The Day of Pentecost: That most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues.
“O LORD, who hast taught us, that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thy only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”(1662 Book of Common Prayer)
On Sunday, May 23rd the Church Universal celebrated the feast of The Day of Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit’s descent with power upon the Apostles, and thus the birth of the Church mission in the world.
In the Acts of the Apostles (1:3), Saint Luke tells us that Jesus prepared the Apostles for this mission, as, after His Resurrection, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
Prior to His Ascension into Heaven, Saint Luke says Our Lord “ordered (the Apostles) not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). According to Luke, Jesus further told them, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Thus, Jesus asked them to stay together, to prepare themselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And this they did: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).
I find it moving and ever significant that staying together was the condition laid down by Jesus for them to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit – the premise being that their unity was to be found in common prayer. Thus, the Church gathered in every age and place is offered a powerful lesson.
Over the course of my nearly twenty-six years as an ordained priest of the Church, too often, I have encountered people at congregational and higher levels in the Church’s structure that think missionary effectiveness depends primarily on careful programming and its subsequent application through the machinery of some form of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. While the Lord certainly does expect collaboration among the saints, (it seems to me) before any other response the Almighty’s initiative is necessary: His Spirit is the true and indispensable authority of the Church. Indeed, the foundation of our very being and of the effectiveness of our actions are found in the Holy Spirit alone. I am put in mind of the timeless prose and theology of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which remind us “that all our doings without charity are nothing worth…that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before” the Lord.
The images of wind and fire used by Saint Luke to indicate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2-3) would have reminded the Evangelist’s earliest readers of Mount Sinai, where the LORD revealed Himself to the people of Israel and offered His covenant (see Exodus 19:3 and following). The feast of Sinai, which Israel celebrated fifty days after the Passover, was the feast of the Covenant. In speaking of the tongues of fire (Acts 2:3), Saint Luke is presenting Pentecost as a new Sinai, as the feast of the New Covenant, where the Covenant with Israel is now extended to all the nations of the earth.
The Church has been catholic and missionary from her birth. The universality of the salvation she offers is overtly manifested with the list of the many ethnic groups to which those who heard the Apostles’ first proclamation on The Day of Pentecost belonged: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians – we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:9-11).
A calling together of a People of God, which had its first manifestation at Sinai, extends today to all people, overcoming therefore every barrier of race, culture, nationality, and era. In direct opposition to what did happen at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), when people wanted to build a route to heaven with human ingenuity, but instead ended up destroying their very capacity of mutual understanding (charity), in the New Testament Pentecost event the Spirit, with the gift of tongues, demonstrates that God’s “most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues” is what unites and transforms selfishness and confusion into unity.
The human ego and the sin of pride always create divisions, build walls of indifference, hate and violence. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, makes hearts capable of understanding the languages of all, as He re-creates the only authentic path of communion between earth and heaven. The Holy Spirit is the sole giver of “that most excellent gift of charity.”
But how is it possible for us to enter fully into the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s charity? How can the depth of Divine charity be understood?
Saint Luke (Acts 1:12-14) takes us to the Upper Room where, after the Last Supper, their sense of bitter loss has left the Apostles downtrodden. Indeed, Jesus’ words aroused disturbing questions for them. Our Lord spoke of the world’s hatred of Him and of His followers, of His impossible to understand departure. In fact, we read in John’s Gospel that there were still many other things Jesus had wanted to say, but for the time being the Apostles were incapable of bearing the weight of such information: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).
To console them, Our Lord explained the meaning of His departure: He will go, but He will return; meanwhile, He will not abandon them, will not leave them orphans. He will send the Comforter, the Spirit of the Father, and the Spirit will enable them to understand that Christ’s work is a work of charity: pure charity of the One who gave Himself, charity also of the Father who has given His Son (see John 14).
This is the great mystery of The Day of Pentecost: the Holy Spirit illuminates the human heart and, by revealing Christ Crucified and Risen, shows us the way to become more like Him, that is, (as Benedict XVI has profoundly said in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est), as to be “the image and instrument of the love [charity] which flows from Christ.”
On The Day of Pentecost, the Universal Church annually cries anew: Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love – your charity! Amen.
O LORD, who hast taught us, that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thy only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
1662 Book of Common Prayer