The feast of Pentecost is here and coincides this year with the long awaited easing of lockdown, two reasons for celebration. Today we mark the end of the Easter season, fifty days after the Resurrection and ten days after the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven when the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, appeared to the apostles.
This powerful and quite simply enormous painting (at almost 8×5 metres) by Jean II Restout, with its figures dramatically rendered larger than life, hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris; although it was originally painted to grace the refectory of the Abbey of St Denis. This is perhaps the best-known portrayal of the events of Pentecost. Mary, Mother of God, stands in the centre of the scene as the Holy Spirit alights on her and the apostles, fulfilling Jesus’ promise that he would send from the Father the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. Originally the top of the painting was arched to fill the vaulted ceiling of the refectory and above Mary we would have seen a dove, the traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit, descending from heaven. In this rendition Mary’s calm demeanour is in stark contrast to the apostles; she appears to recognise and welcome the Spirit, gratefully accepting its gifts while the apostles seem astonished, perhaps even frightened, but they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
The apostles were transformed by the Holy Spirit; after Pentecost they were not the same and when we welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts nor are we. St Peter preached to the crowd, inspired by the Holy Spirit and they were “cut to the heart”; around 3,000 people were baptised that day, which is why Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.
The Holy Spirit is at the very heart of our Church, bringing it to life, and yet the contrast between Mary and the apostles in the painting perfectly reflects the different ways in which each of us welcomes the Advocate. Some, like Mary, accept the gift of the Holy Spirit calmly, without resistance; while for some of us, surrendering to the Spirit is more difficult and we can instead succumb to self-indulgence. When we recite the Creed at Mass, we acknowledge that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” and yet in our prayer do we really recognise the Holy Spirit as the equal of God and of Christ?
The Holy Spirit is, we are reminded, a gift to the whole world, God’s promise fulfilled, which will “renew the face of the earth”. We are taught that the action of the Spirit can be found beyond the Church, in the good news that we hear from around the world, bringing humanity closer to the Kingdom of God. Surely this is what we particularly need at this time.
As we look to move forward from the devastating pandemic with the long planned ‘Divine Renovation’ of our parish community, and realise our mission of Being formed in the likeness of Christ, striving to become a truly Christ centred community, through humble witness, love, compassion and communion, we will need the gifts of the Holy Spirit more than ever.
In fact, each of us needs the Holy Spirit, especially in these difficult times, and so I encourage us to pray together for the strength and gifts of the Spirit in our lives, for our family and friends, for our parish and the whole world. So please pray for the gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord. We were blessed with these gifts at Baptism, they were strengthened at Confirmation, and they continue to bring us closer to Christ.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.