Hearts on Fire – dovetailing faith and prayer this Pentecost

Canon Chris Thomas looks at how the Spirit was always part of Jesus’ life, and after the Ascension and Pentecost, how the Spirit became the animator of the early Church. This rich article offers us much to pray and reflect with as well as an invitation to mission.

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I know the Holy Spirit is agent of all prayer, but how many of us direct our prayer to the Spirit, and feel inspired by the Spirit in our lives and action?  As we move towards Pentecost, let’s look at how the Spirit was part of the life of the Lord and, after the Ascension and Pentecost, how the Spirit became the animator of the early Church.

Using the Gospel of Luke and Acts, we can trace a pattern of the power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit “coming upon” Mary his mother, an image of protection drawing on the Old Testament image of God’s very presence (see Exodus 13:22).  The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism “like a dove” (Luke 3:22) and being filled with the Spirit, he was led into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days (Luke 4:1-2).  At the end of this period, he returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” and began to teach in the synagogues (Luke 4:14-15).  So, from the very beginning, the Spirit was the animator of Jesus’ ministry of preaching.

In the synagogue in Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims to the assembly:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:18-21)

This text is from the prophecy of Isaiah. The spirit of the Lord is endowed upon the servant of God so that his proclamation, is made with an authentic voice to bring consolation and change in the hearts of the people.  Jesus, however, needs no divine inspiration since he is the “Word made flesh” and so his addition of the phrase Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, shows that the Spirit’s presence is no longer a “temporary gift” given for a purpose, but is full and permanent in the life of the Lord.  Indeed, John’s Gospel makes this very clear:

For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.
(John 3:34)

The Holy Spirit was poured into the life of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry for the specific purpose of proclamation.  The proclamation breaks the silence that had existed since the prophets and the spoken words of Jesus, just like at the dawn of creation, have a transformative value.  When he speaks, change is effective in a physical way (the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the cripple is healed), or in a spiritual way (sins are forgiven, broken hearts are healed, relationships are restored).  It is the combination of word and Spirit that effects these magnificent changes in the lives of many that brings them to faith in him and in his Father.

So having seen how the Spirit, poured out on Jesus “without measure” had such a powerful effect in his life, what now of the Church; he is head, and we his body here on earth.  What is our mission as ones who believe in him?  The Church’s mission is to make her own through her members those same words of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth.  But there is a difference!  The animated Church is a post-Paschal, post-Pentecost creation of God.  Alongside the proclamation of the Good News that Isaiah gave to his people and echoed by Jesus  the Church adds that “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9); old things have passed away and the world has become a new creation because of the Paschal Mystery.  What was a hope in Isaiah is now a reality in the risen Christ.

The experience of the risen Christ was vital for the self-understanding of the mission of the Church in those post-Paschal days.  The risen Lord places himself back into the lives of his disciples in order to commission them for this work of proclamation.  He appears to them in the midst of their gathering on the day of Resurrection (Luke 24:36-49).  They are alarmed, disorientated and fearful and despite his clear teaching, they doubt.  But through the agency of the Spirit, Jesus

opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
(Luke 24:45-49)

It is the Spirit that “opens” the minds to understanding, just as in the previous account of the road to Emmaus, it is the Spirit that opened the eyes and the Scriptures to the disciples as they walked with him.  The proclamation is now the understanding of “everything written about me,” the effect of receiving and understanding this will bring about repentance and it will begin from Jerusalem and go out to the whole world.  The preaching of Jesus, that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, is now augmented following the Paschal Mystery, so that Church proclaims not only the nearness of the Kingdom but that “God has made him both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)

On the day of Pentecost, the “promise of my Father,” that is the Holy Spirit, is poured out upon the disciples.  No longer waiting, they are animated into action and move out from their room into the streets and begin this proclamation in many languages.  This gift of the Spirit means that the Gospel is preached in a universal language, not one language, but a unity of purpose.  This Pentecost experience overturns the loss of unity that the people experienced at Babel in the Old Testament (Genesis 11:1-9) when God confused the language of the people because of their pride so they could not communicate, and the peoples were scattered.  At Pentecost, God gives the gift of language as an act of mercy so that the peoples may be united in the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus and come to faith through the repentance of sin.  Peter proclaims:

Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
(Acts 2:38)

And so by baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, the life of the Church is propagated throughout the world. The proclamation of this Kingdom of God and that Jesus is Lord is the beginning of the mission to the nations, beginning in Jerusalem and through the mission of those Twelve, the Good News is preached to the ends of the earth.

