Preaching the Holy Spirit All Through Easter
Every week we proclaim in the Creed that the Holy Spirit “is worshiped and glorified.” But you wouldn’t know it from the homily. The bishop probably speaks about the Holy Spirit at confirmation. But not everyone in the parish is there to listen. Most of our churches celebrate confirmation during the Easter Vigil, but it rarely becomes the subject of preaching that night. That leaves Pentecost as the one day you can count on hearing something about the Holy Spirit.
Are there other opportunities? Oh, yes. The entire Easter season is filled with them. The Lectionary for the fifty days overflows with references to the Holy Spirit. Mystagogical preaching on the Sundays of Easter will refer back to the events of the Easter Vigil, such as confirmation. And on any Sunday you can speak about the texts of the Mass—like the epiclesis, the doxologies, and the Creed. Preachers who want to explore this mystery for themselves and their communities can draw from sources as manifold as the gifts of the Spirit.
Here are some themes that could be developed throughout Easter, inspired by the Sunday scriptures of Year B, the sacraments, and the Creed.
Giver of life
Ask people when they most experienced the presence of God. A lot of parents, especially mothers, will answer, “Childbirth.” The mystery of new life draws them into God’s act of creation. They sense the presence of God in their new responsibility, their deepening love, and most of all in the gift of life.
One of the titles we use for the Holy Spirit in the Creed each week is “Lord and giver of life.” We believe that the Spirit has always been present in the energy of creation, and that this mysterious presence continues in every creative act today.
Scriptures on Easter and Pentecost underscore this theme, as does our secular celebration of Mother’s Day. The first reading for the Easter Vigil, for example, relates the creation of the world according to Genesis. The longer form of the reading peers into a formless wasteland and darkness, “while a mighty wind swept over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). In that mighty wind we see the Holy Spirit stirring formlessness into shapes and darkness into light.
The first option for the responsorial psalm to this reading (Psalm 104) reappears as one option for Pentecost and its Vigil. The antiphon asks God to continue this work of creation: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). The second option comes from the less-used Psalm 33. It includes a verse that the Church believes foreshadows the work of the Trinity: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made; / by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). Lord, word, and breath are all crammed into one prophetic line from the psalms.
Related to the title Giver of Life is another phrase from the Creed: “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This delicate point has divided Christian Churches East and West for a thousand years. The Orthodox Churches believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but the Roman Catholic Church uses the expression “from the Father and the Son.” One of the verses of our popular hymn “Come, Holy Ghost” also makes this proclamation: “Make this our firm, unchanging creed, that thou dost from them both proceed.” Especially if there are Orthodox churches in your area, you might wish to talk about this issue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the controversy in paragraphs 245–248.
The Catholic Church treasures this formulation to express our belief that the Holy Spirit was eternally present and shares equally in the godhead with the Father and the Son. To most people it may not seem like a big deal, but they will take comfort in knowing that the words we profess each week undergo careful scrutiny because they are at the heart of our belief in the eternal presence of the love of God.
These readings can help us appreciate the activity of God the Creator behind the world around us, the importance of caring for the environment, and the gift of life that comes from the Holy Spirit.
Wisdom for daily life
As the school year comes to an end, many students will be preoccupied with tests and papers. They are thinking more about the gift of summer break than the gift of wisdom. But wisdom has been their goal.
Wisdom is one of the images of the Holy Spirit, and it surfaces in many passages from the Old Testament. The Pentecost Vigil readings include the option of proclaiming the Tower of Babel story. In this Genesis account humans wanting to make a name for themselves suffered a confusion of languages instead. This is one of the stories behind the gift of tongues, a hallmark of the Pentecost event. Just as the Tower of Babel caused the undoing of a common language, so the Spirit is the source of understanding a common language. In the Spirit is all true wisdom.
Another option for the Pentecost Vigil Mass makes the same point. In the book of Exodus God revealed the law to Moses upon a high mountain in the midst of wind and fire, just as in Acts of the Apostles God revealed the Spirit to the disciples in an upper room in the midst of wind and fire.
Wisdom comes first of all from God’s law. People learn wisdom through books, lectures, and research, as well as the experience of on-the-job training. But all wisdom has the Spirit as its source. In the sixth reading at the Easter Vigil Baruch chastises those who have forsaken “the fountain of wisdom” (Baruch 3:12). God’s wisdom has appeared on earth as “the book of the precepts of God, / the law that endures forever” (Baruch 4:1). Certainly, the catechumens who approach the waters of baptism that night are seeking the fountain of wisdom most profoundly, but all of us strive to center our lives upon the wisdom of God.
The psalm that follows this reading (19) praises the law of the Lord, and uses a refrain from John’s Gospel. After Jesus had given his sublime teaching on the Eucharist, some erstwhile disciples turned away. Faced with defeat, Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to leave as well. Peter answered for them, and his reply becomes the refrain of the psalm praising God’s wisdom: “Lord, you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68c).
If there are First Communions in your parish during the Easter season, children can be reminded of the importance of seeking the wisdom that comes from God, who offers it to them in word and Eucharist. If any of us needs help in making good judgments in our daily lives, we have only to call upon the gift of God’s wisdom, present in the Holy Spirit.
