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An Unsettling of the Spirit

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

Pentecost! One of the greatest festivals of the Christian year. On this day we commemorate the sending of the Holy Spirit by God to the fledgling Church. Jesus bids a final farewell to the disciples, now after the Resurrection, and promises that they will not be left without aid. Until our Lord returns, we are given an advocate, a comforter, the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit is not something invented by Jesus to keep us company in his absence. This is not a secondary creation or even an angel sent by God. This is the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit that brooded over the deep in creation and the breath which fills the garden and the nostrils of Adam. This is the animating Spirit that fills newborn children, which speaks wisdom from our mouths, and which inspires all of the art, creation, and making that we do. This is the Spirit who dwells in us and whose holy temple is our body. This incredible moment is why today is one of the Principal Feasts–the greatest of days–in our whole year.

For all of this historical, theological, practical significance to our lives, the Day of Pentecost registers somewhat differently for us than the other major days in our calendar. This has been true for a long time and is visible both in our church communities and the wider culture of the West, with all of its relics of Christian hegemony. Within the Church, when we talk about days of great attendance and crowds coming, we think of Christmas and Easter. Maybe, to a lesser degree, the weekends of Harvest Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day. I’ve never heard Pentecost mentioned as a day to make sure there are more service bulletins or an extra carafe of coffee. We mark the day, sing the hymns, adorn the church in the fire and dove that are the symbols of Pentecost, but it doesn’t have the same attraction, the same draw for the faithful as some of the other days in our calendar.

Nor does Pentecost have the weight in secular culture of days like Christmas and Easter. While Frosty the Snowman and small birds made of marshmallow may have only the most tenuous connections to our Lord, they loom large in public life and people flock to them. Holidays with their origin in Christianity that have taken on a life of their own outside the Church. But Pentecost doesn’t register at all. There are no marshmallow tongues of flame, no candy doves, no costumes, no Pentecost carols played in shopping malls.

Before anyone gets upset or takes this personally, thinking that his homily is a priest complaining about a lack of attention to the festivals of the church during a global pandemic, fear not. This has been the case around Pentecost for generations. It is not a new phenomenon this year, or even this century. Pentecost has long held this strange dual status as a great feast but one which certainly gets the least attention of the Christmas–Easter–Pentecost triad.

But why is this so? I can’t say for certain, but I have a hunch. A suspicion. I think Pentecost is complicated because the Holy Spirit is frightening to us.

Frightening? The Holy Spirit? The Advocate? The Comforter? This is frightening? The Spirit is good things! The bringer of seven-fold gifts and charisms, the force that animates us, the voice that whispers–or shouts–vocation in our ears, and the wind of change that pushes and pulls us toward more and more Godly lives. How can this be a source of fear?

The Spirit is the source of so many gifts, so much inspiration, and a powerful force for renewal in the world. That is one of the major ways that we call upon the Holy Spirit, in fact. In the words of Psalm 104, “Send forth your Spirit, O God, and renew the face of the earth.” And renewal is beautiful and wonderful. It is the enacting of what the resurrection has made possible: transforming that which was dead into a place of new life, with all the vigour of the Christ who destroyed death.

Send forth your Spirit, O God, and renew the face of the earth. - Psalm 104

But renewal and transformation are not often gentle processes. Renewing a forest usually involves a fire to clear out the dead wood and make it into fertile soil for new growth. Renewing water sources is filtering out that which should not be there and finding a safe place to remove it to. Renewing our own skin often demands a thorough scrub before the healthy new cells emerge. Renewing our life in Christ’s resurrection demands that we descend beneath the font’s waters and die before rising again to new life. The renewal of the Holy Spirit is something we need, something we crave, but it is thorough, intense, and often unsettling when it comes.

The Spirit is also different from the other two persons of the Trinity in her activity and presence. This is, of course, not totally true. The three persons of the Trinity are one God, but that’s a homily for next week. What I mean is that, regardless of our doctrine or theology, we tend to speak of God the Father as a bit distant, off in heaven somewhere. Powerful and listening and deeply loving of its creation, but kept at a safe distance. And Christ was here, with us, on earth for a time but, as we heard in the recent readings, has departed to the heavenly places for a time. He will return one day, but for now is away, seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

These two persons of the Trinity feel safe and comfortable in the sense that we are fairly certainly neither of them will spring out from behind a door or around a corner when we’re not expecting it. The Spirit, on the other hand, is not so predictable. (Neither are the Father or the Son in truth, but they somehow feel safer.) The Spirit is present and moving amongst us, moving within us. She is unpredictable, like lively waters or wind rolling across the prairie. Not only is the Spirit not safely stowed away in heaven somewhere, but she is right here, doing as she wills, and carrying us along on her current. This is unavoidable, unmistakable, and more than a little unsettling.

The Holy Spirit’s work of renewal is intense, ongoing, and the current along which we all travel. Like the current that pulls a great wave out of the sea, we can either ride the wave and follow the current or we can fight against it and gasp for air under the crashing wave, but there is nothing any of us can do to stop the current or its waves.

The Spirit is moving, renewing, showering blessings, healing, and wholeness along its route. This is what our celebration of today’s festival is about, and this is why it is maybe a little frightening. It is work and movement of God that is ongoing and happening right here, in our midst. The Spirit is calling us to renewal. The Holy Spirit is calling you and me to be renewed. The Holy Spirit is calling this parish to be renewed. The Holy Spirit is calling this city, this province, this diocese, this church, the Holy Spirit is calling all of creation to be renewed. And this year, it feels like the call to renewal has never been more urgent, the wave’s crest has never been higher, the current has never been stronger.

Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.

Written for the Parish of Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.

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