As we draw close to Pentecost, let us reassess the action of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.  While I know that the Spirit is the animator of my prayer and my discipleship – is anything more needed? 

I would suggest yes.  Prayer is key, since as Acts tells us the Holy Spirit comes to those “who were devoting themselves to prayer.” (Acts 1:14).  Prayer leads to an act of faith (which in many cases is pre-eminent to the things that need to be believed) and through this faith we believe that “Jesus is Lord” which is at the heart of the proclamation.  Together with prayer, and faith there is the need for obedience to the Holy Spirit.  This is more in the sense of discernment and submission to the will of God that is discerned through prayer and openness to God.  The Holy Spirit cannot act in someone who is defined by their own motives; docility to the divine action in our hearts and minds, remembering the disciples on the Road to Emmaus experienced both an opening of heart and then in the gathering with the others, the mind, will allow obedience to the divine will to come to the fore in action. 

This action is always love, both of God to the one who is open to the Spirit and from the person towards those to whom they are sent.  God is love, and God speaks through love.  Anyone bearing the name of Christian must act in love when living out their Christian lives; they must love the sinner, the proud, the indifferent before they begin to enunciate the Word of Life since in his ministry, Jesus gave himself in love to all he met, and in the same way the Church, through her members, must do the same. 

Finally, the Spirit will give the gift of courage to those who act in love.  Those alarmed, disorientated, fearful and doubting disciples went out from their hiding place to the streets of Jerusalem and preached the Good News.  In the Church today, when we seem to be beset with many challenges and difficulties, we cannot preach to our own, but need to be bold and courageous in our ministry of evangelisation and catechesis. 

We must not forget that the Holy Spirit endows us with gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and awe in the Lord.  As we move towards Pentecost and adjust to new ways of being and working post-pandemic, these gifts will aid us, through our prayer, to re-enter into living fully.  Through wisdom, we will have a fuller understanding of the beauty of each other and of our world; understanding brings a deepening of faith; counsel will help us to act rightly, caring for others and ourselves by choosing the right thing to say and do; fortitude will give us the courage to do what counsel tells us; knowledge helps us to evaluate the circumstances of our life and live as God directs us in love; piety draws us back to joyful worship of God our creator, redeemer and sanctifier, and finally awe in the Lord confirms our hope in God’s promises.  This essential toolkit will give us a roadmap unlike any other, a roadmap that brings life and love to us and all we meet.

Pentecost is the feast par excellence that reminds us that the Holy Spirit is vital in our lives as Christians.  Just as the Holy Spirit was the animator of the ministry of Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God to the people of his time, so now, we as the Church of today continue that proclamation with the additional faithful knowledge that “Jesus is Lord.”  By opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit in prayer, we deepen our faith as the Spirit “opens our minds” to “everything written about Jesus” so that prayer becomes an encounter with the risen Lord.  Our faith leads to an obedience to the divine will, a submission of our own ambitions to those of God, ambitions in him that bring about human flourishing and missionary proclamation which, acted in love and with courage will bring others to know the same risen Christ and his Church.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calls the whole Church to this Pentecost renewal.  His teaching reminds us that “in all the baptised, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelisation. The people of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo… The Spirit guides it in truth and leads it to salvation.” (EG§119).  As we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Church this year, pray for the gift of the Spirit on each one of us, so that we too may be faithful disciples, going forth into the world like the first disciples on that first Pentecost, and be real agents of evangelisation in our world of today.

Rev. Canon Christopher Thomas KHS is General Secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and a priest of the Diocese of Nottingham.