Speaking through the prophets
One of our most comforting beliefs is that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets. Through a careful reading of the Old Testament, we Christians see utterances that foreshadow the coming of Jesus, his suffering and death, and the promise of eternal life. This realization comforts us with the good news that God has a plan. God saw all this coming from a long way off. And God still takes an interest in our daily lives.
Examples abound in the Lectionary for the Easter season. In the first reading of Mass on Easter Sunday, Peter says of Jesus, “To him all the prophets bear witness” (Acts 10:43). On the Second Sunday, the First Letter of John says, “The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth” (1 John 5:6). Peter speaks again on the Third Sunday: “God has thus brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets” (Acts 3:18). When Jesus appears to a group of disciples in the Gospel on the same day, Luke says, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said to them, ‘Thus it is written’ ” (Luke 24:45–46). Even when treating the unpardonable experience of the betrayal of Judas, the first reading for the Seventh Sunday says, “the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand” (Acts 1:16).
Through good times and bad, the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets and helped a later generation make sense of its confusion. These words bring comfort to individuals whose lives are in chaos, to parishes making appeals in times of financial straits, and to a country beleaguered by enemies at home and abroad. Creation does not tend toward evil, sin, or death. It tends toward life. God looks over all creation, over every time and place. We know this because, as we say in the Creed, the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets.
Activity of the Spirit today
Pentecost is fine as it goes. Nice story in the past. But what about today? Does the Holy Spirit have something to offer today?
Indeed. The Holy Spirit is poured out on all believers. One option for the first reading at the Pentecost Vigil is this prophecy from Joel. “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. / Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, / your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; / even upon the servants and the handmaids, / in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 3:1–2). Every one of us, no matter our station in life, can receive the Spirit. And so can the people we meet every day. Stay on your toes!
Another option at the same Mass comes from Ezekiel. The prophet walks into a valley and sees dry bones. The spirit of God comes upon them, the bones rejoin, sinews and flesh cover them, and then “the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright” (Ezekiel 37:10). Even the deadest among us can become strong again with the breath of God’s Spirit. In the Gospel for the Pentecost Vigil, Jesus promises those who believe in him that “[r]ivers of living water will flow from within” them (John 7:38).
God usually has something in mind with this gift. At the Easter Vigil, God speaks through Ezekiel, “I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27). On Ascension we hear Jesus speak in Acts, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). On Pentecost, the second option for the Gospel includes Jesus’ promise that the Advocate, the Spirit of truth “will testify to me. And you also testify” (John 15:26–27). God gives us the Spirit and expects us to do something about it.
Yes, the Spirit has something to offer today. The second reading for the Seventh Sunday speaks of the gift of faith: “This is how we know that we remain in [God] and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). The Fifth Sunday repeats this of Christ: “The way we know that [Jesus] remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us” (1 John 3:24). And the Spirit helps us pray, according to the second reading for the Pentecost Vigil: “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26).
We have evidence of God’s power and promise in the first reading on the Fourth Sunday, where Peter speaks, having been “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8). And, of course, Jesus himself was filled with the Spirit at his baptism, as Peter proclaims in the first reading on Easter Day: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10:38).
Throughout Easter preachers can proclaim that the Holy Spirit comes to us with a purpose: to set us apart for putting God’s plan to work in the world. Mystagogy on the anointing and handlaying of confirmation can make the same point. So could a homily for First Communion. Can the Holy Spirit act in the world now? Can miracles happen now? Yes.
Source of Unity and Giver of Gifts
The Holy Spirit is manifest in the Church through a variety of gifts, equipping us to serve others. The first reading from the Second Sunday of Easter tells of the early church, where “The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). The first option for the second reading on Ascension prays that God may “give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17). On Pentecost, the first option for the second reading says, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4). The first option for the Pentecost Gospel tells of Jesus giving the Spirit on Easter night, not fifty days later, with this promise: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23).
All these gifts were ultimately reflected in the size of the community. According to the first reading of the Fifth Sunday, “with the consolation of the Holy Spirit [the church] grew in numbers” (Acts 9:31).
The Spirit is lavish with gifts. Our challenge is to remain open to them and put them to use. Mystagogy on the confirmation prayer can explain the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. First communicants should also know that they receive spiritual gifts for the good of the community.
It is worth reminding people that the Holy Spirit can be unpredictable. Because the Spirit comes from God and not from us, and because God’s ways are not our ways, the Spirit can be manifest in ways we would never expect. Sometimes this upsets people, but it may also delight them.
No story reinforces this belief more than the one told in the first reading of the Sixth Sunday this year. Cornelius the Gentile had summoned Peter the apostle to his home to speak about Christ. While Peter was giving the catechesis, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word” (Acts 10:44). People “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). This was not exactly on cue. Peter was still instructing them. They had not yet been baptized. The Spirit was supposed to come after baptism. But the Spirit did something unpredictable. The Gentile audience received the gifts of the Spirit before baptism. Peter shrugged his shoulders and “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48).
The Holy Spirit fills our lives with hope and promise, with gifts and challenge. This Easter season, open your heart to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and let the good news resound.
Paul Turner is pastor of St. Munchin Catholic Church in Cameron, Missouri and its mission St. Aloysius in Maysville. A priest of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, he has authored four volumes of Sourcebook for Sundays and Seasons (Liturgy Training Publications), and he writes “Bulletin Inserts” for Ministry and Liturgy.
This article first appeared in Preach (March/April 2006):16-19.