Pentecost: Come, Holy Spirit, Fill the Hearts of the Faithful

SCRIPTURES & ART: ‘And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.’ (Acts 2:2-3)

Plautilla Nelli, “Pentecost,” 1554
Plautilla Nelli, “Pentecost,” 1554 (photo: Public Domain)

Pentecost is the definitive gift of the Holy Spirit. 

What do I mean by “definitive?” It is the final, fullest outpouring of the Spirit.

God’s Spirit has been active in the world from the start. Already on the first pages of the Bible, “the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2).

You have to understand something of Jewish thinking to appreciate that text. Genesis speaks of the earth being “formless and void,” with “darkness … over the surface of the deep” (v. 2). “Tohu wa-bohu” (תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ) means “disordered,” “chaotic,” “shut up in its darkness.” It is God’s Spirit that begins to put order into that world.

Even after man sins and loses God’s friendship, God does not give up. His Spirit raises up and inspires the prophets, who recognize their message is not their own but “thus says Yahweh.” Ezekiel (37:1-14) speaks of the Spirit reviving the dry, dead bones of Israel, the dead bones of God’s people. They are dead because they have turned from God, i.e., they have sinned.

Those dry, dead bones are all of us.

But the Spirit who hovered over the waters to put order into the world at its creation does not resign himself to the disorder of sin. No, he comes “to renew the face of the earth.”

Starting with a Virgin in Nazareth whom God invites — and she accepts — to be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and to become the Mother of God.

Mary’s Motherhood is her privilege. But it is also “simply” God’s grace, which is always tailored to each of us and which works “for the good” (Romans 8:28) of its recipient and others. The same Spirit who works in Mary also works, in his particular way, in each of us to contribute our tessera, our tile, to the mosaic of God’s Divine Project born of and leading to his Love.

That Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, breaks forth to “renew the face of the earth” in Jesus’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. He breaks forth as Jesus dies, ripping open the veil of the Temple separating God from man and raising the dead (Matthew 27:51-52). He is Jesus’s first gift to his Apostles, on Easter Sunday night, for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:22-23). He is the promised Paraclete who will “teach you all things” (John 14:26). And he is the true Column of Fire who sends forth with power — not the power they were looking for but something better — 12 simple and scared men to “the ends of the earth” (Matthew 28:19). 

And the Spirit who inspires every good thought, word, and deed each of us has, because all good begins in God.

That is “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

And that is the formula for conferring the sacrament of Confirmation.

Now, every sacrament is capable of producing its effects because of the work of the Holy Spirit, because these are acts of grace. But the Holy Spirit is given in a special way to Catholics in Confirmation. One of the three sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist), the Holy Spirit empowers the Christian to bear witness to that faith.

One of the clear teachings of Vatican II is that “mission” is part of every Christian’s vocation. “Mission” is not a clerical prerogative. Each and every Catholic is part of the Church’s mission because each and every Catholic is a witness to the saving work of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Each Catholic, of course, witnesses to that work in different ways, more or less visibly, with greater or lesser scope. But witness he does, and that is his responsibility. And, at the same time, he has the responsibility not to be an “anti-witness,” a dead branch on the Vine of Christ. All that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Two French authors recently called Confirmation “the forgotten sacrament.” For those of us who are older, who perhaps were formed with the image of Confirmation as making us “soldiers for Christ,” that image might have obscured how we fight for Christ in normal, ordinary life. Because the fact is that even the most cursory reading of the “signs of the times” suggests our day is seeing a renaissance, a resurgence of paganism. From child sacrifice called a “right” to sexual alchemy that makes men into women and vice-versa, even outright witchcraft masquerading as an “alternative religion,” along with state furtherance, if not endorsement, of all of it under some claim of “secular non-establishment,” the parallels between our world and the paganism encountered by those who emerged from the Upper Room under the impetus of the Holy Spirit is striking. In that world, there’s plenty of opportunity for Confirmation witness, if only to say non possumus — “we cannot agree.” 

Note that there are two, or rather three different sets of readings for this solemnity. Mass celebrated on Saturday evening is not the usual “Saturday-anticipated-as-Sunday” Mass, appearances notwithstanding. It is a true vigil, with its own distinct readings. Indeed, there is a beautiful, fully developed Vigil of Pentecost liturgy, akin to the Easter Vigil, which parishes should celebrate. There is also a distinct setting of readings for Mass “During the Day” on Sunday itself.

Today’s First Reading for Mass During the Day is illustrated by Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588). Nellim a 16th-century Florentine, has only recently been rediscovered as one of the earliest female artists of the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari, whom we met two weeks ago and noted was not just a painter but also an art historian of his day, mentions her. She is best known for her restored Last Supper.

Her depiction of Pentecost contains all the standard Christian iconographic features found in the Renaissance for this solemnity: the Apostles gathered around Mary, the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire descending on each of them. It’s not clear to me if there are 11 Apostles or 12 — Acts (1:12-25) speaks of the replacement of Judas by Matthias as occurring after the Ascension, as the other Apostles settled into the Upper Room. Are there five Apostles on the viewer’s left, or six? I assume the outermost Apostle in rose is the graybeard we see in green, not just the feet of an undepicted Apostle. So, behind the graybeard, is there another Apostle tucked in or the folds of the brown beard’s garment? 

The horseshoe, with Mary at its head and the tiled floor leading us to her, is Mother of the Church, and in a straight line above her, in the appearance of a dove, is her spouse, the Holy Spirit. Four women, including Mary Magdalene (in red with red hair, on Mary’s right) sit immediately beside Mary. The women are bookended by Peter on the right (in his usual gold) and John on the left (usually young and beardless which, if this is, shares some clothing of the same color as Mary, to whose care she was entrusted — John 19:26-27). 

As is often the case in sacred art, one figure looks at us, drawing us into the work, if we haven’t been already: the Apostle just behind Peter. Can we ask if it is Andrew, continuing his work of bringing others — like his brother, Peter — to Christ (John 1:41-42)? The expressions of those gathered, Mary excepted, look either to the Holy Spirit, in contemplative ecstasy in front of themselves, or to Mary. Mary is deep in prayer: she has already encountered the Holy Spirit in her life in her own, special way.

The Upper Room is, as is typical of Renaissance art, a large classical room of antiquity, its curved upper vault (where the Spirit hovers) the counterpart to the curved seating arrangement around Mary and, like that horseshoe, leading the eye to him. The generosity of the Holy Spirit is marked by the room filled with his flame, not just over the heads of each disciple but in symmetrical arcs over them: four on the edge, then three, then two, then one — in a row of three flames (the Trinity?) — leading directly down to the flame over Mary.

Contemporary commentators say that Nelli might have been better known and been a more accomplished artist had she received artistic training. I leave that debate to the art historians. In my view, this painting already says a lot. 

‘Rowing Team’

The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’” (CCC 1906)