The Church: Dwelling Place of the Holy Spirit

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The shock of the Resurrection

The readings in these weeks of Eastertide focus our attention on the appearance of the risen Jesus before the disciples, the first followers left distraught by the death of Jesus and now struggling to come to terms with his rising. The post-Resurrection narratives describe the disciples as “astounded” (Lk 24:22), “slow of heart” (Lk 24:25), “startled”, “terrified” (Lk 24:37), “disbelieving” (Lk 24:41) and “afraid” (Mk 16:8) as they grapple with this revelation – that Jesus is alive and walks among them in glory.

In contrast to the authors of the Gospel who were writing decades after the Resurrection and knew how the story would end, the first disciples as contemporaries of Jesus did not yet have that same privilege nor did they possess that same confidence. Their experience of God’s revelation, of the new world signalled by an empty tomb, was far more hesitant if not uncertain. Salvation history was still unfolding before their very eyes.

The Spirit changes everything

As we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, it is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a Feast which our Church will soon celebrate, that marks a new chapter in the disciples’ faith. It is this Spirit that empowers the once-frightened disciples to ‘go out’ into an unpredictable and even unknown world with courage and the conviction that life has conquered death in Jesus Christ.

It is in the Risen Jesus that the promises of God had been fulfilled and it was his Spirit that made of the first disciples, and the apostolic generations to come, bold witnesses and bearers of this good news “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In short, it is the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that inserts the disciples more deeply into this mystery of Jesus, that leads his followers to receive, live by and share in word and witness the truth of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

It is by the Spirit that we encounter this Christ, the light of the world, with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Our experience of discipleship

As Christians of the 21st Century we can find ourselves feeling at times a bit like the first disciples of the Gospel narratives. We can encounter Jesus and yet harbour doubts or feel our vulnerabilities in a world no more certain or secure than that of other ages.

We know from personal experience that our discipleship is a pilgrimage, that it is the work of a lifetime to grow in trust, holiness and understanding. In the course of this time, we learn to hand over our lives ever more fully to what God has accomplished on the Cross and on the third day.

Difficulties we do – and will – experience

The new covenant comes to us as a grace but also sets before us the life-long project of accepting this new beginning by our conversion to Christ, “in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, and behaviour” (Pope Benedict XVI). Today we can find ourselves “slow of heart”, “disbelieving” and “afraid” standing before this call to conversion, reluctant to make that surrender to the Holy Spirit and to take that decision for Christ that faith entails.

our discipleship is a pilgrimage, it is the work of a lifetime to grow in trust, holiness and understanding

It happens that in recent months this experience of surrender has come to us. The global disruption of recent months has been a striking reminder for us as Christians, and others besides, that we are not masters of our own world. This vulnerability to life’s contingencies can be a startling revelation for a culture that feeds on and even profits from the illusion of control and self-sufficiency.

However, as Christians we live by a very different story. This story is one in which our origin, life and destiny cannot be imagined apart from the surrender to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – nor can our culture, the economy or the future of the world itself for that matter. Our identity and the very meaning of our life arise from and depend upon the presence of another. It is by the Spirit that we encounter this Christ, the light of the world, with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Faith in the Spirit transcends everything

It is our surrender to the Holy Spirit, who has been “poured out” so we can “both see and hear” (Acts 2:33), that enables us to receive God’s presence and power in our joys and our sufferings, to proclaim Christ in the face of opposition, to serve the poor with the love of Christ, and that offers us the virtue of hope for our future. In the language of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, it is new life in the Spirit that enables “the young to see visions” and “the old to dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).

As Christians we undertake a pilgrimage of discipleship that is not simply arduous but that is good and filled with possibility.

As Christians we undertake a pilgrimage of discipleship that is not simply arduous but that is good and filled with possibility. What the Gospels make clear is that we cannot walk or serve as witnesses in this world or aspire to the next without the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God who has been a part of the world’s story, and our story, from its very beginnings.

The spirit of tradition

Indeed, throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures the Spirit makes present God’s power continuously and constantly acting in and upon human history. This Spirit of God causes humanity to act so that God’s plan in history can be fulfilled. It is God’s Spirit that empowers God’s people – persons such as Joseph, the example of faith; David, shepherd and king; Moses and Joshua, leaders of the people; the prophets and elders – to accomplish His mighty works.

This Spirit-filled history of salvation continues into the New Testament where the revelation of God comes to fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ entire life unfolds under the sign of the Spirit.

The role of the Spirit

It is by the Spirit that the young Mary conceives Jesus (Lk 1:35). It is the Holy Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, anointing him as the Beloved Son of the Father (Lk 3:22). It is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert for fasting and prayer prior to his public ministry (Lk 4:1) and it is Jesus who will act through the Spirit, healing the sick (Lk 6:19), preaching and praying for his disciples and for the salvation of the world.

It is Jesus who sanctifies the ordinary things of this world – water, oil, bread and wine – by the power of the Holy Spirit. He renders all things holy, directs God’s gifts toward God’s glory, to the praise of his Father. Finally it is the Risen Jesus, the glorified Lord, who gives the Spirit, the Advocate, to the disciples, to the Church, to continue and make present his truth, his Word, his teaching, his way, his life in the midst of the world (Jn 16:7).

