Last Sunday Christians all over the world celebrated the feast of Pentecost. Christians believe that on that fiftieth day after the Resurrection of the Lord, His Spirit descended upon the first apostles in the form of tongues of fire.
Let's start out by clearing up a few misconceptions that some may have about the Holy Spirit. First of all, the Spirit is not a bird. I know that the traditional image of a dove given us by Christian artists is probably ingrained in all of us. It is hard to portray a purely spiritual being in art for a spirit has no body to paint or sculpt. In one gospel passage the movement of the Holy Spirit is likened to the fluttering flight of a dove and so I guess the early artists used the dove as a kind of artistic shorthand.
Speaking about images I have to confess that as a child I thought that the "tongues as of fire" that rested on the Apostles at Pentecost were actually human tongues on fire. It took me years before I realized that the "tongues" were actually similar to the darting flames that we would see in our own fireplaces. Also back then it was more common to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost, which only conjured up images from Abbott and Costello movies.
So who or what is the Holy Spirit? First, let's think about the word spirit. In my bedroom there is a picture of me as an infant. Next to it is a picture of me as a young man taken a short while after my wedding day. Next to that I can look into the mirror and behold a senior citizen. Which of these three images is me? I guess that even though I look different, they all are me. In other words my "spirit" is in all of them. My spirit is the real me. Another word for spirit is "soul," a word that is somewhat out of fashion today.
It is really ludicrous when people try to locate the place of the soul in our bodies. Some fools have even conducted experiments to weign a body before and right after death to see how much the soul might weigh. I guess that there are millions of people today who deny that they have a soul, or that there is anything spiritual about them. They really are denying their own self. I would also guess that some of our most intellectual people believe that they are just material beings, and that there is no spiritual world. When they say things like “I love you” it is just their genes or neurons driving them on.
But Christians believe that on Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead, breathed on the Apostles, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," He was giving them His own self or spirit. He also makes it clear that He was sending them to continue the work that His Father had sent Him to do. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." They believe that only God can give them the strength and courage to continue the work.
If we can't see or feel or hear the Spirit, how is anyone supposed to know that He dwells in them? Christians believe they have to learn to read the signs. Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe knew that there were other men on his lonely island when he beheld their footprints, we will know the Spirit by His signs. St. Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians,
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
Then, talking to us as well as to the Corinthians, Paul says that to "each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit."
What are the signs that the Spirit dwells in us? In years past Christians used to speak of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you pick a fruit from a tree and it tastes and smells and feels like an apple, then you can conclude that it's an apple tree. The same goes for a peach or pear tree. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits or signs of the Spirit as charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity." Some of these words might sound strange to us today but we surely get the general idea. Who would not want to receive the Holy Spirit? Would we want to be uncharitable, miserable, quarrelsome, impatient, malicious, bad, mean-spirited, offensive, unfaithful, immodest, wasteful, or promiscuous?
We don't need miraculous, mystical, or ghostly experiences to encounter the Spirit today. Can it be that anyone, Christian or otherwise, who exhibits the fruits of the Holy Spirit is filled with the Spirit whether they believe it or not?
It is no exaggeration to say that all over the world today, Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs. In America Christians are ridiculed and stigmatized. Recently, some elite Harvard students attempted to ridicule the Catholic Mass by performing a staanic Black Mass on campus. It’s hard to comprehend the motivation of these students.
More seriously, in the Middle East fanatical Moslems kill, burn, and rape in the name of God. In Africa they kidnap and maim young girls. Fo some reason Hindus in India find it necessary to attack Christians. The newly elected Prime Minister of India has a history of Christian persecution. In China, despite its growing wealth and power, the government sees the need to persecute peaceable Christians.
What explanation can ther be for this world-wide persecution? Whatever the reason I believe that these perscutions will ultimately fail. I don’t like to make predictions but I would never bet against the Holy Spirit. My prediction is that the majority of people in China will be Christian by the next century.