Pentecost (Whitsunday) (OF)
4 June 2017
First reading: Acts II. i-xi.
Second reading: I. Corinthians XII. iii-vii, xii-xiii.
Gospel: S. John XX. xix-xxiii.
Collect: O God, who by the mystery of today’s great feast sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation, pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth and, with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Descent of the Holy Ghost, Titian, circa 1545: The Holy Apostles are depicted in the upper room as the Holy Ghost descends upon them, as S. Luke records. The classical (Roman) architecture is typical of Renaissance painting, and, together with the symmetry, it lends a sense of grandeur and majesty to the image. The inclusion of the Blessed Virgin is traditional, but notice the addition of S. Mary Magdalen just behind her, which is less common. The artist has included three separate symbols of the Holy Ghost, which together give visual substance to something invisible: the Dove, the beams of light, and, of course, the little tongues of flame. If you look in the right-hand corner of the window, you will see in the sky a touch of that blue that Titian made famous.

FIFTY days after his glorious Resurrection from the dead, and nine days after his Ascension into heaven whence he had come, the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Ghost upon his Mother and his Apostles, as he had promised. On the great feast of Whitsunday, or Pentecost, we see not only a demonstration of the love of the Blessed Trinity for men, but also the beginning of a new age in the history of salvation: for it is on Whitsunday that the Apostles are united together to become the Church, which is to say, the very Body of Christ.

The Church is indeed the Body of Christ. The Holy Evangelist Luke allows no doubt on that count when he recounts for our benefit the conversion of his master, S. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles. S. Luke writes that the Lord appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road and demands, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” When Paul, or, as he was then known, Saul, asks who this voice is, the Lord replies, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” How could this be, that the mortal man Saul was persecuting the everlasting Son of God who reigned over heaven and earth in glory? The answer, of course, is simple: the Church, which Saul was persecuting, and to which he would very soon come to join himself, was and is the very Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. The glorious feast that we hold to-day marks the moment that the band of disciples were united together and endowed by heavenly grace and power to become the Body of Christ in the earth.

The first sign of this transformation is in the effect that the descent of the Holy Ghost has on the Apostles. They begin locked away in a room, “for fear of the Jews”, as S. John tells us in his Gospel. Then a wondrous change comes about. They are all filled with the Holy Ghost and begin to speak in the tongues of the earth, not privately, but out in the streets, so that the whole city comes to hear of these Galilæans who can suddenly converse with all the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem. S. Luke records for us their cry: “We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God!” There is a sudden change in the life of the Apostles, from fear to preaching, and from isolation to community. In an instant, the power of the Holy Ghost has remade the Apostles into something new: the very Body of the Lord.

This theme is expounded further in the Epistle read this morning, in which the Apostle works out the consequences of this divine work. Each Christian soul, so writes the saint, is imbued by the Holy Ghost with certain gifts to be used to a good end. The gifts, and service, and methods are all different, but—and S. Paul allows no confusion on this count—all these gifts, this whole service, all these methods, they all proceed from one Spirit. There is not, as it was among the pagans, a god of wisdom, and another of healing, and a third of government. Nay, there is one Holy Ghost, and, even as he binds all Christian souls together as one within himself, he grants to each a unique gift. The Apostle then draws this to an astounding conclusion, in which he builds on the revelation that the Lord gave him on the Damascus road. “For as the body is one,” he writes, “and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been made all to drink into one Spirit.” Verily, the Church, being composed of many souls with a diversity of gifts, is one, and not one organisation or even one family, but one body, even the Body of the Lord.

This then brings us to the marvellous Gospel assigned for this feast. In it, S. John, who was present there on that day, makes it explicit that the Holy Ghost proceeded from Christ. For he writes: “The said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” In the same way that S. Paul, inspired by the Holy Ghost, casts the Church in the rôle of body to Christ, the head, the Lord himself here draws a parallel between his own mission from the Father to redeem the world and the mission that he now gives to his Church through the gift of the Holy Ghost. I stress this, holy brethren: the Church is made of sinful men, but she herself is the holy and undefiled Body and Bride of Christ. Adam said of Eve when God made her from the rib that he had taken from his side, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Faced with the readings for to-day’s Mass, we can imagine Christ saying of the Church which he had bought for himself by the precious Blood that poured from his pierced side, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Christian, because she was taken out of Christ.

Now we see why the Church has held this day most holy since the very beginning. On this day, the gifts that S. Paul describes, given diversely to each believer, began to be given, and, on this day, the Church was united together and sent, as S. John tells us, to work the work of Christ in the world. It therefore falls to us Christians individually to cultivate in ourselves those gifts, powers and virtues that the Holy Ghost has entrusted to us. This includes, certainly, the talents and dispositions with which we are born, but the stress in S. Paul’s Epistle is on the gifts that we receive in baptism. There are many gifts that the Holy Ghost may choose to give us, but there are three in particular that we must nurture, protect and cherish, namely, faith, hope, and charity, which are the most beautiful and perfect of all gifts, and are the gates and keys to our salvation.

As we have also seen, brethren, this holy feast marks the beginning of the ministry of our Holy Mother Church. In the same way that we ought to cherish the gifts that God has given to us individually, so ought we also to cherish this gift that he has given to all mankind. The Church is composed of sinners, true, but she shines with the light and perfection of Christ her bridegroom. In the turning madness of the world, only the Church stands firm, and she stands firm because she stands not with her own power, but with the power of Christ. In her is daily fulfilled the promise of our Lord, as recorded by the Holy Evangelist Matthew: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

Let us therefore draw together as one with joy and gratitude this Whitsunday, honouring the holy feast and, above all, worshipping God the Holy Ghost, who poured himself out as a free gift on the Church fifty days after the Resurrection, and who still guards her with his almighty power from age to age until Christ’s return in majesty. We have heard in today’s Gospel how Jesus himself breathed the Holy Ghost on his Apostles, and, in a moment, we shall together confess this in the words of the Creed: “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified: who spake by the Prophets. And I believe One, Holy, Catholick and Apostolick Church.” This is the feast of the Holy Ghost, and the feast of the Church, but it is also the preparation for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, which we will celebrate in a week’s time, on the octave-day of Pentecost. Thanks be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.