Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (stained glass, Church of Saint Nicholas, Nérac, France)
From the Tower of Babel to Pentecost and beyond, there’s nothing surprising about things falling apart. What’s notable is when we find things being put together.
Note: By a special gift of God, Pentecost this year falls on the first anniversary of my ordination to the permanent diaconate. My pastor, who never forgets a birthday or an anniversary, graciously asked me to preach on this great solemnity.
Pentecost also marks the end of the Easter season. This Easter season is also a special anniversary for me, since it’s now been 25 years since my lady Suzanne and I were received into the Church.
I preached my Pentecost homily twice today, with some variation. This lightly edited version of my prepared text reflects a bit of what I said at both Masses. — SDG
The great day of Pentecost isn’t simply one day in the life of the Church — one solemnity among many. The life of the Church begins with Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.
The Church is the kingdom of God present on Earth in a hidden way, in mystery. In the Church Christ has already begun to reign on Earth as king —insofar as those of us who make up the Church on Earth are moved by his Spirit to do his will.
When we follow the inclinations of our fallen human nature rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit, then we don’t make the kingdom present on Earth. And it’s so easy to live by our fallen human nature.
That’s why in the beautiful Pentecost Sequence — perhaps the most beautiful of any of the sequences that may or must be sung throughout the year — we pray:
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
Wounded, dry, stained, stubborn, frozen, straying: This is our natural condition. This is what we will do and be, you and I, today, without the Holy Spirit.
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
It’s the nature of things to fall apart, to run down, to break down, to die. Everything is falling apart all the time. Wood rots, iron rusts, even diamonds break down into graphite. Cracks in the street turn into potholes. Mountains erode. Stars die.
In the same way, the whole history of humanity, from the Garden of Eden to yesterday’s London terror attack, is a never-ending story of conflict and division, which is the opposite of the peace that Jesus offers us in today’s Gospel, that the Holy Spirit brings to us if we are open to him.
When we’re in harmony with God by his Holy Spirit, everything else is in harmony; when we resist or oppose the Holy Spirit, the result is conflict and division.
One important chapter in this story, particularly today on Pentecost, is the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel, which Pentecost recalls and reverses.
At the Tower of Babel, the human race was still one culture with one language. And they were working together to build a tower to heaven to make a name for themselves — a monument to the glory of man, to human pride and our aspirations to be like God, the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden.
So God confused their languages and scattered them across the Earth. Ultimately, though, their seeming unity, without God at the center, was a false unity; its collapse into confusion, division and conflict was inevitable. Things fall apart. That’s what things do.
Pentecost reverses this; the Holy Spirit overcomes divisions and barriers to communication, and out of division people are gathered together into a new unity. We see some of that right here in our parish, where God has called us together from all our various towns, people from different cultures and ethnicities, even different countries, all called together as one people, the people of God.
God brings harmony and peace. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created by God in perfect harmony with himself, with themselves, with one another, and with all of creation.
Then came temptation and sin. And of course sin separates us from God — but it doesn’t stop there. The effects of sin cascade like dominos, flowing in all directions like ripples in a pond, bringing conflict and division everywhere.
- God and man divided: Adam and Eve are afraid and hide from the Lord in the garden.
- Soul and body no longer in harmony: The man and the woman realize they’re naked, and they become ashamed. Eventually this conflict of soul and body leads to the separation of the soul and body in death, which was never God’s plan for us.
- Man and woman divided against one another: “The woman you gave you me, she gave me the fruit…”
- Conflict between man and nature: Instead of the fruit of the garden, thorns and thistles, and by the sweat of your brow you will eat, the Lord says.
- Brother against brother: Cain kills Abel. Murder. War. Terrorism.
God brings harmony and peace. Sin separates us from God, leading to conflict and division. When we live by our fallen human nature rather than by the Holy Spirit, conflict and division is the result.
You can see why this happens. Probably most of us, when we were children, played with magnets and paper clips, and we learned how the power of the magnet flows through the clips, so that each clip becomes a magnet to other clips, like a chain. As long as you don’t break the chain. If you do, the magnet’s power no longer flows through the clips, and they all fall apart.
We see it in the history of God’s people, the Hebrews. King David united the kingdom, but after Solomon it split in two: north and south, Israel and Judea. In the time of Jesus there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes and other sects.
In Pentecost the Holy Spirit begins to reverse all this. But fallen human nature is still with us, even in the New Testament church. In the New Testament we see Christians divided: rich Christians mistreating poor ones; Christian masters owning Christian slaves. Some claim to follow Saint Paul or Saint Peter or Saint Barnabas and so on.
And as church history unfolds, the Church is afflicted by ongoing divisions and schisms. East and West, the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox. And then the Protestant Reformation, and the endless splintering that followed that.
The ultimate cause of these divisions is not doctrinal disagreements — any more than the ultimate cause of the breakdown of a marriage that ends in divorce is irreconcilable differences that are nobody’s fault. Division and conflict is the result of sin, of pride, of lack of love or disordered love separating us from God, the source of harmony and unity.
God brings harmony and peace to everything everywhere. Sin brings conflict and division to everything everywhere — in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our workplace, in our church.
Right now in this church there are probably at least little cracks among people, in our relationships with one another, with other people, even with God, that could split apart. Maybe a feud of some kind, a quarrel or a grudge going back years, perhaps. It might not be serious. But it could get worse.
Maybe we have little sins, or not so little, that weaken our relationship with God — that might grow and ultimately separate us from God or from the Church. Just fall away, stop coming to church. Many times because of a bad experience. A priest or a deacon says something someone objects to in a homily, or treats them badly in some way, and people stop coming to church.
There’s nothing surprising about things falling apart — about people falling away from the Church, marriages breaking up, terror attacks. Falling apart is what fallen nature does.
What’s notable is when we find things being put together.
That only happens, in the physical world or the spiritual world, when productive action is driven by some source of power, of energy — like the sun, which drives virtually all the life and activity on this planet.
In the spiritual world, that source of energy and life is the Holy Spirit. Without his fire in our lives, everything falls apart, like the magnet and the paper clips. Like life on this planet if the sun were to disappear.
Every morning, when the sun rises, plants receive its light which makes their life possible. We need to turn our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s power every day to heal those cracks in our hearts and our souls before they become something worse.
We need prayer every day. We need the Mass every week. We need the grace of the sacrament of penance, the power of absolution which Jesus gave the apostles in today’s Gospel, on a regular basis.
We need to feel these needs as the needs they are — as the plant feels its need for the sun. Praying, coming to Mass, going to confession shouldn’t feel like duties. They should be
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
If we don’t want our lives, our families, our church to fall apart, we need to be humble and gentle with one another. We need to apologize to one another when we’re in the wrong, and to forgive freely as God has forgiven us.
We know we need this. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know!
But knowledge isn’t enough. Knowing this won’t save us. Good intentions won’t save us. Trying to be good Catholics and follow the rules won’t save us.
How can we be saved?
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!