A scene from Pentecost is depicted in a stained-glass window. The feast of Pentecost, commemorates the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles 50 days after Christ’s resurrection. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz

The Holy Spirit and the believer

If this is the ‘biography’ of the Holy Spirit, of God’s creative and redemptive power, what are the signs of the Holy Spirit in our time and in our world? First and foremost the difference that the Spirit makes in our world is mediated in and through the lives of the Christian faithful and through the community of Christians, including our parishes.

The Holy Spirit is truly present in the world in each Christian baptised in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are confirmed in faith by the Spirit’s action and anointing, and receive the Eucharist, Christ’s body, by the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

Everything is made new again

By this sacramental initiation into the Church, we are made anew in Christ by the Spirit. As St Paul declares of our Christian life, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul affirms our baptism in Christ calls us to live no longer by the flesh, by the material things or selfish desires of this world, but to live according to the Spirit (Rom 8:5). It is for this new life that the Spirit of God dwells in us, the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11).

The Holy Spirit is truly present in the world in each Christian baptised. Pope Francis baptises one of 32 babies as he celebrates Mass on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. CNS photo/Vatican Media

We see the Spirit alive and at work in the lives of the faithful, in such charisms as hospitality, intercessory prayer, leadership and knowledge, the discernment of spirits, teaching and wisdom, service and poverty among others. Received through Baptism and Confirmation, these charisms empower the People of God to have an impact on the world that surpasses their natural, human abilities. These are graces freely given by God, that call to be discerned among the whole People of God to actively help spread the faith, the Good News, as missionary disciples.

The Spirit and the Church

As a community of Christians and as the sacrament of Christ himself, the Church truly is “the place where the Spirit flourishes” as St Hippolytus affirmed in the third century. So integral is this connection between the Holy Spirit and the Church that St Irenaeus proclaimed in the second century, “for where the Church is, there also is God’s Spirit, and where the Spirit of God is, there are also the Church and all grace” (Book III, Against Heresies).

As such each parish can be named as a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit animates and brings each member of the parish to life and holiness through the Word and sacraments, the ministry of the ordained, the various gifts and charisms bestowed upon the faithful of every rank, and through the varieties of religious orders and ecclesial movements that touch upon parish life and express the Spirit’s power and anointing.

The bond which bestows unity

Like a soul is to the body, the Holy Spirit binds all the members of the body of Christ to its Head and to one another. This unity is one of the ways in which the parish gives witness to Jesus Christ, through whom “God was pleased to reconcile… all things” (Col 1:20). As we have learned from our history, a lack of unity within the Church or poor witness tragically impairs the ability of the world to see the Church as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, as a source and expression of God’s love.

Therefore, to be fruitful in its evangelising mission, the Church privileges unity which will be not the product of our efforts or structures alone but the fruit of our common docility to the Holy Spirit. Just as St Paul entreated the community at Ephesus centuries ago, so too are we to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:4).

By the Spirit each of us are sharers in Christ’s mission. In human lives transformed, in the works of justice and mercy that express Christ’s love, the prayer and worship that reveal his glory, in outreach to and inclusion of the poor and vulnerable that reveal his heart, the Spirit moves the world toward its fulfilment. CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters

Faithfulness as a response to God

Not only does the Spirit make the Church one, it also leads the Church to be faithful, in ever deeper adherence to Christ. As identified by John’s Gospel, the Spirit guides the ecclesial community “into all the truth” of God’s revelation (Jn 16:12). The Church Fathers of the third and fourth century were themselves conscious of a tradition or communication of the Holy Spirit that ensured the unity of the faith in the churches spread far and wide across the ancient Mediterranean. It was the Holy Spirit promised and given to the Church by Jesus that ensured the faithful transmission of the faith.

The Church remains today as it was then, ‘apostolic’ in its Spirit-inspired efforts to be faithful to the Gospel and to interpret it as Good News for the world. In this task, the bishops as successors of the apostles have a particular charism, to serve as the visible principle and foundation of unity in the particular churches and to exercise a special competence within the Church to ‘test all things and hold fast to that which is good’ (Lumen Gentium 12).

Fruits of the Spirit

It is important to note that the Spirit enables the fidelity and adherence of the Church to Christ also through the personal conversion of all the faithful; the reading of Scripture and immersion in the tradition; the initiative of local communities, parishes, families and groups; the teaching, sanctifying and pastoral government of our priests; the apostolate of our religious, whether obscure or well-known; and the birth of new movements and forms of evangelisation that are fresh signs of the Spirit active in the world. In the end, the Church is no less than the world as those who believe in Christ and who live by and engage this world by the influence and promptings of the Spirit.

Receive the Holy Spirit

As we reflect on our Christian pilgrimage with the Holy Spirit in these next weeks, we do not have a choice between God and the world. As Christians, we choose God by choosing the world as it really is in Him. We choose God by working toward the transformation of the world as disciples of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit who inspires true freedom and furthers God’s plan.

In human lives transformed, in the works of justice and mercy that express Christ’s love, the prayer and worship that reveal his glory, in outreach to and inclusion of the poor and vulnerable that reveal his heart, the Spirit moves the world toward its fulfilment.

By the Spirit each of us are sharers in Christ’s mission and we are inspired by a constant and healthy unease in the world to make all things new in Him. As Christ himself beseeches each one of us “receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22), the spirit of truth, love and holiness for our world.

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