Pentecost has been described as the most significant event after the Incarnation, an event which in a sense repeats the Incarnation, because what is being formed is the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. God appears to like doing things in the same pattern. In Genesis, the “Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being”. (Genesis 2:7) Our Lord formed His disciples during the years of the public ministry and when they were materially prepared, so to speak, He breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Yet again we observe this forming and growing of life in the Pentecost narrative of Acts when the as yet unvivified Body of believers gather together - in one place; in company with Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and at prayer. Three important factors. The community of believers was prepared as far as humanly possible for the second coming of eternity to earth by being at one, at prayer, and grouped round our Blessed Lady. The Spirit did not descend or take effect without these vital elements. Communal prayer - our liturgy - is the cause and the sign of our unity. We will be united if we pray together and we will pray well together, if we are united. Again, we should always place Our Lady in a central position and gather round her to pray to her Son. It has been well said that everything we present to Our Lady is received by Christ augmented and purified for if she sees our love for Him she also sees what mars it and she herself strengthens our weak supplications so that they are presented as fervent prayers to God. Our love for Christ and our love for her are not two things but one thing. If we love one, we love the other. It is her raison d’être to bring us to her Son and through Him to the very heart of the Blessed Trinity. And we do not detract from but add to our love of Christ by giving our praise and confidence to the being in which, as God and man, He most delighted.
Both Our Lady and the Church are often described as temples of the Holy Spirit, tabernacles where the Spirit has taken up His permanent dwelling. The Bible does not define what the Spirit is but rather shows it in action and likens it frequently to the elemental forces of wind, water and fire. We see Our Lord explaining its nature to Nicodemus by comparing it to a wind, whose sound we hear but whose origin and destination we cannot know. In the story of Pentecost it is compared to a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind.
Secondly, Our Lord found it natural to compare the Spirit to water as in the incident at Jacob’s well where it is likened to water which springs up to everlasting life, while, later in the same Gospel, He cries out in the Temple: “He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water (Jn 7:37). This water is given freely to all who want to drink from it according to the words of the Apocalypse: “Let him who is thirsty, come, let him who desires, take the water of life without price (Apoc 22:17). Lastly, the Spirit is compared to fire not only in the Pentecostal narrative but also in St Matthew when St John the Baptist promised that Our Lord’s baptism will be with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Our Lord Himself is surely thinking of the Spirit when He says: “I came to cast fire upon earth and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49).
These forces of wind, fire and water remind us of the power of the Spirit. But unlike natural forces, the Spirit has the power to transform our nature, to free it from the protective barriers that we erect. The Bible does not praise only the logical or secure or grown-up. It seems to prefer to speak of the trust of children, or the folly of the believer in Christ crucified, or the inebriation of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Yet Dom Delatte makes the point that the Pentecost event might well have been a tranquil one for the Apostles themselves, bringing with it no great emotional disturbance. They were given on that day a Mission to construct a new world beyond the limits of Judaism. This was a sober task. The appearance of inebriation was for the benefit of others. If there had not been others to convert, the Spirit of God would no doubt have come in perfect serenity. As it was, the rushing sound of the mighty wind for the benefit of the hearing, the tongues of fire for the sight, were necessary outward signs of the presence of God. Likewise our Confirmation is our own individual Pentecost where the visible result of the outpouring of the Spirit need not be anything dramatic. It is rather a new ability to fulfil a new mission and special relationship to the Church. Inseparable from this outward witness will be the inward growth of a spiritual life nourished and guided by the Spirit and characterised particularly by charity. The Spirit of Christ is granted wholly to us on the day of our Confirmation, yet we have to make it our own; it is the total gift of His presence but our awareness of that presence has to unfold and grow. We can say that everything which comes afterwards had already been given initially on the day of our Confirmation.
The Church is not a body of Christ, it is the Body. Initially, the response of an untheologically trained non-Catholic to the Church may be an intuitive response rather than one of the intellect, emotions or aesthetic sense. These may trot along behind, more - or less - obediently. The response of the intuition, I believe, is to authenticity or truth, by which I mean that one apprehends, particularly in the Mass, that here God in Christ is to be found. The response is often also to beauty. Converts are accused of many things and a frequent accusation is that they are led astray by the appeal of the liturgy to the senses or by aesthetic preferences. Religion they say, rightly, is not a matter of taste. But it is a matter of beauty because beauty is the very essence of God. It is the beauty of truth.
Yet other religions can give a sense of authenticity and beauty, so something more is needed for commitment. A would-be convert is faced suddenly with a coherent system of thought and the question of authority. But fortunately, or so I believe, the mind is by nature orthodox. It can be and is led astray but, it leans towards dogmatic truth. In spite of the famous imagined stumbling block of papal infallibility, the idea of the Petrine and Apostolic Succession, if presented properly, can strengthen the conviction of many minds that truth must follow a clear line from its source. Then authority can be grasped as a blessed security from which one can go out with a quiet mind to the real business of seeking, loving and serving God.
But it is the Eucharist, to my mind, which gives the key to the central meaning of the Church. My own first reaction to the Eucharist, if I may be personal for once, was very simple: If that is true, I want it.
It brought me Christ whole and entire and not only to me but whole and entire to each of all the millions of members of His Mystical Body. How can anyone escape the idea of the organic unity of the Church, once that simple idea has been grasped? Fr Ôlier says “Our Lord’s aim in multiplying His Body is to make but one Church of all the world, of all men but one worshipper, of all their voices but one praise.”
If we are all fed on an identical food, not just a similar food, we are united indissolubly to one another; we share exactly the same life, and are all united to the one and only Risen Body of Christ. It is this real unity which makes it clear that the Church forms one living Person, the Person of Christ, the Church cannot be separated from the Lord, in spite of the distinction we have to make between the Head and the members. We need not make the smallest break between them. It is to this Person that we give our assent of faith, hope and love when we find our peace in the Church.