches that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and as the story unfolds we see Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, women and men, slaves and free, all receive the Spirit; an Ethiopian eunuch at the hands of Philip, a Cypriot Jew named Barnabas, Saul the Persecutor turned Apostle, Ephesians who had received John’s baptism but never heard of the Holy Spirit. God’s love transcends all boundaries and drives the Spirit-filled Church forward to every time and place, to be there for every person.

In a few minutes time, we will celebrate the personal Pentecost of our confirmands. I will lay hands on them and pray for them, anointing them with sacred Chrism to seal them with the gift of the Holy Spirit. At that moment, Christ will fulfil his promise and give them spiritual power as He did the Apostles all those centuries ago. As in El Greco’s artwork, they will be transformed, given the wherewithal to be their best selves as light for the world. And as we heard in our epistle, we can expect the Spirit to be fruitful in their lives going forward as love, joy and peace; patience, kindness and goodness; trustfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:16-25).

A last detail from El Greco’s Pentecost that I think is worth our pondering. The disciples’ faces and body language convey a sense of expectancy, receptivity, docility. Something is being done to them, to us. Yet this doesn’t make us only passive objects of God’s plan of salvation. Disciples have their part to play as its active agents. So, some of the disciples in our painting look upwards with gestures of prayer and praise, actively engaged in worship as I know our candidates will be, not just today but regularly hereafter, through Mass and Confession, prayer and devotions, study of Scripture and Church teaching. Some of the disciples in the painting look and point out towards the world to which the Spirit is driving us, the place where we must perform works of mercy, sharing our faith and doing good things for others. This is what it means to still be the Church of Pentecost two millennia later. Happy birthday confirmandi, happy birthday all the Church!

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