“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The sending of the Spirit upon the Apostles, which we celebrate today on the Solemnity of Pentecost, actually begins a bit earlier on the Sunday of the Resurrection. The Gospel which is read on Pentecost is always the same, with one alternative in the C Cycle, and it gives us the account of Jesus sending the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on that first evening of the new world created by his resurrection. The conclusion of this Gospel recalls the first sending of the Spirit upon the apostles for the purpose of their judgment on sin, a judgment which either forgives men’s sins or retains them. In this sense, this bestowal of the Holy Spirit links the actions of the newly formed Church with the final judgment of Christ. Thus, the sending of the spirit is really an eschatological Gift to the church.
The Gift of the Spirit is actually what enables the Church to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in this world, or rather, to be the living instrument of Jesus Christ as He continues His mission in this world. The Church can act for Christ, and in Christ, only because it receives the spirit of Christ. Jesus stated that truth more simply, “without Me, you can do nothing.”
Now the mission of the Spirit, who indwells the faithful and indwells the Church as a whole, the living body of Christ, can be summarized rather simply from a reading of the Scriptures. The Spirit is sent “to sanctify” the Church and its members, and this begins with the forgiveness of sin. The Spirit is also sent “to teach” the Church all saving truth, and this is promised by Christ himself, who refers to this divine Gift as “the Spirit of truth,” in St. John’s gospel, and adds this, “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.” [Jn. 14:26] Likewise, the Spirit is sent “to unify” the Church, to make the Church one in union with Christ.
Now all of the Spirit’s mission is accomplished in what we should call an “incarnational” way, that is, as an extension of the mystery of the Incarnation where God became man, and, as a true man worked our redemption by his human words and deeds. The error of many Christians through the ages is actually to deny or at least ignore this incarnational mode of the actions of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, these Christians desire only the “pure” action of the Holy Spirit, operating directly on the human heart in an invisible way without any connection with or assistance from a visible, mediating body, that is, without the visible Church and her sacraments. This spirituality is based upon a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between God and man, Spirit and matter, supernatural life and human life.
God chose to save mankind by becoming a man Himself and by using the visible dimensions of man’s existence in communicating the invisible gifts of God. Moreover, God chose to save us in no other way than by uniting us with the Christ, to make us one “body” with Christ who remains forever God in the flesh. In saving men, moreover, God would repair not only the damage done to man’s individual soul, but he would likewise repair the damage done to the human race, that is, to the unity of the human race which is compromised and destroyed by sin. The only means for repairing this lost unity, so critical for peace and mercy, is the love of the Holy Spirit, and this love is communicated in and through things familiar to humans.
The Spirit communicates sanctity not only, nor primarily, via the interior workings of our souls, but by means of the instruments that Christ himself established in the holy Sacraments. St. Thomas Aquinas said that receiving invisible, supernatural gifts through visible realities is not only in accord with our nature as a unity of body and soul, but it is likewise necessary in order to humble us by having us receive the highest spiritual and invisible endowments or gifts through the lowly, visible and material signs that we call Sacraments. Man who has despoiled himself, in the natural world, by his sins and who destroys the bonds of love which alone can unify persons, must humble himself before nature itself, and receive through natural things supernatural and invisible gifts that sanctify him.
Likewise, the Spirit communicates truth to men in an incarnational way, that is, through the teaching instrument of the visible Church, that enables us all, in the final analysis, to love God and our neighbors and thus form bonds of unity. It is not without great significance that Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Truth.” Man cannot truly love God or his neighbor without the possession of truth, the truth about God, and the truth about man. These truths are expressed in a special way in the lowly 10 Commandments, and that is why Jesus says that we do not love him if we do not keep his commandments. The Spirit enables us to know the will of God in the first instance through the Commandments, and if one does not obey these Commandments, it is really self deception to think that the Spirit will communicate the deeper truths. The false spirituality of “pure spiritualism” which leaves the Commandments and the sacraments behind is a plague in every age.
St. John, in his three Letters, repeats again and again that we must love God by keeping His Commandments. That is the foundation which leads to much higher truths and a deeper love of and in God. One cannot consider obedience to the Commandments as secondary or dispensable. Like the Sacraments, they are the foundation of love based on truth. This is what St. John concisely teaches us when he says in his Second Letter, “This love is based on the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever. In truth and love, then, we shall have grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son.” Because the Holy Spirit is both Love and the Spirit of Truth, we now have access to the true love of God. Thus, any true renewal grounded in the Spirit has to begin from this principle. Otherwise, it’s all just emotion and fruitless.