When I first lived in Washington, DC I had the privilege of living at the parish of Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian down on East Capitol Street. The church there is well worth a visit if you haven’t been. Dedicated as it is to the Holy Comforter, the Spirit who strengthens, its decoration is full of imagery related to not only to the Holy Spirit, but also to the feast of Pentecost. Outside there are short quotations from that exquisite Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, probably written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Stephen Langton, which we hear in this Mass. Inside the walls are painted a deep red, and over the altar a canopy presents the text of the Introit from this Mass: Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarum; the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world. The words are apt, for from the top of the canopy small pinnacles seem to leap like flames. And around the church, on its walls, are paintings of the many missionary saints of the Church’s history each with one of these little flames atop their head. The apostles are there, as are their successors; the missionaries of the Church to every land: Saint Boniface to Germany, Saint Francis Xavier to China, Saint Augustine to England, Saint Patrick to Ireland. Each of them is depicted engaged in the work of evangelization, each of them fulfilling that mandate of the Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The feast of Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church, the day on which we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit and the infusion by that same Spirit of the apostles, thereby continuing the mission of Christ in the world. Last Sunday as we celebrated the feast of the ascension of the Lord we heard Christ promise: “I am with you always.” This Sunday, in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the supernatural foundation of the Church at Pentecost, we see that promise fulfilled in the first moments of the Church’s life. Jesus stays with us, teaching, governing, and sanctifying us by his ongoing presence in the Church.
As much due to the emerging influence of evangelical Protestantism as western society’s incapacity or unwillingness to stomach the language of the Christian religion, the Holy Spirit has, in recent times, been dealt a rather poor hand. We hear people speak of being “spiritual, but not religious”; of being “moved by the Spirit” to sit lightly (at best) and ignore (at worst) core teachings of the faith. We have even seen attempts in some quarters to label the Holy Spirit as some sort of feminine goddess (because, you see, the Hebrew noun Ruarch is feminine, even if the Latin Spiritus is masculine), as if the past two thousand years of Church history – littered as it is with the most spectacular examples of women saints – martyrs, virgins, and doctors of the Church – somehow sought to eradicate the fairer sex altogether from our collective memory.