The role of the Holy Spirit is the least clear of the three persons of the Trinity. We generally regard the Father as the presiding member of the Trinity who oversees everything and who brings all that exists into being. We see him as the lawgiver and the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.
We have no trouble either in understanding the role of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity because he took on human form and brought about our salvation through his sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary and his resurrection from the Empty Tomb. He has returned to the Father but now we wait for his second coming at the end of time as the judge of all.
So far so good, but it is when we come to the Spirit that we have a bit more trouble. The Holy Spirit often seems to be rather undefinable and elusive. Actually though, our beliefs expressed in the Creed are quite clear: ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.’ So, although the Father is the creator we see that the Holy Spirit gives life and this is surely why breath is so closely associated with him.
We know too that the Holy Spirit played a vital role in the conception of Jesus and we read in today’s scripture text of how he came upon the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire and impelled them to preach the Gospel to all the nations.
The Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in the sacraments, most particularly in the Sacrament of Confirmation. He enters the lives of the Confirmation candidates in an important way and bestows on them special gifts enabling them to play their full part in the life of the Church.
We could say then that the Holy Spirit is the action of God in the world who leads, inspires and guides the Church down through the ages. Most particularly he plays a crucial role in keeping it free from doctrinal error.
In short, the Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in the lives of believers. It is his role to keep us faithful to our beliefs and to continually shower us with God’s grace as we pass through the various stages of our life.
We need to see today’s Feast of Pentecost as part of the whole picture. Christ came into the world on the first Christmas Day and then after thirty years of obscurity began his three years of teaching and healing. This culminated in his death on the Cross and then his resurrection from the Empty Tomb. He appeared to his Disciples on quite a number of occasions and then having completed his work on earth he ascends to the right-hand side of the Father.
Then comes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost, occurring fifty days after Easter. It marks the birth of the Church, as it came to the profound understanding that its role was to spread knowledge and love of Jesus throughout the world.
It is no mistake that for the Jews Pentecost was a harvest feast called the Feast of Weeks, in the Christian dispensation it marks the beginning of the new harvest of souls that the Church reaps for Christ. The name Pentecost itself comes from the Greek word Pentēkostē which means the fiftieth day, because Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter.
The account of Pentecost Day itself comes from the Acts of the Apostles and literally describes what happened on that great day. The Gospel, however, gives us an account from the Gospel of John which tells us about an appearance of Christ to the Disciples in the Upper Room. It tells us how he breathed on them saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. For those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’
We should note a few points. The first is that the Disciples were cowering behind locked doors but they proved to be no obstacle to Jesus. This reminds us that we ought to keep the doors of our lives always open to him. Of course, Christ can break down any barriers that we put up to keep him out, but the prudent thing for a true Christian is to throw open the doors of our lives so that Christ can be welcomed in.
The second thing to note is that we have here the birth of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession, as we commonly call it. This sacrament is closely associated with the Holy Spirit. It is made particularly clear in the words of absolution spoken by the priest, ‘God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.’
So, the Holy Spirit has a vital healing and reconciling and forgiving role in the world.
You will notice too in that passage that when Jesus appears in the room he says the words ‘Peace be with you’ not just once but twice. Pope Benedict has described these words as forming a bridge of peace between heaven and earth. It is this bridge that we climb over to reach our true fulfilment with God in heaven.
But, of course, by these words Christ indicates his purpose of bequeathing the Holy Spirit to his disciples. The Holy Spirit is above all the spirit of peace. The Holy Spirit’s role is to establish peace and reconciliation in the world. It is his aim to bring peace and tranquillity to all who have given the Gospel a home in their lives.
And in a final point we should note that Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the Disciples by breathing on them. This, naturally enough, alludes to the first breath of life blown into the nostrils of man as recorded in the Book of Genesis. ‘God fashioned man from the dust of the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and this man became a living being.’
We see here then the breath of new life blown into our nostrils so that as part of the Church we can bring the Good News of salvation to the whole world and so build up a community of true believers who will worship God in spirit and in truth.